“A Preferential Option”
There I sat one afternoon a couple of weeks ago, in the waiting room at the car repair place, signed onto their wi-fi, researching our topic for this morning. I started with “a preferential option for the poor.” I knew it’s history, the reference to Catholic social teaching wherein Christians are obliged to promote social justice, to assist the poor. Words, prayers, deeds all should be in solidarity with and express compassion for the poor. It extends to social structures as well – how we treat the least among us is indicative of what is of value to us. It extends to all who we would call marginalized in our world. I knew about Gustavo Gutierrez, the Latin American priest and theologian, the so-called “father of Liberation Theology” who is often credited with bringing the phrase to the forefront of our minds and hearts in the mid-20th century. For him it involves a commitment to leave one’s own path and enter into the world of those deemed insignificant by modern society. I was looking for a book by Gutierrez that might inform my thoughts on the topic. And there in the pile of texts that amazon was offering was a retrospective conversation between Father Gustavo and Paul Farmer who I had never heard of before. In the Company of the Poor: Conversations between Dr. Paul Farmer and Father Gustavo Gutierrez i jumped out at me and into my kindle and so my journey began.
Farmer was raised in the Catholic tradition and recalls an unremarkable experience of it for the most part, but when in his studies in medicine and anthropology he spent some time working in Haiti in the early 1980’s he became aware of the teachings around a preferential option and those of liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez whose work was centered with the marginalized in Peru. His life changed in that instant – that life altering experience which refocuses one’s commitment to enter into the lives of others. Farmer eventually earned an MD and a PhD from Harvard in medical anthropology, became Chair of their Department of Global Health and Social Medicine and was the cofounder of Partners in Health, an international nonprofit organization that seeks to deliver quality healthcare and predominantly vaccinations to the poorest of the poor while working toward structural changes in the delivery systems of such care. His accolades go on, but he spent his life part time as a professor and part time in the field in Latin America and other countries where new social constructs brought healthcare to places it would not otherwise be known. Farmer died at the age of 62 in February of 2022 of a cardiac event while working in Rwanda, but not before he made an incredible mark on our world, one spurred by the message and means proposed by Father Gustavo with who he considered a mentor and a dear friend.
I took this as my text today because it states so simply and in no uncertain terms the basics of liberation theology, of the meaning of liberation, and of the call that it places on us as Unitarian Universalists. The healthcare example is only one way in, but it is a powerful one. Gutierrez is quoted as saying that “love exists only among equals.” He speaks of the irrevocable call to honor the dignity of all, while noting our very human struggle with the effects of structural poverty. The poor are a byproduct of systems that we are responsible for and so our task is in part to examine that responsibility for the existence of such systems. What is needed is an “economy of dignity,” clearly a shift in the social order we know today. It comes down to the question of who our neighbor is. And it returns us to that ‘platinum rule’ we talked about a month or so ago.
Perhaps it was this idea of accompaniment that caught my eye – a word that has been meaningful for me of late, believing that I am, have been, accompanied in my life and am therefore called to do the same. But the root of the word is couched in the notion of sharing bread together, ‘cum pane’ in the Latin. That is an intimate engagement, to come together over a meal, it implies friendship. Liberation theology asks us to enter into that kind of relationship with those on the margins. Leftovers, they said, are not indicative of universal love. Instead, we come to the table together.
The task is to elicit the experiences and views of those we hope to serve and to incorporate what we discover into all of our observations, judgements and actions, the three things necessary to bring about change. Dr. Cornel West suggests that the condition of truth is to allow the suffering to speak. We have a tendency to impose an alien will on the marginalized, forgetting that the world that is satisfying to us is the same world that is utterly devastating to them. For Framer and Gutierrez there is no First World, Second World, Third World. These are constructs that separate and deny the simple fact that we are all living in one world. Their invitation is to listen to those directly affected and to work with them as they struggle to make change in their situations, to trust that they are their own experts, to ensure that those without a voice find one and are empowered to be agents of their own history. It is to accompany them, listening with reverent attention, like we talked about listening to one another in our small groups.
