The Preferential Option
for the Poor

This is the first topic within the OCR DCT RS liberation theology module. The specification says that you need to know about the themes of justice and judgement, the poor as the underside of history and reversal and development.

Justice and Judgement:

The Bishops at Medellin agreed that peace was impossible unless justice was achieved. Violence results from injustice. 

'Justice is a prerequisite for peace…in many instances Latin America finds itself faced with a situation of injustice that can be called institutionalised violence… We should not be surprised therefore, that the ‘temptation to violence’ is surfacing in Latin America’

Liberation theology is primarily about achieving justice for the poor. The idea of justice can mean different things in different contexts. Liberation theologians are concerned with creating a fairer society which includes just (non-exploitatitve) economic and political systems.

Liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez thought that achieving justice required a preferential option for the poor. He believed that: 

  • God has a preferential option for the poor.
  • The Church should likewise show a commitment to the cause of the poor. 

The idea that a just or fair system should include preference seems counter intuitive at first. It also seems to challenge the traditional idea of God's omnibenevolence and universal love for all humankind. 

This links to the idea of positive discrimination in which people from a disadvantaged group are given preference over those from more avantagesou backgrounds in order to compensate for their original disadvantage.

However, the idea can defended on the grounds that those who are disadvantaged need extra help in order to actually have an equal chance in life. It can be argued that if the situation is unjust then it is impossible to not take sides. This is because if you do nothing in the face of injustice then you are implicitly condoning that injustice and you are acting as though you are on the side of the oppressors.

  • In the context of Latin America it could be said that if the Church did not speak out against the unfair division of land or against state orchastrated violence against the people then they would be implicitly siding with the oppressors.

Given that many people would assume that the role of the Church includes acting as a moral conscience for society it would be particularly important for it to speak up against injustice. The El Salvadorian Bishop Oscar Romero recognised that it was his duty to speak up against oppression when his friend Grande Rutillo was killed for siding with the oppressed. Romero criticised the military government for violence against the El Salvadorian people. Romero was eventually killed for making a stand for justice.

God's Preferential Option for the Poor:

James Cone argued along similar lines when he wrote that in a racist world God is not colourblind,

Gutierrez said that God loves everyone equally in the general sense, however, in specific contexts he has a particular concern for those who suffer. Thus in the particular or specific sense he has a preferential option for the poor.

'God’s love has two dimensions, the universal and the particular; and while there is a tension between the two, there is no contradiction. God’s love excludes no one. Nevertheless, God demonstrates a special predilection toward those who have been excluded from the banquet of life. The word preference recalls the other dimension of the gratuitous love of God—the universality.'

Gustavo Gutierrez

Leonardo Boff agreed that God has a special concern for those in need. He wrote 'He always acts in favour of life, defending the weak'

This could be compared with a parent who loves all their children equally in an absolute sense but who might have a particular concern for a child who was ill or who was being bullied. The child is not loved more overall, but in that context that child is sided with because the solidarity is necessary for their wellbeing.

Biblical Teachings:

'The Christian need for justice is a demand arising from biblical teaching.  All people are merely humble stewards of material goods.'

Medellin Document

Liberation theologians would argue that the Bible supports the idea that God demonstrates a preferential attitude towards those who suffer.

  • In the Exodus story God heard the people cry and sided with the Hebrews (later to become the Israelites) against their oppressors the Egyptians.
  • The book of Proverbs cautions the rich 'Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the LORD will take up their case and will plunder those who plunder them' (Proverbs 22:22)
  • Psalm 68:5 describes God as 'A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows' (i.e. as someone who stands up for the weak).

See also the Jesus the Liberator notes.

  • In  the New Testament Beatitudes the poor are told 'Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven'.

One of the themes in the Old Testament is that God will pass judgement on human behaviour and intervene in history to punish those who fail to do as they ought. The prophet Amos was particularly vocal in his support of social justice. According to Amos, God had seen the hypocrisy of the religious and political leaders of Israel. He had seen them cheating and exploiting the poor.

