As a theology major, I came to Chile knowing I wanted to study liberation theology, but living in a community where liberation theology permeates all things has made me realize it is much more than something you study. Liberation theology is a lens for looking at the world; it is the fundamental belief that Jesus’ words “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20) are uncompromisingly true. For the past three months I have been studying at the Universidad Alberto Hurtado (UAH) in Santiago, Chile, which is named for Chile’s Jesuit Saint, Alberto Hurtado. Padre Hurtado was a champion of the poor, and fought both legal and social battles to achieve greater justice for them. He firmly believed that there is no such thing as caridad sin justicia, love without justice, and UAH is firmly rooted in this belief. Adapting to this sometimes extreme academic adherence to liberation theology has had a profound and sometimes challenging effect on my personal faith. I have struggled to decide how seriously we must take the claims of Gustavo Gutierrez and others that God offers a preferential option for the poor. Is it just one reading of Scripture, which is important but not central? Or is this the Gospel, that Jesus came to set captives free, bring sight to the blind, and rescue those who had suffered in this world?
There is certainly no shortage of evidence for God’s option for the poor in Scripture. I have been reading through the Psalms this year, and nearly every psalm seems to have this theme in some way or another. Last week, I highlighted these three verses: “The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed” (9:9); “God will never forget the needy” (9:18); “Lift up your hand O God, do not forget the helpless” (10:12). Long before Jesus came to earth, the precedent was being set that God is a God who reverses fates, and saves the oppressed from times of trial.
After Jesus’ life on earth, which was the most physical example of God’s option for the poor, this option nonetheless continues as a reality even in our own world. I have been noticing how clear the signs of God's favor towards the poor are in the lives of Chileans I've come to love. Take sweet Professor Isabel for example: she worked for the Catholic Church in Chile during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) when any challenge to power – even from the Church, which was simply seeking to help citizens – was not welcome. Isabel was tortured for her work and most certainly could be counted among the oppressed during these years. I'm sure her spirit was crushed at times, but in this place of oppression, she gained a spiritual poverty and humility before God. Years later, after getting her master’s degree at BC and returning to Chile, she still carries this humility, along with a special compassion and caridad for the poor she encounters in her own life. Isabel understands what a love that brings justice looks like, and she overflows with the same love with which Jesus first loved us; that is, with agape.
If the examples of leaders like Oscar Romero, the evidence of Scripture, and the portraits of people like Isabel weren't enough to convince me of the importance of liberation theology, I realized the other night that “blessed are the poor” is literally written in our stars. As I laid under the stars in the campo, with goats and stray dogs roaming around, I thought about how places like Molia, where I was, must be where the 90% of Chileans with only 15% of the wealth reside, because the other 85% of the wealth is in neighborhoods like mine. And yet, despite their poverty, they have the most beautiful stars. If you think about it, this is true in most underdeveloped countries around the world. Where you get away from the light pollution and smog of development you find beautiful stars. It's as though the heavens open over them. And maybe they do, because after all, Jesus said, “blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” I cannot deny any longer that this good news is central to the Gospel. It is impossible to know God’s heart without grasping that Jesus favors the poor and loves them with a fierce desire for justice. And if this is true, it is a truth far too evident and too profound to sit still with – we must also let our hearts be stirred by agape to action.