And the Last Shall Be First

Last week I attended Lobby Day for Bread for the World in Washington, DC with two of my co-workers at Shalom Farms. Bread for the World is a non-partisan ecumenical Christian advocacy group that works to promote policy that ends hunger here in the States and abroad. Christians from all over the country gathered in the capital last Tuesday to urge our representatives in government to “create a circle of protection around programs vital to hungry and poor people in the U.S. and around the world.” As I listened to the inspired and articulate speakers from Bread for the World and participated in conversations with fellow Bread lobbyers and Senate and Congressional staff people, I was reminded of Leonardo Boff’s presentation of liberation theology in Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor.

Boff explains that liberation theology begins with the poor, that is, “the poor occupy the epistemological locus.” It is from the standpoint of the poor that we are able, not only to “conceive of God, Christ, grace, history, the mission of the churches, the meaning of the economy, politics, and the future of societies and of the human being,” but also recognize “to what extent current societies are exclusionary, to what extent democracies are imperfect, to what extent religions and churches are tied to the interests of the powerful” (107). According to this paradigm, the success of a nation cannot possibly be determined by its GDP nor can the success of a church be measured by the donations it collects each Sunday. Rather, liberation theology looks to “the least of these” as indicators of the health, efficacy and moral soundness of systems and society as a whole. As Boff puts it, “from the standpoint of faith, the poor represent the suffering Savior and the supreme eschatological judge” (109). For Boff, the verdict is clear – the situation of poverty is a social sin, and we are all gravely culpable (109).

Liberation theology places the “last” – the marginalized and victimized – first and so denounces and disrupts the systems of inequality that produce such a class of people in the first instance. For Boff, this “option for the poor” must be enacted – “it means assuming the place of the poor, their cause, their struggle, and at the limit, their often tragic fate” (107). This is exactly the message and mission of Bread for the World – to advocate for those in need and to confront the powers that directly or indirectly produce that situation of need. A speaker at Lobby Day identified Moses’ prophetic mission as a fitting model. Moses’ demands of Pharaoh challenged the economic, political, and cultural norms of the day, effectively dismantling the very fabric of an unjust society. In the tradition of Moses and so many other instruments of God’s redemptive action in the world, Bread for the World seeks the liberation of the poor by “speaking truth to power.”

Boff, however, insists that authentic liberation is possible only when it originates in the poor themselves – that is, when “the poor become the agents of their own liberation” (108). If this is so, is there a place for advocacy? Or is the work of Bread for the World in vain? If we ourselves enjoy some level of privilege – human rights, civil liberties, public services, self-determination, health care, education – are we disqualified from working to secure these same opportunities for the vast majority of the world’s population that is not so fortunate? Surely this cannot be.

While Boff is adamant that “Only when the poor trust in their potential, and when the poor opt for others who are poor, are conditions truly created for genuine liberation” (108), he does not dismiss the participation of the “haves” in the liberation of the “have-nots.” On the contrary, Boff calls us to be “allies of the poor” (108). But this implies a particular kind of relationship. We must move beyond and indeed far away from any paternalistic model of “charity.” Instead, we must recognize the poor not simply for what they lack but for what they have – “culture, ability to work, to work together, to get organized, and to struggle“ (108). What’s more, Boff tells us, we must humbly acknowledge our own poverty:

It is not only the poor and oppressed who must be liberated but all human beings, rich and poor, because all are oppressed by a paradigm – abuse of the Earth, consumerism, denial of otherness, and of the inherent value of each being – that enslaves us all. (113)

Thus we come to find that liberation can only be realized by a collaborative upheaval of what Boff calls “the logic of means at the service of an exclusionary accumulation” and a collective adoption of  “a logic of ends serving the shared well-being of planet Earth, of human beings, and of all beings in the exercise of freedom and cooperation among all peoples” (114).

Like Bread for the World, Shalom Farms, the food security non-profit I’m working with this summer, advocates for the hungry. However, where Bread seeks change on the governmental level, Shalom is largely a grassroots effort working in neighborhoods, schools and church communities. I am becoming more and more convinced that it will take immense efforts and great faith in policy and on the ground to alleviate hunger, poverty and all forms of injustice. And that in both of these arenas it will be critical to maintain what Boff has emphasized and what scripture teaches – that the last shall indeed be first.