Black Lives Matter and the Preferential Option for the Poor

Black Lives Matter and the Preferential Option for the Poor July 9, 2016

The Black Lives Matter movement is again at the forefront and many have reacted again–almost instinctively–by affirming that all lives matter.  Last week, police Officers in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana shot and killed two African Americans during routine encounters. An African American shot and killed five police officers and wounded seven more in Dallas, Texas. Those who affirm that all lives matter seem to assume that if a person asserts that black lives matter then white lives don’t and neither do the lives of police officers.  Yet, as Bishop Edward Braxton explains:

The true intent of Black Lives Matter is a plea to all Americans to work to refashion our country so that the lives of people of color actually do matter as much as the lives of white people. It is a call to help us all live in communities in which everyone enjoys equal safety, education and employment opportunities, as well as equal political power and equal treatment by the criminal justice system.

(America Magazine, May 16, 2016 Issue)

Ten Candles #2, by Michael Jastremski, creative commons license, at
Ten Candles #2, by Michael Jastremski, creative commons license, at

The backlash against Black Lives Matters reminds me of the opposition by some Latin American Catholics against the preferential option for the poor.  To be clear: Black Lives Matter has a complicated relationship with the U.S. Catholic Church while the preferential option for the poor developed from within the Church in Latin America.  Nevertheless, the near-instinctive opposition experienced by those who affirm the human dignity of African Americans in the U.S. and the poor in Latin America bears some resemblance.  Some Latin American Catholics believed (and many still do) that if God and the Church have a preferential option for the poor, then they must hate the rich and the middle class.  Others wondered what the suffering of the poor had to do with our faith, since that was their lot in life (a common misreading of Matthew 26: 11).

The bishops of Latin America discerned the preferential option for the poor as a necessary way to proclaim the Good News of God’s love.  At the time, the social sciences had recently reached a consensus that poverty is man-made and sustained. The bishops’ purpose was not to glorify poverty but to follow Jesus’ lead in proclaiming a Reign that entails liberation from sin and all its effects, material and spiritual. Their purpose was to help us see that the Reign of God entails an end to the unjust suffering of the poor, to poverty itself.

Pope John Paul II took up the preferential option for the poor and wove it into Catholic social doctrine.  He wrote that it “affects the life of each Christian inasmuch as he or she seeks to imitate the life of Christ, but it applies equally to our social responsibilities and hence to our manner of living [.]” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 182, quoting SRS 42) Our decisions must advance the Reign of God in our society.

The preferential option for the poor continues to be challenging to Catholics in Latin America–particularly those who are better off–because it requires a decentering of one’s self, a willingness to befriend those who are poor, and an openness to see the world through their eyes. It requires the humility and grace to see Lazarus at the gate (Luke 16:20).

What would a preferential option for African Americans look like for white Catholics in the United States? And for Hispanic Catholics?

Racism, like poverty, is man-made and sustained.  It has no place in the Reign of God that the Church proclaims. As theologian Bryan Massingale writes, therein lies the hope and the challenge:

The society we live in is the outcome of human choices and decisions. This means that human beings can change things. There is nothing necessary or fated about racial hierarchies or white racial privilege. They are the result of human agency; it does not have to be so. What humans break, divide, and separate, we can—with God’s help—also heal, unite, and restore.
What is now does not have to be. Therein lies the hope. And the challenge.

(Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, 180)

The last time that our bishops joined to address racism in the United States in a pastorally significant way was in 1979.  It is time for them to do so again.  If they do, I hope they broaden the dialogue that Bishop Edward K. Braxton has begun with members of the Black Lives Matter movement because the Church needs it.  And may they evoke in us the hope, as Massingale has, that “What is now does not have to be.”

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