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Volume 2 Issue
Robert Blair Kaiser: A Letter
from the Editor
JESUITS THEN & NOW
Due to the irrefutable biblical, evangelical and theological foundation of the
"option for the poor" — trademark of Latin American Liberation Theology
— and given the strength of its own internal evidence, the only strategy
to fight against it has been to attempt to de-naturalize it, turning it into
something "preferential" and trying to show that its foundation is the
"Gratuitousness" of God. This would make it susceptible to becoming misplaced
into the order of charity, which tends to be politically conservative and
assistance-based. Some liberation theologians seem to have become comfortable
with this strategy. The author denounces this and shows that the option for the
poor is not preferential but partial and exclusive, and that it is not based on
God's Gratuitousness but on God's Justice.
The Option for the Poor is an Option for Justice, and Not Preferential
José Ma. Vigil, CMF
Status of the Question
We always said that the option for the poor was rooted in God himself, in the being of God and therefore by nature was theo-centric: in a certain sense, we can say that God makes an option in favor of the poor and that God «is» the option for the poor. There was universal consensus that this option for the poor is based precisely on the Love-Justice of the biblical-Christian God.
Nevertheless, with the recent «liberation theology crisis» some authors have softened their discourse about the option for the poor. They have abandoned the Love-Justice perspective and substituted the «Gratuitousness» of God as the basis for the option for the poor. In this new way of thinking, God simply «prefers» the poor or there is a «weakness» in God’s mercy or an uncontrollable «tenderness» toward the poor. Thus there would be no need to search for any other reason, because the option is «gratuitous».
From this perspective, the option for the poor becomes a «whim» of God toward the «the lowly, the weak and the insignificant». So now we speak of the «lowly» and not «the poor» with the powerful meaning found in the classical discourse that today has been suppressed. In this theology, the option for the poor has disassociated itself from the strong theme of justice and replaced it with the more acceptable theme of gratuitousness.
My thesis is that this rewording and shifting of the focus from God’s Justice to God’s Gratuitousness as a basis for the option for the poor, weakens and ultimately misappropriates the option, (consciously or unconsciously), converting it into a simple «preference», a «preferential love», a priority in the order of charity, and thus it is no longer a true «option», no longer a selective and an exclusive taking of sides and no longer a fundamental option rooted in the very nature of God.
I do not deny that in some sense it can be said that «God has a gratuitous preference for the lowly and the weak»; but I maintain that such a «preference» cannot be identified in a strict sense with the option for the poor (even less can it be seen as the basis for the this option). To confuse the option for the poor with this «preference of God toward the lowly and the weak» or with the so called «preferential love for the poor» and then name it a preferential option, is to become the victim of confusion and submit oneself to the strategy of those who have attempted to give a new meaning to the option for the poor and strip it of its proper content. The original and classical Latin American option for the poor, that which is typical of the theological spirituality of liberation, the option for which our martyrs died and that which we consider «firm and irrevocable» is different than and must be distinguished from any later deviations. A courageous and enlightened fidelity ought to reject, consciously and explicitly, this false basis that roots the option for the poor in God’s «gratuitousness». This is what I want to clarify and to do so, it is best to reframe systematically the very nature of the option for the poor.
In a strict sense, God loves without any preference or discrimination
To state otherwise would be anthropomorphism.
God cares for and loves all equally; God loves each individual with a very particular love, an infinite love that is impossible to quantify. No one should feel him/herself «preferred» over another or discriminated against either positively or negatively. It is impossible to speak seriously about «preferential love» on the part of God toward certain persons. The dignity of the human person and the impartiality of God demand that we affirm anew God’s infinite love toward all people. Anything else is simply an inadequate form of speech that is «too human», anthropomorphic.
God is not partial and has «no favorites». God is not motivated by race or color or gender or culture. God loves all creatures with «an incomparable and unqualified» love. In God there can be no preferences or discrimination.
God opts for Justice, not preferentially but rather in a partial and exclusive manner
There is an area, however, where God is radically and inflexibly partial: the area of justice. God places himself on the side of justice and against injustice, with no compromises or «preferences», certainly not «neutral»: God is against injustice and takes the side of those «treated unjustly», that is, the victims of injustice. God does not make nor can he make «a preferential option for justice»: rather God opts for justice by placing himself in a radical position against injustice and totally assuming the Cause of the victims of injustice.
