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The eye of the needle: no salvation outside the poor: a utopian-prophetic essay

30 November, 1999

Jesuit priest Jon Sobrino believes that global capitalism is driven by a dynamic of greed and oppression that dehumanises people, destroys family life and threatens mother earth. It is only when the poor themselves are given a voice and become agents of their own liberation that a way can open up for the salvation of the world.

96pp. Darton, Longman & Todd. To purchase this book online go to www.dltbooks.com



  1. We must change the course of history
  2. A very sick world
  3. The poor and salvation
  4. Extra pauperes nulla salus
  5. The mystery of the poor notes



INTRODUCTION The way was also prepared by the 1971 Synod of Bishops on Justice in the World which again, without using the formula, recognised ‘the Church’s vocation to be present in the heart of the world by proclaiming the Good News to the poor, freedom to the oppressed and joy to the afflicted’ (5). And it confirmed the right of the poor to take their future into their own hands and the Church’s duty to give witness to justice by first being just herself.

The option was taken up by many religious congregations. In 1983 the Jesuits adopted it at their 33rd General Congregation in these words:

The validity of our mission will also depend to a large extent on our solidarity with the poor. For though obedience sends us, it is poverty that makes us believable. So, together with many other religious congregations, we wish to make our own the Church’s preferential option for the poor. This option is a decision to love the poor preferentially because there is a desire to heal the whole human race. Such love, like Christ’s own, excludes no one but neither does it excuse anyone from its demands. Directly or indirectly, this option should find some concrete expression in every Jesuit’s life, in the orientation of our existing apostolic works, and in our choice of new ministries. (52)

Four years later, this option was extended officially to the whole Church by Pope John Paul II in his Encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. It is within the context of this development that Jon Sobrino’s latest book needs to be placed and understood. Its origins, however, go back much further, to the ground-breaking work in Central America of his close friend and mentor Ignacio Ellacurfa, rector of the Central American University and one of the six Jesuits massacred there in 1989.

For the Jesuits of Central America, Ellacurfa was responsible more than anyone else for opening their eyes to the challenges of Vatican II and their implementation in the Society’s work and life through the decrees of its 32nd General Congregation in 1974. He gave a controversial retreat to the young Jesuits of the Province, urging them to break away from restrictive structures so as to reach out to and identify with the ordinary people. Until removed by outside pressures, he was appointed their formation superior. But it was above all, during his long stint as rector of the Central American University (UCA), that he showed what a genuine option for the poor was and where it should lead, and this in a private university, an institution that in Latin America traditionally catered for the middle and upper classes.

Jon Sobrino freely acknowledges his influence, quoting him at the start and conclusion of this present work and many times throughout it. To some extent it represents an updating of Ellacuría’s ideas and their application to our world of today. He himself describes its central theme as a recognition that, ‘in order to heal a civilisation that is very sick, we need, in some form, the input of the poor and the victims’. To achieve this, Sobrino takes and develops two key ideas of Ellacuría.

The first is his bold concept of a ‘civilisation of poverty’ in which he argues that poverty is not just a counsel of perfection but also an historical necessity. Our world today is profoundly sick because the civilisation of wealth or capital that dominates it cannot be extended to what a recent writer has called ‘the bottom billion’ of the poor. It cannot be denied it has brought many benefits to humanity which should be preserved and furthered, but it is equally clear that there are not enough material resources on earth to let all countries achieve the same level of production and consumption as that of the countries called wealthy, which are inhabited by less than 25 per cent of the world’s population. One is reminded of Mahatma Gandhi’s reply to a journalist who asked him if the newly independent India would now attain the same living standards as the British, their previous colonial masters: ‘It took Britain half the resources of this planet to achieve its prosperity; how many planets do you think a country like India would require?’ It follows that, if the behaviour and even the ideal of a few cannot become the behaviour and reality of the greater part of humanity, then it cannot be said to be moral or even human, all the more so if the enjoyment of the few is at the cost of depriving the rest.

But not only can this ideal not be realised, it is not even desirable. This because in the last analysis, as Ellacuría points out, it proposes:

the private accumulation of the greatest possible capital on the part of individuals, groups, multinationals, states or groups of states as the fundamental basis of development, and individuals’ or families’ possessive accumulation of the most possible wealth as the fundamental basis for their own security and for the possibility of ever growing consumption as the basis of their own happiness.

This is not only un-Christian but dehumanising, as Sobrino clearly explains.

Hence the need for a civilisation of poverty ‘whose guiding principle is the universal satisfaction of basic needs’ and the ‘growth of shared solidarity as fundamental to the making of humanity’.

