Liberation theologians in general and Jon Sobrino in particular do not hesitate to use harsh condemnation when they see forces which oppose the rights and welfare of the poor and vulnerable. These people and structures are part of the “anti-Kingdom,” opposing the God of life by supporting idols of death (capitalism, national security, etc.). Sobrino’s writings always have a prophetic ring: the civilization of wealth is killing the poor and we must fight to uncover the truth and oppose this injustice with everything we can. Yet, it is important to note how Sobrino’s conceives of his project. He distinguishes between personal, social, historical, and transcendent salvation. In the book No Salvation outside the Poor, he says (and I think this is consistent with the majority of his writings), “here we will concentrate on the historical-social salvation of a gravely ill society” (57). This passage is key to understanding why his use of “salvation” in the rest of the text is indeed partial but not reductionistic.
What I want to point out here is the the way in which prophetic judgment on those who oppress the poor (and thus crucify Christ) functions. Just as much as salvation, judgment seems to remain on the historical-social level. We have many prophetic warnings about how the rich and powerful are actively opposing the will of God and God’s Kingdom. There is a striving for liberation that demands such condemnation. Nevertheless, it is striking how modern this move is in how it limits such warnings. This is clear when we read Bartolomé de Las Casas. In Las Casas we have anticipations of many impulses within liberation theology from someone deeply rooted in the biblical text and genuinely open to the suffering of the oppressed. Yet his warning go much further. One passage will suffice: interpreting Matthew 25 by recalling a question from Augustine he says, “If someone is damned to hellfire by Christ saying to him or her, ‘I was naked and you did not clothe me,’ to what hellfire will they be damned to whom He says, ‘I was clothed and you stripped me” (quoted in Gutiérrez, Las Casas 64). This passage is typical of Las Casas’ prophetic critique of the Spaniards and the socio-economic order they created. No wonder they didn’t like him! Here we have an intimate connection between the social-historical and the personal-transcendent, which brings out there seriousness of the social-historical all the more. I do not know where the line is between scare tactics and proclaiming the truth of what is really going on, but I find something utterly biblical, compelling, and unsettling in Las Casas’ words. The prophetic denunciation of people and and nations which oppress the poor goes all the way down – in oppressing the poor we reject God. As with most of us today I am no fan of fire-and-brimstone preaching (I’ll take Balthasar’s talk of universal hope any day), but if were going to have it I’ll take Las Casas.
There are a number of good places to start for understanding the work of Jon Sobrino. Chronologically, his Christology at the Crossroads, Spirituality of Liberation, and The True Church and the Poor all come in the late 70’s to mid 80’s. Most people probably begin with his two volume Christology, Jesucristo liberador. Lectura histórico-teológica de Jesús de Nazaret (English: Jesus the Liberator) (1991) and La fe en Jesucristo: ensayo desde las víctimas (English: Christ the Liberator) (1999). Another very helpful volume is his collection of essays The Principle of Mercy: Taking the Crucified People from the Cross (1992). The introduction and first two chapters of this book on the principle of mercy and theology in a suffering world are an excellent place to start in Sobrino’s corpus.
These are all important works (not to mention others such as Witnesses to the Kingdom and Where is God?). However, if you want to get a sense of what Sobrino is up to or want a quick refresher, I would highly recommend his small (128 pages plus notes) book No Salvation Outside the Poor: Prophetic-Utopian Essays (2007). This passionate, challenging, and provocative book is a collection of important essays from the last decade. There is a certain amount of repetition due to the nature of such a collection but not too much. I don’t want to write a full review of the book here so let me just point out a number of its strong points:
- The influence of Ignacio Ellacuría and Archbishop Romero are clear throughout. These two figures have shaped Sobrino’s thought in fundamental ways and this is apparent in most of the essays . The volume opens immediately with reflections from Ellacuría in the prologue and first chapter. It concludes with a powerful reflection on Ellacuría’s own account of Romero’s life and death. Romero is ever-present in Sobrino’s works but I would be hard-pressed to find a better place to turn than this final chapter and in particular the powerful section on Romero as a follower of Jesus (121-126).
- Fundamental ideas developed over decades are presented clearly and concisely: The Kingdom of God, the anti-Kingdom, the God of Life vs. the idols of death, the “Crucified People” and the “Suffering Servant of Yahweh,” his expansive reading of martyrdom, salvation through the bearing of sin, the epistemological value of following Jesus, the need to be “honest with the real,” resurrection as the raising up of the victims, the call to live as risen beings in history, etc. These themes are developed more thoroughly elsewhere (e.g. the last two are the center of Christ the Liberator) but nowhere else so succinctly.
- Special mention should be made of his nuanced account of the option for the poor in chapter 2: along with an account of the diversity among the “poor,” he develops a vision of the option as fundamental, theological, dialectical, partial, prophetic, utopian, political, and merciful; he argues for positive and humanizing values found among the poor but I also found a stronger recognition of the ambiguity within the world of the poor than in earlier works.
