The Privileged Poor

by Roberto Goizueta


Roberto S. Goizueta is the Margaret O’Brien Flatley Professor of Catholic Theology at Boston College, where he has taught since 1999.  Dr. Goizueta has served as President of the Catholic Theological Society of America and the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States.  He has published and lectured extensively in the areas of U.S. Latino/a theology, liberation theology, and theological aesthetics.


Shortly after becoming pope, Francis invited a Peruvian Dominican priest named Gustavo Gutiérrez to the Vatican. The two men concelebrated Mass together, shared meals, and had conversations. Since then, Gutiérrez has returned to visit with the Pope again, most recently several weeks ago. Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez is known as the founder of Latin American liberation theology. At the heart of liberation theology are two principles that, contends Gutiérrez, are the two main, overarching themes in the Scriptures. These themes are: (1) the universality and gratuity of God’s love, and (2) God’s preferential love for the poor. Yet, how can it be that God loves everyone equally and also loves the poor preferentially?


What initially seems like a contradiction is resolved, however, when we view God’s love through the eyes of the poor. The outcasts of our world know that, tragically, our world is divided between the powerful and the powerless, for the latter experience daily the painful consequences of that division. The persons in the best position to acknowledge the reality of division or conflict are those who suffer its consequences. In the words of Pope Francis, “we understand reality better not from the center but from the outskirts.” Conversely, those of us who benefit—whether explicitly or implicitly—from social and economic disparities are likely to either ignore these or deemphasize their significance. It is the hungry person, after all, who is in the best position to determine whether hunger exists in our society. In her Lectures on Philosophy, the French mystic Simone Weil observed: “Human beings are so made that the ones who do the crushing feel nothing; it is the person crushed who feels what is happening. Unless one has placed oneself on the side of the oppressed, to feel with them, one cannot understand.” In other words, the poor or powerless have a privileged perspective from which to evaluate “reality”, though such privilege in no way assumes infallibility or inevitability—only a greater likelihood of accuracy.


Now, if our world is so divided between the powerful and the powerless, what can it mean to say that God enters into a world beset by such divisions? In such a divided world, what would it mean to say that God loves all people equally and gratuitously?


For two thousand years the Christian tradition has proposed an answer that, for many, has seemed inconceivable, if not scandalous: Christians claim that, in such a world, the perfect expression of God’s love is found in the utter powerlessness of an unjustly condemned criminal who, having experienced abandonment by his closest friends and even God, hangs helplessly from a cross. God’s love enters history in the person of an outcast brutally tortured and unceremoniously executed for befriending other outcasts, for “hanging out with” lepers, prostitutes, and sinners. God’s love enters a divided society on the side of those who suffer the consequences of the division—not because God loves the outcast more, but because in the midst of division and conflict God’s love for the powerful and God’s love for the powerless must take different forms.


By way of illustration, if a mother finds that a fight has broken out between her strapping teenage son and his much smaller sister, the mother will not hesitate to try to “liberate” the smaller girl from the brother’s clutches—precisely because the mother loves her two children equally. In that context, the mother’s love for her son will take the form of a call to “conversion”, though he will not likely see it that way. Were the mother to take a neutral stance and not get involved because she “loves her children equally,” the young daughter would not experience the neutrality as love. In a situation of division, a neutral stance is implicit support for the divided status quo and, therefore, implicit support for the person(s) benefiting from the division, i.e., the most powerful. Neutrality, like silence, is consent. To say that God’s love is universal, then, is not to say that it is neutral. In fact, it is to say the very opposite: precisely because God’s love is universal, it cannot be neutral.


If God is truly transcendent, that is, if God is truly a Mystery beyond our capacity to understand fully, then God will be revealed in those places and among those people most incomprehensible to our society, among those people whose lives themselves simply “don’t make sense” to us. The God who does not belong will be found among those persons who themselves do not belong. God will be revealed most fully among the hungry in a gluttonous world, among the powerless in a power-mad world, among the vulnerable in a world obsessed with security, among the physically disabled in a world obsessed with physical appearance, among the immigrants in a world obsessed with building ever higher fences, among the poor in a world that idolizes wealth. The poor are privileged, not because they are necessarily good, but because God is good. They’re privileged because they are the witnesses to a God whose unconditional, universal love knows no borders, no boundaries, and no barriers. Whenever we are tempted—as we always are—to identify God with power and wealth, with security and social acceptance, the powerless, poor, and forgotten people of our world are there to remind us of our idolatry, to remind us that we can never predict or circumscribe God’s love. They remind us of the scandalous message of the Gospel, namely, that a crucified convict is the perfect embodiment of God’s love. “‘Lord when did we see you hungry and give you food? When did we see you thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you a stranger and take you in? When did we see you needing clothes and give you clothes? When did we see you sick or in prison and come to visit you?’” (Mt 25:37-39).


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