The historic strength of the poor and oppressed

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By LEONARDO BOFF*

We have to listen to the poor who, before reading the lyrics, read the world correctly

I have always been impressed by a small story related in the book of ecclesiastes of the First Testament (or the Old). Ecclesiastes assumes himself to be the wise King Solomon. He would be what we would call today an academic or a university professor (in Hebrew Qoheleth). He is known by the expression “vanity, pure vanity; everything is vanity” (1,2). Some modern translations translate: “illusion, pure illusion; everything is illusion.”

The entire book is a tireless search for happiness, but it is confronted with inevitable death that makes all searches illusions, pure illusions. This does not mean that he ceases to be God-fearing and ethical when he is indignant in the face of oppression: “how many are the tears of the oppressed with no one to console them when they are under the power of the oppressors... happy is he who was not born because he did not see the evil that is committed under the sun” (4,1.3).

The short story goes like this: “There was a city with few inhabitants. A powerful king marched on it, surrounded it and raised great attack ramps against it. There was a poor but wise man in the city who could have saved the city with his wisdom. But no one remembered that poor man. The poor man’s wisdom is despised and his words are never heard” (9,14:16-XNUMX).

This observation brings me back to Latin American liberation theology. It is a theology whose articulating axis is the non-exclusive option for the poor and their liberation. It gives centrality to the poor as it is in the gospel of the historical Jesus: “blessed are the poor, for the Kingdom of God belongs to you” (Lucas 6, 20). But there is something unprecedented in Liberation Theology that surpasses traditional welfare and paternalism that gave charity to the poor but left them in their poor situation.

Liberation Theology added something unique: recognizing the historical strength of the poor. They began to become aware that their poverty is not willed by God, nor is it natural, but a consequence of social and political forces that exploit them to enrich themselves at their expense, thus making them poor. So they are not simply poor, they are oppressed. Against all oppression, liberation is worth it. Aware of this fact and organized, they constitute social forces, capable, together with other forces, of changing society so that it is better, not so unfair, oppressive and unequal.

Christians were inspired by the tradition of Exodus (“I heard the cry of my oppressed people, I came down to set them free”, Ex 3,7:XNUMX), in that of the prophets who, against the oppressors of the poor and widows, denounced the ruling elites and kings (Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah ), making God say: “I want mercy and not sacrifices; seek justice, correct the oppressor, judge the cause of the orphan and defend the widow” (Isaiah, 1,17). But mainly in the practice of the historical Jesus who was clearly always on the side of suffering life, especially the poor, the sick, the marginalized, women, healing and carrying out a truly liberating practice from human suffering. He announced to them God's project, an absolute revolution: a Kingdom of love, peace, forgiveness, compassion and also dominion over rebellious nature.

This is the basis of liberation theology. Marx was neither the father nor the godfather of this type of theology, as many still accuse him today. But it is based on the prophetic tradition and practice of the historical Jesus. Let us not forget that he was judged, condemned and erected on a cross by religious people at the time, associated with Roman political power. Because of the freedom that was taken in the face of oppressive laws and an image of an avenging God. He placed everything under the sieve of love and mercy. If it did not serve love and did not lead to mercy, it broke with customs and traditions that burdened the lives of an entire people.

Liberation Theology gave a vote of confidence in the poor, considering them protagonists of their own liberation and actors in a society like ours that creates more and more poor people and shamefully despises them and relegates them to marginality. It is based on the exploitation of people, on competition rather than solidarity and on the irresponsible depredation of nature.

The experience we had is exactly the one told in the book of ecclesiastes: the poor are wise, they teach us, because their knowledge comes from experiences; We exchange knowledge, between our scientific knowledge and their experiential knowledge, and thus we join forces. We discovered that when they organize themselves into communities, into movements, and as citizens they participate in parties that seek social justice, they reveal their capacity to pressure and even impose social transformations. But which of the politicians in parliaments, which few governments listen to them and respond to their demands? They generally only count when there are elections to seduce them into their generally fictitious projects.

I tell you, not without some embarrassment, what happened to me. The great philosopher and jurist Norberto Bobbio from the University “degli studii” of Turin wanted to honor Liberation Theology, granting me the title of “doctor Honorary” in politics. Sectors of the Vatican and the Cardinal of Turin exerted strong pressure for this event not to happen, which greatly irritated the philosopher-jurist Norberto Bobbio. The event took place with his presence, already old and ill. The university diploma said: “The personality of Franciscan Leonardo Boff stands out both in research in political and theological sciences and in ethical and social commitment. His writings and reflection, highly original and driven by civic passion, are at the center of a fervent political and ecclesiastical debate in the contemporary world.” On November 27, 1990, I was granted the aforementioned title.

Noberto Bobbio was so impressed with the master class I gave, as a thank you for the title, that he commented: “We, on the left, should wait for a theologian to remind us that the poor are subjects of history” (cf. M. Losano, Norberto Bobbio: a cultural biography,Unesp, p. 460-463).

For me it was confirmation of the truth of the story of ecclesiastes: we have to listen to the poor (because of them I was honored with the title) who before reading the lyrics, read the world correctly. Without their wisdom and that of the original peoples, we will not save our societies and we will not avoid the catastrophes of our civilization.

*Leonardo Boff He is a theologian, philosopher and writer. Author, among other books, of The quest for fair measure: how to balance planet Earth (Nobilis Voices). [https://amzn.to/3SLFBPP]


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