Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

A Preferential Option
distributed 11/07/03 - ©2003

"A preferential option for the poor."

That phrase came out of a meeting of the Catholic bishops of Latin America, held in Puebla, Mexico in 1979. Through the last 20 years, that phrase has been a powerful centering point in theological reflection, and in movements for liberation.

Robert McAfee Brown unpacked the 6-word phrase:

To speak of "a preferential option for the poor" is not to speak of an "exclusive" option for the poor, as though God loved only the poor and did not love anybody else, especially the rich. What the bishops are asserting is that in responding to the concern that God has for all people, we start toward the fulfillment of that long-range concern by an immediate and initial concern for the poor, working with them and for them. To the degree that the cries of the poor are given priority over the complaints of the rich, the bishops argue, there can be movement toward a society that is more, rather than less, just.

Over and over again, the scriptures keep surprising me with their intentionality about those who are on the margins. I am struck by how often the writings of our faith do stake out a preference for the poor and the oppressed, for the weak and the powerless.

  • When Jesus tells us that he is present "in the least of these" -- the hungry and thirsty, the stranger, those who are naked and sick and in prison.

  • In the admonition that we should invite to dinner those who are poor and cannot repay the favor, instead of those who are affluent and will give us a return invitation. (That one has a large "OUCH" in the margin of my Bible.)

  • In the recurring instructions to care for those without power in the society -- the widow, the orphan and the sojourner.
A preferential option, expanded to include the powerless parts of God's creation, lies at the heart of an eco-justice perspective. I give thanks for the Catholic bishops who so concisely named that pervasive theme from the scriptures.

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This week, Mike Leavitt officially started work as the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency. He told his staff that his approach to environmental management can be summed up in one word: balance. "We need to balance the needs of the environment and the needs of humanity balance the needs of this generation and the next."

"Balance" falls short of "a preferential option." It is like the difference between "equal opportunity" and "affirmative action." But even so, I would be thrilled with his statement, if I though that Leavitt and I put the same meaning on the word "balance."

I'm convinced that we're way out of balance right now -- that the "needs" of the current human generation are given far too much consideration. From my perspective, I would expect that a genuine emphasis on balance would lead Governor Leavitt into an energetic enforcement of environmental laws, and into a driving push toward sustainablity, because those actions would start to bring us back toward a balancing of the various needs.

But I have a hunch that Leavitt sees things differently. I suspect that "balance" for him means that the needs, desires and whims of the current human generation will always be given priority. "Balance" means that no claim by the future or by the rest of creation will ever go unmodified or unquestioned. "Balance" means that "we" will always get something new out of the deal, and the others will always have to give something up.

"Balance" -- as I'm afraid Leavitt is using the word -- means a preferential option for business as usual. That is a far cry from a preferential option for the poor and the marginalized. That sort of "balance" does not embody a deep respect for the needs of future generations, or for the needs of the rest of creation.

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Somebody once talked me through the mathematics of compromise. They're likely to be similar to the mathematics of "balance."

The conversation happened at a time when the environmental movement was being accused of being demanding and inflexible. (What? There are still people saying that?) Rather than insist on the preservation of large chunks of public land, some said, the environmentalists should be willing to compromise, to strike a deal that protects some of the land, while allowing the "development" of other parts.

Let's do the math. Suppose the preservationists -- wilderness advocates, for example -- compromise on each proposal, and settle for half of what they wanted. After two rounds of compromise, they have one quarter of what they started with. Three rounds goes to one eighth. After four compromises, there's about 6% of the original land left.

You see, the wilderness people can't make a proposal to add new pristine land to the earth. So if there is compromise, it is always about how much land goes away. The same formula works for any non-renewable asset -- oil reserves, endangered species, or an atmosphere unburdened by greenhouse gasses. Compromise always means the loss of what is irreplaceable.

If we hold to a preferential option for those on the margins -- if we have an immediate and initial concern for the poor and the powerless, for the future, and for the non-human parts of creation -- then we will not allow the powerful of today to steal what is needed by those others. We must stand firm in our efforts for a "balance" that really honors the most essential needs of all parties.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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