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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 309 | Abril 2007


Latin America

No Salvation Apart from the Poor

“There’s no salvation outside of the Church,” the ecclesiastical hierarchy has claimed for centuries. There’s no salvation apart from the world,” according to Vatican II in the 1960s, when the Church finally opened its windows onto the modern world. Jon Sobrino, pride of Central America and the universal Church, asserts that “there’s no salvation apart from the poor.” This proposal, rooted in liberation theology, comes to us as Latin America’s bishops prepare to meet in Brazil.

Jon Sobrino, sj.

Paul exclaimed: “Poor me! Who will save me from this mortal body?” Current times don’t lend them selves to this kind of question. We’re part of a civilization based on capital, which produces impoverished and excluded people, winners and losers. Our society isn’t just sick, says Jean Ziegler; it’s on its death bed. The horror produced in us by the injustice and suffering created by this civilization’s deep-seated problems brings us to a modern variant on Paul’s question: What will save us from this cruel, inhuman world?

Given the immensity of this problem, the response can only be modest, but we’ll try to offer the seed of an answer. It consists of relating “salvation” to “the poor,” of seeing the poor as a potential power and place for salvation. While it may sound defiant, extra pauperes nulla salus (there’s no salvation apart from the poor) is modest. We aren’t strictly saying that there’s automatic salvation for those with the poor, but rather that there’s no salvation without the poor. This assumes that there’s always “something” of salvation in the poor, that they offer some hope, despite everything. A cure for a gravely ill civilization can come from the world of the poor and the victims.

A novel, defiant formula full of obstacles

Let’s try to get inside an overwhelming mystery. What does it meanto be fully human? What is salvation? While the complete answer to such questions is beyond us, part of it isn’t mysterious at all: the eradication of hunger, for example. The formula extra pauperes nulla salus is overwhelming, too. Concepts and rationalizations are useful in entering this mystery, but they aren’t enough. One has to combine them with wisdom, reflections, testimonies, experiences and, particularly in this case, the spirit of refinement referred to by Pascal.

The formula challenges instrumental reason, and hubris rebels against it. It doesn’t appear in modern or postmodern texts to my knowledge, so it isn’t easy to accept that salvation comes from the unenlightened. It is, however, included to some degree in Marx: salvation comes from history’s lower social class. But Marxism doesn’t see potential salvation in the lumpen. Social philosophy, the basis for democracy, describes the poor as citizens with the same rights as the rest, but doesn’t put them at the center of society, either in theory or in practice,and thus doesn’t make them specific bearers of salvation. Nor does the Church do so in either theory or practice. The metaphysical axiom that, saved or condemned, “we’re what’s real,” rules always and everywhere.

It’s an extreme statement, which only acquires meaning after analyzing the various contributions of the poor to salvation. And it’s definitely a negative statement, which increases its importance rather than taking away from its value, because it seems to us that the most important things demand to be formulated in a negative way. Przywara pointed this out. Reality is always larger than our ideas, so the more important reality becomes, the more respectful our ideas should be. Negative statements don’t necessarily express ignorance of reality, but can be expressions of respect and humility toward it, and of more profound knowledge.

Even with all these difficulties, we’ll stick to this formulation, since it’s a vigorous one, ready to conceptually crack the rich civilization’s logic.

What we can know, hope for,
celebrate and receive from the poor

There are other difficulties in accepting the formula. For some, the fundamental one will be the inability of the poor to produce goods on a large scale. On a more personal level, the major difficulty is that there’s also mysteriun iniquitatis in the world of the poor. The bad things we see every day among the poor come to mind, and the people who live and work directly with them remind us of it.

They ask us if we’re idealizing the poor or falling for the “myth of the noble savage,” as I heard in Spain during the Quincentenary. It isn’t easy to give a reassuring response. It’s one thing to see the poor in base communities, generous, committed to their own liberation and that of others, inspired by a Monsignor Romero, and another to see them disillusioned, beaten by the world of abundance and its offers, fighting each other to survive, as in the horrors of the African Great Lakes or the 12 murders a day in El Salvador. All this occurs in places inhabited by poor people, even though the immediate responsibility isn’t always only theirs. Nor do we even believe that the primary responsibility is theirs. And we also have to consider that their reality varies, according to eras and places.

