In his analysis of the US Liberation Theologian, Ivan Petrella identifies the disconnect between the privileged church – the church of plenty – and the realities of poverty in that church’s very backyard. Petrella argues that “a United States liberation theologian works in a material context little different from a liberation theologian from the Third World” (Petrella, 51). Indeed, as the gap between the nation’s rich and poor continues to rise at a dramatic rate, the need for systemic change is all the more essential. The widespread participation in the “Occupy” movements are a visible manifestation of the widening gap. US sources indicate that 15.1 percent of the country’s population lives below its poverty line, higher than the number cited by Petrella (CIA, United States). Over 45 million people rely on food aid from the US government – a record high (Huffington Post, 3 November 2011). Petrella identifies US character as “a Zone of Social Abandonment,” with its stark inequality contrasting a significant state of apathy across the spectrum of the American population. (Petrella, 51).
A terrifying reality of the contemporary church is its often complicit role in the structures of Western empire in a globalized world. Rather than sit silently, however, the transformed church in the US context is called to speak a prophetic word to the powers and principalities of the day. The US church as a light to the nations would be to speak comfort to the world’s most vulnerable, to repent of past silences and to confirm that the cries of lament have been heard. Jesus lives out a liberating mission in his work. Richard Horsley writes that Jesus’ following was strengthened by his own “speaking truth to power at Passover time in Jerusalem” (Horsley, 177). The church today, in a similar liberating mission, is called to raise judgment against the forces of violence and injustice in the world, and to bear witness to a powerful God in our midst.
Petrella, Ivan. “The Material Context of the US Liberation Theologian: Poverty in the Midst of Plenty,” in Petrella, Beyond Liberation Theology: A Polemic. SCM Press, Pages 45-77
CIA World Factbook, United States: http://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/us.html
Huffington Post. “Number Of Americans On Food Stamps Hits Another High Years After Recession’s End.” November 3, 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/03/number-of-americans-on-snap_n_1074344.html
Defining poverty – Themes and controversies
Images of poverty flood television screens, newspapers, the internet, and our churches. The world’s number one Millennium Development Goal, affirmed by the UN and its member states, is “Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger.” Poverty is seen as something to eradicate, the poor sometimes get lost in that effort. A broad definition would include any deficiency in a human being’s capacity to fulfill his or her basic human rights. Another definition would identify hunger and income as poverty’s center. Each of these is, in short, a reflection of what is “subhuman” (Gutierrez, 164). Gutierrez provides two reframed definitions of poverty. The first is “a scandalous condition inimical to human dignity and therefore contrary to the will of God” (165). The second is poverty as “opposed to pride, to an attitude of self-sufficiency; on the other hand, it is synonymous with faith, with abandonment and trust in the Lord” (169). Brought together in synthesis, a vocation of action and struggle emerges.
Solidarity – Synthesis and struggle
A third definition of poverty that Gutierrez introduces a third definition of poverty that synthesizes and strengthens the two definitions of poverty mentioned above. Poverty is best understood, he writes, “as a commitment of solidarity and protest” (171). This poverty is a call to struggle, a solidarity that is rooted in awareness and protest against injustice. Engagement with this poverty and solidarity in it opens the possibility of embracing “the concrete, vital context necessary for a theological discussion of poverty” (173). The future of the church and its theology rests on serious engagement with its worship and mission as vessels for bearing witness to and participating in the struggle for the transformation of the world.
A Preferential Option
Gustavo Gutierrez may be best known for his Preferential Option for the Poor. He identifies poverty at its core as “Death: unjust death, the premature death of the poor, physical death” (Nickoloff, 144). A preferential option means an investment and trust in the human richness of those who face injustice and the denial of their humanity. To abandon the poor, for Gutierrez, is incongruous: “The rejection of the preference [for the poor] means failing to grasp that we must combine the universality of God’s love with God’s preference for the poorest” (Nickoloff, 145). People of faith are called to solidarity with the poor for reasons of faith. As people of faith, Christians are called to fulfill the preferential option as participation in the community of God’s people (Nickoloff, 146). As Gutierrez writes, “If we believe in the same God, then we should walk side by side in history” (Nickoloff, 146). The current poverty of the privileged church is in their abandonment of this preferential option.