A Liberation from Poverty In the Context of Redemption

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Monika Hellwig

Monika Hellwig is Professor of Theology at Georgetown University. She has lectured widely in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and South America. She has written more than a dozen books and numerous journal articles.


One of the questions that arises therefore is: How do we understand redemption and what has it got to do with the kind of liberation, the kind of release, the kind of rescue that so many people in our world are really looking for? You know, as well as I do, that not only do we have massive poverty in the world today, but it is increasing. The suffering of the poor is increasing, and the number of those who suffer is increasing, and there is no doubt that it is because of the shape of our economies, our political structures and the values that are dominant in our culture.
In our theological stance, we have to ask, Redemption from what? Redemption for what? And we have an answer that has become too easy. And the answer is redemption from sin, redemption for reconciliation with God. It is too easy because sin can be a word that is quite remote from our experience in the world. It's a "churchy" word, it's a special word that belongs to a special universe of discourse.
When we ask what we mean by redemption from sin, I think the important thing is to go first to the bible and to ask, In scripture, what are they talking about when they talk about sin? We find that they are referring not to a specific culpable action of individuals, but to a state of alienation, a disorientation, a condition in which things are not in harmony with their creator; a condition in which the human community is not really responding to what they are created to do, to be, and become. This is very important because it means that in the Scriptures, sin is not directly related to individual culpability, individual rift. It is related rather to a disorientation of a condition of affairs. In fact, not only in the Scriptures but also in the early Church and for several centuries, the understanding of sin was related to the change that people experienced in adult baptism.
The change is experienced, as coming from the pagan world into the Christian community. And so the catechesis at that point would introduce the newcomers to two ways of life: the way of death and the way of life. The way of darkness and the way of light. The way of darkness is confusion, fear, bad relations in society, adulteries and killings and oppression and hatred. The way of light, which is also a way of light when you can see what you're doing clearly, is a way of friendship, of mutual support, of community, of caring for others, of fostering the life of those who are fragile. We have testimonies in the Didache, and in a number of holy documents, that this is how they instructed the newcomers about two different ways of life. And it is true that they were invited to repent of specific actions, but that was only part of the picture and it was set inside the larger picture of a society that focused on God's power in such a way that the society lived in harmony. As you remember from the Acts of the Apostles, a key point of that was sharing resources with those in need, that in their communities, none should go hungry. Another key point was that nobody was more important than anybody else. Everybody counts. Another key point was once you are in a community, you are called to go beyond ethnic rivalries, beyond social classes, beyond economic oppression or deprivation. This was very basic to their understanding.
So what happened? Because we did not keep that sense of what sin is and what the way of light is, in fact we did not keep it very well over the centuries, because of alienation from the original culture which was Hebrew, which was more akin to the Asian than the European, the Roman or the Greek. Because of the alienation from the original culture, many of the concepts were not fully understood when the evangelizing, the preaching of the Gospel, moved among the barbarian nations of the north. One of the things that happened was that sin came to be understood in very individual terms and in terms of specific culpable actions.
By the year 1215, when the practice of sacramental confession as we have known it was established, sin was identified in terms of how culpable the individual was for specific actions. Theologians discussed what kind of penalties and compensations had to be imposed to put it right. The problem with that is this: so many things that have caused suffering are simply set aside as irrelevant because we could not point to an individual person who can be called culpable. So many of the great sufferings of the human community are just left as though they were God's fault, as though they were the will of God, as though the oppressed, the poor and the suffering could be told from the pulpit: Accept this situation, it is God's will! But this is simply not the truth. The truth is that most of the mass suffering of the human community can be traced to human activity through the centuries, through the generations—activities of conquest, of enslavement, of harsh bargains against people with less bargaining power. It can be traced to the filching away of land from farmers, to the chasing of less powerful communities into the desert, into the rocky places.
We can look at history and see what has caused the mass suffering of our own time. We can look and see what is causing the increasing impoverishment of large masses, at the same time that more and more wealth and resources are concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Thanks to modern communications and the methods of the modern social sciences, we are able to study the mechanisms of impoverishment more clearly and we have become more responsible. There were times in history when ordinary people could shape the society they were in. Most people just accepted the way things were. A few people, governors, tyrants could make some impressive changes just by a word of command. But most people could make very little change. We are in a different time. We are in a time of almost universal democracy, where there are channels by which ordinary people do have some impact. We're in a time where we know our purchasing, investment, and consumption patterns.
We have lost a certain innocence that went with naiveté. We have become more responsible. We have come into the realization that human beings are shaping all kinds of conditions for life that we might, in the past, have thought God shaped. We thought they were simply inevitable. Because of these we have in some sense, those of us who have become cognizant of these, come full circle, back to something like the biblical sense of sin.