This option of God for justice is not rooted in his «gratuitousness», nor is it some kind of divine «whim» which could have been something else or simply never have come into existence, as if the divine approval of justice obeys a simple ethical voluntarism.
God’s option for justice is rooted in his very being: God cannot exist in any other way and indeed without this option God would contradict and deny his very being. «By nature» God is the option for Justice and this option is not gratuitous (but rather axiologically inevitable), not contingent (but rather necessary), not arbitrary (but rooted in the very being of God), not preferential (but rather partial and exclusive).
The option for the poor is an option for the victims of injustice
The concept «poor» as part of the expression «option for the poor», has caused certain confusion. In effect, if the option is «for the poor», then one is explicably tempted to situate the foundation of this option in «poverty», thus falsely identifying poverty with holiness (which was avoided from the beginning), or metaphorically orienting the concept of «poverty» in a different direction or aligning it with one of the groups which in the Old Testament seems to be the object of «preference» on the part of God («the weak and the lowly») or giving it a meaning that was never intended.
We can avoid these deviations if we bring to light the theological role that the concept «poor» concretely plays in the expression «option for the poor». Theologically speaking, «poor» refers precisely to those who are «the victims of injustice». God does not opt for the poor because they are poor, (economically or materially), but opts for the poor because they are «the victims of injustice». Economic poverty is not in itself a theological category, but injustice, often a cause of economic poverty, is a theological category. Theologically considered «the option for the poor» is in reality an «option for the victims of injustice». If it is called «option for the poor», this is due to the fact that the poor (economically) are the primary victims of injustice and its par excellence expression. Speaking with theological precision, the subjects of this option for the poor cannot be identified with the «economically poor» in themselves nor with «the poor who are good», or with those who are «poor in some other sense of the word» or who are «poor in spirit»… (because of the metaphorical word games, all of these definitions are elusive and inadequate), rather the subjects of this option are «the victims of injustice», economically poor or not, metaphorically or not.
On the contrary, the «lowly and the weak» or all those whose «poverty» cannot be measured in terms of injustice, cannot be identified as the first recipients of the option for the poor, except through metaphorical extension. They can be the object of God’s and our «special tenderness» and graciousness, but this attitude and feeling should not be confused with the option for the poor.
Every human problem that can be called unjust (even though it may have nothing to do with «poverty» in the literal or economic sense) is the object of the option for the poor (because this is an option for justice). Even though they might not be directly linked with economic poverty, yet racial discrimination, gender discrimination, cultural discrimination… as forms of injustice (indeed very clearly so), are the object of the option for the poor -- not because they are expressions of some form of poverty (which they are not) but because they are forms of injustice.
The option for the culturally despised, for those living on the fringes of society, for those oppressed because of their gender, are not different options from the option for the poor, but rather concretizations of the only «option for the victims of injustice», which we call the option for the poor.
The theological-systematic essence of the option for the poor and its foundation is God’s option for Justice.
Theologically speaking, in a systematic-dogmatic sense, the true nature of the option for the poor is God’s option for Justice. The «theological radiography» of the option for the poor, the foundation that sustains it and that which in reality constitutes it, is God’s option for justice.
If God’s relation to justice is set aside in such a way that the option appears to be one of «gratuitous good will» on the part of God, then the option for the poor becomes lost in a way that weakens and confuses and strips it of its very nature, turning it into a simple «preferential love» or an optional option, gratuitous, arbitrary, contingent, disconnected from justice, reduced to «charity» and benevolence.
God’s option for justice is greater than, and precedes, that which the theology of liberation understood and expressed as the option for the poor. The option for the poor is an expression of (indeed an important expression but not one which totally captures) the option of God for justice. The option for the poor is one way for us to understand, express and assume this option of God for justice.
«Option for the poor» is a pastoral, historical phrase, chosen to help us in our understanding. But theologically-systematically considered, that is, examining its deepest theological essence, the option for the poor «is» the option for justice, and the term that best expresses its theological nature would be «option for the victims of injustice». We are not saying that we must now change the name of this option, but rather we are simply calling attention to the fact that the name does not correspond to that which would be «an essential definition» of the option for the poor.
