Chapter 10 - The Culture of Poverty and the Life of Faith

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The problem of poverty is not only economic and political. It is also socio-cultural. Therefore, it is necessary to understand the poor's way of thinking and values, their mentality, and functioning of their social structure sand institutions. On the other hand, it should be realized that the poor do not live in a socio-cultural environment absolutely different from the general society, including that of the powerful and the rich. Therefore, we should examine the general socio-cultural characteristics of community and its specific shape among the poor. In social analysis this socio-cultural issue is often neglected while it is perhaps the key to the understanding of a society. That is the main reason why the Marxist analysis is inadequate.

This approach is also very important for living according to the Gospel, which gives priority to the poor. Any attempt to mediate the Gospel, whether it is called inculturation or contextualization or evangelization, depends on the communication, which can be understood by the people addressed. Therefore, any theology or evangelization which is not sensitive to this issue will certainly fail. This is perhaps the greatest challenge in communicating with the world of the poor.

Considering the above, the following will present a framework and methodology of socio-cultural analysis, which will be clarified by comparing Western and Javanese culture. Then, there will be a specific discussion on the issue of the “culture of poverty”. In this relationship, a theological reflection will pave the way to the Gospel proclamation and its actualization sensitive to those aspects.


Methodical Framework of Cultural Analysis

In connection with the structural and institutional aspects of poverty, a number of basic categories of any socio-cultural analysis (see Basic Categories of Socio-cultural Analysis in Chapter 9 particularly the scheme) have been presented though not in detail. The understanding should be deepened in this chapter by paying special attention to the cultural aspect.

Every culture has two main functions, to interpret and to conduct life (hermeneutical and ethical function). Culture in the broad sense includes non-material aspects (world-view, religion, tradition, values, science and technology) and material ones (technological products, arts, handicrafts, and the like). The hermeneutic-ethical framework, particularly for the non-material aspects is, on one hand, always the heritage of historical collective experience. On the other hand, it shapes the common life in the society: it appears and manifests itself in the social mentality, structures and institutions. Therefore, culture is studied by cultural anthropology as well as sociology.

Without culture as the hermeneutico-ethical system, human beings can neither live nor find emotional security and peace. They will feel be submerged in total chaos. To understand the cultural functions, the following scheme or analytical framework might help.

Invisible/transcendent world (2)


Society/Neighbors (1)



Material World (3)       —    Oneself/Individual (4)

According to this very general and simple analytical framework, every culture can be described based on four relationships, which determine the philosophy and ethics of a social unit or group and, accordingly, shape the socio-cultural and personal identity. In accordance with the interactional pattern and the characteristics of the four relationships, there are unique varieties of culture. The four relationships are the following:

(1) The relationship between human beings and their neighbors in the society: its place and importance and the description of the society.

(2) The relationship between human beings and the invisible (transcendent) world, including the cosmos, the universe and the spirits which can be viewed as a transcendent society in their interaction with human beings.

(3) The relationship between human beings and the physical/material world including the natural environment in the profane sense.

(4) The relationship between the human being as an individual with her/himself as an individual, which is most determinant for personality patterns.

Every concrete socio-cultural research faces a number of methodical problems, which are not easy to solve.

(1) A micro approach will obtain a very concrete and vivid picture but may not easily be generalized. On the other hand, a macro approach will present an abstract picture whose scope is general and wide (the ideal type) and which, therefore, is often felt not relevant to concrete life. However, no other way can be taken to discuss the broad aspect of culture. Therefore, the two approaches should complement each other. Similarly, to avoid misunderstanding all descriptions about Javanese and Western cultures in the following should be understood as a cultural trend and not as an absolute pattern without exception or change.

(2) A similar methodical dilemma is faced in choosing between internal and external views towards the culture under study. Each one has its advantages and disadvantages. The first is superior in that a native person understands his or her own culture more deeply. The second has the advantage that a foreigner often has a sharper view because of his or her less or indirect involvement with the culture. Again, the two approaches should be mutually complementary. A person with enough experience in two or more cultures, whether native or foreigner, is normally more capable of doing this work.

(3) Inter-cultural comparison is very helpful in understanding a culture when based on an open and appreciative attitude toward the culture of the partner. Such a comparison should always start with the description of the culture be as objective as possible, and in general present only several outlines of the macro approach. Only when based on such analysis can we try to have an evaluation (see The Problem of “Value-Free” in Social Sciences in Chapter 5), from the viewpoint of development. This inter-cultural comparative method assumes an inter-cultural dialogue, at least in the mind of the researcher who should consult native resources and interpret the information. On the other hand, this method can be a gateway to start a real and deep inter-cultural dialogue between people of different cultures.

