No Salvation Outside the Poor

He humbles those in high places,
and the lofty city he brings down;
He tumbles it to the ground,
levels it with the dust.
It is trampled underfoot by the needy,
by the footsteps of the poor. (Is. 26:5-6)

These words from Isaiah are powerful. I immediately think back to Mary’s Magnificat when I read them. God will bring down the high and mighty when the high and mighty ignore the word of God. The high and mighty have little to teach us—domination, greed, and power.

Jon Sobrino was a companion of the Jesuit martyrs in El Salvador. He was not home when the terrorists assassinated his colleagues. Sobrino’s new book, No Salvation outside the Poor, tells us that we need to refocus our values. In our school days with the Baltimore Catechism (How many questions did we have to memorize every night?), we used to say “No salvation outside the church.” Sobrino has reversed things as any good theologian should do. Salvation will come from the poor. Have we forgot the message of Jesus’ birth—lowly, humble cave or stable with a straw manger? My grandmother was furious when she first came to visit me. My parents had fashioned a “manger” for me in a dresser drawer. That was too humble for my Nana! Nana soon had a nice crib for me. Jesus’ first visitors were the lowly, despised shepherds who “were keeping watch in the fields.” It is no accident that the evangelist lists the shepherds as the first visitors. He was making a point.

Why will salvation come from the poor? It will come because the poor have something to teach us. We need to rid ourselves once and for all of our image a knights rescuing the poor. What are we going to do when we rescue them? Turn them into middle class people with distorted middle class values?

We need to be with the poor in order to walk in their shoes and sense their values and hopes. I have been privileged to have travelled to Haiti, Nicaragua, and Palestine. I saw the faith and hope of the poor in Nicaragua. It was emblazoned on the bus coming across the bridge, “Jesus is Lord in Nicaragua!” I saw it in the story the man in the town told me. His hut, if you could call it that, was very poor. Hammocks for sleeping hung from the rafters under the tin roof. In a little oasis with a few trees and shrubs in the dirt street, I spotted a cross. I asked, “What is it about the cross.” He seemed somewhat startled by my question and quickly told me, “Why, we just celebrated the feast of the Holy Cross.” He said it as if I should have known.

Being with the poor enables us to give them voice. We do not save them. They have to save themselves. We need to create conditions where they can have voice. The structures which keep the poor in their place of oppression do not give them voice. The power brokers do not want them to have voice.

In order to give them voice, we need to listen. They will teach us. They will let us know that their values are not our middle class values. Their values are truer to biblical values—faith, hope and love. When they meet in their small faith communities, it is they who interpret the Gospel, not the priest (if they are fortunate enough to have one).

Sobrino says:

The thesis of a civilization of poverty thus “rejects the accumulation of capital as the engine of history, and the possession-enjoyment of wealth as the principle of humanization; rather it makes the universal satisfaction of basic needs the principle of development, and the growth of shared solidarity the basis of humanization.” His (Ellacuria’s) positive, programmatic affirmation, put simply, is this: the civilization of poverty is a “universal state of affairs which guarantees the satisfaction of basic needs, the freedom of personal choices, and an environment of personal and community creativity that permits the emergence of new forms of life and culture, new relationships with nature, with others, with oneself, and with God.” (At 14)
Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, also teaches that salvation will come from the poor. (When we have a Jesuit and a Franciscan teaching the same truth, we had better take heed.)
The last will be first in the first will be last….That’s all God needs to break into the world! It absolutely levels the playing field of history, by making the starting gate a place that none of us would have suspected—an admission not of worthiness but of unworthiness! But it’s in a hidden way that only the marginalized ones will recognize, “those who are nothing in all will show up as those who are everything,” as Paul will eventually call the subversive wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:29)….It seems that until you’re excluded from any system, you’re not able to recognize the idolatries, lies or shadow side of that system. It is the privileged “knowledge “of the victim. It opens up the playing field, granting equal access to all, if they wanted, because it is no longer a winner’s script, as the ego prefers to make it, but actually a life script that now includes those so-called losers. (At 92)
Let us build our “houses” on the rock solid values of the poor. They will help us name our idolatries and deal with our shadow sides—power, domination, and exploitation. We will be better off and our planet will be better off.
Isaiah got it right:
Thus says the Lord GOD:
But a very little while,
and Lebanon shall be changed into an orchard,
and the orchard be regarded as a forest!
On that day the deaf shall hear
the words of a book;
And out of gloom and darkness,
the eyes of the blind shall see.
The lowly will ever find joy in the LORD,
and the poor rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.
For the tyrant will be no more
and the arrogant will have gone. (Is. 29:17-19)
The poor and the lowly will rejoice because they will have voice and their oppression will be lifted.

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