To the chagrin of many, Archbishop of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan offered this Monday the opening prayer at the Republican National Convention.

Here at this link you can read the full text of Dolan’s prayer. But here in this reflection, what I’m interested in is not so much what the cardinal prayed, but whether the very act of his leading in prayer Donald Trump and the Republicans – perhaps the worst administration for the poor and marginalised in recent history – was appropriate for a man of the gospel.

The cardinal himself thinks it was. In the face of the sharp criticisms levelled at him for his appearance at the Convention, he argued last week – and repeated again Monday – that “as a priest, one of my most sacred obligations is to try and respond positively whenever I am invited to pray”.

“Prayer is speaking to God, offering Him praise, thanking Him for His many blessings, and asking for His intercession; it is not political or partisan”, Dolan defended himself.

The problem with that argument, however, is that while prayer might not be partisan, God most certainly is.

After I came across Dolan’s argument Monday I thought about writing a reply, explaining why God does indeed take sides. But thinking and reading I realised that many have explained it more powerfully than I ever could.

In that recognition, then, below I’d like to reproduce an extract from Daniel Bell’s 2006 book Liberation Theology after the End of History: The Refusal to Cease Suffering.

We pick it up as Bell is discussing the liberation theologians’ assertion that “genuine justice is partisan justice” – as Jon Sobrino put it – for its privileging of the rights of the poor.

“God is partisan; the Incarnation was a partisan act – God took on poor flesh”

Does the partisan nature of the liberationists’ account of justice entail a retraction of the rights of the comfortable minority? Many (wealthy) critics have voiced this concern, fearing that the characterization of God as partisan somehow jeopardizes God’s love and concern for all of humanity.

The partisan nature of justice, liberationists concede, does admit a certain prioritization of rights:

… the promotion of the common good cannot progress by denying the individual rights of the human person, precisely because the promotion of those rights is an integrating part of the common good. But it can happen in a specific historical situation that it is necessary to establish priorities in the enjoyment of individual human rights.

For example, the refined cultural activities of the few cannot have primacy over the fundamental education of the majority of the people, and even less can the enjoyment of some convenience have primacy over the right to have what is necessary for survival.

Since almost everything in human life is superfluous in the countries which suffer from extreme poverty, anyone who wishes to enjoy superfluities should join a society where this massive poverty is absent and where the voice crying to heaven of those in need cannot be heard.

But although human rights should be regulated by the common good, it is impossible to conceive of a common good which would require the permanent and grave violation of human rights in order to maintain itself.

Ignacio Ellacuría, “Human Rights in a Divided Society”

Nevertheless, as this passage shows, the critics’ fears are unfounded. The partisan nature of justice and the prioritization of rights that it entails do not lead to the dismissal of the rights of the wealthy. They do not legitimate a crusade against the oppressor or the use of terror in the struggle for the rights of the poor.

What the partisan nature of justice does accomplish is the anchoring of human rights in concrete reality, thereby increasing the chance that the rights of all will actually be respected in practice and not merely declared in theory.

A declaration of the rights of the poor does not overlook the universality of human rights, as some seem to fear. On the contrary, a proclamation of the rights of the poor bestows on human rights in general an authentic universality – through enhanced historical concretion and evangelical realism, which are the foundation of all authentic prophecy.

Gustavo Gutiérrez, Las Casas: In Search of the Poor of Jesus Christ

The rights of the poor provide a palpable, measurable standard that protects the struggle for human rights from the danger of becoming mere abstract declarations and formulations. Their rights, especially their right to life, function as a societal barometer of sorts.

A society’s respect for human rights in general can be gauged by the treatment accorded to the least of its members. Moreover, the emphasis on the rights of the poor also insures a more universal scope to the quest for human rights insofar as that emphasis places the focus of that quest on the rights of the majority of humanity.

Not only is the partisan nature of justice a more effective means of securing the rights of all, according to the liberationists, but it is also more faithful to the biblical witness than dispassionate and abstract conceptions of justice.

The biblical witness as read by the liberationists presents a God who does justice. Indeed, justice is at the center of the biblical witness of who God is. The justice that God does, however, is not neutral.

As José Miranda has shown in a study used extensively by liberationists, in the Bible to do justice and to judge are directly linked to the protection of the rights of the poor. When the Bible portrays God acting in the name of justice, it presents God acting to redeem the poor and the downtrodden.

God’s justice is not a matter of dispassionate adjudication; God is not enthroned in the heavens, wearing a blindfold. Rather, God is partisan; the Incarnation was a partisan act – God took on poor flesh.

Divine intervention and judgment are a matter of protecting the weak, the poor, the widow, the orphan. Thus, when God instructs the faithful to do justice, the expectation is that they too will defend the rights of the poor.

In this way, the biblical conception of justice parts company with the classic Western image of justice as the disinterested rendering to each what is due.

Instead, biblical justice is matter of rendering to the poor the rights that are due them, and it is to this witness that the liberationists appeal in defense of their conception of justice as partisan.

So, Cardinal Dolan – God does choose sides, and expects Christians to do the same. Are you sure you’ve chosen well?

More on Novena on the Church in the US:

Cardinal Dolan leading Trump and the Republicans in prayer is a travesty of the gospel

Done with Cardinal Dolan: New York’s archbishop is unfit to serve as a Church leader

US: A house of divided bishops cannot stand against racism


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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.