The formula’s novel theology is also difficult. Some relationship has always existed between the poor and Christian faith. From the standpoint of faith, the poor move people to irrecoverable indignation, unlimited compassion, even radical conversion, which, as Metz said, can lead to the “preferential option for the poor” and to living in obedience to “the authority of those who suffer.” The poor can definitely question if we believe in God, and why, when it appears that God can’t or doesn’t want to eliminate the horrors of our world.

According to our attitude towards them, our salvation or condemnation depends on the poor: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, because I was hungry and you fed me. Far from me, cursed...” Finally, as believers we are “sacraments” and therefore the “presence” or “absence” of God, according to how we act with them. In one way or another we will be able to hear what the Scripture denounces, on repeating five times—three referring to God and two to Christ—that “because of you the name of God is blasphemed among nations.” Or we can make real what Jesus of Nazareth asks of us: “Shine your light before men, so that they see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

The Latin American Bishops’ Conference in Medellín gave special importance to the “preferential option for the poor.” But now we’re taking an even more remarkable step. It’s about the “option of letting salvation come from the poor.” Accepting isn’t easy, and requires a new logic.

This isn’t a categorical addition to an already established way of thinking. It’s the product of a fundamental globalizing attitude, with a break, a constituent caesura. It isn’t enough to be and act in its favor (What do I have to do? asked Kant), but also “what I can know” and “what I can expect” (Kant’s other two questions). We add “what can I celebrate?” and “what can I receive?” And all of it “from the poor.” If poor people become central in the response to these questions, then the way of thinking could be moved by a different logic. It could be rational to accept and comprehend extra pauperes nulla salus. It isn’t easy, but the plus of the new logic is necessary.

That’s what we’re trying to offer in this modest essay. The poetic, creative, prophetic intuition of Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga and the intuition and analysis of Ignacio Ellacuría guide us. The reader will also note the struggle to think past the complexity and uncertainty of the topic. The will and spirit come from “it just can’t be so” and from some words of Pedro Casaldáliga, who had the grace to write me, “You say it very well and you have to repeat it until you’re satiated: apart from the poor there’s no salvation, apart from the poor there’s no Church, apart from the poor there’s no Gospel.” Then it will be understood that we have hope that others will correct, improve and complete what we’re going to say.

The world of the poor seen from inside

Those who come from places of abundance frequently find “something” new and unexpected among the poor and the victims. This certainly occurs in the sphere of faith: it strengthens some people’s faith, others regain it and some discover it. But it also occurs in the human sphere: now they know better what the world is and what they are, what they should do and what they can expect. In the world of the poor they have found something good and positive. They have found “salvation.” José Comblin writes from Brazil, “The media always speak negatively of the poor, as those who have no belongings, no culture, nothing to eat. Seen from outside, the world of the poor is all negative. Seen from inside, however, that world has vitality: they fight to survive, they invent informal jobs and construct a different civilization of solidarity, of people who recognize each other as equals, with their own forms of expression, including art and poetry.”

These words declare that there are important values in the world of the poor and that they are constructing a civilization of solidarity. This isn’t an isolated opinion; it has been repeated by others. Many look for a humane humanity today, and we say it without being redundant, as Luther looked for a benevolent God. They don’t find it in societies of abundance, or in globalization, or even in democratic organizations. They find important elements of it in the world of the poor: happiness, creativity, patience, art and culture, hope, solidarity. This experience is dialectic. They have found humane life in the “flip side of the world of the wealthy.” It’s life-giving, as it generates hope in a more humane world. It’s an experience of grace; it happens where we least expect it.

Ronaldo Muñoz said something similar about the United Nations Development Program’s congratulatory report about Chile in 2005. He tempers the report’s enthusiasm and remembers the serious ills that still batter the majority. He insists, above all, on a different way of seeing things, a different perspective: “We have to be amazed by how women have withstood it all and by their personal and social development; by the spontaneous solidarity of so many poor people with neighbors and friends who are worse off; by new groups of adults and youth who continue pulling themselves up against all odds to share life, to work and celebrate together; we have to be amazed by the new dignity and the fight of the Mapuche people for their rights; by the small Christian communities, both Catholic and Protestant, that continue blossoming and giving fruit of brotherhood and hope.”

