The Rev. Dr. Walter Brueggemann
Organization: Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA
Denomination: United Church of Christ
Organization: Church Anew – A Ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Eden Prairie, MN
Denomination: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Those who mock the poor insult their Maker;
Those who are glad at calamity will not go unpunished
(Proverbs 17:5; see 14:21, 22:9, 28:3).
The claims and contours of liberation theology are now clearly articulated. In the 1960s and 1970s Roman Catholic theologians, priests, and bishops in Latin America freshly articulated a way to think, speak, and act about social power, social access, and social resources according to the claims of the gospel. That formulation orbits around the phrase, “God’s Preferential Option for the Poor.” That phrase voices the then scandalous, and still scandalous claim that God is partial to poor people, takes poor people as the object of special care and compassion, and sides with poor people in the class war that the powerful constantly wage against the powerless and resourceless. This interpretive stance, reiterated in many variations, causes scripture to be read very differently, and the mission of the church to be understood and practiced very differently.
The gains for the church in this articulation are immense. At the same time, however, it appears to me that this hermeneutical stance has not much penetrated the thinking, talk, or action of the church, including the Protestant denominations that I know best. It certainly has not impinged upon so-called evangelical churches that continue in their privatistic, other-worldly ways. And it has not much influenced progressive churches that mostly remain adamantly “liberal” in practice, something very different from “liberationist.” Because of the slowness of the church’s embrace of a liberationist perspective (and in some cases downright resistance), my simple intent here is to call attention to a new book written by Leonardo Boff in his old age, Thoughts and Dreams of an Old Theologian (Orbis Books, 2022). The book is readily readable and accessible, and will serve well as a study guide for a congregation. Boff, a Brazilian, from the outset has been among the earliest and most important voices in calling the church to liberationist perspective and practice. That perspective inevitably has led to a critical stance against the imperial propensity of the Roman Catholic Church, a stance that Boff labels “institutional arrogance.”
That critical stance has caused Boff (and his brother Clodovis, also a theologian) to be twice silenced by the Vatican under John Paul II. Nonetheless, Boff has continued his courageous work as a theologian and a teacher, who now counts Pope Francis as an ally in the work of liberation.
The book, in nine accessible succinct chapters, sums up a lifetime of research, teaching, and testimony. The outline of the book exhibits Boff following the contours of orthodox Trinitarianism, while he unpacks the tradition in fresh and telling ways. In his brief statement on the intention of Jesus, Boff appeals to “Our Father” and its petition for “our bread” (45). He identifies “three fundamental and inevitable hungers”:
The first hunger is for a meeting with Someone good…our kind Daddy (Abba).
The second hunger is the infinite hunger that is never satisfied, the dream of a full meaning for life… This comes with the name Kingdom of God.
There is yet another hunger… This is our daily bread. Without this material basis, talking about our Father and the Kingdom loses its meaning.
Boff summarizes his view of the church that has gotten him into so much trouble with the hierarchy. He pairs the “The Pauline Dimension (Charism) and the Petrine Dimension (Power)” (62). He distinguishes between “power as service” in Jesus and power “as control” in the Petrine Roman model of the church (65). He critiques the self-absorbed power-seeking of the Petrine Church and contrasts it to “the “Christianity of Popular Culture” in which the practical faith of the church, with its compassion and social awareness, does not linger over the perspective of the clergy elite. For good reason, Boff welcomes the great Dogmatic Constitution of the Church (Lumen Gentium) in Vatican II that saw “the people of God” as moving on in faith without excessive respect for the hierarchical structures of the church (71).
The church is not first and foremost a priestly body that creates communities, but the community of those who responded with faith to the call of God in Jesus through his Spirit. The network of these communities forms the People of God because this is the result of a communal, participatory process… Others arise that are more sporadic, but equally important for maintaining the life of the communities; the service of charity, concern for the poor, the promotion of social justice, particularly human, individual, and social rights, and the rights of nature and Mother Earth (74).
In an ecclesiology that regards the church as a hierarchical society (Petrine), there is no salvation for women in the sense of integration into community services and gifts (Pauline). They are forever marginalized, if not excluded. This state of affairs is incompatible with an ecclesiology that is minimally based on the gospel, which has to incorporate human values because they are also divine values. This is the fundamental reason why we should abandon an exclusively Petrine ecclesiology based on society and hierarchy and build up a Pauline ecclesiology, of community and the People of God (75).
Another recurring, crucial accent in Boff’s work is his deep concern for the earth in his “ecotheology.” He sees in our current thinking and practice two “cosmologies in conflict.” One is a “cosmology of conquest, of power as domination” (83). The alternative is a cosmology “gaining strength, the cosmology of transformation and liberation.” This latter option has received compelling articulation in the encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Si, “On Care for our Common Home” (2015). Boff pays attention to the processes of living organisms that grow and are transformed at death:
Behind all beings acts Fundamental Energy, also called the Nurturing Abyss of all being, which gave origin to the universe and keeps it in being, bringing into existence new beings. The most spectacular of these is the living Earth and we human beings with our component of consciousness and intelligence and the mission to care for the Earth (85).
