Liberation Theology: Seeing Divine Intervention on Behalf of the Poor

Readings for 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time: HAB 1: 2-3; 2:2-4; PS 95: 1-2, 6-7, 8-9; 2 TM 1: 6-8, 13-14; 1 PT 1:25; LK 17: 5-10

Last week’s homily on “Dives and Lazarus” evoked an interesting comment from one of the most faithful and thoughtful readers of this blog. The point of address was a statement in my related reflections on liberation theology, viz. that in the biblical tradition “God passes from being a neutral observer of earth’s injustices to an active participant with the poor as they struggle for justice here on earth.”

In response, the reader commented, “The disheartening truth is that I see no evidence of this ever having been the case in the literal sense. Metaphorically, yes, and in prophetic but unfulfilled texts, but I fail to see even one concrete example. The rich and the poor seem to be equal in that both will have to wait for some nebulous afterlife to receive their reward. Meanwhile, the rich, proverbially, get richer.”

The comment is providentially related to this Sunday’s readings, which address the question of unanswered prayers and the frustration of those who look for evidence of God’s presence in the world and find none. Before I get to that, however, let me respond directly to what the reader said.

To begin with, I agree with his comment in that:

  1. It is often “disheartening” to look for God’s intervention on behalf of the poor (or any of us for that matter) and to see none.
  2. No one will see or ever has seen “literal,” “concrete,” and undeniable evidence of such intervention.
  3. So, in relation to faith and speech about God, metaphor used by “seers” (i.e. prophets gifted with capacity to see what’s opaque to the rest of us) is all we have.
  4. Contrary to biblical tradition, our inherited, domesticated religious culture insists that the rich and poor are equal in God’s eyes and that we must endure obscene wealth disparities till after death.
  5. As a result, wealth disparities flourish; the rich get richer.

So, relative to such observations and according to liberation theologians, what do the seers (those who can see beyond the shadows in our “Plato’s Cave”) tell us about God’s siding with the poor? Just this:

  1. God is Love and has established a loving order with room for everyone. This loving order of Universal Intelligence represents the larger, unchanging dispensation in which we live and move and have our being. It is the world as God created it.
  2. Throughout history, human structures (familial, economic, social, political, etc.) have been set up by the rich and powerful in opposition to the divine order. This is the origin of race-consciousness, nations, borders, latifundial holdings, slavery, poverty and wars. None of these represent the world as it comes from the hand of God, where the world belongs to everyone.
  3. The spokespersons for that other world are the “prophets” who have always been among us pointing out the in-breaking of the Love that is always there (e.g. Krishna, the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Marx, Gandhi, King, Greta Thunberg . . .) Uniformly, they point out the opposition between the order of Universal Intelligence and the “wisdom of the world;” they indicate where Love is manifesting Itself; they invite the rest of us to “see” and to align with Love’s order.
  4. Those who listen to the prophets are the indispensable agents of Universal Intelligence for the “salvation” of humanity from the inevitable destructive results of the world’s “wisdom.” They are everywhere for those with eyes to see.
  5. In the end, however, Love’s order will prevail regardless of human activity; it alone is Real; the rest is illusion and doomed to pass.

With that in mind, please turn your attention to today’s liturgy of the word. You can find the readings here. In the meantime, what follows are my “translations.” As you’ll see, they directly address unanswered prayers and Love’s order as decreed by Universal Intelligence.

 HAB 1: 2-3; 2:2-4
 
I’ve been praying
Dear God,
For your Kingdom to come,
For violence to cease
For relief from our misery.
Yet you seem deaf
To my pleas.
After all,
Wars continue
Violence increases
Everyone’s at
Each other’s throat.
What should I think?
 
Only this:
(And write it in stone!)
My timetable,
My order
Is vastly different
From yours.
What’s invisible,
What seems delay to you
Is always there
And perfectly timely for me.
So, be patient
Keep your commitment
To my just order.
My answer to prayer
Is never late.
It’s omnipresent.
 
PS 95: 1-2, 6-7, 8-9
 
I have heard your response,
Dear God
I’m thankful and happy
For the reminder.
Your words
Are solid as rock.
It’s true:
You know far more
Than us.
You have never
Let us down.
I will therefore not ever
Lose faith
Against your
Proven fidelity.
 
2 TM 1: 6-8, 13-14
 
Such words of response
Are wise.
They are the expression
Of a Holy Spirit,
Within us all.
It can set
The world ablaze
With love.
It is courageous
And disciplined,
It expresses the
Strength of God.
It enables us
To endure even prison
And hardships
Of all kinds.
It is the very Spirit
Of Jesus, the Christ.
 
1 PT 1:25
 
We’re happy to say that
We share
Such enduring faith
With sisters and brothers
Past and present.
What joy to live
In such holy company!
 
 
LK 17: 5-10
 
When Jesus’ followers
Prayed for stronger faith,
He reminded them
That even a little bit
Can change
Expectations profoundly.
Never forget, he said,
That you are not in charge;
Love is.
You are only Love’s servants.
God is not
Your errand boy
Beholden to
Culturally-shaped
Plans and needs.