As an option for justice, the option for the poor is not preferential, but rather selective and exclusive. On the other hand, the preferential option for the poor is simply a priority and not an «option».
The option for the poor is the adoption of a spiritual position (wholly human and therefore, also social and political) in favor of the poor in their concrete social, historical, and conflictive situation. Therefore it is an option that is selective and exclusive.
The option, (not preferential) for the poor pertains to the area of justice and is rooted in God’s option for justice. On the contrary, the «preferential option for the poor» pertains to the area of charity and can be placed in relationship with the gratuitousness of God. The option for the poor is not applicable to natural poverties whereas the preferential option for the poor is only applicable to these natural poverties.
The option for the poor sees poverty as an injustice to be eradicated by a political and transforming love, by a social praxis, as an act of justice. The preferential option for the poor, however, sees poverty as a lamentable reality but perhaps natural, that is, as a reality that has to be compensated for by acts of gratuitous generosity and benevolence.
Making the option for the poor «preferential», that is, displacing the option for the poor and substituting it with the preferential option for the poor serves to obscure the framework of justice and then views reality solely from the perspective of beneficence and material assistance. To put it another way, it reduces Christian love to private mercy and spiritual solidarity. Indeed, the opposition to the option for the poor -and in general the opposition to the theology and spirituality of liberation where this option for the poor first saw the light of day- has served as the principal objective of those who have attempted to reverse the post-conciliar renewal of Latin American spirituality as expressed in Medellin and Puebla and of those who want to return to a Church that legitimatizes the capitalist and neo-liberal system that is also openly hostile to the Church of Latin American liberation and its many martyrs.
When applied to the option for the poor, the adjective «preferential», implies a relation of simple priority between distinct entities that are at one and the same time inclusive and mutually exclusive. Thus the option for the poor is stripped of its nature and becomes a simple priority or a hierarchical preference and ultimately denies the possibility of a radical option for one of the entities that has been reduced to a preferential relationship. Thus, speaking precisely, the preferential option for the poor is not an option for the poor, but rather, as stated by its rhetoricians, is a simple «preferential love» in the strict sense of the word. The addition of the word «preferential» has served in many cases as the «Trojan horse» that has introduced into the option for the poor the seed that destroys its very nature. Fortunately, there are many people who have adopted the use of this adjective (because of external pressures) without abandoning (internally) the radical understanding and lived reality that forms the genuine nature of the option for the poor, that is, not preferential, but exclusive and excluding other options.
Applications and Corollaries
Option for the poor: a transcendental on the level of norm of norms
In its theological-systematic meaning (over and above its concrete application to non-theological mediations or as distinct from these mediations), the option for the poor is a transcendental that surpasses and moves beyond the theological dimensions and pertains essentially to the very image of the biblical-Christian God. Our God (at the very heart of biblical and Christian revelation and per se) «is» an option for justice, with absolute precedence over and totally independent of any theological school or any charism or spirituality in which we might situate ourselves. Seen in this way, the option for the poor is not susceptible to be normative in a subordinate position (it is situated on the highest level of norm of norms) and therefore demands obedience as though one were obeying God, thus opening one’s spirit to the test of greater love.
In this same sense, the option for the poor is not a «theory» of Latin American liberation theology, but rather a transcendental dimension of Christianity, a dimension of liberation theology (for the benefit of all Christians) that has been rediscovered as belonging to the very essence of God. This rediscovery is indeed «the greatest event in the history of Christianity that has occurred during the past few centuries», and marks a «before» and «after», a defining moment, with no turning back for those for whom the option for the poor has been a spiritual experience of conversion to the God of the poor. The option for the poor has to be seen as «firm and irrevocable» and as a «mark of the true Church».
Poverty, wealth and injustice
With respect to the identification of the option for the poor with the option for justice, let us speak at length in more precise language.
– If the poverty of an individual or a group is due to the fact that they have been the victims of injustice, then to that extents God is on the side of these poor persons and against their poverty and the persons who cause this poverty-injustice. God is necessarily on the side of the poor in a way that «excludes» the injustice of the unjust and not simply on their side with a non-exclusive «preferential option».