An Attempt of the Comparison Between the Javanese and Western cultures

A comparison between the Javanese culture (which in many cases is similar to other cultures in Indonesia and South East Asia) with Western culture (particularly of the West and North Europe) is an immense task requiring a long description, which could take many volumes. The following description, truly general and simple, is meant to illustrate the methodical explanation mentioned above and motivate thoughts and reflections about cultural analysis. Notes about the methodical problems should be attended to in reading this comparison. In addition, the framework can show that the powerful and the rich as well as the poor principally live in the same culture, which shapes their behavior and actions, however, differently.

According to the analytical framework, the Javanese culture can be characterized as social-religious. This means that the relationship with neighbors and the invisible world is prioritized while the relationship with the physical world and one’s self is far weaker. If there is a conflict between the four values mentioned above, the last two values will normally lose out. The sequence can be understood only when based on the background of the world picture in the Javanese culture, namely a universal cosmos with a harmonious hierarchical and collective order. The cosmos includes both the invisible world and nature as well as the visible world and the society. All have certain and appropriate places. Therefore, the society is ordered hierarchically and collectively and the stratification is harmonious: there is a hierarchy of the powerful (wong gedhé) and there is also a collective life of the powerless (wong cilik).

The Javanese identity and personality is manifested in the internal sensitivity (rasa), which feels its way in the cosmic and social structure. This is so in order to identify one’s right place and role and adapt oneself to the existing harmony. This refined attitude (halus) will bring about spiritual happiness and peace. On the other hand, a rude attitude (kasar), which puts too much emphasis on the material world and oneself, disturbs the harmony and will eventually be in vain and lead to failure. This religious-social ethos is a wisdom morality in accordance with the individual’s place and role. Such a culture is called a shame culture in the sense that a guilty feeling arises when one feels ashamed towards other people or the society. This individual-material ethos is seen as one’s moral obligation. Such a culture is called guilt culture, which means that a guilty feeling arises because one realizes that he or she has violated his or her own obligation, whether known or not by others.

On the contrary Western culture can be characterized as individual-material, in the sense that one’s relationship with oneself and the material world is prioritized while one’s relationship with other people and the invisible world is much weaker. This sequence can be understood only when based on the background of the image of the world in the Western culture, namely secularization drawing a clear line between the visible world and the transcendent. The result of the Enlightenment process is that nature and society are demythologized, meaning that both nature and the society are no longer considered static and magical but can be examined and enhanced by human beings. This view has produced the technological age, where we witness the development of science and technology and their applications to modern industry and economy. On the other hand, this view also supports human autonomy, which backs up the emergence of reformation, liberalism, democracy, pluralism and human rights. Everything is submitted to human effort and will.

The Western identity and personality is rational in the narrow sense, that is in the framework of its goal and means (Zweckrationalität), and with the belief that individual competition determines one’s fate and place. This pattern, which in a certain sense can be describe as aggressive, is considered to bring about success and prosperity as the sources of satisfaction and happiness.

The background of any culture underlies and manifests itself in a social mentality, structures and institutions. For example, in the Javanese culture we observe the harmony principle to avoid conflicts; respect and loyalty toward superiors; an aesthetic attitude which emphasizes beauty (arts and traditional handicrafts) and physical appearance; an attitude of disinterestedness (sepi ing pamrih) and acceptance (narima); the patron-client structure as seen in patronage of any organization or institution; the personalism structure which emphasizes a personal relationship with anonymous regulations [see Socio-cultural (structural-institutional) Approach in Chapter 9] and has supported corruption; various magical practices to satisfy spirits; various religious-mystical practices such as kebatinan (Javanese mysticism),slametan (traditional meals), wayang (the puppet show) and gamelan (the Javanese orchestra); the Javanese language with the existing speech levels; and many other customs such as tata krama (social “grammar”), musyawarah (communal consultation and consensus),gotong royong (communal work and help), kerja bakti (communal work and service).

As illustrations of the manifestation of Western culture in social mentality, structures and institutions, we can mention the principle of personal achievement in social competition; critical and straight forward attitudes in interactions with other people; structures which prioritize anonymous regulations (laws, bureaucracy) in the society; functional job distribution; commercialization of all aspects of life; special institutions for various social duties such as nursing homes and various insurances.

