Is there a Unitarian Universalist “preferential option for the poor”?

I’m wondering why people join Unitarian Universalist congregations. Do we join in order to find a posse to help us further our existing social justice commitments? Do we join in order to help us stay in our current jobs, and maybe get better jobs? In other words, do we join in order to meet our own needs?

I’m a fan of liberation theologies. Liberation theologies talk about a preferential option for persons who don’t have as much power as the rest of the world. So Latin American liberation theologies talked about a preferential option for the poor: the purpose of religious communities was to live out Jesus’s consistent teachings to help people who were poor. Feminist liberation theologies say that religion communities must recognize that women and girls are as fully human as men and should be treated as such. And so on through black liberation theologies, queer liberation theologies, etc., etc.

Why have a preferential option for the poor? In liberation theology’s terms, the preferential option of the poor is how a religious community can begin to establish the Kingdom of Heaven, whether you believe the Kingdom of Heaven is something that’s here on earth waiting to burst out into reality if we give it a chance, or whether it is a reward that awaits you after death.

We can contrast liberation theologies with prosperity spirituality, which is “characterized by the doctrine that God desires Christians to be prosperous.” (William Kay, “Prosperity Spirituality,” in New Religions: A Guide, ed. Christopher Partridge [Oxford University: 2004], p. 91). Prosperity spirituality is designed to appeal to those who find the prospects for the future to be bleak and who don’t want to wait until the afterlife to enjoy the rewards of religion. Oral Roberts was the first great purveyor of prosperity spirituality.

Unitarian Universalism, and liberal religion more generally, strike me as being much closer to prosperity spirituality than to liberation theology. Many Unitarian Universalists are skeptical about heaven, and the rest are probably more concerned with getting heaven into people now, than in getting people into heaven later (to paraphrase John Corrado). Either way, we’re more concerned with how we can make our lives better, than we are in how we can enjoy the rewards of the afterlife. To my mind, this has pushed us into a kind of prosperity spirituality: Join our congregation because your life will be better due to improved mental and emotional health — join our congregation and do social justice to others which will make you feel better about yourself.

Sure, I’m exaggerating and engaging in polemic (as usual). But I also think I’m right: we Unitarian Universalists are far more likely to engage in our form of prosperity spirituality than we are to believe in a preferential option for the poor.

3 thoughts on “Is there a Unitarian Universalist “preferential option for the poor”?”

  1. I’m not sure I would phrase it this way. This discussion makes it sound as if there is a choice between: (1) selfishly helping ourselves, and (2) helping the virtuous needy “other”. It also makes it sound as if this helping the “other” is no different from a political party.

    I would hope that we go to church to help ourselves to live “better” lives in a broader sense. This includes (but is not limited to) being committed to recognizing our common humanity with others, and acting in solidarity with them, while recognizing that there are legitimate differences over how best to do so. So I see helping others as coming out of trying to develop our own higher nature, and I see our actions for social justice as being motivated more by solidarity and common humanity than by pity.

  2. Dan – I’m not always totally sympatico with some of your theological musings (but usually resist the urge to comment.) But your summary in the next to the last paragraph is spot on.

    However, I’d like to extend one of the categories in your dichotomy between prosperity spirituality and liberation theology.

    I find the term liberation theology too narrow for the one endpoint. Isn’t there a broader category? It seems to me that the dictates of liberation theology are a subset of either an other-centric received ethics (“Do unto others.., love your neighbor as yourself, do unto the least of these”) or as versions of the Kantian categorical imperative.

    So it becomes a contrast between prosperity spirituality and actually following ethical duty. I’m not sure UUs much like commandments, but aren’t they what come out of these ethical systems?

    An interesting reference is Myriam Renaud,

  3. I don’t understand the difference between prosperity theology and liberation theology. They both promise that if you listen to the minister you will have more money in this life. Maybe the idea is that liberation theology is prosperity theology for poor people. Anyway, all this “realized eschatology” seems the same to me.

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