Boff’s critique of the cosmology of domination is acute:
It started from a false premise that we could produce and consume without limit on a limited planet. The premise also assumes that the fictitious abstraction known as money represents the highest value and that competition and the pursuit of individual interest will result in general well-being. As I described earlier, it takes the form of a cosmology of domination. This cosmology has brought the crisis into the sphere of ecology, politics, ethics, and now economics. The eco-feminists have pointed out the close connection between anthropocentrism and patriarchy, which since Neolithic times has been doing violence to women and nature (86-87).
In his penultimate chapter Boff returns to his most elemental insistence:
The supreme and absolute principle of ethics is “Liberate the poor.” The principle is absolute because it governs actions always, in every place and for all. “Free the poor” presupposes (a) the condemnation of a social totality, of a closed system that excludes and produces poor people; (b) an oppressor who produces poor and excluded people; (c) poor people unjustly made poor and so impoverished; (d) taking into account the mechanisms that reproduce impoverishment; (e) the ethical duty to dismantle such mechanisms; (f) the urgency to build an escape route from the system that excludes people; and, finally (g) the obligation to bring about the new system in which all in principle have a role in participation, in justice and solidarity, including nature.
This ethics starts from the poor, but it is not just for the poor. It is for all, since no one looking at the face of an impoverished person can feel indifferent; everyone feels concerned. This ethics is fundamentally an ethics of justice, in the sense of restoring the recognition denied to the vast majority and including them in the society from which they feel—and indeed are—excluded (109).
At the outset of this piece I have placed a proverb that, well ahead of contemporary ecclesial formulation, had already seen the truth of God’s “preferential option for the poor.” The proverb asserts that God is particularly attached to and attentive to the poor, those who do not and cannot participate effectively in the production-consumption benefits of the economy.
I noticed the term “mock” in the proverb. The “mocking” of the poor is equivalent to insulting or scorning the creator who is the God of the poor. The equation is a remarkable formulation of a deep conviction of the gospel. We will do well to notice, in the context of this proverb, how it is that much church theology and practice have assumed that God and poor have no connection, as we have fashioned a faith that is individualized and privatized, or that is other-worldly in its escapism. The proverb insists otherwise. It affirms the inevitable, inescapable linkage of God to the economic realities of society, to the political reality that acknowledges not only the presence of the poor, but the production of the poor through the management and manipulation of the economy. This simple equation in the proverb amounts to a critical principle that contradicts our systemic arrangements and summons us to an alternative practice and policy.
The term “mock” in the proverb has led me, perhaps inevitably, to the assertion of the apostle Paul in a quite different context:
Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow _(Galatians 6:7).
Paul’s assertion is an insistence that God’s world is morally coherent, that it is a network of causes and effects, of deeds and consequences that are connected and guaranteed by the ordering of the creator. Thus “sow…reap.” Paul affirms that this linkage, guaranteed by the creator God, cannot be outflanked because it embodies the will of the creator God. God’s intention cannot be avoided, and God’s will cannot be mocked, either through neglect or defiance.
Consider for a moment this juxtaposition of texts:
God is not mocked;
God is insulted by the mocking of the poor.
So yes, God is mocked:
God is mocked whenever poor people lack food;
God is mocked whenever the children of poor people must attend inadequate schools;
God is mocked whenever poor people cannot receive adequate or reliable health care;
God is mocked whenever poor people are left homeless and without safe shelter; God is mocked whenever some in our society lack the security and dignity for full humanness among us.
God is mocked by an economic system of greed that does not notice the poor, or the poor are excluded from the wellbeing of the economy. But God will not finally be mocked, because God is in resolved solidarity with poor people. It only remains for us to devise social perspectives, policies, and practices that are congruent with the holy God who is alive, well, and active in the world.
Boff has seen all of this with courageous clarity. Because he is a Roman Catholic teacher and theologian, he has been preoccupied with the way the Roman Catholic Church has colluded in this grotesque distortion of creaturely reality. But of course Boff’s concern runs well beyond the Roman Catholic Church. His insistence and anticipation
is that the “peoples church” cannot be contained in any fearful ideology and that the church may indeed impact the body politic in transformative ways.
Boff concludes his final chapter on spirituality with an appeal to the Eucharist:
And now, beloved Earth, I perform the action Jesus performed in the power of his Spirit. Like him, filled with spiritual power, I take you in my impure hands and pronounce over you the sacred words the universe was hiding and which you longed to hear: “Hoc est enim corpus meum: This is my Body. Hic est sanguis meus. This is my blood.” And then I felt it: what was earth was transformed into Paradise, and what was human life was transformed into divine life. What was bread became God’s body, and what was wine became sacred blood. Finally, Earth, with your sons and daughters, you came to God. You became God by participation. At home, at last. (172).
Boff’s book is well worth sustained attentiveness. It is a fierce wake-up call to the reality of God in whom we trust and to whom we respond; it is this God who will, in the end, not be mocked.
May 20, 2022
Walter Brueggemann is one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.