Friday, October 01, 2010

Are the Poor God's Favourites?

In Christian circles, especially where more technical aspects of some church doctrines are concerned, there is the notion of liberation theology being preached, with preferential option for the poor. In Christian theology, liberation is understood as a movement which understands the teachings of Jesus Christ in terms of emancipation from unjust social or economic conditions.

And many churches today preach liberation messages to their flock.

Liberation Christian messages are also described as the prophetic response to oppression. It is further seen as a critical reflection on praxis in the light of the word of God whereby the gospel of Jesus Christ is related to the economic and social conditions of the masses.

Biblically, material poverty is referred to as a “scandalous condition” that goes against human dignity and consequently the will of God. As such, it is clearly condemned. However, it is not regarded as something out of the ordinary because it is practiced in human relationships.

Liberation theology takes the existence of poverty as lack of solidarity in human relations and in communion with God. It is therefore seen as an expression of sin and lack of love. During the time of Jesus, according to liberation theology, the materially poor had a special familiarity with him and he called them ‘blessed’ in Matthew Chapter 11 verse 5.

In his answer to the Baptist’s question, he said: “… and the poor have good news preached to them.” And this, according to those who advocate for liberating the poor, vindicates the fact that the poor have special consideration.

Yet still, there are people who believe that the preaching of liberation theology has very negative effects on the welfare of humanity. Many churches that emphasize on liberation messages usually meet a lot of criticism from different quarters who take such messages as aimed at exploiting the poor “while pretending to liberate them.”

The Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT) has made repeated appeals to the church “to focus its attention on the plight of the poor as the pole of reference in its theology, and to make the poor both the point of departure in as much as God’s concern for the poor is the axial theme of the bible as a whole.”

And most churches have adopted this plea by EATWOT and focus much of their preaching on liberation of the poor. However, the problem appears to be that the poor in the current context are only liberated theoretically in that they are only given hope that “their reward is greater in heaven.”

In fact, most liberation theologians argue that the poor are a privileged channel of God’s grace. John Calvin, one of the most influential theologians whose teachings are held to date, observed that if nothing is done for the poor “would God not say why have you suffered so many poor to die of hunger, and you certainly had gold to minister to their support?”

Essentially, liberation messages’ social actions – where they are practical – are based upon the Bible scriptures describing the mission of Jesus Christ as bringing a sword (social unrest) as in Isaiah 61:1, Matthew 10:34, Luke 22:35-38 and Matthew 26:51-52, and not as bringing peace (social order). This biblical interpretation is understood to be a call to action against poverty to effect Jesus Christ’s mission of justice in this world.

The story of Lazarus and the rich man in the book of Luke in the bible is another subject of liberation theology which is taken to imply that the liberation of the poor is in heaven where their comfort will be restored.

Isaiah 61:1-2 records: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me; because the Lord has anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound. To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.” From this passage, liberation theologians aim at liberating the poor from their poverty which is not only a divine imperative but the obligation of the entire world.

In liberation messages, there is this perception that the poor will be given over the wealth that they are lacking now. Since it is an ethical theology that grows out of social awareness and the desire to act, liberation expresses the hopes of oppressed peoples and the realization that they are seen not as a passive element, but as an agent of righteous change in history and fulfilling prophesy.

John de Gruchy, a liberation theologian, argues that to be consecrated to the poor of the land means to have opted for those who not only are the favourites of the Lord but who will also inherit the land and wealth which God gave to this world.

Even the world’s most renowned theologian Martin Luther once said: “All over the world like a fever, freedom is spreading in the widest liberation movement in history. The starting point is our objective situation as oppressed and dependent peoples.”

But the truth is that no one could be neutral in the face of injustice. God does not take sides, even though liberation theology tries to imply that he sides with the poor.

Theologian Wolterstorff once argued that “the poor are not romanticized: they are not praised; they are blessed. And they can turn their blessings aside. Blessings are pronounced upon those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Yet, not all the poor do so.” This implies that poverty is not a gateway to heaven.

Even the understanding from Luke 16 where we find the story of the reach man and Lazarus is that no distinction is made between the rich and the poor; upon judgment, only those who will be found without any fault are the ones who will be honoured, not necessarily those who were poor.

The problem with liberation theology is that it has the potential of making the poor abandon all enthusiasm of working towards achieving something because they may think their poverty is a gateway to heaven.

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