Ellacuría was at pains to point out this does not mean the penury or destitution presently suffered by so many that must be condemned as a scandal and disgrace, but rather a new civilisation enabling all to have access to the material and cultural goods that make for a truly human life. This would inevitably reduce the enormous and growing gap between those who have and those who haven’t. It would also be fully coherent with the teaching of Jesus. ‘It cannot be denied, without suppressing essential elements of the gospel, that wealth is a great obstacle to Christian liberty and that poverty is a great support for that liberty. The idea of having more as a condition for being more is a diabolical temptation, rejected by Jesus at the start of his public mission’.

Is this all pie in the sky, an unrealisable utopia? Ellacuría clearly didn’t think so since he suggested a number of specific measures that could lead towards it. These would affect the role of human work in society, the ownership of property, the satisfaction of basic needs, political structures that promote community and individual initiative, religious structures that grow upwards from the base, and a new cultural order. But all of them would depend on a conversion whose first step is to look at the world through the eyes of the poor and begin to understand it in a different way. A second condition is that a civilisation of poverty calls for new attitudes towards wealth and possessions that will only be possible to achieve through a radical change in lifestyles. It could well be that an additional incentive for this might now be the effects of the climate change that is looming ahead.

The second key idea of Ellacuría, which Sobrino develops considerably in this essay and holds to be its main contribution, is that of a ‘crucified people’ who need to participate directly and actively in their own liberation for this to come about at all. It is not something that can be achieved without them or by outsiders. Others can help and contribute to the process in a variety of ways, but it has to start and be directed by the poor themselves. For this reason, in a telling phrase, Ellacuría describes those involved as ‘the poor with spirit’ who will be the ones to play a determining role in creating a civilisation of solidarity rather than selfishness.

This view is increasingly supported by development economists and aid experts. There is a growing awareness that many aid programmes have failed precisely because they were imposed on poor countries by international agencies and financing governments without taking into account the real needs and desires of the poor themselves. A recent study, The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly (OUP, 2006), admits openly that planners have drawn up numerous ‘solutions’ which have in fact done more harm than good. And it concludes: ‘Only the self-reliant efforts of poor people and poor societies themselves can end poverty, borrowing ideas and institutions from the West when it suits them to do so’ (p. 334). In The Bottom Billion (OUP, 2007), Paul Collier, former Director of Development Research at the World Bank, addresses the issue of ‘why poorer countries are failing’, and pinpoints four major problems that trap them in structures they have not created, and from which the wealthy and powerful, often abetted by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, prevent them from escaping. He also insists several times that ‘the society of the bottom billion can only be rescued from within’ (pp. xi, 12, 96). And in words strongly reminiscent of Ellacuría’s ‘poor with spirit’, he claims that:

In every society of the bottom billion there are people working for change, but usually they are defeated by the powerful internal forces stacked against them. We should be helping the heroes. So far, our efforts have been paltry: through inertia, ignorance, and incompetence, we have stood by and watched them lose (1).

This, of course, does not mean canonising the poor. There is no reason to believe that many are any less venal, corrupt or egoistic than the non-poor. But experience has often shown that some are generous with the little they have and often prepared to help others in worse conditions than themselves. It is also true that the loss of human possessions can encourage a certain detachment from material things. As someone has put it, if you take away everything from a person, that person becomes free. So Ellacuría claims the crucified people are like a mirror in which the First World sees itself the other way round and recognises the truth about itself which otherwise it tries to hide.

Sobrino is probably correct in claiming that his formula extra pauperes nulla salus (‘no salvation outside – or apart from – the poor’) is something new that does not appear in any modern texts. But a genuine option for the poor has always, in my opinion, recognised it is from the poor themselves that liberation must start and be developed. In their 32nd general congregation already referred to above, the Jesuits recognised this clearly:

If we have the patience and the humility and the courage to walk with the poor, we will learn from what they have to teach us what we can do to help them. Without this arduous journey, our efforts for the poor will have an effect just the opposite from what we intend. We will only hinder them from getting a hearing for their real wants and from acquiring the means of taking charge of their own destiny, personal and collective. (4, 50)

I do not find Sobrino’s formula an unexpected novelty, and certainly don’t think it is scandalous.
But more important is the detailed study he gives it in the second part of this essay, and its application to reality when dealing with kinds of salvation, the historical forms of salvation coming from the world of the poor, and the role of the non-poor. One is tempted to ask whether the sufferings of a crucified people, though crying to heaven for vengeance, have in themselves a redemptive value as St Paul claims that ‘by means of my physical sufferings, I am helping to complete what still remains of Christ’s sufferings on behalf of his body, the church’ (Col 1:24).

