Gustavo Gutierrez. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation. Translated and edited by Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1973.
I first heard of Gustavo Gutierrez and this book when I was an undergraduate in college. I was taking a class on “Images of Jesus,” and one of the units was on liberation theology. Now, I had heard of liberation theology before I took that class, even if I was not familiar with the name Gustavo Gutierrez. In the right-wing literature that I had read, liberation theology was criticized as being pro-Communist, and for focusing on the political rather than the spiritual (i.e., people receiving Jesus Christ as their personal savior so that he could transform them into a new creation).
When I took that undergraduate class on “Images of Jesus,” some of what was said about liberation theology made sense to me, even though I was arguing against it in class. One student was asking if she shouldn’t have stuff, and the professor replied that it wasn’t so much that she shouldn’t have stuff, but that we should remember that God’s creation should be for people in need, too, and that it is a problem if there are people who are going hungry. One of the students giving her presentation on liberation theology told us about poor people in Latin America who were so hungry that they wanted communion wafers to eat.
Questions lingered in my mind about liberation theology. While one of the advocates of liberation theology in my class was making the point that the Kingdom of God is supposed to be a present reality, I wondered how exactly proponents of liberation theology planned for their just new society to come about. Would it be through violent revolution? This question would re-enter my mind years later, when I was taking a class taught by Harvey Cox on “Contemporary Images of Jesus.” Cox showed us a slide of a peasant Jesus with a machine gun on his back. “Imagine that!”, I thought, “The Prince of Peace with a machine gun on his back!”
I suppose that, if anything, I found liberation theology to be wrongheaded and overly idealistic. I believed that capitalism could lift poor Latin Americans out of poverty. I was also skeptical about political attempts to create a new society. Human nature being what it is (namely, sinful), I cautioned that we should remember that those leftists who take power could end up being just as bad (maybe even worse than) the oppressors they were replacing. Human nature could only be changed through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as God gave believers a new nature, I thought.
So here I am, in 2014. I have just finished Gustavo Gutierrez’s A Theology of Liberation. What do I think? Is my impression of liberation theology now different? Have my questions about liberation theology been answered?
I was expecting to like Gutierrez’s book much more than I did, since I now lean more to the left, even though I believe that even the left has its own share of problems. I was expecting vivid descriptions of poverty and passionate appeals for justice. I was also hoping for interaction with the question of whether violent revolution is justified, or if the oppressed should pursue peaceful approaches in attempting to create a new, just society.
Instead, I found the book to be rather dry. I think that Gutierrez in this book may have been trying to appeal to academic theologians to accept liberation theology, for his book has virtually no anecdotes, but it has economic commentary and lots of interaction with the thoughts of theologians (i.e., Thomas Aquinas, Karl Rahner, Jurgen Moltmann, etc.). The economic commentary could have been more detailed than it was: Gutierrez was contending that capitalism reduced many in Latin America to a state of dependence, and that mere reform was not enough, for what was needed was a new socialistic society in which the people owned the means of production. But I wish that he had explained in more detail the dynamics of how capitalism reduced many people to dependence.
I found his interaction with theologians to be rather interesting. Gutierrez is arguing for a political sort of Gospel, and he draws on the thoughts of theologians to make his case. For example, he appeals to Rahner’s concept of the anonymous Christian, the person who does not believe in Christianity yet is still experiencing God’s grace. (And, on a side note, Gutierrez in an endnote quotes a sermon by the fourth century Christian thinker Gregory of Nazianzus of in which Gregory implied that his father was a Christian before actually embracing Christianity.) Gutierrez appeals to this in arguing that Christians and non-Christians can join hands to create a just society, and that this is the will of God.
How does Gutierrez believe that the just society is to be created? Well, he refers to Jesus speaking out against the powers-that-be in his day. Gutierrez does not go so far as to accept that Jesus was a Zealot, for he contends that Jesus departed from Zealot nationalism in his openness to the Samaritans. But Gutierrez does maintain that Jesus’ message and ministry had some political, here-and-now ramifications—-that Jesus was not just exhorting the poor to wait patiently for God to intervene dramatically, but was bringing the Kingdom to them at that time, on some level. Gutierrez also suggests that the church be poor in solidarity with the poor. Is Gutierrez open to violent revolution? To be honest, I cannot tell. He refers to people who think that violent revolution is the only way to bring about a new society. He also favorably quotes Che Guevera a couple of times, and Che was certainly willing to use violence! But I could not determine what Gutierrez’s stance on violence was.
Gutierrez did make a decent case for caring about the poor, however. He appealed to the biblical commands to love one’s neighbor, the early church’s holding all things in common, and the Hebrew Bible’s opposition to poverty and oppression. It is indeed problematic when you have rich Christians and poor Christians, and the rich Christians are participating in a system that exploits or oppresses the poor Christians. For Gutierrez, that sort of set-up is not benefiting the rich Christians, either, for it is encouraging them to be heartless.
But would revolution and setting up a new society solve anything, if human nature is sinful? Gutierrez acknowledges that any new society would not be perfect, but he is hopeful that having a new society built on a new foundation—-one of concern for others—-would be better in terms of human nature.
Speaking for myself, I do not believe in using “sinful human nature” as an excuse not to pursue political reform. There are human beings all over the world, and some of them have managed to create systems that are fairly just and compassionate. I would not go as far as Gutierrez in terms of his vision for society, for I am open to a possibility that some form of capitalism, tempered with a bit of socialism, could lead to a society in which people do not go hungry. What I support is opportunities being out there for people to support themselves, and a social safety net being there (in the form of government and private charities) so that people do not fall through the cracks.