Jonas (http://blog.bahnhof.se/wb938188) recently asked me this question, based upon my review of Jon Sobrino’s latest book:
Would you like to explain the view of the poor as Christ´s body? Does that mean that the poor [are] incorporated into Jesus, the Messiah, even if they verbally deny him and don´t want to follow him? What would be the biblical base for this teaching?
Here is my response:
I wouldn’t necessarily say that “the poor [are] incorporated into Jesus, the Messiah” but rather that Jesus, the Messiah, incorporated himself into the poor. Therefore, there is now an indissoluble and sacramental link between the poor and Christ. By choosing to identify with the poor, the marginalised, and the damned, Christ revealed to us that these people are priests, administering God’s presence to the world. Not only that, but Christ reveals to us that God has chosen to locate himself in and amongst the poor. Hence, the poor are the people of God — because they are the people with whom God has chosen to identify. Therefore, as Porfirio Miranda reminds us, if we are seeking God, we should go where God has told us he can be found — in and amongst the poor. We are foolish to look elsewhere, when God has already revealed his location!
But let us explore this sacramental connection a little further so that too much is not left in the realm of mystery (which is far too often a refuge for any ideological position).
First of all, the poor reveal to us, in history, the bleeding and suffering of God due to the brokenness of the world. Hence, the poor are the sacramental presence of the body and blood of Christ just as much as (if not more than) the sacramental presence of the body and blood of Christ found in the Eucharist.
Secondly, by bearing our sins — by taking nothing from us while we take everything from them, by taking our hunger while we take their food, by bearing death as we flee from it — that poor also hold the potential to be ministers of salvation to us. They reveal the falsehoods structuring our societies, they make manifest the perverse results of our ideologies, and they expose the hypocrisy that runs through our expressions of piety. Hence, in this regard, the poor are the sacramental presence of the Christ who proclaims, “I am the truth”.
Thirdly, the poor and those amongst them who choose to act non-violently towards the rich and privileged — that is, the majority — are also agents of God’s grace. By choosing to work with us in pursuit of new life together, by refusing to respond to us by taking away our lives, our loved ones, and our daily bread, the poor treat us with a value which we have never ascribed to them. This truly is ‘amazing grace’. However, to be clear, this does not mean that we can simply go on living lives built upon the blood of others. Such an approach would be the worst example of the ‘cheap grace’ that Bonhoeffer despised. The grace shown to us, by the poor, is not an opportunity to go on sinning, it is a call to conversion.
This means that the poor are counted as members of the Church, even if they verbally deny Jesus and assert that they do not want to follow him. For, just as with the confessing members of Christ’s body, they are simul justus et peccator — righteous and, at the same time, sinners. If the sin of a good many of the confessing members of Christ’s body is their refusal to journey into solidarity with the oppressed, then the sin of a good many of the crucified members of Christ’s body is their inability to confess Jesus as Lord (for now anyway). Note, however, even here the sin of the confessing members is greater than the sin of the crucified. Often the crucified have never been truly presented with the gospel, or with individuals or communities who genuinely reflect the liberating news of Jesus’ lordship to them — thus, the Jesus they have rejected is not the historical Jesus and risen Lord. The confessing members, alas, have far less excuses for missing that which is so obvious within Scripture.
As for the biblical basis for this teaching, I would simply point to manifestations of God’s preferential option for the poor contained within Scripture. Think, for example, of the fact that the very poor are left in the land when all of Israel is carried away into exile. In this event, the poor are spared the judgment that is poured out on all, not because they have lived righteously, but because God identifies with the poor and show them preferential treatment because of the ways in which they have been dehumanised by the social powers who act in the service of Sin and Death. Similarly, think of the unconditional proclamation of forgiveness that Jesus offered to the poor, the sick, and the marginalised. To the poor, Jesus said, “You already are forgiven; come, journey with me” — it was only to the comfortable and powerful that Jesus brought harsh warnings of judgment. For a multiplication of examples, I’ll simply refer you to the writings of Gutierrez, Boff, Sobrino, et al. I think I have adequately made my point.
However, let me reaffirm my prior assertion, while switching the emphasis. Yes, the poor are members of the body of Christ, but they are not the only members thereof. This is why I continually speak of both the ‘crucified’ and the ‘confessing’ members of Christ’s body. The key thing is to bring those two halves together so that the body can be whole, and so that the Church can truly manifest the presence of Christ in our world. The goal is for the crucified members to become confessers of Christ, and for the confessing members to become crucified with Christ. The new creation of all things is (proleptically) contained therein.