Sunday, February 21, 2010
Solidarity with the Poor as Requisite for Living the Christian Life
“Jesus… did not write a book but formed a community.”
- Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society
Very few people go to the library to read about Broadway shows; most people go to NY to see for themselves. Likewise, there are few people who are content to browse travel brochures in place of a vacation to the Caribbean; most people choose to go and experience the islands for themselves. Both Broadway and the Caribbean require our physical presence to be appreciated. In this way, the following essay is filled with great irony.
The topic to be discussed is solidarity with the world’s poor. Irony, in this case, has two causes. The first is my own context. I am an educated, white male who has spent most of his life in the upper classes of comfort. Thus, my own writing on this topic is ironic, if not also somewhat fraudulent. But secondly, and more ironic, is that the argument that will be posited below belittles the very medium through which it has been communicated. Ultimately I am asking this paper to do something that it is incapable of doing.
By noting this irony I hope to further emphasize the thesis presented below. That is, that writing about solidarity can never replace the primacy of experiencing solidarity. Therefore, the goal of this essay is not to “convince” the reader, it is to move the reader. My hope is to share a combination of experience, theology, and scripture that will provoke a stirring in your heart. That stirring of the heart is really the focus of this essay. It is precisely what I believe enables us to do sound theology in the first place, and it is the locus from which our best theology is constructed. And so although this essay cannot usurp the primacy of the very topic that it aims address, I do believe that words have power. It is my hope that the words expressed here will move you toward a life lived in solidarity with the poor.
In our preaching to rich and poor, it is not that we pander to the
sins of the poor and ignore the virtues of the rich. Both have
sins and both need conversion. But the poor, in their condition
of need, are disposed to conversion. They are more conscious of
their need of God.
All of us, if we really want to know the meaning of conversion
and of faith and confidence in another, must become poor, or at
least make the cause of the poor our own inner motivation. That is
when one begins to experience faith and conversion: when
one has the heart of the poor, when one knows that financial
capital, political influence, and power are worthless, and that
without God we are nothing.
To feel that need of God is faith and conversion.
- Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love, February 18, 1979.
Many people often describe the focus of Jesus’ mission as peace, justice or love. While these are all good answers, they are merely components of the greater mission that Jesus came to fulfill. The ultimate message that Jesus came to preach was the Kingdom of God. Peace, justice and love are all aspects of the greater mission that is the Reign of God. This was the mission that led Jesus to live among the marginalized while calling together a community of disciples from varying social classes. Therefore, the goal of the Kingdom of God is not just peace or justice or love, but rather a new “Kingdom Community” where peace, justice, and love abound. The goal of the Reign of God is a world of reconciliation among human beings. This, I believe, is only possible through solidarity with the world’s poor. Unfortunately, most churches in the Western world lack the commitment to solidarity. This is the scandal in most North American churches today. We want to have our cake and eat it too: we want a Gospel that preaches justice and love for the poor, but we want to remain at a safe, comfortable distance. Thus, what ends up happening is not the Kingdom Community through which we become poor together and are yoked side by side to live under God’s Reign, but rather a broken community where the poor remain at the margins and become mere recipients of well-intended donations or the subject of First World ‘projects.’ This, I believe, must change by becoming a church of solidarity.
During my experiences in El Salvador I witnessed first-hand the fruits of a gospel of solidarity. Therefore, this subject has been heavy on my heart and mind over the past four weeks. In the following essay I would like to provide a brief study on the theme of solidarity and its effects on theology and ecclesiology. The first element of our study will present Jesus’ life as the way of solidarity. Though much can be said on this, a concise review of Jesus’ example in the Synoptic Gospels will suffice to establish Jesus’ model as a clear precedent for solidarity. The second portion of our study will bring together the perspectives of a few Latin American theologians and my own experiences with various churches in El Salvador to look at the theological and ecclesiological fruits of solidarity. And, lastly, I will consider how living in solidarity may be done in my own ministerial context. Altogether the goal of this essay is to provide the reader a cogent argument for solidarity with the poor as the requisite for living under the Reign of God. Before beginning with Jesus’ example it will be helpful to elaborate on the concept of solidarity among the world’s “poor.”
Who are the Poor?
In a world of extreme economic disparity it is easy to limit one’s definition of poor to strictly financial terminology. However, in this study I would like to broaden our understanding of who are the world’s poor by employing two descriptions provided by Jon Sobrino and Joachim Jeremias. The first consists of persons of low repute; those who are excluded based on factors outside of their own control. Jeremias describes these people as those “whose religious ignorance and moral behavior [stands] in the way of their access to salvation, according to the convictions of the time.” These are people who, due to factors beyond their control, cannot live as agents of their own destiny. This description has nothing to do with financial status but is rather a social stigma.
