Liberation Theology’s Concept of “Poor”

This was my article submitted to my Theology professor at ITS, California in 2005.

The Inter Press Service News Agency once interviewed Gustavo Gutierrez, the father of Liberation Theology, “What is your greatest concern in this chaotic world?” He answered this way:

Poverty in all its forms. I understand poverty is a complex fact that is not limited to its economic dimension. In the context of Liberation Theology we say that the poor person is an “insignificant”, someone without social weight, someone who is often invisible. And he or she is insignificant due to lack of resources, to skin color, gender, or for speaking a language or having customs that the dominant group considers inferior. In addition to poverty is the pillaging of the environment, caused by unfettered consumption, and it is leading us to self-destruction. [1]

Gutierrez sees poverty as the greatest concern in this world. He also sees the poor as insignificant in a society due to his lack of resources, color, sex and ethnicity. Thus, this paper tries to wrestle with the thesis of understanding poverty in the Latin American perspective, particularly in Liberation Theology, and I would try to see what kind of gospel is necessary for the poor. Further, I believe that Liberation Theology’s understanding of the poor could contribute in the broader understanding of the poor mentioned in the Bible.

The Concept of Poor in the Social Sciences

What is poor? People are perplexed on the concept of poor. In the social sciences[2] there is a distinction between absolute poverty and relative poverty though both are interrelated.

Absolute poverty means that the primary basic needs such as clothing, food, home, health (water and sanitation), proper work and basic education are not met, let alone secondary needs such as the right to participation, recreation or a favorable living environment. Thus, the poor live in obvious misery.

The most extreme form of poverty is hunger, which can lead to death. The poor may die sooner if inflicted with a disease because of their poor physical condition. Therefore, absolute poverty must be eradicated.

Relative poverty involves national income distribution. There is a shocking difference among various levels or classes of the society. Therefore, people are deemed poor if compared with the wealthy. In general, particularly in developing countries, those with relative poverty also suffer from absolute poverty.

However, in a prosperous society it is not uncommon to find people with relative poverty who can meet their basic needs. Therefore, the problem of just distribution is more urgent in situations where there are a lot of people suffering from absolute poverty.

Poor in Jesus’ Nazareth Manifesto

Jesus said, “To preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18) and this phrase is in the original source of the Nazareth Manifesto, “to bring good tidings to the afflicted” (Isa. 61:1 b, NRSV).  The King James Version translates “to preach good tidings unto the meek.”  Thus, the “poor” (Greek, ptochos) here means “the destitute, the afflicted, and the meek.”

The poor have no means of subsistence, so they are economically poor. They are afflicted since they do not know where to find food for the next meal. This is expressed in Tagalog as Nagdurugo ang kanilang puso sapagkat hindi nila batid kung kaylan sila muling kakain.  (Their hearts are bleeding [afflicted] since they do not know when they will eat again).  The poor are also meek because they are powerless.

When the participants at the Consultation on World Evangelisation (COWE) discussed the “Christian Witness to the Urban Poor,” they discussed the meaning of the word “poor” based on the Palestinian context as explained below:

The “poor” refers to the manual worker who struggles to survive on a day to day basis, the destitute cowering as a beggar, the one reduced to meekness, the one brought low. . . those weak and tired from carrying heavy burdens, the leper and very often “the common people”. . . the majority of references indicate that the poor are the mercilessly oppressed, the powerless, the destitute, the downtrodden. . . . The poor tended to remain faithful to God. Some rich actually become poor because of their faithfulness.  So the poor and the faithful became the same.  There is no indication that in this use (or “poor in spirit” in Mt. 5:3) economic realities were excluded.[3]

Thus, in the Nazareth Manifesto the “poor” refers primarily to the economically poor.  Jesus can be understood in this context as an economic missionary (but not a businessman), since He claimed that He is the bringer of the glad tidings to the poor.  Further, can we find Jesus’ economic mission in His teaching and actions?  The answer is found in such passages as Luke 6:20-21: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.  Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (NIV).

In the above passage, Jesus reveals His concern for the poor.  Again when John the Baptist’s disciples asked Jesus if He was the Messiah, He referred to the Nazareth Manifesto in a different way, mentioning what He did and its fruit, including “the good news is preached to the poor” (Mt. 11:4-6; Lk. 7:22). Moreover, the Apostle Paul says that Jesus left His riches for the sake of the poor, “so that. . . through his poverty [they] might become  rich” (II Cor.8:9).

Sociological Background of the Poor in Latin America

Poverty in Latin American countries is not the same as poverty in Europe and North America because it is endemic, pervasive and imposed. The poverty that crushes the humanity of the majority of people in Latin America is no accident, according to liberation theologians; it is the result of sinful structures of society that work to maintain the extreme wealth and power of the few at the expense of the very humanity of the majority.[4]

Latin American theologians[5] say that there are two situations in Latin American that caused poverty, namely: (1) external situation of economic dependence imposed by European and North American countries and multinational corporations and (2) internal situation of institutionalized violence against the poor perpetuated by ruling oligarchies and military regimes.

They add that foreign dominance and internal oppression work side by side. When Latin America gained its political independence from Spain and Portugal in the early nineteenth century, it did not gain economic independence; its economies have always remained under the control of foreign nations and companies, giving rise to neocolonialism.

