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Summer Books

God’s concern for the powerless a given

By Jon Sobrino
Orbis Books, 376 pages, $28


In this book, both profoundly personal and profoundly theological, Jon Sobrino completes his magisterial analysis of Jesus Christ, true God and true man. The central theme is the mystery of the Resurrection with its promise of the triumph of justice. “The first Christians preached Jesus’ Resurrection as God’s reaction to human actions, as the justice God works for one whom others unjustly put to death.”

Sobrino’s passionate commitment to the poor, not just those who have nothing, but especially those deprived by an unjust global system of the goods to which they are entitled, is the driving force of his theological reflection. For more than 40 years he has been engaged in intense pastoral work in El Salvador, raising the consciousness of people who had for centuries been helpless and voiceless.

With Archbishop Oscar Romero, Sobrino and his fellow Jesuits at the Central American University defended Salvadorans’ rights to organize and to become agents of their own destiny. Sobrino was the one the military most hated and feared. He escaped the fate of his colleagues, their housekeeper and her young daughter simply because he was at a conference in Burma when the military decided the “traitors” had to be wiped out. Today Sobrino keeps the memory of the martyrs alive by continuing their work, by insisting that faith is meaningless if it does not produce the fruit of active commitment to the crucified people.

Sobrino sees God as saving us not simply by virtue of his power but, more important, by virtue of God’s love for us, a love made concrete by giving his own Son on the cross.

Far from being the immutable God of the Greek philosophers, he saves us in a human way by showing solidarity with us and suffering with us. This suffering “expresses the possibility of God’s being a God-with-us and a God-for-us, though in order to be so God has to define himself as a God-at-our-mercy.”

As a liberation theologian to whom the centrality of God’s consistent concern for the powerless and voiceless is a given, Sobrino returns repeatedly to the centrality of the kingdom.

The Christology of the New Testament developed out of two things: the experience of Jesus’ resurrection, and the memory of what was fundamental in his earthly life. Gradually, however, the second element -- the notion of kingdom -- was downplayed or shifted to the realm of a historical and esoteric spirituality, a recurrent tendency still operative today.

The difficulty about accepting the centrality of the kingdom, Sobrino believes, is not merely anthropological and social in nature but also theological and ecclesial. “It not only leads back to Jesus of Nazareth but also gives a primary and preferential place to the poor people of the world. And these people have definite characteristics: They are in the majority (which makes other groups the exceptions); they are a necessary historical product (of various ‘world orders’); they are dialectically poor (because there are [the] rich and [the] oppressors); they are marginalized, despised and excluded (because they do not fulfill the requirements for humankind as dictated by the ruling cultures).

“They call the church into question, as nothing else does, which means they have always been taken some account of by the church, but they have not been its central concern. The most serious aspect from a theological point of view is that the poor have not come to possess the theological status they deserve according to Jesus.”

We, Sobrino insists, are the church called in question by the poor. What that means, here and now in the 21st century, is to be “actively involved in the most solid reality, that of unjust poverty and indignity, allowing oneself to be affected by it and responding adequately to it. In negative terms, if Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda and Congo do not affect us deeply, do not move our hearts and minds, then we are not living in reality in any shape or form, and not only are we not ethical or Christian or authentic or saints, but we are not real; we are unreal. We shall have become exceptions or footnotes.”

The path Sobrino invites us to take is a rugged one. But, he reminds us, we are in good company. We have as companions Jesus of Nazareth himself, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Romero, Ignacio Ellacurria and his companions, Celina Ramos, Juan Gerardi Conedera -- “a whole constellation of witnesses, martyrs who not only bear witness to Christ but who remake the life and fate of Jesus.”

Gary MacEoin lives and writes in San Antonio.

National Catholic Reporter, May 17, 2002