“According to Jesus, the poor are not poor for the sake of the Kingdom but in spite of the Kingdom, or rather, because it has not yet come. Jesus is hungry every time the least of his brothers and sisters is hungry, and… Jesus is a prisoner every time he or she may be imprisoned. It is the sympathy or the compassion... that all true love produces, an unlimited love that transmits from the loved one to the lover all that is intolerable and inhuman in the situation he or she suffers.Sermon
“Tragically, if no laws are broken - or if their breaking is not visible - Christians do not worry about their complicity in the great evils which society, through its structures, causes to fall upon the most defenseless. The ancient prophets of Israel would say that this is not "to know God." James, in the New Testament, would state that this is not ‘true religion.’
“It is true that ‘social sin’ has surprised us by its enormous magnitude as it takes place on a continent that for four centuries - and even today - can be called almost totally Christian. The Christian does not kill (at least not directly) but is an accomplice in millions of deaths that more just social structures could have prevented.
“[The change of these unjust social structures will happen through the Church.] The Church - which has been accustomed to having small active minorities and large, inert, and silent majorities - is facing a new phenomenon: a considerable popular mobilization within its own walls [will create justice.]”
“Tropical Sunday” or “wouldn’t-it-be-fun-to-pretend-like-we-were-in-a-different-climate-Sunday” was an idea that I shamelessly stole from another Unitarian Church where each February they celebrate the culture of a different nation, preferably one that is warm this time of year. This is the second year we’ve done it here. The idea I bring to it is that by imagining changes in latitude we might experience changes in attitude, and thus open ourselves to new ideas.
This morning I want to introduce you to “Liberation Theology”, a radical Catholic theology that emerged in the second half of the Twentieth Century and which was influential throughout South and Central America. We might think of Liberation Theology as the Latino / Catholic version of the social gospel Christianity, which thrived in the United States a half-century earlier. That movement stressed that Christianity was not about individual or personal salvation, not about waiting for the Kingdom to come. Rather, the primary emphasis of the gospel was service and the reform of society. It declared that what was required of Christians was care for the poor, the oppressed, and the vulnerable.
Many of us are probably familiar with this history. We know about some of the figures: Dorothy Day, Walter Rauschenbusch, Harry Fosdick, Bill Coffin, Martin Luther King. But the names that I am going to talk about this morning are likely less familiar: Ernesto Cardenal, Gustavo Gutierrez, Oscar Romero, Jon Sobrino, and Leonardo Boff.
The central tenet of liberation theology is that God has a “preferential option for the poor.” What does that mean? What it means, radically, is that God has a special relationship with the poor, that God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed. It means that while we are all God’s children technically, the poor are God’s favorite children.
Listen to a few of the quotes that have come out of this theology:
Oscar Romero wrote, “We must not seek the child Jesus in the pretty figure of our Christmas ribs. We must seek Jesus among the malnourished children who have gone to bed tonight with nothing to eat. No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything look down on others, those who have no need even of God – for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf will have that someone.”
Gustavo Gutierrez wrote, “Love of neighbor is an essential component of Christian life. But as long as I apply that term only to people who cross my path, and come asking me for help, my world will remain pretty much the same. Individual almsgiving is a type of love that never leaves its front porch… On the other hand, my world will change greatly if I go out to meet other people on their path and consider them as my neighbor… the gospel tells us that the poor are the supreme embodiment of our neighbor.”
According to liberation theology, Jesus is not to be understood primarily as a savior, but instead as a Liberator. Jesus came to liberate the poor of the world from the bondage of oppression and poverty. To follow Jesus is to work to abolish the systems that cause poverty, systems that actually enslave all of us. Marxism would say that we are all slaves to class struggle; liberation theology would say that none of us are truly free when there is poverty.
A third major tenet of Liberation Theology is the reform of the church. In South and Central America, liberation theologians were not unaware of the role the Catholic Church played in conquest and the creation and perpetuation of unjust social structures. Liberation theology offered not only a critique of society, but a critique of the church. In particular, it called for church where a powerful minority does not dominate a silent majority. It said, “Power to the people.” It called for a reform where the people of the church were empowered and were served.
Those are three of the hallmarks of liberation theology: a preferential option for the poor; salvation through social justice; and a reform of religious structures to make them more populist.
I might mention one or two of the heroes of liberation theology. You may have never heard of Oscar Romero. But you’ve probably heard of some of the people whose lives are most similar to his. At the Westminster Abbey in London, there are statues to the most influential martyrs of the Twentieth Century. The statue of Oscar Romero is flanked on one side by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who organized resistance to Hitler in Germany and died in a concentration camp. On the other side of Romero’s statue, is a statue of Martin Luther King. Romero was a conservative Catholic appointed arch-bishop of San Salvador, El Salvador, in 1977. In fact, his appointment was considered to be an enormous setback to those in San Salvador who were working for social justice.
But, Romero’s life was transformed when he witnessed the assassination of a priest who was working to politically organize and mobilize a group of rural campesinos, rural farmworkers. Reflecting on this, Romero remarked that if this priest was killed for this work, he must follow in this path. Two years later, Romero was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. El Salvador, at the time, was a scene of fierce fighting between various factions and militias, some of them funded by the United States government. Romero especially worked to try to prevent and lessen the human rights violations – the torture, terrorism, disappearances, and civilian killings – that accompanied the battle for political control of El Salvador. In his influential sermons he called on soldiers to disobey orders they were given to violate human rights. As Romero celebrated Mass in 1980 he was gunned down. It is widely believed that his murder was committed by soldiers who received military training in the United States. Pope John Paul II opened proceedings in 1997 to beatify Oscar Romero as a Saint – for the people of El Salvador, he is already San Romero.