Of course Europe and North America have pretended to help Latin American countries through various “development” projects, but liberation theologians claim that development has always come with strings attached and has served only to deepen the situation of domination and dependence.

Paolo Freire,[6] a Brazilian Catholic educator, argues that the poor themselves must take the first steps in dealing with their plights. He adds that poverty is caused by a few privileged persons defending their status. The poor must liberate themselves from their “dominated-conditioned mentality,” and free the rich from their “dominating-conditioned” mindset.

God’s Preferential Option for the Poor

While there has long been a recognition that the poor hold special attention and affection in God’s eyes, the phrase “option for the poor” or “preferential option for the poor” is of relatively recent coinage. It was Roman Catholics who began to wrestle with issues related to poverty in Vatican II.[7]Catholics in Latin America, who felt that the work at Vatican II did not go far enough, convened in Medellín, where the emphasis was changed from seeing the poor as the object of the mercy of the church to seeing them as the subjects of their own history. The actual phrase “preferential option for the poor” did not appear until the 1970s, reportedly used by Gustavo Gutiérrez in a lecture given in Spain in 1972. Since that time the term has been used primarily in liberation and conciliar theological circles but also increasingly in evangelical missiology. [8]

Gutierrez says “The poor deserve preference not because they are morally or religiously better than others, but because God is God, in whose eyes ‘the last are first.’”[9] The concept behind the term “preferential option for the poor” is one that demands a radical paradigm shift. The poor are not to be seen as objects of mercy, but as people who are particularly gifted by God to represent his justice to the rest of the world.  Grenz and Olson explain further:

Preference for the poor means that even though God loves all people, he identifies with the poor, reveals himself to the poor and sides with the poor in a special way. Above all, it means that in the class struggle God sides with the poor against every oppressor who would exploit or dehumanize them. [10]

The ‘option’ for the poor is not optional, but required by the very nature of God and the incarnation of Jesus. Because Jesus came to preach to the poor, they have an epistemological advantage in reading the Scripture. They are not weighted down with the presuppositions and agenda of the rich, and they are more free to read (and even interpret) the text as its primary audience. It requires the recognition of structural issues which create and perpetuate poverty and new tools of analysis to understand and change those structures.

The Good News for the Poor

What then is Christ’s good news for the poor?  In Mark, He says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is near.  Repent and believe the good news” (1:15, NIV).  In Matthew’s account, Jesus says, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is near” (4:17, NIV), and Matthew testifies that “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom” (4:23, NIV), and He went also to different towns and villages, even to synagogues “preaching the good news of the Kingdom” (9:35, NIV).  Jesus also told His disciples to preach the gospel of the Kingdom of God (10:7) till the end of the age (24:14).

In Luke, the Kingdom of God is “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Greek,dekton eniauton)[11]–this was the Year of the Jubilee for the Hebrews (Lev. 25:8-10):

Count off seven Sabbaths of years–seven times seven years–so that the seven Sabbaths of years amount to a period of forty-nine years.  Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land.  Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.  It shall be a jubilee for you; each one of you is to return to his family property and each to his own clan (NIV, italics supplied).

Bessie Kawaguchi Yuen, a mission scholar, explains more about the Jubilee:

On this day, the slaves were set free and the poor could return to their own property.  Debts were removed, and all slates were wiped clean.  The Jubilee Year regulations provided a check to perpetual destitution and injustice.  All this demonstrates God’s care and compassion for the poor among his people.[12]

Thus, “partially” the good news of the Kingdom of God for the poor is justice and liberation from poverty and oppression.  This is partially the good news for the poor, since justice and economic liberation are not the sole essence of the Kingdom of God.  Moreover, even though Jesus did not liberate the people of His time fully from hunger and poverty, it is still part of the whole Gospel which Jesus commanded His disciples to tell the world (Mt. 28:19-20; Lk. 4:18-19), and which He promised to consummate in the fullness of the Kingdom (Lk. 6:20-23).


In the above discussions, we found out the concept of “poor” in the Latin American context.  The poor is insignificant in a Latin American society due to his lack of resources, color, sex and ethnicity. We classified poverty into two classes, namely: absolute poverty and relative poverty though both are interrelated.  The Nazareth Manifesto shows the poor in the spiritual and economic perspectives. Further, poverty in Latin American countries is endemic, pervasive and imposed, but the good thing is that God is indeed in the side of the poor  and God has a gospel for them and it is liberation in an integral way.

However, the poor must not wait for a liberator since according to Freire, “The poor must liberate themselves from their ‘dominated-conditioned mentality,’ and free the rich from their ‘dominating-conditioned’ mindset.” There must be responses from the poor when they discern that God is with them and siding with them.

[3]Vinay Samuel and Christ Sugden, Evangelism and the Poor(Bangalore, India: Partnership in Mission Asia, 1982), pp. 5-6.

[4] Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, 20th Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1992), p.216.

[5] Ibid., p. 217.

[6] Ibid., p.212.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Grenz and Olson, p. 218.

[10] Ibid.

[11]See Lk. 4:19, The Interlinear Greek-English New Testament(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Regency Reference Library, n.d.).  Hereafter The Interlinear.

[12]Bessie K. Yuen, “Urban Poor-ology: A Theology of Ministry to the World’s Urban Poor,” in Urban Mission, September 1987, p. 17.


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