The Charism of the Charismatics: Part 7, The Preferential Option for the Poor

The last of the five features of the pentecostal worldview described by James Smith in his book Thinking in Tongues is "an eschatology that engenders a commitment both to mission and to ministries of empowerment and social justice, with a certain 'preferential option for the marginalized'..."

As James continues, "one of the signs of the eschatological inbreaking of the Spirit into the present is the subversion of the powerful by the weak--who, in the Spirit, function as the very power of God."

The early church was both a charismatic community and a community of the weak.
1 Corinthians 1.25-28
For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are.
It's still this way worldwide. Within Christianity charismatic spirituality is the spirituality of the poor and oppressed.

In my life, charismatic spirituality is the spirituality out at the prison where I teach on Monday nights and it's the spirituality at Freedom Fellowship where we walk with the poor and homeless.

This, perhaps more than anything, is why I've embraced the spirituality at Freedom. It is Christian spirituality at the margins.

James Smith's reference to "the preferential option for the marginalized" is a generalization of "the preferential option for the poor" associated with liberation theology. And what is important for me about "the preferential option for the poor" is that it functions as a hermeneutical principle, even, I'd argue, as a regulating test of orthodoxy. The gospel is most faithfully interpreted by, with and among the poor.

Stated more forcibly, the gospel is what the poor say it is.

And if that's the case, you don't know what the gospel is until the poor teach it to you. You can't learn about the gospel in the seminary or in the suburban mega-church. You can only hear the gospel faithfully proclaimed by the poor.

True, many will chaff at this hermeneutical privileging. It's illiberal and undemocratic. But that's why they call it a preference. There is no unbiased reading of the gospel. You have to pick a bias. And God's bias is the bias of the poor.

And while the gospel on the lips of the poor may sound like foolishness it is a foolishness that shames the professors and doctors of this age.

That's why I go to Freedom. That's why I worship with and among the poor.

I have to leave my college campus. I have to leave my degrees on the wall. I have to leave the bookshelves behind.

I have to go to a place where the poor will teach me the gospel.

So that I might become a student of the foolishness of God.

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9 thoughts on “The Charism of the Charismatics: Part 7, The Preferential Option for the Poor”

  1. "And God's bias is the bias of the poor". Wonderful statement, Richard!

    I would like to share a few words from Abraham J. Heschel's poem, GOD'S TEARS.

    "The sins of the poor are more beautiful than the deeds of the rich".

    A radical conversion toward the poor is certainly needed within American Evangelicalism.

  2. I'm trying to understand how this preferential option of the poor reconciles with the leaning toward prosperity gospel you described in the earlier post. Personally I experienced the latter more than the former.

  3. As I read this, I was thinking about part 5, too. I remembered reading Greg Jeffer's comment that day, regarding his observation of the abuses of charismatic thinking and the gospel of health and wealth: "I've heard preaching that says that God will heal those with true faith, that a reward for trusting God is being healed. Suffering and sickness are thus indicators that one does not have an in with God, which seems pretty Gnostic to me." As Richard said, it is a potent criticism. I've heard that line of thinking in charismatic circles, but I've also heard the same line of thinking sneak into other fellowships, too- it's easier to only blame the suffering for their own problems.

    As I read that comment, though, and with the idea of financial blessing as well as healing in mind, I thought that perhaps the best protection from letting the prosperity gospel take root in this theological framework is diversity (racial, economic, etc.). The rich or otherwise elevated members of society, reading Christ's words with only each other, can easily find ways to dismiss them or get distracted by heady debate over details. But reading a phrase like "Good news to the poor" among the poor reveals our blind spots. A diverse church helps ensure recognition that there is a commonality in the experience of suffering and poverty that is irrespective of the specifics of personal faithfulness. That shared burden eases the tension of worshipping a God who opposes suffering, even as we must still sometimes experience it. And it helps the rich see what they have as blessings from God for the community, not granted just to us because we work harder or are morally superior.