That “something” among
the poor is humanizing

After what happened during the tsunami in Asia in 2005, Felix Wilfred wrote from India about the positive and negative things that occurred in the world of the poor. He concluded: “The confrontation of human suffering and the compassionate response has developed in the victims some of the values we need to support a different world: solidarity, humanity, the spirit of sharing, survival techniques, preparation to assume risks, resistance and iron will in the face of adversity. In the world of victims, unlike the world of empire and globalization, good isn’t identified as ‘success.’ Goodness and justice are ideals the world needs to make the relentless effort to achieve something. Their cultural resources, which reflect the values and ideals of a future world, help them to face life with courage, both individually and collectively.”

These words are enough, because they are really noteworthy. They obviously don’t offer a thesis, but they express something fundamental: That “something” is found in the world of the poor. Those who die before their time, who have almost all the powers of the world lined up against them, possess something that makes them live and that they offer to all. That something, more than material goods, is made of human goods, and is therefore humanizing. Those goods aren’t found, or are found only with difficulty, in the world of the not-poor.

The “poor” are those who humanize and offer salvation, those who inspire and motivate the creation of a civilization of solidarity, not of selfishness. We will analyze a number of nuances of poverty, above all the “poor with spirit” as Ellacuría calls them, unifying the Luke and Matthew traditions of the beatitudes. Ellacuría spoke of the “immense spiritual and human wealth of the poor and the peoples of the third world.” How many of those poor people there are varies according to the time and the place. Certainly not all are like that. In their world, good and evil often coexist, above all in times of great crisis. But there are more than enough of them to cure a gravely ill society. The problem is paying attention to them.

Most importantly, there’s a logic in the world of the poor that helps reality be seen in another way. It shows that salvation isn’t identical to progress and development, a distinction that seems very important. It helps us see that salvation can come from the poor. For those who aren’t poor it’s the experience of grace. The preferential option for the poor doesn’t only revolve around giving to them, but also around receiving from them.

“Salvation” is life, dignity, brotherhood,
honor, everything that humanizes

If in the world of the poor there is “something” of salvation that isn’t found easily in other worlds, we have to determine what we understand by “salvation” and by “the poor.” Human salvation and the need for it appear in several spheres of reality. There are personal, social, historical and transcendent areas of salvation, even though we can’t always separate them neatly. Here we’ll concentrate on the social-historical salvation of this gravely ill society we live in, dehumanized by the huge offense between the majority of Lazaruses and the minority of Epulons. We also have to distinguish between salvation as a positive state of things and the process for arriving at this state. In both cases, salvation is dialectic and at times duel-like. It happens in opposition to other realities and processes, including in a struggle against them.

With respect to the state of things, salvation takes place in different ways. Ceasing to be guided by the sub species contrarii for its lack of life and the dehumanization instilled by capitalism, we can say this: salvation is life (fulfilling basic needs); it’s against poverty, illness and death; it’s dignity (respect for people and their rights) and against disdain and lack of recognition; it’s liberty against oppression; it’s brotherhood among human beings as if family, as opposed to understanding them in the Darwinian sense as a mere species; and it’s clean air that the spirit can breathe to move towards what humanizes (honor, compassion, solidarity, openness to some form of transcendence) and away from what dehumanizes (selfishness, cruelty, individualism, arrogance, snubbing positivism).

Salvation’s “place”:
Liberation theology’s gamble

Salvation is concrete. We must remember to avoid the danger of ahistorically “universalizing” the concept and the realities that accompany it through affirmation and negation, like poverty and development. The UN Development Program does it this way. It has its advantages, but for it to be salvation it will be understood in a different way in the residential neighborhoods of Paris, in World Bank reports, in the shelters of the African Great Lakes and in grassroots community testimonials. From Brazil, Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga wrote that “liberty without justice is like a flower over a cadaver.” “Liberty” and “justice” are both expressions of salvation, but we can’t assume that its appropriate form can be understood and its necessity and urgency prioritized from a supposedly universal place.

This brings us to the important question of the place where salvation is theorized, which is an important task right now. As an ideology, globalization tries to make us think that the world is substantially homogenous and that there’s no need to wonder about the “most appropriate” place for learning what salvation is, or knowing what it is to be human, what hope is, what sin is, what God is. Liberation theology doesn’t work like that, but rather gives the most importance to determining the best place for learning the truth. That place is the world of the poor. That’s why liberation theology, and not others, has been able to formulate, even if only in its negative form, the place for salvation: extra pauperes nulla salus.

