Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (I Kings 17) transports me to a deeply impoverished and mud-plagued suburban slum in Brazil, mid 1960s, where Father Pedro Arrupe of the Society of Jesus had gone on a trip from Spain to celebrate mass. The church in this favela was a patched together, rickety structure, dirt floor, open doors allowing dogs and cats to freely roam in and out. But Father Arrupe found some of the most moving and devoted believers he had ever encountered. He distributed communion to people who had tears running down their faces, and then offered a sermon in dialogue, listening as much as talking, soaking in their experiences and insights. After the service, Pedro Arrupe had an encounter that made a profound impact on him: At the end a big fellow, whose fearful looks could have inspired fear, told me: “Come to my house. I have something to honor you.” I remained uncertain, not knowing whether I should accept or not, but the priest who was accompanying me said: “Go with him, Father; the people are very good.” I went to his house, which was a half-falling shack. He made me sit down on a rickety chair. From where I was seated the sun could be seen as it was setting. The fellow said to me: “Señor, see how beautiful it is!” And we remained silent for some minutes. The sun disappeared. The man added: “I did not know how to thank you for all that you have done for us. I have nothing to give you, but I thought that you would like to see this sunset. It pleased you, didn’t it? Good evening.” He then gave me his hand. As I was leaving, I thought: “I have met very few hearts that are so kind.” Soon after this visit, Pedro Arrupe took leadership of the Jesuits as he was elected the 28th Superior General of the Society in 1965. Three years later, in a letter to the Jesuits of Latin America, he wrote of God’s preferential option for the poor, a phrase which made its way into Catholic social doctrine and which some scholars mark as the genesis of liberation theology (a theology that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger worked long and hard to discredit and continued railing against when he became Pope Benedict XVI).
Of course, it’s hard to actually mark the exact beginnings of something like liberation theology, a movement which defined the presence of the church in war-torn and impoverished Latin America throughout the decades of the 70s and 80s, and continues to be one of the strains of Christian practice there and throughout the developing world. The Jesuits could go back and trace an emphasis on human rights and social justice and a divinely inspired preferential option for the poor (although that particular phrase was not used prior to Arrupe) to their founder, Ignatius of Loyola. And Ignatius could trace it back to biblical foundations, to the teachings of Jesus, such as in his inaugural sermon in Luke 4. And of course Jesus would trace it back further, to Isaiah who had prophesied a spiritual outpouring that would bring bring good news to the poor and liberation to the oppressed. And Isaiah could have traced it back further, to the earliest prophets, such as Elijah, who made his own sojourn to a foreign favela to experience communion with a poor widow, a story Jesus included in that inaugural sermon in his hometown synagogue. And Elijah would trace it back to the beginnings of the covenant community, when the Hebrew slaves gained liberation from the Egyptian empire, and made their journey to the land of promise. A theology of liberation indeed has many roots, deep and wide, throughout the history of the faith community.
I am learning a lot about liberation theology and the way it contrasts with traditional missional theologies from my friends in Cuba. In traditional missions, churches in wealthy and privileged countries send aid to help poor and underprivileged countries. My friends in Cuba can recount a long missionary history that went along these patronizing lines and created uncomfortable dependencies. The Cubans are eager to avoid those mistakes as they create new partnerships with churches here. The new partnerships are marked by a common commitment to mutuality. Last year, in a conversation among leaders of the Fraternity of Baptists in Cuba and the Alliance of Baptists in the US, Javier Pérez, president of the Fraternity, spoke of the need for each side of the partnership to be able to recognize and articulate its own poverty, as well as its own wealth. Some poverty, like some wealth, is material, while some is spiritual; some is cultural; some is educational. Having a partnership of respect and mutuality allows each side to come to the relationship acknowledging its need, as well as its abundance, in a mutual sharing and receiving of resources and blessing. Being in a liberation theology centered relationship means that in addition to these personal exchanges, we are also working together to change the conditions that cause these respective poverties. This all reminds me of one of the best and most engaging conversations around politics and theology I’ve ever had, in the home of a Cuban Baptist named Samuel, who lives ten or fifteen miles outside the city of Matanzas. We were on his back porch one Sunday evening, sipping Havana Club and waiting for the beans to finish cooking, talking about the politics of poverty, when he suddenly broke the conversation to lead me to the front porch. We sat in rocking chairs and watched the most magnificent sunset I have ever seen. He said he had been eager to share with me one of his favorite pleasures in life. We sat in silence for a few minutes. I have met very few hearts that are so kind.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.