Be that as it may, my own experiences in El Salvador of the poor and innocent suffering severe persecution and violence in a cruel civil war for which they had little or no responsibility convinces me we have a lot to learn from this crucified people. I shall never forget a mother in one of the refugee camps who had just got news that one of her sons had been killed. An eyewitness, herself wounded, related how the soldiers had cut off his hands and feet, slashed his face and partially skinned him before he died. The mother, quiet and dignified in her grief, didn’t even know which of her two remaining sons were involved: a 12-year old or his 14-year-old brother. While she spoke, two of her little daughters played on the ground and one slept in my lap, blissfully unaware of their brother’s horrible fate. Yet, during the Holy Week services that followed, the mother and many others forgave and prayed for those who had tortured and murdered their children or parents. Of such is the Kingdom of heaven and in such our hope for a new world.

Michael Campbell-Johnston SJ





On 6 November 1989 Ignacio Ellacurfa gave a speech in Barcelona. As it turned out, it was a programme, as well the last speech he ever made:

Together with all the poor and oppressed people in the world, we need utopian hope to encourage us to believe we can change the course of history. And not only change its course, but subvert it and set it going in another direction [ … ] On another occasion I talked about a ‘coprohistorical analysis’, that is, the examination of our civilisation’s faeces. This examination seems to show that our civilisation is very sick. To escape from such a dire prognosis, we must try to change it from within (2).

That very sick civilisation is the capital-civilisation, which Ellacuría also called the wealth-civilisation. It makes ‘the accumulation of capital the driving force of history; it considers the possession and enjoyment of capital to be what makes us human (3)’. It has offered no adequate solution to the basic needs lacked by most people on this planet, neither has it accorded them human fellowship. The conclusion is clear: ‘in a world driven wrong by the dynamic of capital and wealth, we need to set up a counter-dynamic to stop it and save the world from it (4)’.
This new dynamic arises from a work-civilisation, which he also called a poverty-civilisation. ‘It is based on a materialist humanism lit by Christian inspiration; its guiding principle is the universal satisfaction of basic needs and it sees the growth of shared solidarity as fundamental to the making of humanity (5)’.

Of course, Ellacuría insisted that we should hold on to all the important achievements of our present historical moment: scientific research, which has improved various aspects of life; our ethical and cultural progress in human rights, and other ideological and cultural advances, such as certain elements of modern democracies. So ‘stop’ and ‘save’ do not mean ‘starting from scratch’ but do mean ‘starting again’ and ‘starting against’ the principles that govern our present wealth-civilisation.

For Ellacuría the evils needing to be overcome were obvious: poverty, worsening exploitation, the scandalous gap between rich and poor, ecological destruction, as well as the perversion of actual advances in democracy and the ideological manipulation of human rights … He spoke out repeatedly against dehumanisation, the degradation and prostitution of spirit, about which too little was, and still is, being said. We have only to recall his criticism in his Barcelona speech of ‘the dehumanisation of people who give up the struggle to become and be, for the sake of the all-out pursuit of producing and having, accumulating wealth, power and honour and an ever-increasing range of consumer goods (6)’. That is the specific dehumanisation produced by a capital-civilisation. It is very serious, and it is everywhere.

To overcome this wealth-civilisation and its evils, Ellacuria urges us to ‘raise collective awareness calling for radical changes … and to create economic, political and cultural models to allow capital- civilisation to be replaced by a work-civilisation (7)’. Both these tasks are necessary and both very difficult indeed. To make them happen, he urgently recommends utopian vision and hope ‘with all the poor and oppressed people in the world(8).’ That gives us the central theme of this essay: in order to heal a civilisation that is very sick, we need, in some form, the input of the poor and the victims.




  1. In this essay we gather together ideas, sometimes whole paragraphs, that we have published over the last few years – in particular, in the following articles of the journal Concilium: ‘Redenci6n de la globalizaci6n. Las victimas’, 293 (2001), pp. 129-39; ‘Revertir la historic; 308 (2004), pp. 811-20; ‘La salvación que viene de abajo. Hacia una humanidad humanizada, 314 (2006), pp. 29-40. And also ‘La opci6n por los pobres: der y recibir’, Revista Latinoamericana de Teologia 69 (2006), pp. 219-61.
  2. ‘El desafío de las mayorías pobres’, Estudios Centroamericanos 494-4 (1989), P.1078.
  3. ‘Utopía y proferismo’, Revista Latinoamericana de Teología 17 (1989), pp. 170ff.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Cf. ‘El desafío’ pp. 1076 ff.
  7. Ibid., p1078
  8. Ibid

A Preferential Option for the Poor became an accepted part of ecclesiastical jargon and policy in the 1980s. This was largely due to the two conferences of Latin American bishops at Medellin in 1968 and Puebla in 1979 which profoundly influenced the universal Church. The first, though it did not use the expression, recognised that ‘a deafening cry pours from the throats of millions of men, asking their pastors for a liberation that reaches them from nowhere else’ (14.2). From this came the commitment ‘to make ours their problems and their struggles’ (14.10). The second declared formally the need ‘for conversion on the part of the whole Church to a preferential option for the poor, an option aimed at their integral liberation’ (11.34).

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