Finally, we also have to consider the different forms taken by the process of salvation. This normally occurs against oppressive structures and takes the form of liberation: we have to be free from... It often isn’t enough to fight against the negative products the structures generate; we have to pull out the roots as well: then salvation becomes redemption. According to the Biblical-Christian tradition, that’s why we have to shoulder sin. The fight against evil is inherent in redemption, not only from the outside, but also carrying it from the inside.

Who are the poor?
Why do they save us?

We also have to determine the different dimensions of being poor. The contribution of the poor to salvation will be in accord with the way they live in poverty. Before classifying them in detail, it’s important to remember the fundamental distinction about poor people with regard to salvation doctrine in the documents of the Latin American bishops in Puebla (1979). In the first place, “they constantly call the Church to conversion” for what they are, independent of their “moral or personal situation,” which is a great good. In the second place, they evangelize and save, “inasmuch as many of them live the evangelical values of solidarity, service, simplicity and openness to welcome the gift of God.” They save by the spirit in which they live their poverty.

Who are those poor people? First, they are the materially poor, those who don’t take life for granted, but for whom living is their highest task and the nearness of death, or some type of death—of their dignity, their culture—is their normal destiny. It’s the economic meaning of poor in its primordial sense: the oikos, the minimum nucleus of life, is threatened in them. Poor people are “those who die before their time.”

Second, they are dialectically poor, impoverished and oppressed, although not lacking because nature doesn’t offer them any more. They’re dispossessed of the fruit of their labor and increasingly excluded from the opportunity to work. They’re deprived of social and political power by those who have become wealthy by their exclusion and have taken over power. It’s the sociological meaning of poor: their “partner” or “companion” selves are denied. Generally they are ignored and despised. They’re considered nonexistent. They don’t have a name, not in life or in death.

Third, those who have collectively and individually become conscious of the fact of material poverty and its causes are consciously poor. They have awakened from the dogmatic dream fed to them that their poverty is natural and inevitable, at times even God’s desire.

Fourth, those who convert this awareness into grassroots organizing and into a praxis of liberation in solidarity are poor in a way that liberates them. They have become conscious of their skill and responsibility toward all poor people. They go out from their own groups and communities to free others.

Fifth, they are spiritually poor, understood here in a precise sense: those who live their material reality, their awakening and their praxis voluntarily, with hope, compassion, strength under persecution, love and the even the higher love of giving one’s life for the freedom of the poor majority. They live it with confidence and willingness towards a Father-God: a Father in whom they trust and rest and a God before whom they are willing and who doesn’t let them rest. Those are the poor with spirit.

Lastly, from the viewpoint of Christian faith, poverty has a theological dimension (God’s preference for the poor) and a Christological dimension (Christ’s presence in them). This, measured by how believers see the poor, makes their plea and their offer of salvation to the non-poor more radical.

The different dimensions of the reality of the poor, depending on time and place, will produce different fruits of salvation. In synthesis, by their crude reality they can produce conversion and compassion, and also truth and praxis of justice. By their multi-formed spirit, they can in various ways humanize the different forms of impure air that the spirit breathes. It isn’t easy to determine the salvation that comes from the world of the poor. We can think of it in three forms: they offer us a way to overcome dehumanization, they offer positive elements of humanization and they invite us to universal solidarity.

When evil is structural, one has to “redeem” it

Historically the poor are victims, and as such also give the liberation process a redemptive quality. Monsignor Romero, with no attempt at theological precision but with intuitive certainty, said in his December 24, 1978, homily: “Christ wanted to do his redemptive teaching among the poor.” In what follows, we aren’t going to use the term redemption in its usual theological meaning, but as an ingredient of historic liberation.

The term redemption is ignored today, as if it sheds no important light on how to cure a sick world. In the process of salvation it’s necessary to eliminate many evils and fight against the structures that produce them. When the evil is profound, lasting and structural, however, the cure involves destroying its roots.
That task is so difficult that the need for an extraordinary effort has always been intuited. In metaphoric language this has been expressed by saying that “a price must be paid” to cure a sinful world, which is what redemption means etymologically. In other words, we have to add even more burden to the normal work and suffering of producing human goods. In more historic language, we could say that to destroy the roots one has to fight against evil not only from the outside, but also from the inside, prepared for the evil to crush us. Here we have the “plus” suffering, which historically is always related to redemption.

