I received my theological training at a conservative evangelical seminary. But one professor challenged his students with the social teaching of Jesus and included a healthy dose of liberation theology, beginning with Gutiérrez. At the time, I received this
foreign wisdom—from a Peruvian Dominican priest—with the arrogant criticism of a young American academic. Later, I read Gutiérrez’s study on the book of Job, We Drink from Our Own Wells, and was humbled and moved by his deep love of God and passionate faith lived out amid human suffering. By the time I discovered that book, I had learned more of the world and was ready to receive this wisdom that was far richer than Gutiérrez’s critics recognized.
The Father of Liberation Theology
The faces of the poor must now be confronted … There was a time when poverty was considered to be an unavoidable fate, but such a view is no longer possible or responsible. Now we know that poverty is not simply a misfortune; it is an injustice.
Throughout the history of Latin America, the Catholic Church has been a dominant institution supporting the status quo and ruling powers. But in the 1970s and 1980s, in many countries, priests and nuns were arrested and many were killed. Bible study leaders were murdered by the thousands. What turned the Church from a pillar of power to such a threat to the established order that its leaders were targets for systematic violence? This transformation bears witness to the power of ideas to change people and to change the history those people create.
Gustavo Gutiérrez has been called
the father of liberation theology. He does not like that appellation because he believes the theology of liberation is a project of
the people, ordinary Christians who apply their faith and the teachings of the Bible to the historical context in which they live. In Latin America that has been a context of extensive, grinding poverty and repressive regimes, often military dictatorships. Gutiérrez has been one of the leading lights in a movement of church authorities preaching a new theology that takes the plight of the poor seriously.
Gutiérrez was born in Lima, Peru, as a mestizo, mixed race, with both Hispanic and Quechua Indian blood. His early childhood was marked by illness; he was bed-ridden for years with osteomyelitis (inflammation of the bone). His illness prompted him to plan for a medical career, but he later felt a calling to the priesthood. He studied theology in Europe, but on his return to Latin America, he found his studies upended.
Discovering the Realities of Poverty
What Gutiérrez had learned in his classical education and what he encountered in the poor barrios of Lima seemed completely at odds. He had been taught that poverty was a virtue to be accepted, but he saw it as a destructive reality that needed to be changed. He had learned that poverty was the result of laziness or bad luck; instead he saw structures of oppression and political decisions that were made to keep the poor in horrible living conditions so others could benefit. He had learned that poverty was inevitable, but he saw that there was a power in the poor if they could organize themselves.
Biblical Justification for Liberation of the Poor
Gutiérrez had found deep images in the Bible that spoke to the realities he encountered with the poor, images that called for liberation. These images were not at the fringes of biblical teaching, but at the very center. One image was that of the exodus of the Hebrew slaves out of the bondage of Egypt. In their captivity, the Hebrews’ labor contributed
to increasing injustice and to widening the gap between exploiters and exploited. So God acted to bring these slaves to freedom and,
The God of Exodus is the God of history and political liberation.
As a Christian theologian, he saw God taking flesh in Jesus as an act of divine solidarity. In Jesus
God became poor, he taught. This was a powerful affirmation that Christ wasn’t isolated in churches—rather, Christ was located mainly among the poor in Latin America. Since Christ was living among the poor, then efforts toward social justice were a natural part of the Kingdom of God, the work of salvation.
Messianic practice is the proclamation of the kingdom of God and the transformation of the historical conditions of the poor. It is the word of life, backed up by the deed of deliverance.
The Birth of Liberation Theology
In 1971, Gutiérrez published his landmark book that later would be published in English as A Theology of Liberation. Many other theologians, church leaders and activist clergy wrote in this same vein, a movement called
Liberation Theology. Soon, this river of teaching and preaching branched into other cultures, giving rise to Black Theology, Feminist Theology, Asian Liberation Theology and African Liberation Theology.
For Gutiérrez, the voices of the marginalized ones needed to emerge by both honestly retelling old stories and writing new chapters of history:
I believe that our job today is to rewrite history in terms of the poor, the humiliated, and the rejected of society, to rewrite the struggles and the fights that have taken place in the last century. Re-envisioning history in a powerful new way transformed current challenges.
Development was a term he rejected as more passive than the word
liberation. The poor could make their own history, and the Church should join with them as a stimulus toward liberation.
What made the work of Gutiérrez and the other Latin American liberation theologians so powerful was that they did not design this new approach from some ivory tower. They worked through hundreds of thousands of
base communities, small groups that met in urban barrios and in rural villages to discuss the Bible. The Exodus imagery, the concept of God taking flesh among us, the suffering of the cross of Christ and the hope of his resurrection were all interpreted within the setting of peasants being driven off their land, of the poor going hungry, of those who protested being imprisoned, tortured or killed. The theology burned with incendiary fervor in the hearts of people for whom religion was their life’s blood.
Response from the Elite
Government response was harsh. Gutiérrez and other liberation theologians were called Marxists. Sometimes Gutiérrez and others used Marxist terms in their writing and teaching, but most of them rejected Marxist politics as incompatible with Christianity. For Gutiérrez, the liberation theology that he expressed throughout his writing and teaching sprang from a deep Christian spirituality and echoed the biblical tradition of prophets courageously speaking out against injustice. His own prophetic engagement sprang directly from his understanding of how faith, hope and love must be rooted both in love of God and in love of the poor with whom God became identified in Christ. Some priests joined revolutionaries in the jungles, but Gutiérrez believed one did not need to kill in order to love the poor.
Gutiérrez participated in discussions at the highest levels of the Latin American Catholic Church that shaped what eventually was expressed in formal statements throughout the Americas as
the preferential option for the poor. Conservative bishops tried to bar Gutiérrez from attending the crucial 1979 Puebla, Mexico, conference, but Gutiérrez and other liberation prelates including Oscar Romero participated at Puebla anyway. If they could not be formal delegates, they would serve as personal advisors to others at Puebla. Gutiérrez was advisor to eight bishops, so his thoughts were introduced into discussions by high-powered advocates. Gutiérrez understood that this was high-octane fuel, so potent that, he wrote,
The denunciation of injustice implies the rejection of the use of Christianity to legitimize the established order.
The revolutions, both violent and nonviolent, that shook Latin America and that eventually replaced most military dictatorships with democracies would not have happened without liberation theology. The ideas of Gustavo Gutiérrez and other liberation theologians transformed the lives of ordinary Latin Americans, turning religious communities into social and political forces. Religious-based passivity was replaced by religious-inspired activism. Of course, this work and Gutiérrez’s hopes have not been fully realized. Poverty remains a massive problem. But the call, the theoretical and spiritual fuel, is still there—
a demand that we go and build a different social order.