From Wasteland to Promised Land

5. Poverty in the Wasteland: The Preferential Option for the Poor

esus expressed the contrast between ownership and stewardship in the pithy saying: "You cannot serve God and mammon" (Matt. 6:24; Luke 16:13). Again we see the real sting of Baal worship. Possessions, understood apart from their Creator and their usefulness to man, become "master." They become idols that dehumanize and kill. Stewardship never entails the passive acceptance of social mores that allow possessions to become masters (Luke 16:1-13). Thus, being a caretaker of God's land means having a different view of reality than is prevalent in a world ruled by possessions.

Jesus opens his ministry by claiming as real what Isaiah had hoped for: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release of captives and... to set at liberty those who are oppressed" (Luke 4:18).

Society turned upside down is the topic of Jesus's keynote address in Luke: the poor and hungry can be happy because they will no longer be poor and hungry. But Jesus does not stop at this announcement, he goes on to call people to stewardship. He asks men and women to love their enemies and to be merciful as God is merciful (Luke 6:27-49). He urges them to do no less than act as a community where God, not mammon, rules. These are radical demands.

Latin American liberation theologians point out that, according to the Exodus story and to Luke's gospel in particular, God's chosen people are the refuse of society. The reversal -- the reordering of those who are on top -- is good news to the poor! The recipients of God's grace, however, are not always poor, oppressed, or helpless. The patriarchs, the judges, the Roman centurions, and many others blessed by God certainly were not. Why did God act on their behalf as well? God is faithful, and acts favorably for those who respond to him with faith, as Paul points out (Rom. 1:16).

The church's "preferential option for the poor" must be seen as an application of the injunction to do justice and love mercy. As Gustavo Gutierrez has always insisted, we must maintain "both the universality of God's love and God's predilection for those on the lowest rung of the ladder of history. To focus exclusively on the one or the other is to mutilate the Christian message."

Liberation theologians and other social reformers often fall into the trap of romanticizing the poor, as did Nicolas Berdyaev in his early demi-Marxist days: I then thought that the proletariat, as a working and class-conscious group, exploited but at the same time free from the sin of exploitation, possessed the psychological structure that is favorable to the revelation of the truth...

The temptation here is to think of God's bias for the poor in terms of a higher spirituality brought about by poverty. Yet involuntary poverty is scarcely any guarantee of faith. If it were, its promotion ought to be a primary mission of evangelism, and the exploitation of the disadvantaged a cause to make the Church rejoice. The biblical bias is rather to be traced back to the nature of God himself.

God, finally, is the one who rejects power and takes upon himself, in the person of his son, the ultimate sacrifice in solidarity with all who are crucified by the power structures of this world. God not only has compassion for the poor, he becomes, like them, weak. God not only reverses society, he appears on the cross as a manifestation of this reversal. He appears, Paul wrote so vividly, as foolishness, a stumbling block, weakness, and uses "what is low and despised in the world... to bring to nothing things that are" (Cor. 1:18-31). God becomes weak in order to become one with his people. He wishes to be worshipped genuinely for the sake of his loving essence, not falsely for the sake of attributes which compel, out of fear, a counterfeit of worship. Thus Christ, in Dostoyevsky's powerful symbolism, spurns the Devil's temptation to make use of miracle, mystery, and authority, inviting instead a faith that finds in Truth and Goodness their own intrinsic validation. It is in this sense that Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36), for in this world predatory power assails the innocent and must be contained and curbed by power harnessed to their defense.

"I have overcome the world" (John 16:33) may be interpreted to mean that Truth and Goodness are triumphant simply because of what they are and that nothing external can affect them. But human life and freedom cannot be made to depend entirely upon the spiritual condition of other men, society and its rulers. The rights of the individual must be safeguarded in case that spiritual condition proves to be a low one or not sufficiently enlightened by grace. As Nicholas Berdyaev put it, "A society that chose to be based solely upon grace and declined to have any law would be a despotic society.... It is impossible to wait for a gracious regeneration of society to make human life bearable."

As a citizen of the spiritual order, the Christian lives under grace -- and is not restrained by power or authority. But in this life he or she is also, inescapably, a citizen of the secular order, where power must be checked by power and political means employed to serve the ends of grace, moving the world closer to a likeness of the Promised Land.