According to Amos the leaders

  • 'sell the just man for silver, and the poor man for a pair of sandals. They trample the heads of the weak into the dust of the earth, and force the lowly out of the way.' (Amos 2:6-7)

Amos angrily instructs 

  • 'Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land!' (Amos 8:4)

'I hate, I spurn your feasts, I take no pleasure in your solemnities; Your cereal offerings I will not accept, nor consider your stall-fed peace offerings. Away with your noisy songs! I will not listen to the melodies of your harps. But if you would offer me holocausts, then let justice surge like water, and goodness like an unfailing stream.' (Amos 5:21-24)

He warns them that God says

  • 'Never will I forget a thing they have done!' (Amos 8:7)

And tells them exactly how God plans to punish them

  • 'By the sword shall all sinners among my people die' (Amos 9:10)

According to Amos, God does not want outward shows of religiosity, he is not interested in ceremonies, instead he wants social justice. (See quotation in the box to the right).

Consequently, liberation theologians felt confident declaring that the demand for justice was founded on biblical teaching. Liberation theologians use the Bible (not Marx) for the second mediation - to judge society - and and in their view it was very clear that an unjust society was not what God desired.

Justice and the Kingdom of God:

Boff defined the aim of Liberation Theology as 'A society of freed men and women' and said that the Kingdom of God could be seen as a 'Utopia of absolute liberation'.

Liberation theologians have been careful to stress that they are not saying that humans can, by their own efforts, create the Kingdom of God on earth.

However, they do think that human effort could go someway towards creating a fairer society.

'We do not confuse temporal progress and the Kingdom of Christ, nevertheless, the former…is of vital concern to the Kingdom of God.'

Medellin Document

The poor as the underside of history:

The poor are the 'underside of history' (Gutierrez' term) in that they are the ones who are overlooked, neglected and marginalised. You are probably familiar with the phrase 'history is written by the winners' (i.e. historical 'facts' are decided by those who have power) and the same is true of theology. Historically, theology has generally been done by academic theologians in universities and monasteries. It reflects their concerns rather than the concerns of the masses.

In many instances throughout history the Church has been closely associated with those who have power. Thus, critics like Marx have argued that theology has been used as a tool for social control.

  • For example, by preaching that poverty is a spiritual virtue and promising that the poor will be richly rewarded in heaven the Church has helped to ensure that the poor will accept their situation rather than rebel and upset the status quo

Biblical texts have been interpreted in ways which could be said to reflect the concerns to the people doing the interpreting.

  • For example, the story of the rich young man told by Jesus to give up all his possessions and give to the poor has been interpreted as being a specific commandment to that individual because for him money was a barrier in his relationship with God. It has (generally) not been interpreted as a universal commandment for Christians.


This links to CEBs (the place where theology is done by the people for the people), to hermeneutics (the methods used to do theology).

Gutierrez believed that theology done from the perspective of the rich did not adequately serve the needs of the poor. To do theology from the perspective of the poor (from the underside of history) one must first live alongside the poor.

First and second step praxis:


Gutierrez believed that traditional Christianity placed too much emphasis on orthodoxy (right belief) and not enough on orthopraxis (right action). The teachings on justice and judgement relate closely to praxis.

Gutierrez used the terms first step praxis and second step praxis to show what it meant to do theology from the perspective of the poor.

  1. First step praxis is to become genuinely committed to the poor.
  2. Second step praxis is using the bible to critically reflect upon the commitment to the poor and use the gospel message as a starting point for liberation.

Reversal and development:

Liberation theologians argued that for justice to be achieved the structures of society needed to be changed. For this to happen reversal was needed. Reversal is an idea found both in Jesus' teaching and in Marxists ideas. 

Jesus and reversal:

Jesus famously taught 'the first shall be last and the last shall be first' suggesting that those who are least privileged in society will be lifted up by God. He also demonstrated reversal in his own attitudes. Rather than choose disciples from among the elite he picked fishermen. Rather than associate with the righteous he ate meals with the social outcasts - the lepers and the sinners. Rather than praising the pharisees he called them hypocrites and encouraged his followers to be like children. Jesus' teaching upset social order and elevated the lowly. This reflects the words of Mary in the Magnificat 'he has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly' (Luke 1:5)

Marx and reversal:

Look back at the Marxism notes to make sure that you understand Marxist theory.

