Preferential Option and Process – February 2013

Question: Can a process god have a preferential option for the poor?

Publication Month: February 2013

This is a thoughtful question. We process theologians believe that God loves everyone and everything. God loves the sinner and the saint; the whale and the sparrow; the weak and the powerful. If having a “preferential option” meant that God loved poor people more than God loved rich people, we could not make that statement in an unqualified way.

I doubt, however, that the Catholic Church leaders who have led in emphasizing the “preferential option” are in a much different situation. I think we process theologians can and do mean much of what has all along been meant by the phrase. Indeed, I believe that we can mean it less equivocally than can one who follows Thomas Aquinas strictly.

We think that God aims at the good of the creation, seeking to realize as much value as possible in and through the creatures. In this connection both poverty and wealth usually work against the increase of value. There are exceptions. For some, voluntary poverty opens them to greater realizations of value. For some, wealth enables them to serve the common good more effectively. But these are the exceptions. What we usually identify as poverty limits the ability of people to participate in the values that could otherwise enrich their lives. Those we identify as rich usually cling to their possessions and work to increase their wealth even at the expense of others.

God’s aim at the increase of value in the world works against both poverty and wealth. But in God’s preference to overcome poverty, God is on the side of the poor. In God’s preference to overcome wealth, God works against the aims of most of the rich. God seeks the true good of both the poor and the rich. But, at least with respect to the poverty itself, God’s aim supports the aim of the poor to free themselves from poverty. With respect to the rich, God’s aim to free them from their wealth is opposed to their typical aim to hold onto their wealth and to increase it. To summarize all this as God’s “preferential option for the poor” is quite accurate.

Of course, there is much more to be said. For example, it is dangerous to single out only the poor as those calling for special concern. As a Southerner, I am very much aware that often the poor whites have been the greatest enemies and persecutors of black Americans. Occasionally poor whites might turn their hatred especially against more affluent blacks.

There are other forms of oppression in which the poor often participate. Oppression of women may be worse in some poor communities than in more affluent ones. The poor may take the lead in the persecution of homosexuals. A rich homosexual may experience oppression from the poor. God’s preferential option for the poor may sometimes be trumped by God’s preferential option for those who are oppressed in other ways. Liberation theologians have always known this. The “oppressed” is probably a better single term to use in connection with the preferential option.

The most important implication of God’s preferential option is for human action. Those who share the view of liberation theology, as most process theologians do, understand that they are called by God to act in solidarity with the oppressed to bring an end to the oppression. Especially in the United States, the diversity of forms of oppression has been emphasized.

Much has actually been accomplished in the liberation of women, of blacks and other racial/ethnic groups, of Jews and other religious minorities, and of those whose sexual orientations do not fit the majority patterns. This does not mean that the task of liberation on any of these fronts is complete. Far from it. But progress has been remarkable. Our awareness of continuing problems should not prevent us from celebrating improvements.

On the other hand, very little has been accomplished in the liberation of the poor. The power of the great financial institutions continues to increase, and the policies they demand of governments lead to ever increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. The number of poor and their oppression both in the United States and globally grows worse. So, once again, the selection of the poor to represent the oppressed makes a great deal of sense. God favors their cause. We are called to challenge and overcome the system that makes the plight of the poor even worse.