As we have said many times in the presence of violence in its different and dramatic expressions in El Salvador, violence must be battled in different ways. It must be fought from the outside with ideas, negotiations and even, tragically and in limited situations, with other violence, using it in the most humane form possible. But to redeem it, it must also be fought from the inside; in other words one must be prepared to shoulder it. Martyrs of justice such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Monsignor Romero testify to this.

Ignacio Ellacuría said the same, perhaps as a premonition, on September 19, 1989, two months before becoming a victim of that violence. It was a very political speech delivered in the presence of Presidents Oscar Arias of Costa Rica and Alfredo Cristiani of El Salvador and aimed at pushing forward the negotiations. He seemingly added no religious nuance to his words: “The pain and the spilled blood have been great, but the now classic teologumenon nulla redemptio sine efussione sanguinis comes to remind us that people’s salvation and liberation involves painful sacrifice.”

Not the suffering, but who suffers

This thesis needs to be understood well. We aren’t defending any Anselmian argument that suffering is necessary and effective in placating the divinity’s anger and achieving salvation. God doesn’t require sacrifice that brings death to his children in order to achieve salvation, so we mustn’t look there for the excellence of the victims. Our thesis is rather that, by its very nature, their suffering can disarm the power of evil, not magically but historically. This is a way to try to explain conceptually the aspect of salvation in Christ’s suffering on the cross: sin has spent all its strength against him, and is therefore left with no strength. It isn’t that the suffering calms God and makes him benevolent, but that it disarms evil.

Neither do we defend sacrificialism, as if suffering, in and of itself, were good for human beings. We do insist on venerating victims who suffer, because there is much of the fascinans et tremens mystery in them. We also insist on thanking them, because that suffering often accompanies or is the consequence of great generosity and love. We venerate and are grateful for a basic positive reality: true love has appeared in this cruel world and worked against it.

Redemption is still mysterium magnum, but at times a miracle occurs and the mystery appears as mysterium salutis. One can only speak of this with fear and trembling, and above all only with the decision to pledge one’s own life to the work of giving life to the victims. The innocent victims save us by moving us towards conversion, honor with reality, hope and solidarity. At times, miraculously and between horrors, they produce immediate and tangible fruits of salvation, as yeast that humanizes the dough. It’s the miracle of redemption offered and received.

After Auschwitz...

Carlos Díaz says, “In Auschwitz one prisoner denies the other, but Father Kolbe breaks that norm: the prisoner offers his life for the other prisoner, a stranger to him. Although it’s unimaginable to the Enlightenment, so rationalist and reasoning, one can live with loving grace in dialogue with the encouraging light of hope even in Auschwitz, avoiding the desperation of the other prisoners in the punishment cell.”

J. B. Metz, who is not given to ingenuous theodicy, says categorically that “We can continue praying after Auschwitz because they prayed even there....” And Etty Hillesum left writings about what she felt in Auschwitz: “to help God as much as possible.” Here, suffering produced redemption.

The African Great Lakes region is the Auschwitz of today, and incredible humanity has been sparked there as well. As a religious missionary who has spent years in that area of Africa remembers, “It isn’t difficult to praise and sing with complete assurance. The wonder is that the prisoners in Kigali, who today will receive family visitors who at great effort bring them something to eat, bless and give thanks to God. How can they not be the favored and those from whom we must learn to give freely? Today I have received from them. Maybe they don’t realize how much we get from them and how they save us.”

The anonymous and known martyrs of our time

When they signed the Peace Accords in El Salvador in 1992, some insisted that peace was the achievement of martyrs and those who died in battle. But beyond the truth of these well-worn words, the “plus” of the victims’ suffering generated redemption, an offer of humanization, just as in Auschwitz and the African Great Lakes region. In a wartime shelter in El Salvador on the Day of the Dead, some peasants prayed for their murdered relatives and also for those who killed them.

They said, “You know? We believe our enemies should also be on the altar. They’re our brothers despite killing us. You already know that the Bible says it’s easy to love our neighbor, but God asks us to love our persecutors, too.” We don’t know if the executioners received that offer of salvation from the victims at some point, or if they accepted it. But the world was impregnated with humanity by this prayer for the executioners and the victims’ other demonstrations of love. It’s capital that shouldn’t be squandered, a great treasure that should be allowed to reproduce.