There has been debate in our time about the concept of sinful structures and some have said that it is nonsense. Sin applies to people, not to structures. But as we have become cognizant of the mechanics by which people become oppressed, impoverished, and excluded, we have to say that the structures of society that put them there, that hold them there, are the cumulative behavior of human beings. Structures don't have an existence of their own. They are the predictable patterns of behavior of human beings. And if they are the behavior of human beings, then we are responsible for the way we behave even if it is happening in very large numbers, in very complicated patterns of organization.
Ultimately, these things do not run themselves. We do them, and to the extent that we are doing them, we can undo them. It may be very difficult, it may be very complicated, it may call for the concerted efforts of many people. It may call for the expertise of many different people, from very different academic disciplines and practical competencies. With the shift in our understanding of sin in general there has come a series of questions about the concept of original sin. The concept of original sin begins, of course, with a difficult story. It begins with the story of Genesis 3 and it asks, where does evil and confusion come from? The story you know so well is about the serpent and the tree and Eve and Adam. The story is saying that wherever evil comes from, it couldn't come from God. But on the other hand evil seems more powerful than individual people. And so the story says, it seems to come from outside of us although we don't know how. It talked about the serpent, and if you have to draw the serpent, I think you have to draw it like a question mark.
Where does the evil come from? We don't understand, but we do understand that it seems to be more powerful than we are, individually. The figure of Eve, like the figure of other female characters in Scripture, represents always not just the woman, but the collectivity, the people, the tradition, the nation. In the case of Eve, we have a very subtle answer to the question of evil. Wherever it comes from, whether from the question mark serpent, what is clear is that when the individual comes upon the scene, comes into the world, society hands on the temptation. The source of life, mother of the living, is not only a woman, it is in the story, society, tradition, culture, the whole community. When the individual comes on the scene, the community already passes on a distortion.
Out of that we build the doctrine of original sin. And what is the important thing that the doctrine of original sin is saying to us? It is saying that you cannot accept the existing values, laws, and expectations of society as simply coming from God. You will have to question them because there is an element of unrightness, an aspect of distortion in them. We are saying that when we talk about the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ as being good news of redemption, we are talking about being set free from a state of affairs that isn't right.
The new insight about sin and redemption is that there is the possibility of transformation of individuals and their awareness and attitudes, but also transformation in the ways we relate to one another, and therefore, transformation of the structures of society. Repentance, if we look at the Gospel testimonies beginning with John the Baptist, always involves not just being sorry about something, but also the willingness to change. Repentance does not look so much to the past. It looks to the future, to what can be, what can be better, what can be more wholesome, what can be more in harmony.
You remember what the Baptist said to the soldiers when they came: just stop looting and bullying people and keep to your function, be content with your pay. The Baptist was already initiating structural change in that context.
Now, the liberation of people from poverty is not the same thing as redemption. Redemption has other aspects. It has a contemplative aspect involving personal surrender to God, an aspect that is internal to people, an aspect of many kinds of reconciliation that has to do with issues of poverty. But when we realize how human behavior is shaping the dehumanizing conditions in which our fellow human beings, brothers and sisters, are forced to live, we realize that liberation from poverty is integral to the redemption of the whole community, including the rich. It is integral to the redemption of the human society toward wholesome patterns of living.
The dogmatic basis for this is very simple. It is in our doctrine of creation. We are the image of God who is the source of creation. We are guests among the other guests of God. Nothing we are or have is our own merit; it is total gift. Nothing we are or have can rightly be withheld from the fellowship, the solidarity with our fellow human beings because it is given for all. God, in creating us conscious human beings, with free will, and with relational existence, has called us to observe a certain order of things. We don't exist as isolated creatures; we exist as part of an interrelated creation. That is the most interrelated basic dogmatic foundation for saying that liberation from poverty must be seen as integral to redemption
Again our doctrine of sin and of original sin says to us: you cannot live your life taking for granted the way things are, taking for granted that you have resources while a lot of other people are being pushed out of existence. You cannot take for granted the fact that more wealth is being accumulated into fewer hands and more people are being marginalized and oppressed. You can't live your existence like that because we have a doctrine that says the way things are is not simply God's creation; it is God's creation as people have shaped it. Sometimes they've done it well, and sometimes they've done it destructively. Therefore, we look at what is going on around us and we have to discern. We have to find God's will for the world and for human beings, and we have to know what is interfering with the harmony God has created. When we look around us, are we sure that our judgment is right, that our assessment is not distorted?
As Christians, our answer is the person of Jesus Christ. In making judgments we refer back constantly to a deeper, better meditative and assimilative look at the person of Jesus. Where do we find the basis for doing that? I think, it is not in the first place, in the development of Christology. And why am I making a strong statement? I'm saying that because as the centuries have gone by, we have been further and further distanced from the original message because of the technical language Christology has used.
