Michael E. LEE, Bearing the Weight of Salvation: The Soteriology of Ignacio Ellacuría. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2009. pp. 237. $34.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-8345-2421-0.
Reviewed by Arthur J. KUBICK, Providence, RI 02906

“Make yourselves poor while there are poor in the world; place yourselves in the field of the poor.” For Ignacio Ellacuría these words express the basic theme of the Beatitudes. It would be an oversimplification to say that they summarize his theology; but at the same time they powerfully bring together his challenge to both church and society. In a world of poverty, suffering and oppression how are we to live? How are we to understand the language of salvation-liberation in such a world? Does the following of Jesus flow directly from our interpretation of Christian salvation? And how do the crucified people of our world bring salvation into that world? These are questions that Michael E. Lee explores in this latest valuable contribution to the continuing discussion of the philosophical-theological work of Ignacio Ellacuría, murdered along with five other Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter on November 16, 1989, at the University of Central America (UCA) in El Salvador.

Dr. Lee, an Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Fordham University, has focused here on a specific theme at the heart of Ellacuría’s theological work: Christian salvation and its connection with discipleship. The book’s basic thesis is that “Ellacuría’s notion of Christian discipleship cannot be understood outside of the philosophical, Christological, and ecclesiological dimensions of his soteriology.” Several very fine books have been written on Ellacuría’s overall theological vision: Kevin Burke (The Ground Beneath the Cross); Jose Sols Lucia (La teología historica de Ignacio Ellacuría); Héctor Samour (Voluntad de liberación. El pensamiento filosófica de Ignacio Ellacuría). Here Lee looks specifically at Ellacuría’s reflections on salvation-liberation and discipleship. In this book he “explores the theological link between Ellacuría’s life and his vision for how Christians, considered both individually and as ecclesia, should act in the world. It also suggests that the attempt to fulfill this vision prompted his martyrdom.” More specifically “this study attempts to substantiate a claim concerning the intrinsic relationship between discipleship and soteriology: the manner one chooses to live as a follower of Christ in the world affects, and is in turn affected by, the way one articulates the Christian claim of salvation in Jesus Christ.”

In his initial chapter, “Liberation Theology: A Soteriological Debate,” Lee places Ellacuría within the broader context of liberation theology by examining his discussion of liberation-salvation, the preferential option for the poor, and the centrality of praxis. After an overview of the Vatican’s cautions on liberation theology (primarily dealing with soteriological issues), Lee gives a brief biographical overview of Ellacuría’s development as a liberation theologian—from early formation in the Basque country to immersion in the reality of El Salvador as a Jesuit priest, intellectual, and social critic—leading to his own responses to the theological-pastoral criticisms of liberation theology. The central points outlined here provide the structure for the following chapters.

Lee chooses two parallel frameworks on which to build his discussion of Ellacuría’s soteriology: the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, and Ellacuría’s own theological method. These are familiar to Lee’s readers, and so serve as helpful touch points for the journey through chapters 2-4 as he brings together the central questions of the study: How philosophically and theologically does Ellacuría account for or realize the weight of reality (hacerse cargo de la realidad)?; How does he locate in Jesus Christ and in today’s crucified people, the point from which to carry on or shoulder the weight of reality (cargar con la realidad)?; and How does he advocate that Christians respond to and take responsibility for the weight of reality (encargarse de la realidad)? The “Principle and Foundation” for his soteriology is based in the dynamic relationship of the human person within historical reality, a reality ultimately tied to God’s presence transcendent in reality rather than apart from reality. God is present within history; salvation takes place within history.

This historicization of the Christian message grounds chapter 3: “Locus Salvificus: Jesus Crucified and the Crucified People.” As the title implies, the key question here is not simply “Why did Jesus die?” but “Why was Jesus killed?” Jesus’ proclamation in words and deeds of the Reign of God—an interruption of the status quo—led to his execution by the powers threatened by this message. Ellacuría contextualizes Ignatius’ meditation before the cross during the First Week of the Exercises by placing us before the crucified people of the world. “For Ellacuría, only through historicizing that crucifixion do we know its meaning. Thus, the presence of the crucified people today signal that place of conversion and discipleship.”

Soteriology shapes discipleship. Our understanding of salvation determines not only how we follow (seguir) Jesus, but also how we carry forward (proseguir) his mission of proclaiming the Reign of God within our specific sociopolitical context. Chapter 4, “Ecclesial Praxis as Real Discipleship,” challenges the reader to take responsibility for historical reality through “contemplation in action for justice” in both its communal/collective dimension (ecclesial praxis) and its personal dimension (spirituality), a historicized vision of Christian discipleship rather than a spiritualized one. The primary example here is Monseñor Romero. “For [Ellacuría], Archbishop Oscar Romero demonstrates the crucial dimensions of Christian praxis and embodies the ultimate destiny of those who would follow Jesus and carry forward his mission: death at the hands of oppressive powers, but with hope in resurrection.”

This valuable contribution to our understanding of a remarkable theologian-martyr, Ignacio Ellacuría, would be sufficient in itself, but Dr. Lee moves beyond the historical analysis of Ellacuría’s writings to an examination of his contribution to current and future theological conversation. In his final chapter, “Transforming Realities and Contesting Orthodoxies,” he discusses the challenge of Radical Orthodoxy by examining the writings of John Milbank, Daniel Bell, Jr. and William Cavanaugh. This is not meant to be a thorough treatment of the issues, but rather a concluding connection with the challenges posed to Latin American liberation theologians by these writers. His conclusion is twofold: “first, that Latin American liberation theology remains a vibrant source of reflection, and second, that Ellacuría’s work in particular possesses rich possibilities for present and future theological conversation.” And we are privileged to be partners in that conversation with Ellacuría through the excellent work of Michael Lee. His own commitment to the crucified people breaks through the pages of this book, challenging the reader also to historicize Ignatius of Loyola’s colloquy at the foot of the cross…

Set your eyes and hearts upon these peoples who are suffering so much, some from misery and hunger, others from oppression and repression, and then, before this people thus crucified, to make the colloquy…by asking, What have I done to crucify them? What am I doing in order to un-crucify them? What ought I do so that this people be raised?


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