If the two cultures are to be compared and evaluated from a historical point of view including the criteria for causing suffering (see Notion and Goal of Development in Chapter 7), both are ambivalent. None is superior, in every aspect. It can be stated that cultural superiority is generally the weakest point this means that there is always a danger that superiority will be placed in such an absolute position that it will become a threatening problem.

Religiosity in the Javanese culture, for example, can prevent human pride and can maintain respect for the universe, but it can also paralyze personal initiatives because one has to accept his or her fate and respect various irrational and magical practices. Similarly, hierarchical social patterns can help regulate and solidify the society but they can also promote the attitude of waiting for a superior’s order or loyalty, which often enhances an authoritarian political system. A social pattern which prioritizes social relationships can be manifested in too strong a solidarity and collective attitude which kills entrepreneurship.

Emphasis on individuality in the Western culture, can promote the spirit of achievement and initiative but it can also be reduced to individualism and even mere egocentrism which shows total disregard for other people. Similarly, the pattern of the conquest of nature and the material world enables not only admirable technological and economic development but it can also lead to the exploitation of nature as a mere object and distinction of the human environment.

If superiority in one culture is so dominant that other basic relationships are ignored, it is not uncommon that the negative aspect of other relationships will suddenly be so prominent. Therefore, in a society which respects spiritual values very strong materialism is often observed. In an all-secular society we might find a false religion or a religious sect, which only exploits human beings. Such symptoms show that any culture needs basic harmony among the four basic relationships mentioned above without denying their special emphasis.

Conflicts in Cultural Changes

All cultures, particularly in our age, undergo deep changes, which not only lead to new possibilities but also introduce many risks. The influence of new socio-cultural patterns and values due to world globalization through material possessions, technological transfer, advertisements and mass media, contain challenges to look for new cultural identities, namely integration and synthesis between the existing tradition and new inventions.

The Indonesian culture is in the midst of the process of socio-cultural change which involves also the life of the poor and the powerless. Such a process is accompanied by various conflicts. For example, tension between traditional values and modern ones can introduce intra-personal conflicts as well as inter-personal ones, such as those between generations. However, such a change can also cause social conflict. If the powerful consider themselves modern and thus want urban areas to be free from pedicabs and street vendors because they are not in accordance with the image of metropolitan areas (and disturb their private cars), those values and interests are against the traditional values and economic interests of the powerless.

Another problem of cultural change is the cultural lag, where socio-cultural elements are taken over physically from another culture but interpreted and lived out in the traditional cultural pattern. If a political system, for example, contains many new institutional elements such as the constitution, parliament, general election, and political parties but is still according to a performed traditional understanding and a traditional power pattern, the powerless are confused because on one hand they are invited to adopt democratic and critical attitudes, but, on the other hand, they will be oppressed if they behave according to democratic values [see the case of the Philippines in Socio-cultural (structural-institutional) Approach in Chapter 9]. Similarly, labor unions are able to function according to the goals if they are not manipulated by the employers or politicians. It is important therefore, to pay attention to the problem of transition in any socio-cultural analysis.

“Culture of Poverty” and “Culture of Silence”

All the above descriptions have shown that what is often called “the culture of poverty” is not separated and independent from the general culture. Such a separation will almost indubitably lead to and cause an ideology which explains poverty issues as the result of a culture - or at least a subculture - with separate values, attitudes and behavior patterns responsible for the poor’s failure. Therefore, the upper class cannot do anything except offer charity.

However, “a culture of poverty” or, in Paulo Ferries term, “culture of the dumb” can be understood appropriately and thus can help clarify our insights into this matter. For our goal, we have to reflect on what is called the poor’s specific attitudes in several steps.

(1) The poor seem to have a number of “strange” and seemingly illogical attitudes. They just pay attention to today’s needs and do not think about their future (they never save). They often accept their condition as fate and obey the powerful. They do not want to progress and increase or achieve and avail of new opportunities. This can be seen in the attitude of putting less emphasis on their children’s education. The children themselves often miss classes and finally drop out. They have many children while it is more difficult to build a happy family with many children.

