A Reflection on Jon Sobrino, No Salvation outside the Poor: Prophetic-Utopian Essays
When I was in graduate school at Maryknoll, I recall a description of theology offered by my teacher Marc Ellis: “Theology ought to nurture the critical questions we need to be asking about the history we are making.” Interestingly, at a school of theology, Ellis offered a description of theology that did not invoke God.
Jon Sobrino’s latest book of essays ought to assist us with nurturing these critical questions within the categories we have named in recent years as “community versus empire.” I remember when Cab Gutting was still with CTSA, she once said that she thought such an “either-or” –“community or empire”—was too drastic, too dualistic. In reading Sobrino, though, one finds precisely these drastic either-or’s, for example, in the following reflection on salvation:
As a state of affairs, salvation occurs in diverse forms. Letting ourselves be guided sub specie contrarii by the negation of life and the dehumanization that we have already analyzed, we may say the following: salvation is life (satisfaction of basic vital needs), over against poverty, infirmity, and death; salvation is dignity (respect for persons and their rights), over against disregard and disdain; salvation is freedom, over against oppression; salvation is fraternity among human beings who are brought together as family, a conception opposed to the Darwinist understanding of the human race as mere species; salvation is pure air, which the spirit can breathe in order to love toward that which humanizes (honesty, compassion, solidarity, some form of openness to transcendence), over against that which dehumanizes (selfishness, cruelty, individualism, arrogance, crude positivism). 
Further, Sobrino states that the “relation between the kingdom and the anti-kingdom is not only dialectic, but dual; one acts against the other.” That is, when one works for the kingdom or reign of God, which means having the poor at the center of one’s activity, then one is also opposing or resisting the anti-kingdom with its idols of money, power, and domination. In the Scriptures, this was the battle between serving God or serving Mammon.
Indeed, Sobrino continues liberation theology’s emphasis on the option for the poor as the essence of what it means to be a Christian. For a Christian, he contends, is a follower of Jesus, who “requires that [his students] … act out the reign, and that they mold themselves according to the message and the person of Jesus himself, along the line of the parables of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Beatitudes….. And he also requires them to share in his destiny: being persecuted and crucified for prophetically confronting the world of oppression.” 
Besides Jesus, the most frequent references in this book are to Ignacio Ellacuría and Oscar Romero. For Sobrino, both men incarnate Jesus’ Kingdom program: opposition to the idols (of national security in El Salvador) and prophetic denunciation of the evils produced by the architects of the status quo; and the option for the poor, which, Sobrino reminds us, “is not just a matter of giving to them, but of receiving from them.” As the title of the book indicates, Sobrino believes argues that our salvation is dependent on the poor who “save precisely by moving us to conversion, to being honest with reality, to having hope, to practicing solidarity.”  As Romero himself declared: “I am glad, brothers and sisters, that our Church is being persecuted precisely because of its option for the poor and because it seeks to be incarnated in the interest of the poor.”  Prophetic denunciation and solidarity with those struggling for life are heads and tails of one coin.
As has been the experience of Salvadorans, mass death is seen by Sobrino as that “which takes the form of crucifixion, assassination, the active historical deprivation of life, whether slowly or quickly. That death, caused by injustice, is accompanied by cruelty, contempt and concealment. I usually add that the crucified people are also denied a chance to speak, and even to be called by name, which means they are denied their own existence.”  Sobrino’s words apply directly to Israel’s domination of Palestine.
Andrew Wimmer often uses the word “serious,” and we often talk about how to engage more people in the conversations that need to be taking place. In the following passage Sobrino offers us the most serious challenge:
Today there exist tremendous and unprecedented possibilities for knowing the reality of our world just as it is, with all that it has in it of anti-kingdom and all the deaths it produces. As experience demonstrates, however, to know the world truly and to allow oneself to be affected by it, simple access to data is not sufficient, as abundant and trustworthy as the data may be, including those of the UNDP. Serious analyses are not sufficient either, nor are truthful testimonies, as important as all these may be for other reasons. The reality of the anti-kingdom, its magnitude and its cruelty, can be truly grasped only by experiencing it in actu, in action, when it is actually dealing death. That is what is capable of moving people not only to laments, but to the struggle against the anti-kingdom. 
In sum: “The following of Jesus for the sake of the kingdom helps us to describe how we now must walk: building the kingdom and bearing with the anti-kingdom.”