John Howard Yoder points out the semantic ambiguity of the English rendition “preferential option for the poor” which has its genesis in Latin America. The strain comes from the term “option” meaning an openness towards choosing a side in the future. The Spanish and Portuguese cognate, on the other hand, means that one has already taken sides. The English transliteration reverses the meaning. Instead of siding with the poor, there remains a decision to do so.
Yoder points out other developments that stray to an even greater distance from the meaning, taking it into a range of paternalistic forms: asking and debating what is good for poor people, thus “making it a question of political economy, or of social ethics.” It has been co-opted to the extent of advocacy for trickle-down economics and status quo politics as ways to help a greater amount of people get ahead. I imagine that things like this are symptomatic of the distorted meaning Yoder is describing.
Rather than lingering on the one right definition of a now public phrase, Yoder points to the original substance behind the “preferential option for the poor” offered by José Míguez Bonino. Bonino submitted that fundamentally the phrase is conveying the idea of “the epistemological privilege of the underdog.” Here Yoder notes that “the phrasing points us to the awareness that the first question is not who should be fed or who should govern, but whose picture of things is correct.” The epistemological advantage is that the view from below is the best vista from which to see reality. It is a truer way to see things “as they are.” Yoder nuances this phrase “as they are” in Spanish in two ways: (1) como son speaks of the fundamental reality of things, their underlying essence; (2) como están is a referent to the current state of things, the present conditions of the world. The epistemological privilege applies to both levels of nuance for the underdog.
Yoder then provides two reasons as to why the perspective of those below should be respected, one empirical observation and one biblical observation. Empirically, the view of the underdog should be respected because there are more of them. Yoder elaborates, “[i]f societies become more authentically democratic, the underdogs will have more to say, and the leaders they choose will have more authority. If societies fail to become more fair, it is “from below” that trouble will come.” Within the current political context, this observation can’t help but call to mind the occupiers frustrations with political misrepresentation and economic venality, and their rallying-cry “we are the 99%.”
Biblical faith ought to privilege the underdogs neither for population nor commitment to a political theory, but rather because the underdog is the place where God has chosen to see things and call men and women from, and because it is with the vulnerable that God has chosen to advance his story. The act of becoming vulnerable in self-emptying is sometimes called kenosis. This kenosis is not merely a “mentality of self-abnegation or servanthood” (though it is that) nor is it merely a moral choice made by God within a violent history (though it is that too). It is the prototype for the believing community who confess Jesus as Lord to follow as normative, and Yoder is quick to mention the Romeros, Kings, and Gandhis who have reincarnated this in the 20th century. But it is still more than this ethos.
For Yoder, the kenosis of God is an epistemological insight. It prototypes not just a spirituality and normative ethos, but a new way of seeing reality and a way of seeing through the realistic view of reality that is native to the top. This insight of kenosis, along with its spirituality and its ethos, can be integrated into ones life–and “without,” as Yoder notes, “all the pathos of literal martyrdom”–in the mundane and the ordinary.
It is in the kenotic life that the believing community will move towards unity. The Eucharist must be the “locus and focus” of shared life and bread with the hungry. Baptism must create a solidarity of a new creation with the most vulnerable, drawing together insiders and outsiders. And it is this household which is called to see things with and alongside of the underdog, so that it might see things “as they are.”
-John Howard Yoder, “On Christian Unity,” pages 167-169 in Spiritual Writings: John Howard Yoder, edited by Jenny Howell and Paul Martens, (Orbis 2011).