(2) Considering the above, it is not surprising that the upper and middle classes feel that they have very different attitudes. They believe that their status and property are the result of their achievement and hard work. They save for their future, are oriented to progress, and follow the modern world. They send their children to prestigious schools, and they only have as many children as their economic condition can afford. Therefore, all the result of national development and progress are considered as their own achievement and hard work. In their view, the poor, who develop different attitudes, should be pitied but are impossible to be helped to leave the vicious cycle of poverty.

(3) If the poor are truly understood with sensitivity to their viewpoints and interests, we realize that their attitudes are very rational and realistic. They do not think enough about their future because they are concerned with what to eat today. They succumb to their fate and to power because their collective (historical) experience shows that finally they will lose. They cannot improve their lot because their additional savings are always robbed by the more powerful. What is the use of schooling if at school their children learn things, which are useless in their daily life? Similarly, more children for them means more working hands and more earning as well as a guarantee for their old age.

It is obvious therefore, that rationality from the micro perspective of the poor is often different from that in the macro perspective of the national policy. Therefore, the poor are not less rational. On the contrary, it is the powerful who are often irrational and self-deceptive because their wealth is often the result of rich connections, monopoly, and corruption and not because of their hard work. Furthermore, the result of development is achieved through the work of the poor, such as the small farmers in the case of rice self-sufficiency.

(4) A more difficult and complicated problem according to Freire, is that the poor have internalized the powerful's view of them so that they see themselves in the perspective of the powerful and the rich. Such a symptom is called cultural oppression. The powerful rule the cultural world and implant their views in the poor through school education and mass media. Therefore, the poor become “dumb” in the sense that they are not able to express their own true views and interests. Their ideal is to become one of the powerful and the rich.

(5) Based on the analysis, Freire argues that the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed, which includes also the socio-cultural aspect, is a dehumanizing one, which is against human dignity. Both the oppressed poor and the oppressing powerful do not live in accordance with human dignity. This problem cannot be solved if the powerless overthrow the oppressor through revolution. Humanization requires more profound changes, which are difficult to perform.

Freire's well-known method is conscientization through alphabetization. This process is expected to bring about a new awareness among the poor so that they will see more clearly and can voice their own condition and interests. In line with that, the powerful will also need a new awareness, which includes a kind of self-repentance.

Having seen all the steps of our reflection on the “culture of poverty” several conclusions can be drawn. First, we have to be very careful in seeing and judging the poor only from our own perspective or with somebody-else” prejudice. On the contrary, it is very important to listen to the poor themselves not because they are always right and honest but because they are seldom listened to. Secondly, the poor’s environment and socio-cultural patterns, which are never free from their fate as the poor and the oppressed, are important but often-forgotten elements of structural poverty. Thirdly, all political decisions to help the poor - also structurally - will be fruitful if accompanied with efforts of conscientization to enable the poor to help themselves and to benefit from new opportunities. To carry out a conscientization program, there are various methods which should be flexible and suitable to the condition of the poor and their aspiration. Fourthly, conscientization should be based on the experience of the struggles of the poor in the past, such as the farmers” socio-religious protest movements, or paying attention to the stories and myths in the culture. (for example Ratu Adil, the Just King).


Faith and Culture

In Term Clarification (Chapter 6), we have formulated our understanding towards faith and religion. Faith in the religious expression is a way of life which influences people individually and collectively to manifest their submission to God in the concrete social situation. In liberation theologies, for example, the dimension of the active involvement of faith is much emphasized. Faith is perceived as God’s gift, who is present among the poor and the oppressed. Therefore, only in liberation praxis which transforms the life of the poor and the oppressed can the life of faith be united with the Word that identifies himself with them.

Faith is always realized in a certain culture. Similarly, poverty is much related to the socio-cultural reality, where faith is lived. Faith which is concerned with poverty cannot deny the importance of understanding culture. Efforts, which are often called inculturation are always a mediation, an interpretation of Jesus” experiences in certain socio-cultural contexts. Inculturation is a community’s effort to live up to its faith in a concrete culture. Such an effort is not a tactic to convert people to Christianity but a basic theological principle. God is present and working in any culture. Therefore, the life of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus” event, will be enriched and fertilized by an appreciation of and sound communication with any culture.

Though the term “inculturation” is a modern one, we see Christ’s disciples realizing the meaning of the Jesus” event and living it out in their concrete socio-cultural situation. The problems of circumcision, eating unclean animals, and the separation between the rich and the poor in the community were efforts at inculturation when the New Testament was written.