That treasure is grace. If someone wonders why it should be mentioned when talking about the salvation of a sick society, one hasn’t understood Jesus of Nazareth, or human beings, or the society in which we live, full of sin but also shot through with the victims’ grace. We become human not only by becoming ourselves—often more in wishful thinking—but by letting ourselves become human through others. It’s salvation’s special quality.

These don’t seem to be the times for talking this way. The understandable but dangerous ideal is to save only by creating good, as if evil would disappear by itself without leaving scars and without sin’s specific dynamic of returning to produce death and inhumanity. Therefore, we can’t talk about salvation without keeping in mind the historic necessity of redemption.

This appears clearly when one analyzes what is created by the martyrs of our time. Taken individually, the martyrs who live and die like Jesus, whom we call active martyrs, and those anonymous martyrs and groups of people who suffer a slow death from unjust poverty or die violently in massacres, are today’s great promoters of redemption. And in the strictest sense, the anonymous ones are greater than the known ones, even though at times there’s no clear dividing line between them. They carry the world’s sin, and weaken evil’s roots, even if they can’t destroy them. That’s how salvation works.

That humane “something” that saves us

Faith is necessary for seeing things this way, as in the case of the suffering slave of Yahweh. Sometimes it occurs in verifiable form. The case of Monsignor Romero is paradigmatic. He was persecuted by all kinds of powerful local people and, innocent and undefended, was assassinated by mercenaries in collusion with the empire. He was a bishop who created hope, encouraged a commitment and summoned an unprecedented universal solidarity. Monsignor Romero wasn’t only an individual. I believe we can say that he was the most visible leader of a whole people, who fought against the world’s sin and shouldered it.

Without trivializing the problem of theodicy, and without falling into victimism, we believe there is “something” in victims’ immense pain that can cure our world. We approve Ivan Karamazov’s gesture: to return the entrance to a heaven to which one would have to ascend to recover lost harmony. But we accept the entrance to a destroyed earth, to which one must descend to find “something” of humanity. Seeking suffering to find salvation would be blasphemous. But given the victims’ suffering, it’s arrogant not to open oneself to their potential for salvation and let oneself be welcomed by them.

We have to listen here to the criticism of Moltmann: “It seems to me that it is not correct to speak of the ‘crucified people’ who ‘take away the sin of the world’ and in this way ‘redeem the world.’ With that one does no more than glorify and religiously eternalize people’s suffering. People don’t want to save the world with their suffering; they want finally to be redeemed from their suffering and have a humanely dignified life.”

The last sentence seems right to us, but it doesn’t necessarily make false the statement that poor people, just by being poor, introduce salvation into history. Where I would agree with Moltmann is in rejecting a mechanical relationship between suffering and salvation.

Redemption is necessary. “Linking humanity’s future to the destiny of the poor has become a historical necessity. Only the victims can redeem it.” And it’s possible. As on Christ’s cross, history shows that we can unify suffering and complete love. Then love saves.

It has been a process outside the church,
apart from the world, apart from the poor

We could have written all the above without mentioning the statement extra pauperes nulla salus. This doesn’t appear in current or progressive theology, or even as a formulation in liberation theology, although it is consistent with it. We use it because it has theological roots to the extra ecclesiam nulla salus of Orígenes and Cipriano, and because it radically states the problem of place as a requirement for finding salvation.

After Vatican II, Edward Schillebeeckx wrote extra mundum nulla salus: there’s no salvation apart from the world, which came to replace the traditional formula. By this he meant that the world and human history, where God wants salvation to work, are the basis of all faith’s reality. In the world, one reaches salvation or is consumed by hell. In this sense, it’s true that extra mundum nulla salus. In this way, the Dutch theologian made the cut or fracture that had operated in the Second Vatican Council productive in analyzing salvation’s place. The new formula overcame the strict interpretation and also implies that the world is a place of salvation, that salvation isn’t only religious, but has a historical and social dimension.

This break was an epochal novelty, comparable only to the Council (or assembly) of Jerusalem in the first century, where it was proclaimed that salvation is possible for all human beings without having to pass through Judaism, which at the time meant the end of the exclusivity of the Jewish religion. Karl Rahner said with good reason that Vatican II had been the most important Council in Church history since the Jerusalem Council.