  4. Excellent point about how POP functions as a "hermeneutical principle". One might also speak of an "epistemological privileging" of the poor. Here is Bonhoeffer, avant la lettre of the liberation theologians:

    "We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled - in short, from the perspective of those who suffer" = not the "sinner" but the sinned against, i.e., the royally shafted.

    Also, note well: "the gospel is what the poor say it is" - the poor as such, not just poor Christians. Which raises an interesting, important, and counter-intuitive question about what we casually call "evangelism", does it not?

    Finally, I like Jamie's substitution of "marginalized" for "poor", which is actually simply good exegesis of what the Bible means by "poor", but it gives the "preferential option" an immediacy of broader scope, a point rightly exploited by, e.g., black, feminist, womanist, and queer theologians and activists.

  5. Hang on here. While we don't want to sentimentalize the poor and overdistinguish them (thereby distancing 'them' from 'us,'), this "preference" perhaps has more to do with vulnerability and longing/reaching out for God. "Poor" is neither a solely socio-economic construct nor a racial/sexual identifier is it? Poor is a state of the heart.

  6. @ lamont

    Yes, Matthew has Jesus bless the "poor in spirit" (5:3). In the Lucan parallel, however, Jesus blesses the "poor" (6:20), and lest there be any doubt that this is indeed a socio-economic category, there is a corresponding "woe to the rich!" (6:24). Of course one might argue that, well, Luke would put it like that, wouldn't he - his Jesus has a well-known beef about (literal) wealth and poverty. But then for Matthew too, steeped in Jewish tradition as he was, the "poor" undoubtedly refers to people in abject need whose desperate helplessness (socio-economic) drives them to a humble reliance on God (state of heart). The wretched-shafted have no one else to turn to but God their Saviour = Liberator.

  7. I'm not so sure that wealth/poverty in and of themselves were the problem as much as the systems that produced such.

    In our age we tend to get stuck in our present binary of Capitalism vs. Socialism. The economic systems in place at the time of Jesus and the Apostles was neither of our present binary systems. Matter of fact, the word from which we derive “economy” describes the system of the first century; “oikonomia”, literally “the rule of the house”. “House” isn’t to be understood as we presently understand the word—either to denote a place where people reside or the nuclear family arrangement which is prevalent in the
    Industrialized West, which is now becoming more the norm also in progressively
    industrialized east and south. The “oikos” of the Roman world was the basic unit of ALL life and activity of the time which produced goods and services.

    Two basic modes of chrematistics (a word coined by Aristotle) were in
    play at the time; 1. “natural”, which describes using money to facilitate trade in a way that maintains holistic ongoing relationships with and between oikoi (plural of “House”) which also referred to as “sustenance economics,” and 2. “unnatural chrematistics” to
    describe using money to make money, which Aristotle found to be morally
    repugnant, which is “acquisitive economics.”

    There was a running debate from the time of Aristotle through the first
    century about the relative merits of acquisitive economics, which by then had
    become widespread among the Romans and among the Jewish elite. As a result of this emphasis on acquisitive economics there was a widening gap between the rich and the poor, and absentee landholders often appointed managers to administer (and grow) their vast estates. Sound familiar?

    The idea and use of money is alluded to over one hundred times in Luke’s Gospel. Most of the time there is an explicit critique of “acquisitive economics.” A book recommendation is Management and the Gospel; Luke’s Radical Message for the First and Twenty-First Centuries

    by Bruno Dyck.

    When a reading of Luke is taken in view of the understanding
    of the history and context of the economic times an entirely different
    understanding is drawn from most of Jesus’ parables.

  8. Are you familiar with the work of Erika Bourguignon and I.M. Lewis whose research, from what I read on the Science and Religion blog on Patheos, seems to pont out that that ecstatic, music-driven religions and spirit possession movements are often found in rigidly hierarchical cultures, where many people are stuck permanently in the lower ranks of society? If that is the case, and your experience seems to agree that it might be, is that a good thing? What I mean is, it is truly a liberation movement or does it simply support the status quo by giving the poor and marginalized a place to feel powerful and 'at the center' (is there a better antonym to 'marginalized'?) without significantly challenging the principalities and powers? (The phrase 'opiate of the masses comes to mind')

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