Similarly, when missionaries proclaim the Gospel among other cultures, they try to communicate the Gospel in such a way that it will be understood. The communication of Christian faith has taken place in the simplest form, namely the translation of texts or teaching, and then by a more external adaptation, and indigenization in the life of the community.

Now we have arrived at efforts considered more appropriate, namely inculturation or contextualization by the community to live up to the vision of the Jesus event in their own cultures. Various Christian traditions have made efforts to inculturate and contextualize theology at certain places and times, some more successful than others.

Considering that, on one hand, Jesus” Gospel message is believed to be universal and, on the other hand, inculturation in a certain culture is needed, the tension between universality and particularity cannot be avoided. This tension is not between the application of abstract truths to concrete situations but the fact that the Jesus” event in a certain culture, has universal meaning. Therefore, in the efforts at inculturation such a tension can only be integrated through inter-cultural communication between the witnessing culture and the receiving one. Such inter-cultural communication needs an awareness about each culture. Thus, inculturation needs not only intercultural sensitivity but also communication with one’s own culture or, in other words, intra-cultural communication.

It is seen here that inculturation is not closed or narrow-minded. On the contrary, it requires openness to the historical wealth of the various traditions. Efforts at inculturation need critical respect, both inward and outward. In this critical openness movements of inculturation can free themselves from the constraints of limited historical moments and at the same time develop a critical attitude towards actual on-going performances. In other words, it fosters self-criticism. Only in this way can the transformation of particularity be initiated. This will eventually contribute to transformation at a universal level.

In Chapter 1 we have discussed the meaning of contextual theology in its hermeneutical aspect (interpreting the reality of life in the light of the Jesus” event) and in its ethical aspect (conducting life in the light of the Jesus” event). Inculturation attempts or contextualization are based on faith that the Jesus event as salvation is a gift, which at the same time is a vocation and actual challenge here and now. Any major religion is rooted in and influenced by various cultures. However, religion has its own distinctive features. It is a faith expression of a certain revelation. The specific contribution of religion lies in the hermeneutical and ethical aspects, which are based on critical communication with the reality of culture and the specific source of its faith. Specific recognition of accepted faith is, therefore, not an absolutization of a certain limited tradition. If that happened, we would have only fundamentalism and traditionalism, which would kill any effort at inculturation. The more religion is able to develop a critical relation with its sources and cultural reality, the more inspirational and contributory it will be.

The Ambivalence of Faith and Culture

Inculturation should take the ambivalence of any culture into consideration. The specific contribution of faith and religion is not the blue print of the Gospel and the Christian tradition but the willingness to continuously conduct reinterpretation and reorientation. This does not mean relativizing the Gospel but living it responsibly. The Gospel is never experienced in a culture that is free from the reality of cultural ambivalence.

Take the above example (An Attempt of Comparison Between the Javanese and Western Cultures in Chapter 10). The Javanese culture contains many religious-social patterns. If these develop in line with other aspects, a spirituality develops which integrally contains mystical and political aspects. Spiritual cultivation and eco-social cultivation take place. If this religious-social characteristic is too dominant, the positive value of commitment to deal with the material world will fall short and collectivism will suppress individual rights and growth.

The “Western” individual-material pattern can promote the dignity as the children of God, who continues to create the world. The experience of the relation with God contains personal and material aspects, which are beneficial for public interests. However, if the individual aspect is too dominant and suppresses the others, life will be shallow and fragmentation as well as manipulation of nature will happen.

The dynamics of evangelical faith which accept the presence and action of God in culture and the universe always challenges us to let God be God and not to substitute him for anything or anyone. In the reality of ambivalent culture, the evangelical attitude and conduct are both an affirmation and a confrontation so that the expected transformation will take place. The affirmation is toward the presence and the work of God, while the confrontation is against any power, which tries to remove God. From both we can expect the transformation of life as desired by faith (see also Functions of the Church and Societal Development in Chapter 12 about the relationship between religion and politics).

In Jesus’ life we notice how he affirms various elements in culture and religion. He visited a wedding party and a mourning family; he prayed the psalms and quoted the commandment of love from the Bible. His awareness developed in the context of Jewish culture. However, his specific relation to God also inspired criticism and confrontation against the existing culture and religious practices. In Matthew 5:21-24 we read:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder” and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment”. But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go, first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

In the above quotation, we find Jesus’ confrontation with the religious practices, which supported revenge. He invited the radicalization of love with high appreciation for neighbors. Without appreciation offering services are meaningless and can even block the presence of love and justice.