Secondly, the world’s poor may be seen as those who suffer from real oppression. These are the sick, the foreigners, the hungry, the thirsty, and more. It is this group that, as we shall see below, find themselves as primary addressees of Jesus’ Good News. With these two characterizations of the term “poor,” we may now turn to study how Jesus met these women and men from the “underside” of society.
Jesus as Our Example for Solidarity
Before even surveying what we know of Jesus’ life we must begin with the theology of the Incarnation as the heart of a model for solidarity. That God would become flesh and dwell among us (John 1:3,14) is the epitome of solidarity. The person of Jesus, who is the “reflection” and “bearer” of God’s glory and nature (Hebrews 1:3), is the solidarity of God who is Immanuel: “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). What Jesus models in his life’s behavior is, therefore, a continuation of the solidarity initiated in the Incarnation.
The Gospels provide a clear example of Jesus’ solidarity with the poor. While there is not enough room here to discuss all aspects of Jesus’ life, we may touch on a few examples of solidarity that are each strongly supported by Jesus scholars. The first is the location of Jesus’ home and concentration of ministry: Nazareth of Galilee. Nazareth was not the place from which one would expect a great prophet to come, let alone the Messiah (John 1:46). This would be the equivalent of the next FMLN president to come from San Martin! God’s choice to become incarnate in a Jewish man in Nazareth of Galilee is a clear example of God’s choosing the way of solidarity among the poor. Furthermore, Jesus focused his ministry in the small towns of Galilee. The largest city of Galilee, Sepphoris, is never once mentioned in the Gospels. Rather, small towns such as Capernaum,Cana, and Bethsaida are recorded as the popular sites of Jesus’ mission. In addition to these specific towns, there are also references to locations such as “the country” (Mark 1:39), “homes” (Mark 2:1-2, 15), “through grain fields” (Mark 2:33), “the sea” (Mark 3:7), and “on a mountain” (Mark 3:13) that indicate Jesus’ ministry on the periphery.
We may further understand why Jesus spent his time in these small towns by examining to whom Jesus preached the Good News of the Kingdom of God. A quick survey of the Gospels will reveal that Jesus was primarily concerned with the marginalized of society. The unclean (Mark 1:23, 40), the sick (Mark 1:32), sinners and tax collectors (Mark 2:15) are all listed as those with whom Jesus shared fellowship. Moreover, Jesus’ immediate following of disciples consisted of a diverse group of men from lower class professions such as fishing and tax collecting. As a carpenter Jesus himself was an artisan, not a peasant. Therefore, conventional opinion that Jesus was a homeless peasant is not entirely true. That is, we must take seriously that Jesus chose to move toward the margins of society and live with the poor. Jesus himself gave an appropriate summary of his mission when he read from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of site to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18)
When we begin to see Jesus’ life more clearly - as he lived in solidarity with the poor - we may then begin to comprehend the theological and ecclesial implications of following Jesus. It is to these theological and ecclesial implications that we shall turn.
Theology in Solidarity with the Poor
All theology is contextual. The story of God’s people in biblical writing and the example of Jesus demonstrate that the context of the poor is the place from which the best theology is built. Beginning with the Hebrews and the Abrahamic community, God’s people throughout the Bible, for the most part, constructed their theology from the perspective of the periphery. Jesus, as we have mentioned, also constructed his theology from the perspective of the underside. This is true of the early church as well until the conversion of Constantine in 312 C.E. Therefore, the Liberationist approach to theology - that is, constructing theology from the “underside” - is not a new or progressive methodology but rather a return to the way that God’s people throughout the biblical narrative constructed theology. The question we must explore, then, is: What is advantageous about constructing theology from the perspective of the poor? Once again it will prove beneficial to examine Jesus’ life.
By choosing to live in solidarity with the poor Jesus allowed himself to experience their anxiety. By living among those who suffer, Jesus was able to perceive the ultimate question: what is the meaning of a life laden with such difficulties? The key to this approach is that Jesus did not begin with what he thought he knew about God; rather, he began with the lived experiences of the people who were suffering. C.S. Song encapsulates Jesus’ approach to theology well when he writes:
“In short, Jesus knew and experienced anxiety of all kinds firsthand and not secondhand, in person and not in theory, as a matter of everyday experience and not as an occasional project designed to “immerse” its participants for a day or a week in a slum to see for themselves how people live in dire conditions, or in a poorly ventilated factory to see how young women workers work ten hours a day for subsistence wages.”
The point of solidarity with the poor is not to find timeless theological truths, but rather to ask relevant theological questions that may be explored together as a community. Is this not what Jesus was trying to do with the community of disciples? He did not concern himself with useless debates about the Law, but instead gave his time and energy to living alongside those who suffer. What we may glean from Jesus’ approach to theology is that “it is people who are in distress and suffering who tell us who God must be and what God wants to do.”