If, however, we are dealing with some type of «poverty» that has nothing to do with justice («natural poverty» due to race, gender, culture...), then we must understand that God does not discriminate nor does God «prefer» one person to another. God neither prefers nor ignores any race or gender or culture per se.
– If the wealth of an individual or a group implies an injustice, then to that extents God is decisively against this wealth and against the way of life that has produced this wealth because God takes the side of those who suffer the consequences of injustice and is against those who cause this injustice. God necessarily takes on this attitude and does so in a way that excludes this injustice and not with an option that is only «preferential toward the poor» but in a way that radically excludes «the way of life of the rich» that produces this injustice.
If, however, we are dealing with wealth that has nothing to do with injustice (psychological qualities, gender, spiritual and/or natural gifts, misfortune...) then in this case God neither discriminates nor is partial toward anyone.
To put it another way:
– If in the social order we only see people as people of color or not, as short or tall, as strong or weak, as significant or insignificant … (that is, if we see people simply in terms of their natural differences and ignore their dialectical, conflictive and political differences) then we can only think of God as having some concrete «preference» toward the lowly, the weak, the insignificant… but not making an «option» or taking sides with one group that excludes another (because this would be unjust of God). The foundation for this «preference» is the «gratuitousness» of God and demands us to be benevolent and to act with kindness and alms giving. This is the preferential option for the poor.
– If in the social order we are able to see people impoverished by others who are enriched, races dominated by dominant cultures, genders oppressed by oppressing genders… then we are able to grasp the fact that God is incapable of simple «preferences» without true «options» and «taking the side» of the victims of injustice and «against» injustice, and that this option of God is radical, selective, and excludes the opposite. Its theological foundation is not the gratuitousness of God, but rather God’s justice, and therefore demands us to make a similar «option»: radical, selective and exclusive, with implications for an option to a «social role» and with a commitment to a praxis that transforms history. This is the option for the poor.
The concept of justice as mediation
Logically, theological principles, as they are put into practice in the real world, are obliged to pass through the diverse filters of philosophical, sociological and even political mediation.
For example, the very concept of «justice» with all its philosophical, sociological, political and even cultural implications will be an especially influential mediation when referring to this «option for the poor». There is a capitalist concept of justice as well as a socialist, neo-liberal and imperialist concept. People are influenced by their concept of justice and by the «social role» they play or choose. Those who see justice as «giving to each one his/her due», can see the world of extreme inequality as just if, for example, they hold as absolute the right to private property. This was certainly not the case for the Fathers of the Church, nor is it so for those who embrace the concept of distributive and social justice according to the social doctrine of the Church. Indeed these people operate with a very different concept of justice.
In this sense, even though we theoretically make reference to the same God, and accept as evident God’s option for justice, yet our vision of God’s will for the world can differ and we may very well hold positions that are completely contradictory to the positions of others. What is the origin of this discrepancy?
The discrepancy is not rooted in our concept of God or his plan or will, but rather in the concept of justice that we use to form our moral judgments. The origin of these discrepancies can very well be found in the moral judgments (based on our concept of justice) that we make about poverty and wealth and about the social and structural mechanisms that produce them, that is, do we judge them as natural or historical, determined or flexible, accidental or caused, culpable or not, structural or circumstantial, an essential product of a perverse system or an accidental negative by-product of a system that is not necessarily negative. Therefore, for example,
– if we see the unequal distribution of wealth in the world as natural (the famous «champagne glass» of the PNUD reports) then we will also think (logically) that God has nothing to say about all of this or that God only exhorts us to give alms, to be charitable and generous… and thus mitigate these lamentable «natural» differences.
– On the contrary, if we see this distribution of wealth as unjust and sinful, we will think (logically) that God is angry at this situation and ardently desires its obliteration and that God also wants us to struggle against this unjust system with a radical commitment to justice.
– Again, if we think that the struggle against this unjust system is the greatest drama of humanity, then it will seem that overcoming it expresses the best and most urgent will of God.
– If we consider neo-liberalism as innocent and that it is the «lesser evil of the systems», then it would seem that God wants us to support it and even «better» its «accidental deficiencies».
