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.
Salvation – From ancient to contemporary times, the theology and emotion surrounding the concern of salvation has been diverse and passionate. Gutierrez, along with other liberation theologians, examines the nature of salvation as both quantitative and qualitative mystery. The ‘two-dimensional’ mystery plays out in contemporary culture, with public attention given to debates about those who have been saved or risk being “left behind.” For Gutierrez, the theme of salvation has both a quantitative sense, as a cure for sin, and a qualitative sense, as communion with God and community (Gutierrez, 84-85). Departing from the preferences of the quantitatively inclined, Gutierrez locates salvation in the world as “something which embraces all human reality, transforms it, and leads it to its fullness in Christ” (85). Key to Gutierrez’s thought is the theology of salvation as present in human history, salvation as “intrahistorical reality” (86). Rather than existing beyond the borders of history, salvation is recognizable as “historical-salvific fact” and requires human agency in its fulfillment (89).
Christ – If salvation is seen as a present feature of history, Christ then becomes the bearer of this salvation and liberation. Gutierrez identifies sin as “the fundamental alienation, the root of a situation of injustice and exploitation” – a deeply tangible historical reality (103). For Gutierrez, Christ enters into this reality of sin in historical context as liberator. Christ is the redemptive historical and salvific figure who addresses three categories of liberation from sin: “political liberation, human liberation throughout history, liberation from sin and admission to communion with God” (103). Christ is the figure who fulfills the mystery of salvation in historical context.
Kingdom – A salvation and a Christ which are linked in historical reality enriches an eschatological vision which is equally tied to history. The future and present of human history are made intelligible through God’s participation in human reality (95). God is not separated from history, but an actor in it. God’s kingdom is thus also a reality of history, incompletely encountered, but promised as a feature of eschatalogical reality. The promise of God’s kingdom for humanity “is a process which occurs historically in liberation, insofar as liberation means a greater human fulfillment” (104). The fulfilment of God’s promised kingdom rests not only on God’s presence in the world, but also on the human agency that presence allows. This agency also finds its center in history: “Without liberating historical events, there would be no growth of the kingdom” (104). The promise of salvation in history and the coming of God’s kingdom require and give meaning to human actions for liberation.
Church – Reading the signs of the times and the “New Christendom”
Central to the present and future of the Latin American church is the recognition of “the commitment of Christians in history” as “a true locus theologicus” (Gutierrez, 47). For Gutierrez, a theology centered in the academy and religious theory has lost its relevance. In its place is the necessity of a “New Christendom” defined by a “Christian community…beginning…to read politically the signs of the times in Latin America” (Gutierrez, 58). Where development models have failed, leaving only dependence and underdevelopment, the church has the obligation to speak out and correct systems of injustice. In an era of empire, Gutierrez witnesses to the possibility of a church that can speak truth to power and contribute to the transformation of systemic injustice and oppression.
Challenges – Journeying With the Nonviolent Christ?
Gutierrez witnesses to the need of “a profound transformation, a social revolution” which will respond to the needs of the most vulnerable and oppressed (Gutierrez, 55). According to Gutierrez, Latin America is “in the midst of a full-blown process of revolutionary ferment” (Gutierrez, 55). The complexities of these revolutionary realities have “caused many to substitute working for the Kingdom with working for the social revolutions…the lines between the two have become blurred” (Gutierrez, 59). Gutierrez acknowledges the “problem of counterviolence” and that some religious leaders “participate actively in politics, often in connection with revolutionary groups” (60-61). A central unanswered question emerges from Gutierrez’s work so far. A recently published Presbyterian devotional resource on nonviolence bears the title Resurrection Living: Journeying With the Nonviolent Christ. What role does Christ’s model of nonviolence play in the struggle for the transformation of Latin America and the world?
Questions – Defining the community of faith
Gutierrez raises other critical questions which will define the community of a liberating faith. Key among these are the faith, contemplative praxis, and unity of the church. Christians are present “among the oppressed and persecuted and others among the oppressors and persecutors, some among the tortured and others among the torturers or those who condone torture” (Gutierrez, 75). What does a theology that answers to all Christians in such contexts look like? How does such a church pray? How does the community of faith live out its communion? Does the church have a responsibility to speak out against injustice and work unceasingly for the transformation of the world? These are questions not only for the Latin American church, but for the churches at the heart of and on the periphery of Empire. The community of faith is liberated through the work of the Holy Spirit – always “in the process of becoming” (Gutierrez, 75).
Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation [TL]. 15th Anniversary Edition, with a new introduction by the author. Orbis Books, 1988.