In many ways, though, this celebration of Romero was hypocrisy. The official church resisted liberation theology and expelled many of its practitioners, including Jean-Bertrand Arisitide, the populist president of Haiti whose priesthood was revoked by the church before his presidency was revoked by the United States government. The church’s turning against liberation theology was shameful.
So, what I’ve done so far is kind of give you a quick orientation to liberation theology and to a few of its heroes and leading thinkers. What I want to do now is explore what impact and influence it might have on Unitarian Universalism. When I was in seminary, Liberation Theology was the hot field of study among my Catholic classmates. My UU classmates who expressed an inclination to explore liberation theology were thought a bit odd by my Catholic classmates. This seemed to me to have to do with the reluctance of UUs to accept the existence of God, prima facie – and I wonder if my catholic classmates were just as surprised that UUs would go to a Divinity School at all. These objections, I cannot help but think, were superficial and even a bit parochial.
If you look at the three main emphases of Liberation theology, I’d like to offer how they might speak to Unitarian Universalists. I will take these from easiest to hardest. Liberation theology’s critique of the church would look different for UUs. Within our church, we do not have the same problem that liberation theologians identified, that of a power-wielding minority oppressing a silent, suffering majority. Our situation mirrors the difference between the political process in the El Salvador or Haiti and the United States. The problem is not that a military coup or dictator has seized control; it is that at times there can be apathy in the democratic process. Democracies place the responsibility in the hands of the people. Democratic institutions are only as strong as the level of participation they inspire.
Similarly, the idea of salvation by liberation is something that we Unitarian Universalists know. It is also something of which we can stand to be reminded. Our faith has historically had a this-worldly orientation. To paraphrase Rev. Brent Smith, we are not called to wait for transportation to some distant heaven. We are called to create heaven here on earth. If you want peace, work for justice. Si quieres la paz, trabaja por la justicia.
It is that final part of liberation theology, the idea of a preferential option for the poor, that gives us the most trouble. And when I say that it gives us trouble, I am not saying that intellectually we fail to grasp it. It is a very easy concept. God cares about poor people. God is on the side of the poor. Everybody here can understand that. So, when I say that it gives us trouble, I am not talking about a challenge to our intellect. It is a trouble to our soul.
In the book Mountains Beyond Mountains, Dr. Paul Farmer’s medical practice adheres to a kind of secular version of the idea of a preferential option for the poor. In one of the most dramatic passages in the book, he arranges to life-flight a woman from rural Haiti to Boston. She receives world-class care – runs up a million dollar hospital bill – but her disease is too much. She dies anyways. The book describes how a lot of people got angry about this, saying, “Wasn’t that waste? How many people could have been fed for that million? How many AIDS drugs could you have bought? How many people in Boston could you have treated?” Farmer would answer these questions by saying that asking these questions is evidence of privilege. To ask and answer questions like these is to say that some people are expendable. The ones with AIDS are expendable. The women with complicated diseases are expendable. Maybe the poor deserve food to eat but not open heart surgery. Maybe the poor deserve penicillin, but not full labs. Maybe the poor deserve literacy, but not college. But, if God has a preferential option for the poor, these questions don’t get thought of. There are a million excuses, justifications, rationalizations our brains can generate. So, we need the soul to be involved also.
Which brings us around to us. What would it mean for us, as Unitarian Universalists, to embrace the idea of a preferential option for the poor? I want us to sit with that question for just a minute.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers here. After all, there are members of this church who have done far more than I have. There is K. who has visited birth clinics in rural Haiti. There is M. who has volunteered in the Dominican Republic working on a clean water project so the people there don’t have to drink their own fecal matter.
But I do want to tell a small story from my own life. This story happened last September, on Saturday of Labor Day weekend. We had a guest in the pulpit the next day which meant that I had an honest-to-God day off. Then my cell phone rang at 8:30 in the morning. It was someone who had found my cell phone number. He was a gay man with AIDS and TB who had taken ill while traveling across the country. He was broke. He was in the hospital. And his worldly possessions were in a duffel-bag in a motel across town. He needed somebody to retrieve his belongings. In that moment I could have said any number of things. “Sorry, it is my day-off.” “Sorry, not a minister today.” “You’re weird and I don’t feel safe.” And then I thought, well, what would Jesus do here? Then I thought, what would my faith teach me about this moment. I wound up driving to the hospital to verify that this man was, in fact, legitimate. Then I retrieved the bag from the motel and delivered it to him. I had a million reasons not to go, a million rationalizations, a million excuses. I think a preferential option for the poor means questioning those excuses and rationalizations.
This morning I hope you’ve learned a little. I hope, if you are a person who carries strong feelings about Catholicism, that you can take heart knowing that there is a movement within the Church that is totally radical. I hope that you might be encouraged to take some amazing, life-changing journey. And I hope you will sit with this idea of the preferential option for the poor and take the time to measure up the size of your heart and soul against that yardstick.