Shortly afterwards, around Medellín, an even larger caesura occurred, a cut that also affected the understanding of salvation and its place. Medellín was one of the most—if not the most—important fruits of the Council, but it also went beyond it. The fundamental advance consisted of remitting faith and the Church now not to the world, but to the poor. The same thing happened with theology. As an intellectual mission, it granted the hermeneutic privilege to the poor; i.e. the capacity to understand realities and texts from their point of view. That’s what liberation theology did. As far as content, it placed it in relation to the poor.

A countercultural theological statement

The Latin American Bishops’ Conference in Medellín proclaimed “the Church of the poor,” which had remained inchoate in Vatican II after the unsuccessful attempts of John XXIII, Cardinal Lercaro and Monsignor Himmer, bishop of Tournai (primus locus in Ecclesia pauperibus reservandus est). In theology’s highest moment, Monsignor Romero reformulated Ireneo’s sentence: Gloria Dei vivens pauper (The glory of God is that poor people live). From the poor, Monsignor Romero reformulated the mystery of God. And I think we still haven’t assimilated all the audacity and newness in that, relegating his words to an embellishing rhetorical resource. When theology asks itself with all radicalness for the place to find God, Porfirio Miranda responded, “The question isn’t if someone is seeking God or not, but if he is seeking him where he himself said he was.” In the poor people of this world.

It’s a countercultural formula, because the world of the rich thinks it already possesses “salvation” and the ways to get to it, precisely by not being the world of the poor. It doesn’t occur to those of the wealthy world that “salvation” can come from outside and even less from the poor. Saved or condemned, it says, “we are what’s real.”

It’s also a formula that can’t be defended when confronted with the objections that history and reason present, but it’s necessary, at least as revulsive given a society suffering a “humanist and moral disaster.” One doesn’t need to discredit it because the mysterium iniquiatis is also present among the poor. The fathers also called the Church the casta meretrix, prostitute caste. The Church is not, then, a place of salvation because there’s no sin there, but because Christ and his spirit are there, which will always produce life and sanctity, an operative form of expressing faith. Something rather similar can be said of the world of the poor, although here faith becomes analogous. There will always be something of spirit in the poor, despite their crude reality. And what is not only a possibility, but is essentially affirmed, is that there will always be something of Christ in the poor.

“Mysterium iniquitatis”: bad and evil

First, to avoid accusations of ingenuousness, we recognize mysterium iniquitatis in the world of the poor. There are deficiencies that reinforce the selfishness of all human beings and contamination of the imagination with the offers coming from the North (although the poor have every right to enjoy civilization’s goods within their reach). And there is evil: abuses, rapes, raw machismo, scams, mutilations, killings... at times, authentic human catastrophes.

In recent times, poor people have been among the members of both security corps and grassroots organizations. Monsignor Romero lamented bitterly that the need to survive, which united the poor, also separated them, even to the point of killing each other. This occurs now to a horrifying degree of aberration with youth gangs: basically poor people killing each other. Fourteen years after the Peace Accords in El Salvador, a country of some six million inhabitants, there is an average of twelve homicides a day.

Mysterium iniquitatis is the tragedy of Rwanda and the African Great Lakes region, with the secular responsibility belonging to the North and its current insensitivity, but also to the African people. Melquisedek Sikuli, the Congolese bishop, recognizes as such after enumerating the immense problems destroying his country in the wake of the sin of colonialism: misery, injustice, displaced people, raped women and sacked villages. But it doesn’t mask their own evil, illustrated by the drama of the child-soldiers, although compassion toward so much suffering moves one to look for some type of explanation. The bishop defenselessly cites some words from Kouroma’s book, Allah Is Not Obliged: “When one has no one in the world, not father, mother or sister, and one is only a child, in a ruined and barbarous country, where everyone is killing each other, what do you do? You become a child soldier to eat and to kill: it’s all that’s left to us.”

No idealizing, but also no hypocrisy when the world of abundance recalls, with a poorly masked air of superiority, the horrors of the world of the poor, basically to avoid taking seriously their own atrocities: Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Gulag, Vietnam, Iraq, national security regimes... What certainly remains is the question “Why, Lord; why?”

