The preferential option for the poor

For Gustavo Gutierrez (1928-), a Pervuian Dominican priest, one of the basic characteristics of the God of Scripture is God’s solidarity with and concern for the poor and downtrodden. This solidarity and concern can be seen in God’s acts within history as narrated by Scripture. It is shown in the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, an event and memory which affected how some of the authors and editors of the Old Testament described creation in Genesis and Isaiah. It is also shown in the New Testament through the new creation effected by Jesus Christ. The work of Jesus Christ liberates in two related ways, redeeming human beings from sin as well as from the consequences of sin, such as destitution, oppression and hatred. There are also the eschatological promises of God, for the healing of creation, the pouring out of the Spirit upon flesh and the lifting up of the lowly. As God works within history, so too are these promises fulfilled in history. These promises are, however, only partially fulfilled at any given moment and so we must await their final realization. Yet by their very presence they throw into question the sentiment that the current state of affairs, especially that of the poor, is necessary, inevitable or natural. As Gutierrez notes, ‘Biblical faith is, above all, faith in a God who reveals himself through historical events, a God who saves in history’.1

A simple way of summarizing this view of Scripture’s portrayal of God is the line ‘preferential option for the poor’. This statement does not mean that God is only concerned about the poor and oblivious to everyone else. The point is that the God of Scripture is particularly concerned with the well-being and treatment of the poor. As a summary for how the God of Scripture acts in history, the preferential option for the poor names a guideline for reading Scripture (a ‘hermeneutical rule’) as well as a guideline for preaching, the Christian life and political action. A similar phrase and concern (although not identical!) can be seen in the 1971 apostolic letter Octogesima adveniens, penned on the occasion of the eightieth anniversary of the encyclical Rerum novarum. In this letter, Pope Paul VI lamented that legislation is often far behind in recognizing human rights. Furthermore, legislation is insufficient in itself for promoting justice and equality. ‘In teaching us charity, the Gospel instructs us in the preferential respect due to the poor and the special situation they have in society’, even offering the recommendation that ‘the more fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others’. Without love, then, even legislation on behalf of the good goal of equality might be abused and become a means of further discrimination and contempt for others. Gutierrez is also aware of the importance of love for the life of faith and for the improvement of the social condition of others. Faith is, he says, ‘the vital acceptance of the gift of the word, heard in the community of the church as encounter with the Lord and love for one’s fellow human beings. Faith pervades Christian existence in its entirety’.[1] [2]

  • [1] Gustavo Gutierrez, Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation, ed. and trans. Sister CaridadInda and John Eagelson Maryknoll (New York: Orbis Books, 1973), p. 154.
  • [2] Gustavo Gutierrez, The Truth Shall Make You Free: Confrontations, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell(Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991), p. 6.
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