- Sobrino continues the more detailed criticism of the First World found in Where is God? with critiques of capitalism, globalization, and the U.S. This is clearest in the first 10-15 pages of the third chapter (from which we get the title of the book: “Extra Pauperes Nulla Salus: A Short Utopian-Prophetic Essay”) but is present throughout.
The passionate, prophetic side of Sobrino’s thought permeate these essays. New readers of Sobrino should be able to follow what he is doing and those familiar with his thought will find earlier work reiterated and sometimes developed in interesting ways. Ironically Christology is not as central in this book in comparison to the rest of Sobrino’s corpus. Nevertheless, given the way in which Christology, anthropology, methodology, and his theology of martyrdom mutually shape one another, the reader should leave with enough of a sense of his Christology as well. No Salvation Outside the Poor challenges the reader to re-envision what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ today in a world of scandalous inequality and suffering and offers a great introduction to the thought of Sobrino and key themes in Latin American liberation theology more broadly.
* There are not many secondary sources out there on Sobrino. Luckily, in 2008 an outstanding collection of essays were published: Hope and Solidarity: Jon Sobrino’s Challenge to Christian Theology. This volume also has the added benefit of coming out after the 2007 Vatican notification on Sobrino’s works and many of the essays engage the questions raised by Rome.
The appeal to Metz in the conclusion to Laurie Cassidy’s article on the ethical implications of photographs of suffering reminded of the place of mercy/pity in Sobrino’s account of the life of Jesus and the Christian life as a whole.
The primary christological significance of the miracles is that they show a basic dimension of Jesus: his pity. The miracles not only demonstrate Jesus’ powers as healer, whatever they may have been, but mainly his reaction to the sorrows of the poor and weak. The Synoptics keep repeating that Jesus felt compassion and pity for the sorrows of others, particularly the simple people who followed him. “He saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and cured their sick” (Mt 14:14)….this pity is what at once explains and is expressed in Jesus’ miracles, and what defines him in basic ways. Jesus appears as someone deeply moved by the suffering of others, reacting to this in a saving way and making this reaction something first and last for him, the criterion of his whole practice. Jesus sees the suffering of others as something final that can only be reacted to adequately with finality…Jesus’ pity was not jus a feeling, but a reaction – and so action – to the suffering of others, motivated by the mere fact that this suffering was in front of him. Pity is therefore not just another virtue in Jesus, but a basic attitude and practice. This is what the Gospels emphasize and what Jesus himself stresses in Luke by defining the complete man on the basis of pity: the Samaritan “moved with pity” (Luke 10:33), and by defining God himself on the same basis: the father of the prodigal son “moved with pity” (Luke 15:20). And this is what Jesus demands of all: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, 90-91. The same idea is expressed well in the opening chapters of Sobrino’s Principle of Mercy (see pp. 17-20 in particular) and it fundamentally shapes Sobrino’s account of the option for the poor.
Reading the apocalyptic “Kingdom-World-Church” theses alongside my current work on Sobrino raised the question for me as to whether or not Sobrino is an apocalyptic thinker (and, if so, in what way). Sobrino does not seem to fit with a number of key representatives of apocalyptic in contemporary theology: although Sobrino certainly wants an interruption of the oppressive status quo, he is quite at home with the language of utopia and does not provide a sustained critique of evolutionary time as in Metz’s apocalyptic theology; although he argues that we must be open to the unexpected, transformative power of grace, he does not endorse the dialectic of Barth’s apocalyptic; although immersed in Scripture, the Book of Revelation does not play a central role as in Balthasar’s apocalyptic. Nevertheless, it does seem as though there are at least some apocalyptic elements in Sobrino’s thought.
We can see this first in the urgent and conflictual quality to Sobrino’s work as he tries to give us a new vision of God and the world. Sobrino regularly describes the teachings of Jesus, the Christian life, and the situation of the poor as dialectical: “in order to affirm the truth of God, positive affirmation is insufficient if we do not at the same time adduce the negative affirmation” (Jesus the Liberator, 186). Jesus does not just announce Good News, he condemns oppression of the poor and weak; Jesus not only preaches and acts on behalf of the Kingdom, he opposes the anti-Kingdom and pays the price for such opposition. Christians must follow Jesus in serving the God of Life against the many idols of death in our world. Moreover, poverty itself is a dialectical reality: the poverty of the Third World is a direct consequence of the opulence of the First World and true solidarity with the poor demands opposition to the rich and powerful. As is in the case in much of apocalyptic discourse, Sobrino’s stark contrast between Kingdom/anti-Kingdom and poor/rich is an urgent call to action. Drawing upon Ellacuría’s notion of “being honest with reality,” Sobrino’s apocalyptic rhetoric reveals the crisis in reality and includes an urgent demand to side with the Kingdom and the poor. Second, in Sobrino’s treatment of biblical apocalyptic, he argues that most central is “a human longing that in the end there will be justice, that the butcher will not triumph over the victim” (Christ the Liberator, 39). This builds upon the dialectic above and adds the dimension of hope for the victim, an “apocalyptic hope in the triumph of justice…made real” is the resurrection of Jesus (42). And as with the previous dimension, this hope is intimately connected to praxis: a hope for the victims is true hope when is leads to a praxis of removing the crucified victims from the cross within history. Finally, in his Spaces of Apocalyptic, Cyril O’Regan concludes with a brief point on the centrality of martyrdom is some apocalyptic. I do not know of any other contemporary theologian who places more emphasis on martyrdom than Sobrino. The martyrs of El Salvador are the source and content for much of his thinking. For Sobrino, the martyrs are the victims of conflict between the Kingdom and anti-Kingdom; the martyrs give vision, by revealing (oppressive) truth of the world.