With those readings in mind, i.e. when we allow God’s word to open our eyes and ears, when we listen to the prophets (God’s spokespersons), we see concrete manifestations of God’s presence and siding with the poor everywhere. Right now, they’re evident, I think, in:

  1. Nature Itself: Regardless of human efforts to obscure and deny the divine, its presence calls constantly to us in events so close to us and taken-for-granted that they’ve become invisible. I’m thinking about the sun, the ocean, trees, the moon, stars, wild flowers – and our own bodies whose intelligence performs unbelievable feats each moment of our lives.
  2. Liberation Theology: This rediscovery of God’s preferential option for the poor has changed and is changing the world. One cannot explain the pink tide that swept Latin America during the 1970s, ‘80s, and 90s – not Brazil, Argentina, Nicaragua, Venezuela – without highlighting the inspiration provided by liberation theology. Neither can one explain the rebellion of the Muslim world against western imperialism without confronting Islam’s inherent liberating drive – again on behalf of the disenfranchised, impoverished, and imperialized.
  3. Contemporary Social Movements: Think Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the Sunrise Movement, Yellow Vests, Standing Rock, the Green New Deal, and prophetic figures like (once again) Greta Thunberg, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, and Pope Francis with his landmark climate encyclical Laudato si’ . All of these movements and figures stand on the side of the poor and are having their effect.
  4. Marianne Williamson’s Campaign: Of all the current candidates for president, Marianne Williamson most articulately and faithfully bases her “politics of love” on the five prophetic insights referenced above. The mere fact that she is actually running for president signals an actual and potential awakening of American consciousness far beyond what’s (thankfully) portended even in the candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Martin Luther King once famously said that the moral arc of the universe is long, but that it bends towards justice. “Justice” in his vocabulary meant overcoming the laws and social structures crafted by the rich and powerful to keep the poor in their place. King (and Malcolm as well) was a practitioner of African-American liberation theology. As such, he was gifted with eyes to see differently — to see the Judeo-Christian tradition as revealing a God on the side of the poor.

That’s what our Sunday liturgies of the word reveal consistently. This week is no exception. It invites us to open our eyes.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 44 years. Three grown children. Five grandchildren.

5 thoughts on “Liberation Theology: Seeing Divine Intervention on Behalf of the Poor”

  1. The disappointment stemming from seemingly unanswered prayers derives from false ideas about “God”. We have imagined and projected a Deity who on the one hand has very human qualities, and on the other hand has magical attributes of omniscience and omnipotence. This God rewards us by granting our desires, or punishes us for disobeying Him. These ideas are completely human creations, but are passed on within our culture as indisputable facts.
    What if Divinity is a non-local field of being, consciousness, and unconditional love, underlying and giving rise to everything in existence? Then realizing and harmonizing consciously with this reality would be the goal and ultimate fulfillment of human life. No more angry and unpredictable “God” to placate and wheedle favors from.

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    1. Beautifully said, Mike, as usual. It’s what I was trying to get at in today’s reflection. That is, my own faith coincides with what you say here. Thanks for sharing these profound thoughts with us all. I can always depend on you for this sort of clarification.

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  2. I appreciate that you took the time to respond to my comments on last week’s homily.
    I also agree with Mike k that all too often (always?) we have projected human traits onto our conception of God. For example, here where I live we have been experiencing a lengthy drought (I am a farmer) and last night a life-giving rain arrived that continues as I type. I have no doubt (mostly because I recall offering, in open church, a similar prayer in the summer of 1977) that area churches have been offering prayers for rain and that they will see this weather as answered prayers.
    And who is to say they’re wrong? It seems to me a very “Old Testament” deity would in fact withhold needed rain purposefully and then deliver it in response to human entreaty. That’s precisely how a humanly designed or conceived God would behave. Coming from a Protestant (Disciples of Christ then Southern Baptist) tradition that says God knows what you need better than you know yourself, I may well lack the mystical approach that the RC tradition has fostered, which then leads me to look for/seek “concrete” results.
    I do firmly believe, as I think I said earlier, that the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth is a guide to the design of a functional human society (positing that all previous designs have been/are dysfunctional). I just fail to see any evidence of divinity in the workings of history. Today’s rain is Biblically falling on both the just and the unjust. 😇
    Edit:
    You may note that my email address (and my farm name) is taken from a poem by the priest Gerard Manley Hopkins. While I haven’t seen the “evidence” that I mentioned this and last week, I, like Hopkins, am still looking for it.
    Thanks for being a part of that search.

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  3. Dear Larry Swartz – I just read your comment on Mike’s previous entry about Dives & Lazarus. When you write that my recommendation of meditation might lead to self-deception, I agree. However if one persists in the practice of inviting inner silence, without expecting any particular outcome, sometimes inner experiences come which are very convincing. This is my interpretation (and experience) of the biblical injunction to be still and know that I am God. This may take some time (years in my own case).
    I also wonder if you have ever considered that your own demands for material proof of the existence of a higher power, might also involve a degree of self deception? When we expect our ordinary ideas of proof to be adequate to process a reality beyond our usual expectations, we may screen out experiences which give evidence of dimensions beyond our previous experience. I was once perhaps more of a total atheist than you say you are, but undeniable experiences on the spiritual path finally convinced me that my hardened ideas of what constituted the one and only reality, needed to be greatly expanded.
    I admire your searching spirit Larry. Keep looking, there are stranger things to find than perhaps you can imagine!

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