Unitarian Universalist theologian, Paul Rasor, in his 2012 Reclaiming Prophetic Witness: Liberal Religion in the Public Square ii, echoes the sentiments of Farmer and Gutierrez who call for a prophetic voice in those same spaces. Rasor brings it to our doorstep saying that we need to become attuned to our core principles, to name them and to rename them for our times when it becomes necessary. He speaks of our relational reality and the evolutionary process that plays out in our interdependence as human beings. There is no us and them, he says, only us. Dignity dictates a meaningful and fulfilling life for all of humanity and addresses the concept of an economy of dignity. Over and over I read of our obligation to help create the conditions whereby such an economy may exist. He calls upon our Universalist roots wherein all of creation is ultimately united in one common destiny and whose lens on life refused to divide the world into factions or exclude anyone.
Rasor writes, citing such notables as James Luther Adams and H. Richard Niebuhr that as religious liberals we embrace a more just society, feel an obligation to speak out against that which stands in its way and to engage in the work of making it a reality. What we tend to shy away from is attaching our religious underpinnings to what we choose to say and do. Such reluctance allows us to retreat into intellectual spheres which separate us from the very causes we support. We struggle with the tension between our prophetic impulse and the realities of our social location. We often belong to the same establishment we seek to critique. Plainly said, our privilege can get in the way.
We live in challenging times to be sure, but the writings of these theologians dating back over the past century are no less prescient today. My daughter said once that people of my generation took all the good causes! And we did fight the good fight, but clearly that was just one small step along the way. Might it not be time to venture out and gather some wisdom from those who sit on the sidelines of our culture? It is perhaps one of the few things that have not been tried sufficiently. When I took the medical example of Farmer’s work I did so because it illustrates how the concept of accompaniment has the power to make a real difference. Their studies showed that arriving on the scene with vaccines is one thing, but engaging with the recipients to find out why they don’t show up for necessary continued care takes it to another level. You learn about the structural issues that get in the way. The lack of transportation. The lack of proper nutrition. You learn about what beyond the medication is needed for a person to complete the recommended course of treatment. In the case of resistant forms of tuberculosis, being able to address those associated needs made all the difference in successful outcomes. You have to sit down with folks and hear their stories to know these things, to listen reverently to their truths. And then you need to be willing to work alongside them to change the status quo.
So, what does all this mean for us, here on the hill? We’ve talked a lot about change and discerning our way forward over the past four years, about who we are and what matters to us. In order to truly find our place here I believe we need to go out into the highways and byways of Chatham and its surrounds, to engage with the least of these among us. There is plenty of affluence in our Cape towns but there is just as much, if not more, circumstances of marginalization in our midst. We know it’s true when we see the number of families in need of meals for their kids, those who sign up for the holiday gift program. We see people working in the service industry that is so much of what makes this area tick, countless hours for insufficient pay, unable to afford housing in the very towns they choose to serve.
Who are these people? Do we know them? Yes, we do our best to make charitable offerings, but are these just the leftovers Farmer and Gutierrez talked about? What are we doing to actually accompany them, to break bread together with them, to hear their stories, listening reverently in order to discern where we might journey alongside in meaningful ways? To form a pragmatic solidarity with them, as Farmer and Gutierrez say, making common cause with those in need.
Liberating love is our theme this month and liberating love is what our theologians are calling us to. This sermon is an invitation to explore what that means in each of our individual hearts and the collective heart of this place. It is an invitation to explore perhaps one new relationship with someone on the margins that you encounter in your daily round. It is an invitation into reverent listening, into collaboration, into translating what you find into responses to structural injustices that will be meaningful in the lives of those you now know – not just progress, but the kinds of shifts that truly matter.
Let us not be that empire that Mary Oliver so poignantly talked about in our reading this morning. May our truth be something different, born out of hearts steeped in liberating love.
So may it be and amen.
Rev. Tracy Johnson
UUMH Chatham, January 7, 2024
i In the Company of the Poor: Conversations Between Dr. Paul Farmer and Father Gustavo Gutierrez; Michael Griffin and Jennie Weiss Block, Editors; Orbis Books Maryknoll, New York; 2013.
ii Reclaiming Prophetic Witness: Liberal Religion I the Public Square by Paul Rasor; Skinner House Books, Boston; 2012.