Academic journal article Theological Studies

Ressentiment and the Preferential Option for the Poor

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Ressentiment and the Preferential Option for the Poor

Article excerpt

The Phrase "preferential option for the poor" has been used with some frequency in recent discussions of social justice among Christians. It originated among Latin American theologians, Protestant and Roman Catholic, and was perhaps first explicitly adopted by an ecclesiastical assembly at the General Conference of Latin American Roman Catholic bishops at Puebla, Mexico in 1979. The phrase has since appeared in papal encyclicals, letters of bishops' conferences and synods, and in the writings of various authors. Indeed, it has become something of a watchword in conversations among Christians throughout the world as they endeavor to comprehend what sorts of actions they are called to by their faith.

While the phrase "preferential option for the poor" seems to have received rapid and wide acceptance, the notion itself is not without its difficulties. The phrase means different things to different people, and it is questionable whether all of these meanings are obligatory in light of, or even compatible with, the gospel. Is it an option that only the Church as a whole is obliged to make, or is it incumbent upon local churches also? Does the obligatory nature extend beyond churches to each and every individual Christian? And if the answer to that question is affirmative, does the option require each and every Christian to live and work with the poor? Or are there other ways in which Christians can live out this option?(*)

Beyond these questions there is, I believe, one even more fundamental, namely the problematic relationship between a "preferential option for the poor" and the phenomenon of ressentiment.(1) My concern with this problem arises from two sources. The first source is my own involvements over many years with people - students, faculty, human services workers, and "activists" - in work of social justice. Too often, it seemed to me, a desire to aid poor, suffering, or marginalized people, initially motivated by genuine charity, became infected with a ressentiment against the rich, the successful, and the powerful. At the same time as these observations were beginning to trouble me, I also became familiar with the powerful criticisms of Christian morality launched by Friedrich Nietzsche, initially through the writings of Max Scheler, but subsequently through Nietzsche's own texts. These criticisms provided a second source for my investigation of this problem.

In attempting to work out a satisfactory approach to these issues, I discovered the problem of the relationship between ressentiment and the preferential option for the poor to be considerably more complex than I had anticipated. I found it necessary to divide the exploration of this relationship into two phases: (1) an account of the "value of human valuing" as rooted in God's transcendent act of valuing and loving; and (2) a response to the Nietzschean critique of Christian charity and service of the lowly, along with an exploration of why a specifically preferential option for the poor, over and above Christian love of the poor along with all of God's creatures, is called for. I have treated the first topic elsewhere,(2) providing the background for what I shall say here regarding the second topic. In both cases Bernard Lonergan's writings have been especially helpful.

Accordingly, the present article is divided into four sections: a presentation of Nietzsche's critique of Christian morality; a brief summary of the general conclusions of my previous article; an explication of how those conclusions open up a response to Nietzsche's general critique of the Christian value of care for the poor; and, finally, an account of the meaning of the specifically preferential option for the poor within the context of what Lonergan has called "the structure of the human good."(3)

Before proceeding, I would like to add one note of emphatic clarification. Although I do agree with Nietzsche and Scheler that distortions can and have crept into aspects of some individuals' work for social justice, I do not agree with Nietzsche's apparently wholesale repudiation. …

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