I recently came across a figure whom I had not encountered before: St. Elphege, a monk, abbot, and finally archbishop, living in England before the Norman conquest, who, like Oscar Romero centuries later, lost his life defending the lives of the poor. St. Elphege is revered as a martyr and St. Anselm of Canterbury defended the appropriateness of this title.
A short biography of Elphege is available here: http://www.bartleby.com/210/4/192.html. It is worth a quick look, if only because it shows that the practice of the preferential option has been a crucial aspect of Christian witness and sanctity for quite some time and does not, contrary to some misperceptions, arise as a novelty in the twentieth century.
I have to thank my friend Jo for sending me the link to this interview.
Cornel West, as he does so well, speaks the truth to power. It strikes me as an extraordinary example of biblical prophecy in the contemporary world. I am moved by the unapologetic, deeply nuanced, and yet crystal clear preferential option for the poor:
I recently read the commencement address given by Ignacio Ellacuria, SJ in June 1982 at Santa Clara University. (Ellacuria would be killed in El Salvador just over seven years later, in November 1989, at the very university about which he speaks in this address, Universidad Centroamericana.) The talk is available here: http://www.scu.edu/jesuits/ellacuria.html. Ellacuria’s words have made me reflect again on a topic which has emerged many times on this blog: namely, the preferential option for the poor. In particular, I want to ask, What role does the university play in realizing this option? And how does our theology relate to this task of the university?
Ellacuria may provide some guidance:
A Christian university must take into account the gospel preference for the poor. This does not mean that only the poor will study at the university; it does not mean that the university should abdicate its mission of academic excellence–excellence which is needed in order to solve complex social issues of our time. What it does mean is that the universitv should be present intellectually where it is needed: to provide science for those without science; to provide skills for those without skills; to be a voice for those without voices; to give intellectual support for those who do not possess the academic qualifications to make their rights legitimate.
What strikes me about this passage is that the realization of the option for the poor at the university is not limited to a sector of it, such as a Center for Social Concerns, as we have at Notre Dame (http://socialconcerns.nd.edu/), or some analogous institution. Ellacuria certainly does not deny the value of this sort of center–which, at Notre Dame, does serve the poor in concrete ways that are worthy of support. But this vital part of the university is not his focus. The things he calls for involve the university’s work as a whole. The intellectual presence of the university should have a positive outcome for the poor. Its academic excellence should provide the means to analyze the complex social realities of a world in which the majority of humankind lives in poverty. The science and the skills that the university develops and teaches should be used for those who have no access to them. The collective voice which the university has–of numerous students, faculty, staff, and administrators, whose voices are heard throughout campus–should give voice to those who have none (which means, above all, listening to them, and bringing their concerns out into the open).
Theology, as both an academic and a Christian pursuit, must have an important role to play here. But what exactly is it? It cannot be to reliquish its intellectual rigor in order to be an advocate for the poor. Rather, as Ellacuria suggests, it must put its intellectual rigor in service of the poor. Nor can it be to forsake faithful reflection on the gospel in order to make way for a secular ideology. That is far from Ellacuria’s mind. Ultimately, for Ellacuria, theology’s role at the university is this: to understand more deeply how to confront the realities of a sinful and suffering world in an authentically Christ-centered way.
Much more really needs to be said on this topic. But for now, perhaps you and I can take some time to meditate on the concluding words of Ellacuria’s address, in light of our own contexts (wherever we are):
And how do you help us [the poor]? That is not for me to say. Only open your human heart, your Christian heart, and ask yourselves the three questions Ignatius of Loyola put to himself as he stood in front of the crucified world: What have I done for Christ in this world? What am I doing now? And above all, what should I do? The answers lie both in your academic responsibility and in your personal responsibility.
There is a surprisingly rigorous insistence in Kierkegaard’s Practice in Christianity on something like a preferential option for the poor. And it does better than some versions of the preferential option at explaining the dialectic between universality and preference—i.e., at responding to the common objection that, since God loves everyone equally, God can’t possibly love the poor more than the rich. An absolute universality is K.’s starting point, in fact: love doesn’t count as love unless it blows away every natural distinction, unless it completely eliminates every hint of preference. But that absolute universality is offensive enough to the established order that it comes to appear as a preference for the poor.
