Option for the Poor (On Liberation Theology)

Much digital ink has been spent of late trying to sort out the current Pope's relationship to Liberation Theology. Last month, the Holy Father met with Fr. Gustavo GutiĆ©rrez, one of the architects of 20th century liberation theology. Soon after their meeting, reports of the Pope "distancing himself from liberation theology" began to circulate. Suspicious of certain Marxist tendencies within this mode of theological reflection, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published in 1984 its Instruction on Certain Aspects of the "Theology of Liberation" and, in 1986, its follow-up Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation 

Longtime readers of my blog will know of my...strained relationship with fellow-blogger Joseph Fromm over at GoodJesuitBadJesuit. I use the term "blogger" with reserve, as he's more of an aggregator of various stories about Jesuits to which he affixes labels. His lack of understanding of Liberation Theology is particularly instructive. A quick scan of what he aggregates under the title "liberation theology" reveals a disparate mix of entries. Some may actually be liberation theology, other bits are simply pieces of theology he either dislikes and/or doesn't understand.

In the spirit of fraternal correction, let me gesture toward a resource that may be of service in reflecting upon liberation theology.

In his Bailey Lecture given in 1986 at the American Baptist Seminary of the West, Father Norbert F. Lohfink, S.J. delivered Option for the Poor: The Basic Principle of Liberation Theology In the Light of the Bible. The question he poses: What are the presuppositions, theological and historical, of the biblical talk of God's love for the poor?

Jesus said, in Matthew 26:11, that "you always will have the poor with you." Shouldn't we simply work for the salvation of souls and the promise of eternal reward, regarding our temporal lives as a mere preliminary step toward the glory of heaven?

Lohfink, contrary to this deranged spiritualization of Scripture, proposes five theses with regard to God's special concern for the poor:

  1. God is interested in the here and now: the Lord's Prayer does not ask for God's will to be done at some as-yet undetermined time. It's a bold prayer asking for God's will to be enacted here and now (Mt 6:9-10). We address God in haven and ask for action in this history, in this world. The Resurrection of Christ isn't a confirmation of a future appointment with God; it is, rather, God's acting now in our history. There's no gap between our present world and another world. There's a "leap" from the old age to the new that we as disciples are called to dwell within. 
  2. God is interested in material things. The Exodus is not God's leading a of a people into spiritual succor. God leads them into a land of "milk and honey" (Exodus 3:8), symbolic of prosperity. This is the land where those led will "eat and be full" (Deuteronomy 8:7-10). Jesus, furthermore, healed the sick and gave food to the hungry. 
  3. God is interested in society. Contrary to our individualistic notions of a personal savior, God delivers the people of Israel. It's not "all about me" but about the whole gathering together of God's people (the growing body of the church) and the coming of the New Jerusalem that concludes the Book of Revelation. 
  4. God is interested in plenitude and riches. God, the creator of all, has created "an abundant fullness of reality." We are all aware that the problem of global hunger is a human-made problem: we've plenty of resources but it is economically disadvantageous to the market to give people the food they eat. The harvest of the land rots unused in granaries while children starve. This may be acceptable when you worship at the altar of capitalism, but not at Yahweh's altar. From Mount Zion water flows into the desert and makes it fruitful (Ezekiel 47) and, when glory shines over Zion, the "riches of all nations stream toward Jerusalem" (Isaiah 60). In the New Testament, the river of life flows from the throne of the Lamb (Rev 22:1-2). 
  5. God's interest in the world unleashes a drama. When we dare to pray, "Thy will be done," we mean, really, "Realize the plans You have for this world!" As witnessed in Mark 3:33-35, we see with Lohfink God's will "to call a people together, to transform them, and through them to transform the whole world." God's program of gathering the people must begin somewhere, must start with someone being called, and those called into solidarity is directed to the poor of this world. 
I think it a particularly common, and especially pernicious, to christen many different types of poverty as though the "spiritual poverty" of the bourgeois lifestyle is the same as the crippling material poverty of those ground down by exploitative political and economic machinery. I'm not denying the spiritual poverty afflicted many in developed countries, yet I'd say that such spiritual poverty is a first-world problem. It's one thing to face a crisis of meaning in one's life, to feel hopeless and adrift. It's a wholly different predicament to face a crisis of life, to face the brutal reality that one or more of your children may not eat, that one or more of your children may die because medical and nutritional means are not available. 
Or, as Lohfink puts it succinctly, "when all can call themselves 'poor' before God, the suffering of those who are truly poor is trivialized." 

Do we have the courage to respond to God's grace, to become the "contrast-society" in which we allow God to "lead out" the nations from oppressive regimes and into the paradise of a land flowing with milk and honey? Have the fires that guided Israel during the Exodus been vanquished or can they still inspire us to be the people God calls us to be, a nation "of sisters and brothers in which there will be no more poor" (cf. Deuteronomy 15:4) and where "justice will rule among us, as long as we keep this whole social order before Yahweh our God and put it into action as he commanded us" (Deuteronomy 6:25). 

If this is the God revealed in the Scriptures, if this speaks truly to God's desire for us a human family, I can ask only: is there any theology that is not a liberation theology?  
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