Home > Uncategorized > “Preferential Option” and “Church of the Poor”

“Preferential Option” and “Church of the Poor”

I am reading Roberto Goizueta’s new book Christ Our Companion: Toward a Theological Aesthetics of Liberation and I hope to post some reflections on it in the near future (particularly on the appropriation of aesthetics within the logic of liberation theology). For now, I want to post two quotes which further illustrate three points I made in my note on the Kingdom-World-Church theses: 1) the de-centering of the Church vis-a-vis a poor; 2) the sacramental role of the crucified people as mediators of the presence of Christ; 3) the methodological aspect of the preferential option for the poor (an aspect emphasized throughout the work and, in my view, affirmed too exclusively in the  first passage below: “nothing other than”). As I said in my earlier post, the first supports the idea that mission precedes church within the theses; the second and third seem to be at odds with central affirmations of the theses. The theses are, of course, only theses; by definition they await further exploration and substantiation. Nevertheless, the complexity of liberation theologies must be kept in mind as the affirmations of the preferential option and the ‘church of the poor’ in thesis 11 are developed .

 The preferential option for the poor is nothing other than the assertion that the crucified people of history are the privileged mediators of God’s mercy in the church and in the world. The crucified people are the privileged historical mediation of the crucified and risen Christ in the world. When they extend mercy, they embody Christ’s own offer to the apostles after the resurrection: ‘Peace be with you’ (36).

 ‘The Spirit of Jesus is in the poor,’ asserts Jon Sobrino, ‘and, with them as his point of departure, he re-creates the entire Church. If this truth is understood in all its depth and in an authentically Trinitarian perspective, it means that the history of God advances indefectibly by way of the poor; that the Spirit of Jesus takes historical flesh in the poor; and that the poor show the direction of history that is in accord with God’s plan.’ In no way does this suggest a ‘parallel church’; rather it specifies the privileged (not exclusive) sociohistorical locus wherein the church is church and discovers what it means to be church…the ecclesiological image of the church of the crucified people posits not a new church but ‘a new mode of being the Church’ (38 – quoting Sobrino’s The True Church and the Poor, 93, 96).

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  1. Rod
    August 9, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    Hey Todd,

    I have enjoyed your series on the Preferential option for the poor, and I really like reading this blog. As a post-grad student in theological studies, I am interested in phd programs. I had a few questions about Notre Dame since I am interested in the program. I was wondering if you could help me; my email is miteewarrior [@] gmail.com. I would appreciate the help.

  2. Terry Tastard
    August 15, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    I have trouble with the whole idea of the poor. Those who write or talk about it always seem to me to have a disembodied idea of the poor. They rarely live among the poor (Gutierez is an exception here). If the poor are visualised they are usually the Third World poor with noble qualities and a traditional concern for family and community. If you live among the poor in London, or Chicago, or Paris, then you find yourself among people struggling with addictions. There are surprisingly often mental health issues. The sense of family or community may be lacking. Pastors in such areas might give a very different perspective to theologicans.

    • Todd Walatka
      August 15, 2010 at 8:49 pm

      Great points. I think it is important to distinguish the various ways in which liberation theologians talk about the ‘poor.’ There is the hope that the poor will become agents of their own history; there is the belief that the God has a special preference for the poor (due to their need); the demand that Christian ethics and politics be shaped with a preference for the poor and against oppressive structures; beyond simply material poverty, the ‘poor’ are non-persons, the oppressed, victims of all sorts; the poor as those who mediate God’s presence and reveal the sinful truth of reality simply by virtue of their dire need (Mt 25); the poor as those who evangelize the rich through their liberative values. I take it that it is this last one that is problematic to you. It is very much present in figures like Gutierrez and Sobrino. Both always note that they do not want ignore complexity and sinfulness in the world of the poor but they also see and witness to values of forgiveness, community, reconciliation, etc. among the poor with which they live. It is interesting that Juan Luis Segundo always strongly questioned this way of discussing the poor.

      If I have time, I am hoping to do a number of posts of the preferential option and various debates within liberation theology regarding what the preferential option means. I intend to make the points you raise the topic of one of the posts.

  3. Terry Tastard
    August 17, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    Thank you Todd. As regards the liberative aspect let me say repeat what I have said, that to treat‘the poor’ as a monolithic bloc is probably unhelpful.

    As regards the liberative aspect, let me choose one group who might be called poor: those who live with disabilities. They are often those who can bring liberation to the wider community. Even as they press for their rights. But to talk about ‘the poor’ as if all are the same everywhere is as unhelpful to them as it is to the rest of us. We are all called to metanoia.

    ‘The poor’ in Latin America , parts of Africa or South-East Asia will be people who have been excluded or marginalised from full participation in society. Their poverty is shown in lack of opportunity caused by factors such as lack of education. Often they will seize opportunity when given it. Part of the success of Pentecostalism in the Third World has been its ability to encourage the poor to create strategies that would help them to help themselves. (There is a parallel here with 18th C and early 19th C Methodism.) In high welfare states like most of Western Europe, the poor are on the whole very different, trapped in welfare dependency and low self-esteem. Unless, of course, they are recent immigrants who again want to seize every opportunity. The USA is so varied as to defy my attempts to categorise it. ‘The poor’ of Detroit will not be the same the ‘the poor’ of Tucson.

    In conclusion, I think that a theology of the poor can only proceed if it is grounded in a cross-section of case studies.

    • Todd Walatka
      August 17, 2010 at 3:36 pm

      This follow-up is really helpful. In my view, the preferential option for the poor, in terms of ethics and politics, is the demand to shape one’s life and the structure of society to help the oppressed and those in need (‘the poor’). It is the Christian call to respond to those who suffer. This generic way of speaking of the ‘poor’ is valid only if it inherently leads to the questions of context that you raised. The preferential option should turn our attention to the concrete needs of other human beings and calls us to find ways to address these needs personally and structurally. It does not offer ready-made solution as if all the ‘poor’ (and the causes of poverty/suffering) are the same. This is one of the reasons why we find so many forms of ‘liberation theology.’ If one wanted to do a full-fledged ‘theology of the poor,’ I agree that it would have to seriously focus on particular situations (and use various forms of sociological analyses), even if it also included more abstract statements about ‘the poor’ (I think a good example of this is Roberto Goizueta’s new book quoted above, which concludes with a chapter on the immigrant situation in the U.S.).

      I think it is also worth noting the use of ‘the poor’ or ‘orphans,’ ‘widows,’ and ‘strangers’ throughout much of the Scriptures (Ps. 14 for example). These expressions, even when given some specificity within Scripture, often remain rather generic. In some sense, they have to be. They are meant to be concretized in specific circumstances rather than providing a detailed blueprint for any situation. Any application of texts like Ps 14 (Amos, James, etc.) demands the attention to who the ‘poor’ are in particular context that you describe very well. I think it is the same with the ‘preferential option for the poor.’

  4. Terry Tastard
    August 19, 2010 at 6:35 pm

    Todd, I gather from the information you have given that you are interested in reflecting on how the blog phenomenon intersects with and influences the doing of theology. You might find this article on the topi interesting: if you cannot raise it via the URL you can find it via hyperlink on the Faith and Theology blog

    http://new-wineskins.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/Theology-2.0-Blogging-as-Theological-Discourse-by-Benjamin-Myers-response-by-Robb-Redman-COPYRIGHTED.pdf

    • Todd Walatka
      August 20, 2010 at 8:29 am

      I did see that article and I really enjoyed it. As someone who is still new at blogging theology, it was nice to see how Myers conceives of the role, goals, style, etc. of blogging.

  1. September 14, 2010 at 9:04 am

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