Published on November 14, 2014 by Fred Zaspel

University of Notre Dame Press, 2013 | 280 pages

Reviewed by Peter Anderson

“Poverty is a complex issue.” This is how Gustavo Gutierrez and Daniel Groody introduce the discussions that unfold in The Preferential Option for the Poor Beyond Theology. The contributions in this volume understand what the option for the poor means as a series of individual and communal choices that intentionally avoid service to the rich and privileged. Rather, solidarity with the poor and marginalized motivates life and action. The theology of liberation of Gustavo Gutierrez provides the foundation as he identifies poverty as social, economic, and political deprivation leading to a premature cultural and physical death.


The preferential option for the poor has been quite influential in the Roman Catholic social activism, and this work builds outwards from this foundational theological conviction. This volume offers an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the complexity of poverty from a variety of disciplines from educators and lawyers to sociologist and filmmakers. After all, the option for the poor also goes beyond theology into other ways that scholars, activists, and experts have sought to draw greater attention to the needs of all members of society.

There are three chapters written connecting poverty and the judicial or political system. In chapter one, Robert Rhodes Jr., a law professor, writes how he learned to encourage his students to use the preferential option to motivate their career choices by opting out of lucrative careers on Wall Street or in the business world. Instead, his students were encouraged to choose a life dedicated to advocacy and negotiation to benefit the poor. In chapter five, Patricio A. Aylwin and José Aylwin discuss the effects of political action taken against indigenous tribes in Chile as a case study in economic abuse of the marginalized. In the last chapter of this work, litigator Pat Maloney, Sr. encourages Christians in legal fields to leverage the legal system to dismantle the oppressive structures of modern society by questioning motives, utilizing means, and taking opportunities afforded to better the lives of the poor.

Two chapters more directly address the sociological or cultural perspective. In chapter three, Javier María Iguíñiz Echeverría reveals the complexity of poverty. “Being poor” involves much more than economic or monetary values. There are variables, rights, values, and freedoms that must be considered in the pursuit of the happy life. Continuing this discussion of poverty and happiness, Matt Bloom’s chapter questions the fundamental axiom of consumerism equating value with wealth. Instead of selfish individualism, Christians should revive the deeper social, economic, and cultural foundations of the happy life.

Three chapters are written by educators and focus on several academic solutions to poverty. Georges Enderle dedicates chapter two to a discussion of building wealth and the role of economic education and involvement by the poor. He concludes that building wealth is not fundamentally evil but emphasizes how creating and building global economies is just another area where the poor remain excluded. The global markets have a responsibility to alleviate rather than perpetuate poverty. In chapter eight, F. Clark Power and Stephen M. Fallon exemplify the educational and social needs of the poor in retelling their successes in curriculum building with the poor in mind. Based on the Great Books series, these men shaped an entire educational track for the needs of the poor and saw wonderful benefits in the lives of many. Mary Beckman’s contribution in chapter ten challenges the current education system’s indifference to communal effects of poverty. She proposes making social awareness founded in community-based projects an essential component in every course of learning.

Four chapters discuss the ecological and anthropological realities of poverty. Written by Stephen Bede Scharper, chapter six points to the environments and ecosystems shared by both rich and poor. There is a cooperative responsibility for sustainable development that guarantees successive generations the ability to provide for their needs. Chapter seven builds naturally on the previous essay. Here, Kristin Shrader-Freschette provides a real-world example of how a poor community was unable to prevent a corporate factory nearby thus destroying air and water quality, spreading illnesses, and decreasing quality of life. In chapter nine, Gerard Thomas Straub provides a filmmaker’s perspective on poverty as he documents the life and struggles of suffering. Pat Farmer writes chapter eleven addressing the vast gap in healthcare between the rich and poor. Contrasting the “cost-effective” decisions made by the poor with the vast options open to the wealthy, Farmer ties medical care to questions of social justice.


The preferential option for the poor is an enduring and vibrant topic of discussion. From a Protestant position, there is something of a mixed response. Positively, the Protestant denominations have historically fallen behind in addressing the complex social, cultural, and structural effects of sin on the socially marginalized. The rich tradition of Roman Catholic social thought lessens the learning curve for churches and individuals interested in reversing this trend. In contemporary discussions of poverty and global suffering, Protestants have become increasingly aware of the cycles of poverty and the nuance needed in providing solutions. Roman Catholics and the option for the poor allows for an ideal entry point into a conversation that precedes current Protestant interests and will endure long beyond any theological faddishness. In many ways, the solidarity emphasized in this work reflects the emphasis of Jesus’ own earthly ministry. God writes himself into the story of mankind and preaches the gospel to the unsuspected demographics of the poor, socially ostracized, and morally questionable (Luke 4:18). Our ministry should embody the same values.

Negatively, the preferential option for the poor tends to become the singular hermeneutic for understanding the rest of Christian faith and tradition. This often happens with cultural battlegrounds. Whether human sexuality, poverty, or ecology, there is a great temptation to flatten the contours of Scripture by interpreting the breadth of the canon through only one lens. Even more troubling, there isn’t any indication within this work that salvation for both the poor and wealthy lies in belief and repentance in the person and work of Jesus Christ. There is lip-service to the role of the church but all too often the discussion remains on the fringes of the deepest issue: the need for a relationship with Jesus Christ. It seems the criticism against the emptiness of words (James 2:16) in the face of social injustice has been replaced by the emptiness of actions devoid of gospel vitality. Coupling the deep concern for the poor with a clearer dependence on the person of Jesus Christ would provide a helpful social ethic in the church for many years to come.

Peter Anderson is a PhD Candidate in Christian Ethics at Southeastern Baptist Seminary in Wake Forest, NC.


Buy the books

The Preferential Option For The Poor Beyond Theology

University of Notre Dame Press, 2013 | 280 pages

Share This

Share this with your friends!