Such affirmation and confrontation involve all aspects of cultural and religious life. Relationship with the Divine is closely related to social relationship. If the Divine is described as revengeful and violent, the followers of such a religion are less open and exclusive. Violent actions against other people or groups are justified. So too with the relationship with nature. If the Divine is described as present and taking care of the universe, united with the Divine the people are encouraged to cultivate and preserve nature and not to abuse it for their instant benefit. Religious rites, such as offering services, can be reflected on regarding how far they are expressions of an encounter with the Divine in union with others and the universe. Or are they just a tool to justify individual group interests, leading to social or ecological injustice.

Consider, for example, the understanding of harmony. Harmony needs to be analyzed: what value is behind it? It will appear that this label is ambivalent; there is true harmony and there is also false harmony.

In Indonesian history we remember experiencing false harmony during the colonial era. Harmony maintained the status quo by preserving peace and order (rust en orde). Peaceful and harmonious life in the golden era of the colonial power was just a slogan and not a reality. It was a false harmony since imperialism, oppression and exploitation were preserved. Such can take place not only during the colonial era but at any time when injustice is disguised with various harmonious labels.

Achieving harmony is seen for example in movements with inward orientation such as in the groups of kebatinan (mysticism) and also in movements with outward orientation such as social protests and liberation movements for a more human, just, and free social order. There are also movements, which show the union of both orientations, where true harmony includes the micro world (jagad cilik) and the macro world (jagad gedhé). Harmony appears in spiritual-individual as well as in social, and cosmic-religious aspects. In the language often used now, such harmony shows itself in the struggle for justice, peace and the integrity of creation. Such symptoms indicate true harmony, which is not a stagnant and established situation but an ideal, which should be continuously pursued.

The struggle towards true harmony can be described as a responsible effort to create relationships with others and the universe in union with the divine love and power. Such an effort is critical of the existing order; it is dynamic and ever-progressing. Finally, true harmony in the world can never be perfectly achieved. True harmony is believed to be fully met only in the life everlasting. While we are still on the journey we have to beware of false harmony.

Faith and the “Culture of Poverty”

The most difficult aspect of poverty is inculturation into the culture of poverty, which includes accepting the people’s religiosity. In Latin America, for example, 80 % of the population adopt popular Catholicism, which is not limited to the poor and the marginalized. It includes the middle class and the rich as well. It is assumed in the Philippines that 90 % of Catholics practice popular Catholicism and religiously. An important pastoral attitude here is to listen to and to develop cultural values such as a sense of solidarity, patience, perseverance and forgiveness. Thereby, faith grows and develops in the midst of cultural dynamics.

In Indonesia, the problem of the culture of poverty is not mainly related to Catholicism but to the poor and the marginalized, whatever religious traditions they belong to. Our concern is to participate in discovering and developing liberative forces to overcome repressive forces.

In this connection it is important to note that we should not judge the people’s tradition. We should not consider the people’s practice of faith syncretic nor unorthodox. As mentioned above, the problem of inculturation of religious life is that of inter-cultural and intra-cultural communication. In a genuine struggle, what appears to be syncretic is perhaps an integration process of various values, which are not easily discardable. An integration process experiences conflicts towards more profound awareness and actualization. The real concern is how to implement the integration process.

If God has preferential option for the poor, God also has preferential love for the culture of the poor. The culture of the poor, with all its religious experiences and spirituality, is loved by God not because of the greatness of the culture but because it is the culture of the poor and the abandoned, less appreciated and less listened to. Joining God’s actions in history means appreciating, listening to, and trying to understand the culture of poverty.

However, like any other culture, the culture of the poor is also ambivalent. We need critical respect towards their culture and their religious practices. Such an attitude can be realized in dialogue in order to discover which elements liberate and which enslave.

Like cultural symbols and religious practices, poverty is not free from ambivalence either. Both religiosity and poverty are ambivalent. They can both liberate and enslave. Aloysius Pieris (1988:39) shows the poverty and religiosity which liberates and the poverty which enslaves through the following diagram.



Psychological (individual) Dimension

Sociological (socio-political) Dimension

The enslaving face of religion

Superstition, ritualism, dogmatism, et. Transcendentalism (=Manicheism, Docetism, et.)