This approach to theology is largely missing from the church in North America. If we are to take seriously our calling to follow Jesus’ Way, then we must consider Jesus’ approach to constructing theology. Theology born from the perspective of comfort and wealth is not going to produce a theology that lands anywhere near the Kingdom of God. The current situation of many churches in North America exhibits this failure to produce life-giving theology that is relevant to the needs of society. Instead, these churches are put to sleep by theologies that promote safety, segregation and preservation of the status quo.
Fortunately, however, theology from the “underside” is powerfully existent in Latin America. Because of this, there is much to learn from our sisters and brothers who live south of the border. The Liberationist approach to theology is often explained as “a critical reflection on Christian praxis in light of the word of God.” Ultimately, this approach grounds theology in lived experience; which is what makes it so advantageous. The epistemology of experience is the clearest method for knowing. . This is why the Christian Church must experience the “underside” through solidarity in order to produce theology that aligns with the heart of God.
One example of the theological fruits of solidarity with the poor comes from a woman named Serena in the town of Zacatecoluca. Over lunch one afternoon, Serena shared the story of her conversion from a theology that permitted distance from the poor and neglect for the real needs of those on the periphery to a theology that drew her to live in solidarity with the poor and meet tangible needs. The process of conversion came after the 2001 earthquake during which Serena had no choice but to live in the world of those who were suffering. It was then that she began to see that the Good News includes meeting real needs like food, water, and medicine. What is significant about this example is that Serena’s theology was changed by her personal encounter with those who suffered. Not unlike Jesus, Serena’s theology was transformed by the experience of living in solidarity with the poor. Colin Morris puts it clearly when he names these kinds of personal encounters as “a fiery visitation from God [with] limitless capacity to stab the conscience awake.” It is this personal encounter with the world’s poor that must be the fountainhead for our theology.
When living with the poor is our starting point, a much more communal theology is likely to develop. This is due to the high population and crowdedness that characterize poor communities. This is certainly the case in El Salvador where it is easy to find oneself uncomfortably surrounded by people everywhere; but even more so in impoverished areas. Thus, theology that is constructed in this setting is much more likely to value inter-dependence, sharing, and fraternity. An example of this comes from a community of I.D.P.’s in San Martin. This community of roughly 200 people currently “squats” on federally owned land on the edge of a mountain where mudslides have recently swept away homes, crops, and the hopes of many. Despite extreme poverty and geographic dangers, these people are steadfast about maintaining their community. More specifically, a church within this community, Iglesia Bautista Disipulos de Cristo, is attempting to raise the money to move – not just its own congregation, but the entire community to new land. This is the kind of theology that is born out of living in solidarity and it is the kind of theology that points toward God’s ultimate agenda that is the Kingdom Community.
These are just two examples of how living in solidarity with the poor enables theology that aligns with the Reign of God. Solidarity with the poor is not about getting theology “right” or arriving at a final answer; rather, it is about living from a place that enables the life-long process of constructing and reconstructing theology that reflects the Reign of God. The perspective of the “underside” is mostly absent from the North American church and that must change if we are to recover a clearer understanding of the Reign of God. In the final analysis, the world of the poor offers the non-poor a vast resource for discovering who God is and what God desires. Out of this theology will no doubt arise a more healthy understanding of the church.
Solidarity and Ecclesiology
When our theology is driven by our experience of living in solidarity with the poor then the church becomes a church of the poor; and, ultimately, a church focused on the base. The movement of Christian Base Communities came about during the 60’s and 70’s in Latin America and continues to be a successful ecclesial model today. Though this is not the only model for being a church of the poor, the advantages to this approach are plentiful. Most notably, these churches are aimed to meet people in their context. For example, the leaders of these churches rise up out of the community as opposed to the common Western model of assigning ministers to foreign communities. This approach is exemplified clearly by SEBLA, a seminary located in San Salvador. SEBLA aims to train leaders to think theologically in their own context and they do this by literally going out to various communities to offer theological education, which allows each church to live and move in its own context. In addition to this SEBLA makes every effort to train both women and men, young and old, and especially those who cannot afford education. As a result, members of these communities are empowered to participate with confidence in the life of the church. Thus, a common trait of this ecclesiology is shared ownership of the church community.
Another advantage for being a church of the poor is that it allows the church to be a dynamic community who is free to move with the Holy Spirit. What enables this freedom is the detachment from institutional powers. This is powerfully visible in the life and work of Oscar Romero who, though he was an archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church, became detached to the structural hierarchy as he lived in solidarity with the poor. By doing this he allowed both himself and the church of the poor to move with the Holy Spirit to live out the Kingdom of God. The church in San Martin (mentioned above) is also an example of a community who is free to move – literally! – with God’s Spirit. As a church living in solidarity with the poor, they are not concerned about settling down as much as following God wherever God may lead. Moving, more often than not, means changing and adapting with the times so that the church remains relevant to the needs of society and faithful to God’s ongoing work of redemption. This is an advantage that few North American churches experience.