A subtheme in this book is that human compassion—what passes for compassion among human beings—is intrinsically cruel. It only shows compassion to those who don’t really need it; those who do need it, the truly suffering, the “indescribably wretched,” are cast into the desert and ignored. Because divine compassion is genuinely universal, it shows human compassion for what it is: self-serving partiality. Thus divine compassion inevitably appears as a judgment on the well-off, the ones who claim to be showing compassion, and in favor of the forgotten. Plus, since divine compassion is infinite (whereas human compassion is only ever “to a certain degree”) and drives God to actually become one of the poorest and weakest, the well-off have no interest in joining him. On the contrary, “it is urgent for the world to preserve the appearance of being compassion; this now makes the divine compassion into an untruth—ergo this divine compassion must go” (60).
What appears as partiality (divine compassion) is actually universality; what appears as universality (human compassion) is actually partiality.
That said, this is an extremely peculiar ‘option for the poor’ in that it apparently does nothing for the poor. It’s manifestly not an issue of improving their condition, of relieving their suffering, etc.; if anything, it’s the opposite: joining Jesus, for the poor as for anyone, means more alienation, more suffering, more debasement. Part of K.’s argument in this book is that Christianity can only be believed in spite of its essential, unavoidable offensiveness, and this would seem to be the way that offensiveness looks to the poor—that while changing everything for them (or claiming to), it changes nothing.
Can this be called an option for the poor?
A couple months ago I expressed some reservations regarding how liberation theology is appropriated near the end of the Kingdom-World-Church theses posted over at Inhabitatio Dei. A bit later I posted a couple quotes from Roberto Goizueta that reinforced a couple of my points. Last week Halden noted the critiques some have made regarding the theses and their relation to liberation theology (I don’t know if he had mine in mind or not) and provided a lengthy quote from Leonardo Boff in support of the appropriation of liberation theology within the theses.
The quote from Boff illustrates very well the ways in which the authors of the theses rightfully draw upon liberation theology and the ‘church of the poor’ within their work. Contrary to ‘ecclesiocentric’ theologies, Boff, Sobrino, and others de-center the church vis-a-vis the Kingdom of God and the poor. As I mention in my first post, the de-centering of the church in view of the Kingdom is a significant point of agreement. The inclusion of the ‘church of the poor’ within this de-centering further shows the commonality with liberation theologians. These points are important and thus I do not think that the engagement with liberation theology is merely superficial.
Nevertheless, significant divergences seem to remain (and remain unaddressed in Halden’s new post, which simply reinforces the point of agreement I just described and affirmed in my original post). There were two main issues I raised that still remain.
First, it is stated in thesis 11 that the preferential option not only lies at the center of the mission of the church, it is the mission. This needs to be further explored, as the general flow of the theses does not seems to support this claim. I illustrated this in my first post by looking the critical reading of liturgy in the 4th thesis. Many liberation theologians offer critiques of liturgy and ritual in a way that flows directly from the preferential option for the poor . They worry that liturgy can devalue human action in such a way that we become passive before God and pacified before oppression. The critique of liturgy in the 4th thesis does not seem to be shaped in the slightest by the preferential option as the mission of the church; rather the danger of liturgy and the devaluation of God’s action the temptation of (ecclesial) self-aggrandizement.
The second has to do with what is meant by “church of the poor” or the “preferential option.” Although the theses still need to be expanded, I think we can see the authors affirming the preferential option in terms of ethics/solidarity and for our understanding of God (in theses 10 and 11). The further question is whether or not (or how) they understand the preferential option in terms of theological method. This aspect is absolutely essential within Latin American liberation theology (including in Sobrino’s No Salvation Outside the Poor, the work cited in thesis 11). This aspect was shown in one of the quotes from Goizueta in my earlier post (“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'”). It is also clear in Sobrino’s affirmation of the preferential option as ‘pre-theological’; and even clearer in Juan Luis Segundo: the option for the poor is the hermeneutical key for the Gospel, “the antecedent element required in order to interpret the gospel and keep its letter from killing”; “the epistemological premise for an interpretation of the word of God”; “the human attitude that we adopt, on our own responsibility and at our own risk, toward the Word of God, before reading that Word” (Segundo, “The Option for the Poor” in Signs of the Times, 120, 122, 126). For Goizueta, Segundo, Sobrino, and many others, the preferential option demands not only a different way of being Church (the focus of the theses), but also a very different way of doing theology (not represented in the theses).
A further point related to this which needs to at least be mention (and it is gestured at in Halden’s newest post in his concern about Boff’s notion of ‘mediation’) is the view of the poor as ‘sacraments’ of God. This is shown well in the Goizueta quote above. The way this is often described within liberation theology would seem to go against the apocalyptic, Barthian shape of the theses as a whole, and yet it shapes the methodology of many liberation theologians in a way that I assume would not be acceptable within the theses.