To understand Marx' views on religion you might like to also look at the A2 page on Feuerbach.

Marx also advocated reversal. According to Marx society progressed through stages and moved from one stage to the next through the process of revolution. In order to create a fairer society the underclass (the underside of history) need to overthrow those in power. This reversal can only be achieved by first consciousness-raising to overcome false consciousness and alienation. Marx held that religion contributes to human alienation because people project their hope and desires onto God and create a projection of idealised humanity that they then worship. To reclaim their autonomy and overcome alienation they need to go through a process of reversal and 'reclaim' the things that they have projected onto God as their own.

Development and reversal:

Liberation theologians believe that poverty is caused by oppression (the dialectical view of poverty) and they reject the idea that it is caused by backwardness (functional view). If it is caused by oppression then the solution to the problem must be to overcome the oppression. It will not be effectively solved by development.

In Latin America the idea that development could help reduce poverty by addressing backwardness (functional view) of the economies had led to further problems without having any significant benefits for the poor themselves. Latin America had enjoyed a period of economic growth during the middle of the century but it had not improved living standards for the majority of the population. Significantly, developmental aid leads to the problem of dependency. In Latin America, aid from the USA had meant that the Latin American markets had become dependent upon the American economy and were vulnerable to changes in the market. Capitalist markets prioritise the production of capital (money) and the poverty of some in the system is viewed as a byproduct of the wealth of others.

Thus, for Liberation theologians, true development (as opposed to superficial development) would necessarily involve revolution - i.e. reversal. Gutierrez wrote:

'Attempts to bring about changes within the existing order have proven futile. Only a radical break from the status quo, that is, a profound transformation of the private property system, access to power of the exploited class, and a social revolution that would break this dependence would allow for the change to a new society, a socialist society - or at least allow that such a society might be possible.'

Gustavo Gutierrez A Theology of Liberation


The idea that Christians should support justice is not a controversial one. Almost all Christians would say that it is a Christian duty to try to live by God's rules on earth and create a fairer society. The debate is about how you should go about doing this. Controversy over liberation theology includes;

Do try to think about both sides of the issue.

One might argue that liberation theology is more truly Christian than forms of Christianity which place less emphasis on social justice. If all Christians agree that justice is good then perhaps all have a duty to work actively for it. Are Christians who do not actively work for justice hypocritical (what would Amos say about them?)

Also consider whether these criticisms of liberation theology are fair. Do they misrepresent what liberation theology actually advocates or do they oversimplify the arguments?

  • The charge that they focus too much on what humans can achieve and prioritise earthly progress over the spiritual journey.
  • The idea of the preferential option for the poor might be said to be at odds with the idea of God's universal love (though Gutierrez specifically says that it is not at odds with it. He does not dispute that God loves everyone.)
  • A liberal theologian might argue that it is naive to read the Old Testament and think that he actually intervened and took sides. It might be more likely to be the case that the biblical writers wrote their history in a way that reflected their beliefs and they assumed God to be on their side (much as people throughout history have declared 'God's on our side' when it comes to war).
  • Liberation theologians might be guilty of selective use of the evidence when it comes to choosing what biblical texts they use. Furthermore, they might have a rather one-dimensional reading of the texts that they do use.
  • Particularly controversial is the idea that achieving justice requires structural change - i.e. revolution. Marxist revolution is based on class struggle, an idea that Ratzinger said was at odds with the Christian principle of love of neighbour.
  • From an economic perspective we might also challenge the idea that structural change would bring about improved conditions for the poor. History suggests that socialist revolutions have not always made the poor better off. Thus we might challenge the practicalities of promoting structural change.
  • Finally there is the question of violence. Firstly, are liberation theologians actually advocating violence? Secondly, would it be morally permissible for them to do so? Could a revolution fought for social change ever count as a just war?