– On the contrary, if we believe that neo-liberalism is unjust, the greatest injustice and unjust in its very structure, then it would seem that God wants us to combat this sinful structure in the most resolute way possible.
Thus it would seem that the theological problem is orientated toward the discussion and the analysis of the mediations and that the discrepancies are not found on the theological level of principles but on the prudential level of mediations. Nevertheless, this is only half the problem, because our concept of justice forms part of our choice of God. «Tell me how you define justice and I will tell you who your God is». Tell me how you view justice and I will tell you about the God you adore.
We are accustomed to think that our concept of justice comes from the God of our belief, but the opposite is also true: we believe in a God compatible with our concept of justice. The most fundamental option of our life might very well be the one we make with regard to our concept of justice, (justice that at the same time encompasses our world vision). Our image of God is the child of the option that leads us to choose one or another concept of justice and its corresponding world vision. The opposite is also true: many people never assume a utopian concept of justice because previously they opted for the God of selfishness and wealth.
The option for the poor then, is also an option for the God (of the poor) and an option for the utopian justice (of the Kingdom). The «option for the rich» is a rejection of the God of the poor and an option for a justice resigned to selfishness. The option for the poor or rich, utopian justice or a justice resigned to selfishness, the option for God or its rejection are mutually implicit in a hermeneutical circle. Obedience to God is not determined by a direct relationship with God, but by our choice between utopian justice and a justice resigned to selfishness. Principles and mediations are more mutually implied than at first they might seem to be. God is just and justice is divine. The option for the poor then is an act of faith in the God of the poor and an ethical and humanizing option for justice (at one and the same time the justice of the poor and the justice of God). On the other hand, the option for selfishness is an injustice and a rejection of the God (of the poor). Thus we return to the beginning: God and the option for the poor cant be separated because the option for the poor is rooted in God himself, in God’s justice. The gratuitousness of God is another theme.
Translated: Charles T. Plock, C.M.
 Let us state clearly: the ultimate reason for this option is found in the God of our belief (…) For us as believers we are dealing with a theo-centric option, rooted in God. Gustavo GUTIERREZ, El Dios de la Vida, «Christus» 47 (1982) p.53-54, Mexico; La fuerza histórico de los pobres, Lima 1980 p.261-262.
 Even though this may be obvious, see the doctoral thesis of Julio LOIS, Teología de la Liberación: Opción por los pobres (IEPALA, Madrid, 1986) in which he studies the option for the poor of the leading theologians of the classical period.
 A clear case would be that of Gustavo Gutiérrez. In a lecture in which he responded to Cardinal Ratzinger, he affirmed: «Speaking about poverty and marginalization invites us to speak of justice and to consider the rights of Christians with regard to all of this. While this is true, one should not lose sight of the fact of what makes this fundamental option for the poor so central. This option is rooted in the gratuitousness of God’s love. This is the ultimate basis for this preference». From this moment on, Gutiérrez no longer uses the word «justice» in his writing and the option for the poor revolves around the notion of «gratuitousness». See: Una teología de la liberación en el contexto del tercer milenio, in VARIOS, El futuro de la reflexión teológica en A.L., CELAM, Bogotá, 1996, p.111. I am not talking about an isolated text, but in my modest opinion, this reflects a softened and common perspective in the theology of the option for the poor of Gustavo which has gone on now for more than a decade; see: Pobres y opción fundamental, in Mysterium Liberationis, UCA Editores, San Salvador, 1991, 303ff, 310.
 The poor are a «collective, conflictive and socially alternate» reality: C. BOFF, Quiénes son hoy los pobres y por qué? In J. PIXLEY-C. BOFF, Opción por los pobres, Paulinas, Madrid, 1986, p.17ff.
 A love that is the same for all but begins with the poor and continues with the rich. No distinction between rich and poor is made. A love that is the same for all and therefore simply with an order of priority.
 Those who opt «preferentially» for justice, also opt, even though less preferentially, for injustice. In the dilemma of justice and injustice, no simple preferences are possible: the option is between mutually exclusive alternatives.