The theses are, of course, theses. They await further development and Halden’s latest post promises us further exploration. As they develop their notions of the preferential option and the church of the poor, I hope they not only continue to draw on the points of agreement mentioned at the beginning, but also focus in on those points where they seem to diverge significantly with essential aspects of Latin American liberation theology.
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).
This post is a few weeks too late (sorry, I’ve been busy with other things!) but I wanted to take a look at the appeal to Jon Sobrino and the affirmation of the preferential option for the poor in the “Kingdom-World-Church” theses over at Inhabitatio Dei (particularly theses 10-11). In my reading, the affirmation of the preferential option and the quotation from Sobrino function in two main ways within the theses. First, the preferential option is affirmed as an ethical/political imperative and essential to what it means to witness to Christ as a church. Second (and I think more important within the aims of the theses), it is further support of the view that mission precedes church. The whole set of theses are set in opposition to “ecclesiocentric” theologies. In the earlier theses we have a generally Barthian de-centering of the church/sacraments/religion vis-a-vis the apocalyptic act of God in Christ. In Sobrino and others, we have a de-centering of sorts but this time vis-a-vis the poor. To be church is to be in the world and to live in kenotic solidarity with the poor. These are significant points of agreement. Nevertheless, I wonder if these two perspectives really fit together as well as the theses make it seem. Let me elaborate.
Thesis 11 concludes with the following: “With the Catholic bishops at Medellin, the church must reaffirm and exercise the ‘preferential option for the poor.’ This ‘preferential option’ is not simply one of many tasks of the church—it lies at the center and heart of its mission. In fact, it is its mission, because this is Christ’s mission.” Saying that the preferential option is at the center and heart of the church’s mission (and is the mission) seems overstated within the general flow of the theses. It seems that the most basic mission of the church in the theses is to witness to the apocalyptic transformation accomplished by God in Christ, which may include the preferential option, but is not identical with it.
Thesis 4 is indicative of the differences here. In this thesis, the danger of liturgy is to see a direct correspondence between our work and divine work, to see it as our (successful) seeking after God. The danger is an idolatrous misconstrual of our place in the event of God’s grace. Liberation theologians also offer very strong critiques of ritual and liturgy (see, for example, Segundo’s The Sacraments Today) but in a different key, and one that flows directly from the preferential option as the mission of the Church. Their central critique is not that liturgy raises our action too high but rather that it devalues human action by ideologically focusing our attention on the reconciling action of God in liturgy and away from the demand to build the Kingdom beyond the liturgy. The relationship between idolatry and ideology is complex and they mutually reinforce one another; I do not want to imply that the emphasis on idolatry in thesis 4 is contrary to a concern with ideology (the discussion of the ‘world’ indicates that the authors would share the concern of liberation theologians that liturgy can offer an ideological sense of security and reconciliation outside of the world). Rather, my initial point is simply that if the preferential option is truly the center of the church’s mission, the critique of the liturgy in thesis 4 would look rather different.
More pointedly, I wonder if the invocation of Sobrino may conceal a deeper substantial disagreement with him about what the preferential option actually means. In particular, there are a number of issue that revolve around the preferential option as a methodological prescription for theology:
- Sobrino affirms the preferential option as pre-theological (see Jesus the Liberator, 33 and Christ the Liberator, 18), as an option made prior to hearing the word of God and as an option which shapes the way in which we hear that word (other passages complexify this but the point remains)
- The poor, the martyrs, the crucified are seen as the proper and necessary place for understanding Jesus and thus to do theology one must get to know the poor
- The poor are the sacrament of God and the presence of Christ among us
I also wonder how the authors react in general to different construals of the relationship between human and divine action in liberation theologians. Sobrino does affirm the kenotic act of Jesus Christ for our salvation but part of this kenosis is that the ongoing presence of Christ in history is dependent upon our action (CL, 165-169). That would seem to be at odds with the theses’ Barthian emphasis on the absolute priority of divine action. Divine gratuity is certainly important in liberation theology (this is particularly clear in Gutiérrez’s On Job and We Drink from Our Own Wells) but I wonder whether the strong emphasis on “building the Kingdom” or a utopian, future oriented vision would be acceptable to the authors of “Kingdom-World-Church”.
I raise these questions as someone who is currently working on bringing together the work of Sobrino and Balthasar. It is clear that many connections are there to be made as there would be between Sobrino and a generally” Barthian” theology. Nevertheless, the more I engage both discourses the more I see their sharp differences. I wonder if use of Sobrino and the affirmation of the preferential option for the poor in thesis 11 indicates real agreement but also passes over perhaps more fundamental disagreement.