Do these three elements make Sobrino an apocalyptic thinker? I am not so sure. As I think through this, I continually return to a distinction between apocalyptic and prophetic rhetoric. These are obviously related but not identical. Each of ‘apocalyptic elements’ that I describe in Sobrino seem to be points shared in common by prophetic and apocalyptic discourses – condemnation of oppression and idolatry, dramatic and urgent rhetoric, an inclusion of hope even in dire times, and personal sacrifice just to name a few; characteristics unique to apocalyptic – divine interruption, a focus on divine over human agency in transforming an oppressive situation, highly imaginative visions, etc. – are not really dominant in Sobrino’s thought and would seem to be at odds with his emphasis on the transformation of structures in history through human agency. As an exception, one place where Sobrino may be genuinely apocalyptic is his highly conflictual construal of history as a whole as a war of sorts between the Kingdom and anti-Kingdom in which the former are represented by the oppressed victims of history and the latter by the rich and powerful. Given this, perhaps we can say that Sobrino is a prophetic thinker whose discourse is tinged with apocalyptic.
In my view there is now a sort of stagnation in theology of the resurrection, for which there would seem to be – among others – these two reasons. One is that, although the resurrection refers to the future of history, it does not seem to have anything important to say about the present, what is with us now. The other is that, although the hope rediscovered by the new theology is important, it is an unduly universal hope and does not recognize the partiality essential to it, since Jesus’ resurrection is hope, directly, for the victims.
For the resurrection of Jesus to keep its identity and relevance, I think we need to adopt a new viewpoint, one that, while recognizing the novelty of post-conciliar theology, goes beyond it. It follows from the above that this new viewpoint has to include two things. The first is that Jesus’ resurrection should, in some way, be a reality that effectively affects history in the present, which supposes the possibility of living now as risen beings in history and the possibility of re-creating the experience of finality implied in the post-resurrection appearances, with – of course – all the relevant analogies. The second, more fundamental in the Third World, is understanding the resurrection in its essential relationship to the victims, so that the hope it unleashed should, above all, be hope for these victims.
Jon Sobrino, Christ the Liberator, 11-12
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.
I have just begun an intensive reading of liberation theologians and, in particular, Jon Sobrino. From time to time I will post interesting/provocative passages or ideas I find. Here’s one:
In this passage in Jesus the Liberator, Sobrino looks at two “all-embracing” realities which could function as the ultimate, eschatological reality for faith and the governing center for theology: the Kingdom of God and the resurrection. After providing a number of affirmations of how the resurrection could fulfill this role (and the resurrection as an eschatological reality will, of course, be central in Christ the Liberator), he nevertheless concludes:
If Jesus’ resurrection is to function as the ultimate for a theology [of liberation], an immense interpretative effort is clearly needed, which is not necessary if the ultimate is the Kingdom of God. The resurrection of itself possesses great power for expressing the ultimate meaning of history, final utopia, radical hope, but it does not possess so much power for showing how we have to live now in history and guide it toward utopia.
Furthermore, as happens with any symbol of the ultimate one chooses – including that of the Kingdom of God – the resurrection also has its limitations and dangers, not maybe as a pure concept, but in practice. There is no need to be shocked by these words, since anything we human beings touch, however good and holy – prayer, the struggle for justice, the very idea of God – is subject to our limitation and concupiscence. So history shows that a precipitate and one-sided penchant for the resurrection can and usually does encourage an individualism without a people, a hope without praxis, an enthusiasm without a following of Jesus: in short, a transcendence without history, a God without a Kingdom…Liberation theology is particularly sensitive to this danger.
All this has to be understood correctly. Of course I am not saying that Jesus’ resurrection is not a central reality for faith and for theology, and liberation theology in fact gives it the greatest importance and uses it as an expression of the ultimate. Jose Miranda criticizes Marx precisely on the basis of the resurrection, accusing him of not daring to conceive a transformation of reality that goes so far as to include ‘the resurrection of the dead.’ All I am trying to say is that Jesus’ resurrection is not considered as apt a reality as the Kingdom of God for featuring as the ultimate and organizing and ranking the whole of faith and theology. The resurrection will be very much taken into account, but from within something more all-embracing, the Kingdom of God.
Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, 124-125