Mysterium salutis: Primordial sanctity

But it’s also true that among the poor, those who have suffered so much under the oppression and repression in our country, in Central Asia, in Africa’s Great Lakes region, there are mothers who, after a catastrophe, walk hundreds of kilometers in long caravans with children by the hand and everything they have on top of their heads looking for shelter. There are people sick with AIDS who want to die with dignity. Others are fighting against the oppression in various ways. They are capable of resisting and of celebrating.

There are stories of cruelty and misery in prisons and refugee camps. But what’s incredible is that there are also stories of love, hope, longing to live and help oneself, of grassroots religious and civil organizing to be able to say what they need to and maintain their dignity. Teresa Florensa, a nun who worked in the African Great Lakes region, writes: “These human beings continue to be humanity’s discards. We are overpopulated by millions of people in this world. No one knows what to do with them and they are conscious that they don’t matter to anyone. They carry stuck to their skin a whole history of suffering, humiliation, terror, hunger and death. Their dignity is wounded. But this work with the Great Lakes refugees is also an invitation to trust in human beings, in their capacity to overcome the worst conditions.”

For the non-poor in the wealthy world, this can pose a challenging question: “What have you made of your brother?” It should produce respect and veneration. We’ve used the term primordial sanctity to describe the longing to survive, to live in community with others even in the midst of great suffering, the work to achieve it with creativity, dignity, resistance and limitless strength, defying immense obstacles. We don’t say what liberty or necessity it contains, what virtue or obligation, what grace or merit, compared with official sanctity. It doesn’t have to be accompanied by heroic virtues, but is expressed in a heroic life. That primordial sanctity invites us to give, to receive and to celebrate with others the joy of being human.

I have wondered if that evil and that sanctity are the same as those of the wealthy world, and I think there are differences, at least as far as it affects me personally. The evil of the world of the poor seems “less” evil, because it’s pushed by the need to survive and the desperation of a life of chronic misery. Freedom, or crumbs of it, always remain, but in the midst of defenselessness, weakness and oppression by society and its institutions. The poor have almost all the powers of this world against them. For that reason, it isn’t easy for me to accept a complete historical symmetry between the poor and the non-poor.

Sanctity from below seems “holier.” Freely paraphrasing Kant in Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, where he distinguishes between “price” and “dignity,” I think the culture of “price” tends to be imposed, albeit with dignity, in the wealthy world, while in that of the poor “dignity” predominates. Jesus said that the poor widow had given more than the rest because she had given from her poverty. She had given everything. The difference isn’t of quantity, but of quality. The poor don’t have money, but they can give of themselves more inherently.

The poor will save the world

We perceive God through the poor. Let’s say it in words much loved by Gustavo Gutiérrez. In the midst of the suffering of the innocent, the Peruvian theologian asks himself ‘how to speak of God from Ayacucho,’ a city that in Quechua means ‘corner of the dead.’ Job, Ivan Karamazov and Jesus on the cross are calling for God. And amid the poor, Gutiérrez responds with the well-known verses of the poet César Vallejo: “The lottery vender who shouts ‘the one for a thousand’ contains I don’t know what essence of God.” He’s responding to the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross: “Truly this man was the Son of God.” He has found God. The poor defer to God, because God is in them, at the same time hidden and manifest. The poor are “Christ’s vicars.”

As the V Bishops’ Conference in Aparecida nears, I end by offering some words from Ignacio Ellacuría, which illuminate what the work of the Latin American churches should be. It’s a text about the preferential option for the poor. It’s also about the option to let ourselves be saved by them. “The great holy task is to evangelize the poor so that from their material poverty they reach the conscience and spirit necessary, first to get out of indigence and oppression, second, to put an end to the oppressive structures, and third, to set up some heavens and a new earth, where sharing wins out over accumulating, where there’s time to hear and enjoy God’s voice in the heart of the material world and in the heart of human history. The poor will save the world; they are already doing it, although there’s a long way to go. Looking for salvation by another road is a dogmatic and historical error. If this means hoping against hope, it’s a sure bet that it will all be achieved one day. The poor continue to be the great reserve of hope and human spirituality.”

Parts of Father Jon Sobrino’s text, “Extra Pauperes Nulla Salus, pequeño ensayo utópico-profético,” the complete version of which appeared in the September-December 2006 edition of Revista Latinoamericana de Teología (UCA, San Salvador). Editing and subtitles by envío.

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