Tendency of religion to legitimize an oppressive status quo = tendency of religion to serve mammon, anti-God; commercialism

The liberating face of religion

Interior liberation from sin (= mammon, anti-God,tanha [greed], exploitative instinct)

Organizational and motivational potential of religion for radical social change (e.g. independence movements in Asia)

The enslaving face of poverty

Imposed poverty violating the dignity of the human person (alienation)

Poverty as the subjugation of peoples by the slave of mammon (= disinheritance, dispossession, etc., through colonization, multinational corporations, etc.)

The liberating face pf poverty

Voluntary poverty as one’s interior liberation from mammon, i.e. a spiritual antidote (emphasized by Eastern religions)

Voluntary poverty as a political strategy in the liberation of human society from mammon, organized sin (stance of liberation theologians)

Like poverty and religiosity, wealth can also either enslave or liberate. In Amos 5:11, for example, wealth is related to exploitation, oppression and injustice. The rich enrich themselves by exploiting and oppressing others (cf. Am. 2:6). The Gospel of Luke (8.14) shows the danger of wealth, which can lead to self-imprisonment and can shut itself off from the words of God. Wealth is related to ignorance of God (Lk 12:13-21).

However, wealth can be a means of liberation and community building. In Acts (4:32-37) there is mention of a sisterhood and brotherhood where nobody suffered from insufficiency. Because of shared wealth, the poor can eat and the homeless can find shelter.

It can be concluded that material wealth or poverty are not in themselves positive or negative. However, the Gospel as well as the examples set by Christ’s disciples show that a careful attitude towards wealth and voluntary poverty is a God-given way of life (Lk 18:18-27).

Because Christ’s Gospel is good news about God’s actions saving all people by preferential option for the poor, the Gospel can be a means of conscientization. Through our encounter with Gospel’s models, the self-esteem of the poor can be developed. Wherefore the awareness about the meaning and the conduct of the life can grow. In other words, conscientization is no other than discovering the hermeneutical and ethical meaning of the Gospel message.

The problem of living the Gospel in a concrete culture is a continuous process which risks of error, is open to evaluation and reevaluation and so on. It is wrong to immediately judge the efforts towards the contextual living of faith in general and among the poor in particular, as deviant and syncretic. Where openness to reinterpretation and reorientation exists, the signs of true performance can be found. What is needed is to be faithful to discover and to follow the Spirit of God with perseverance and humility.


(1)In GS Article 44 it is emphasized that:

“With the help of the Holy Spirit, it is the task of the entire people of God, especially pastors and theologians, to hear, distinguish and interpret the many voices of our age, and to judge them in the light of the divine word, so that revealed truth can always be more deeply penetrated, better understood and set forth to greater advantage.”
  • How do you perform the task presented in the above GS quotation?

(2)  In OA Article 4, we read:

“The Gospel is not out of date because it was proclaimed, written and lived in a different socio-cultural context. Its inspiration, enriched by the living experience of the Christian tradition over the centuries, remains ever new for converting men and for advancing the life of society. It is not however to be utilized for the profit of particular temporal options, to the neglect of its universal and eternal message.”
  • What is the relation between the evangelical inspiration and socio-cultural context?

(3)  EN Article 20 states:

“The Gospel, and therefore evangelization are certainly not identical with culture, and they are independent in regard to all cultures. Nevertheless, the kingdom which the gospel proclaims is lived by men who are profoundly linked to a culture, and the building up of the kingdom cannot avoid borrowing the elements of human culture or cultures. Though independent of cultures, the gospel and evangelization are not necessarily incompatible with them; rather they are capable of permeating them all without becoming subject to any of them. The split between the Gospel and culture is without a doubt the drama of our time, just as it was of other times. Therefore every effort must be made to ensure a full evangelization of culture, or more correctly of culture. But this encounter will not take place if the Gospel is not proclaimed.”
  • What is the relationship between cultures and the Kingdom of God?

(4) Observing the religious life of the poor, there arise many questions about how they live their faith. To reflect on those questions, the following case might help:

For one entire month a candidate for the priesthood lived among the people in a very poor village. He experienced that in such a situation he was not able to lead a spiritual life like in the seminary. What he did was, from time to time, to say short prayers. After the live-in there was a question:

  • Was he not quite stable in his religious life or were the forms and ways of the spiritual life in the seminary not suitable for such a situation?
  • What is your comment about the above case?

(5) Based on your comment, how would you interpret the life of faith of the poor? Is there any relation between the poverty they suffer and their life of faith?

(6) Which pastoral service is the most suitable for such a situation?




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