 Let us remember the medieval theological position (the «ethical voluntarism») of those who maintained that the present moral order was not necessary but contingent, and that it obeyed the positive and gratuitous (arbitrary) will of God. This doctrine maintained that the moral order could have been something else, including something that would be contrary to what it presently is, if God had so willed it in his inscrutable and mysterious plan.
 J.M.VIGIL, Opción por los pobres, preferencial y no excluyente? In Sobre la opción por los pobres, Sal terrae, Santander, 1991, p.57ff. This appeared in an edition in Nicaragua (Editorial Nicarao, 1991), Chile, (Rehue, 1992), Colombia (Paulinas, 1994), Ecuador (Abya Yala, 1998), Italia (Citadella, 1992), Brasil (Paulinas, 1992).
 At one time it was argued that the rich were the true poor (poor spiritually, while at the same time the materially poor were blessed spiritually, or truly rich)…. Many word games were played and concepts were juggled to avoid facing the obvious. Casaldáliga speaks of this poetically in his work Bienaventuranzas de la Conciliación Pastoral.
 «Option for the victims of injustice» is a precise expression that is above the possibility of being mystified or metaphorized.
 As is the case when speaking of «natural» poverties, non-historical, where no one is to blame for such situation.
 We do not need to make an «option» for women, for Native Americans, for people of color, etc, rather the option «for the victims of injustice» includes all these groups.
 «Essential definition» speaking in classical terminology, not only adequately defines the object but also defines it in terms of its essence (and not for example, on «its own» or as a group of clearly defined accidentals.
 VIGIL, J.M., Opción por los pobres: preferencial y no excluyente?, in VIGIL, J.M. (org), Sobre la opción por los pobres, Sal Terrae, Santander, 1991, 57ff.
 Classically called «the works of mercy». For this reason the preferential option for the poor cahn be properly called «a preferential love for the poor» -- indeed, this is what is it. The option for the poor is quite different.
 The act by which one makes an option for the poor or selects his/her social role flows from the essential anthropological character that is called «fundamental option».
 There is no partiality with God (Romans 2:11). The Lord of all shows no partiality, not does he fear greatness (Wisdom 6:7). Judgment is stern for the exalted --- the lowly may be pardoned out of mercy but the mighty shall be mightily put to the test. Because God made the great as well as the small and provides for all alike; but for those in power a rigorous scrutiny impends (Wisdom 6:5, 6,8). Teacher we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status (Matthew 22:16). Man sees the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).
 «The struggle for justice is another name for the God of the Old Testament and the God of Jesus»: Rufino VELASCO, La Iglesia de Jes˘s, Verbo Divino, Estella, 1992, p.33.
 For example, ecclesiastical or disciplinary.
 «I personally believe that the preferential option for the poor has produced an extraordinary yet necessary Copernican revolution in the heart of the Church, whose significance goes beyond the ecclesial context of Latin America and concerns the whole universal church. I truly believe that this option signifies the most important theological-pastoral transformation since the time of the Protestant Revolution in the XVI Century». L. BOFF cited by Julio LOIS in Theología de la Liberactión: Opción por los pobres, IEPALA, Madrid, 1986, 193.
 This is implied by our preference for the dynamic adjective «impoverished» rather than the static noun «poor» (the same could also be said for the concept «victims of injustice»).
 When speaking of «the way of life of the rich» we refer to all that is implied in the word «rich» -- except his/her person. Thus we refer to their life style, their social status, the Cause that they objectively serve, their luxury, their exploitation of the poor, their participation in the system that exploits them…
 Either because this is how they are or because this is the way we want to see things.
 Note the dynamic, active, process character of the adjectives.
José María Vigil, CMF is a Claretian priest from Spain now living and working in Central America. He studied theology at the Pontifical University in Salamanca and at the Angelicum in Rome, and did studies in clinical psychology in Salamanca, Madrid and Managua. He is executive secretary of CICLA, the Conferencia Internacional Claretiana Latinoamericana, and the author of a number of books and articles, many of which appear (in Spanish) on the Internet. Go to http://servicioskoinonia.org. He says he is working "for the coming of the Reign of Christ, for world justice, a correct globalization, the cause of women, the option for the poor, the recovery of self-esteem and hope by the poor and by their organizations, for ecology, for ecumenism and the end of «invierno eclesial» …the end of winter in the Church.
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