There are many other advantages to the ecclesiology that is born out of solidarity with the poor: reactionary ministry, intimacy, experiential theology, mobilization, and a grassroots disposition, among others. What is clear from our two examples, however, is that the church of the poor is far more capable of living under the Reign of God than many mainline churches in North America. Incidentally, one of these North American churches happens to be my own place of ministry.
Solidarity in My Own Ministry Context
Because my place of ministry is very wealthy, it is difficult to imagine how I might live in solidarity with the poor in my setting. However, the definitions of poverty used above allow me a good starting point, particularly the first. Considering this definition, it does not take long to realize that there are many “poor” at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church. Those who are denied a “seat at the table” include young children, teenagers, and the elderly. For example, recently there was a brunch served after the worship service that was intended for the entire church community. But the teenagers were afraid to enter the parish hall simply because the invitation was never made explicit to them. This is a perfect example of the culture of exclusion that our community has propagated by not living in solidarity with the poor.
Part of living in solidarity with the poor means experiencing their perspective. One of the ways I do this is by imagining the worship service from the perspective of a child or teenager. While the formal liturgy is loaded with meaning, it is also quite boring and inaccessible for young people. This is due to years of nobody living in solidarity with the poor of St. Christopher’s, namely, the youth. As a result, years passed while children silently endured curious rituals and seemingly pointless monologues. In our current situation, I face the challenge of questioning decades of tradition that have passively been accepted as the timeless norm. I am trying to change this by considering how the worship service might be adjusted to meet the needs of the youth, but this is a steep, uphill battle.
Another piece of living in solidarity with the poor means giving a voice to those who have no voice. This task must flow out of first experiencing the “underside” so that the voices are first heard and understood. I attempt to do this by listening to the concerns of the teenagers and then voicing them to those in positions of power. What is difficult, however, is that most of the teenagers have little to say and are fairly uninterested in taking any ownership of our community. They are not interested in the kind of “power” that our church has to offer. They are not interested in becoming leaders in our church. And rightly so! Nobody wants to be given a position of authority in a stifled church! This is highly problematic for me and I am trying to live these important inquiries alongside the youth and perhaps one day find ways to meet these needs.
What is of particular note is that the struggles of the poor in my community are largely due to the structural power of the Episcopal Church. This is why I have mentioned above the benefit of adopting an ecclesiology that is detached from structural power. In my own ministry I spend very little energy concerning myself with power. I am foremost concerned with being faithful to the Reign of God and living alongside the young people in our parish. Incidentally, I have found that by doing this I have acquired great power and respect in our community. Truly the way of service is much more powerful than the counterfeit power created by structures. While there is more that could be said about serving the poor in my context, space limits me. What is of importance, I believe, is the recognition that there are poor in any context and we must choose to live in solidarity with those on the “underside.”
The ongoing attempts to work for peace and justice by both NGO’s and churches are of great value in our world. But ultimately they fall short of the church’s mission. The mission of the church is to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19) and “preach the Gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). That Gospel is the Good News of a new “Kingdom Community” over which Jesus is Lord and King. As our exemplar, Jesus shows us not only what the Reign of God looks like, but also how it is to be brought about. The mission of the church, therefore, cannot be done completely from behind a desk or sitting in a pew. The mission of the church must be carried out alongside and with the poor. From this location “will be heard nuances of the Word of God which are imperceptible in other existential situations and without which there can be no authentic and fruitful faithfulness to the Lord.” In the final analysis, solidarity with the poor is indispensable to the Christian life because it is the only possible way to incarnate the Good News of the Reign of God.
Jesus looked around and saw them following. “What do you want?” he asked. They replied, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” “Come and see,” he said.
- John 1:38,39
The most difficult part about returning from El Salvador is trying to articulate my experience to others. It is impossible. After attempting to explain my trip to a number of people I found myself severely disappointed. I could never quite convey the experience that was being replayed in my mind as I spoke. The semi-interested expressions on their faces were always a sign that I was wasting my breath. And while this is a frustration, it is also a blessing. If our experiences could be completely expressed to others through verbal or written communication, then our experiences would lose the distinctively personal force that allow them to shape who we are. Coming to an understanding that our lived experiences ultimately determine who we are is what solidarity is all about.
When two of John’s disciples asked Jesus where he was staying, Jesus did not reply with a specific answer. Rather, he invited them to come and see for themselves (John 1:38,39). When a rich, young ruler asks Jesus the ultimate theological question, Jesus invites the young man to join him on the journey (Mark 10:17-22). His invitation is to come and experience what God is doing in history.
So too have I developed a stock response to people when they inquire about my trip to El Salvador. Rather than attempt to articulate the inexplicable, I simply reply to the person by saying, “Do you really want to know? Come and see.”
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