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September 2018 Pulse

In his book Dispatches From the Front, the Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas describes a commercial produced by the National Association for Retarded Citizens. The film begins with a couple standing in a dark room and looking into a crib, the contents of which are kept from sight.

Then the young mother looks up and into the camera and says, “Don’t let this happen to you. Our baby was born retarded. Our lives are crushed and we do not know where to run. Do not let this happen to you. Get prenatal counselling. Help us eliminate retardation.”

Whatever good intentions the Association may have in producing this commercial, it conveys the disturbing message that the best way to eliminate retardation is to terminate the retarded – an inevitable conclusion however we may choose to interpret the commercial. As Hauerwas points out, “We can care for cancer patients by trying to alleviate their cancer without destroying the patient, but you cannot eliminate retardation without destroying the person who is retarded.” However, this is clearly an approach that Christians could never accept.

Sadly, modern society has become so bewitched by utilitarian ethics (in its various guises) that it is no longer perturbed by its twisted moral logic or shudder at its frightful social consequences.

Throughout its history, the Church has always extended its service and care to the most vulnerable in society in ways that are truly self-sacrificial and counter-cultural. This is because Christians recognise the equal dignity and worth of every human being and seek to uphold and demonstrate the unconditional love of God.

In Western Christianity, this vision of the Church is encapsulated in the notion “the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable”.

Unfortunately, many Christians fail to understand this statement. For many, the term “option” suggests a particular course of action that one may choose to take or not to take. It therefore follows that to say that a course of action is an option is to suggest that it is optional.

It is thus imperative that we clarify the meaning and intent of the expression “preferential option for the poor and vulnerable”.

“Preferential” simply means that the needs of the poor and the vulnerable should come first. The expression “poor and vulnerable” refers to society’s weakest and neediest members – the elderly, the terminally ill, unborn children, and all victims of oppression and injustice.

This, however, does not suggest that the poor and the vulnerable are more valuable in the eyes of God. As the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez makes clear, “God has a preferential love for the poor not because they are necessarily better than others, morally or religiously, but simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God’s will.”

What about the word “option”?

Here, “option” does not merely refer to choice. Rather, it has to do with a fundamental commitment.

As Prof Dr Jacques Haers puts it, “option” in this context refers to “the desire, the will and the ability to struggle in close connectedness with the suffering people against the evil that causes pain and exclusion”.

The Catholic theologian Karl Rahner asserted that while serving the poor and the vulnerable does, in a sense, involve a choice for Christians, it is never optional but a moral requirement.

Thus, for Christians, serving the poor and the vulnerable is a non-optional option. It is a moral imperative and a noble duty. In obeying this imperative and performing this duty, the Christian truly images or mirrors the God he worships, the God who always reaches out to the needy.

In fulfilling this moral requirement, the Christian stands in solidarity with the vulnerable in society by being a ‘neighbour’ in the biblical sense. Here, solidarity demands that the Christian takes concrete actions to alleviate the sufferings of the vulnerable, clearly illustrated by the story of the good Samaritan. As expressed by the eminent ethicist Henk ten Have, “Solidarity is not a pious intention, but shows itself in supporting a specific cause.”

The preferential option for the poor and the vulnerable is not a moral requirement for Christians only. It is the responsibility of every member of human society.

As Pope John Paul II puts it, “A society will be judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members; and among the most vulnerable are surely the unborn and the dying”.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.