We could be in danger, for instance, this way. If we begin by saying that Jesus is divine, and has come into the world to help us but basically operates as a divine person, we could be in danger of thinking "oh yes he could put things right, and we don't have to bother, he has compensated for sin." He has reestablished a relationship with God for us. Now we can just celebrate that. And while we celebrate we ignore the suffering around us. Beginning with the divinity of Jesus we could be in danger of missing the main message of the New Testament. Where do we find that message? In the things that Jesus taught, in his deeds, especially in his public life, in the death that he died and in what happened in his resurrection. What was that explosion of spirit that reshaped the followers? If we look first at the testimony of the Gospels before we move into the doctrinal formulations, we find first of all that we should not go too quickly to the death of Jesus and say that he died because God willed it. Instead let us ask the honest question: who killed him? Why did they kill him and why did he allow it and not go and keep a low profile across the Jordan, as his friends advised him to do? When we do that, what do we see in the public life of Jesus and his teaching? Trust God and share with the needy; trust God and forgive your enemies; trust God and don't hoard things to try to assure your future, but be concerned about God's reign. God's way of doing things in the world, and your own ultimate safety will be taken care of. Trust God that it works that way.
What did Jesus do? The most obvious thing we find in the gospels is that he went about healing, tending to the most basic needs of the people, reaching out particularly to the most needy, giving preferential option to the poor and the people who didn't count. He raised consciousness among the poor of their dignity as people of God, of their calling to gather in solidarity. He tried community building among the poor by making them conscious of these things. He challenged the rich, the powerful, the religious leaders who were misleading the poor or ignoring them.
Once you realize that's what Jesus was doing with his life, you begin to get a quick indication why there were people who wanted to kill him. When we look at the death of Jesus, what we find is an extraordinary upside down kind of witness to the truth about the human situation. When the word of God comes into the human community, it (He) is outlawed, is thrust outside the camp and cruelly tortured and executed. This is an extraordinary proof about the human situation. We find an identification of the Word of God with the poorest and the most abandoned. We find, therefore, a radical challenge to the accepted values of the society at the time.
The kind of icon or image of the crucifixion that the Gospels give us has the cross of Jesus at the center with two utterly disreputable people as his closest associates, his fellow crucified. It arranges as the opposition forces the respectable civil authorities and the respectable religious authorities. This is a terrifying icon. It's an icon that would make you think continuously about the living of a Christian life. How you should discern where God is active and where destructive forces are active. It should make you aware that the established respectabilities cannot be trusted absolutely, that what you can trust unconditionally is this extraordinary paradoxical sign of the cross of Jesus.
What do we see in the testimony of the resurrection and the gift of the spirit? Well, the testimony does not tell us anything about the experience of Jesus himself. It tells us what happened in the community. It tells us that what happened was a great leap beyond fear, a great arising of new hope, a beginning of a radical sharing of resources. It was a breaking down of class distinctions, a breaking down, with difficulty, of racial and ethnic prejudices. It was the forming of a new community, a whole new way of relationships with no titles, no distinctions between male and female, slave and free, etc.
That is why the German theologian J.B. Metz put forth this really extraordinary proposition that the meaning of the cross in Christian life is a challenge to look at our history, and all of society, to turn it upside down, and always to examine it from the perspective of the losers because that is where you see the unfinished agenda of the redemption. That is where you see - what the substance, the nitty-gritty, the practical implications of the redemption has to be - because that is where you see whether values are false, whether relationships are inauthentic, whether the structures embody the consequences of sin rather than the consequences of cooperating with God's creation.
To wind up, there have been many objections raised to seeing liberation from abject poverty as integral to redemption. Where did those objections come from? Clearly the crudest comes from the alliance of selfish fear with pious rhetoric. It is a fear that may be less clearly recognized but is there and can be reinforced by language like "surrender to the will of God." It may be that you suffer now, but God has a plan. Obey authorities and live by the law. It's the right thing to do. If some are privileged and others are suffering, well, God knows why. That's the pious rhetoric.
Many of the objections come from the fear of arousing discontent, saying, "but you know, if you're talking about redemption that is, salvation of people, the last thing you want to do is to arise a mentality of discontent." This is a very valid objection, but the risk of arousing discontent doesn't allow anyone to keep bullying others. We have to work at the changing of structures with hope, with a positive outlook, without hatred, but conflict will be there and the risk of discontent, of hatred, of violence, cannot be excluded. It will be there. But it's not the enemy; it's not intended. The fear of violence, of course, is a very big objection to any Christian linking with a commitment to change structures.
Finally, I think there are objections because people fail to see the implications of modern communication and technology, new insights from the social sciences, and democracy. They fail to see the implication that these things extend our responsibility. Because we can understand what causes suffering, because we do have access to the dynamics of society and how it can be changed, we are therefore responsible. I think the objections often come from failing to see that personal responsibility is not always an individual responsibility. Personal responsibility is also the responsibility of the community, of people, of nations, of whole groups of people with common access to shaping society.

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* Lecture given at the East Asian Pastoral Institute, Manila.

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