Alongside the required undergraduate reading at Oxford, I sought out liberation theologians to read: Enrique Dussel particularly, plus Pedro Casaldáliga, Jorge Pixley, Pablo Richard, the Boff brothers, Ernesto Cardenal and Carlos Mestors. Gutiérrez remained the first, the 'founding father' of the movement.
And then, with frightening speed, I arrived in Lima. Suddenly I was living in Gutiérrez's parish of Rimac, occasionally attending his church, volunteering in the centre he had helped found. I met him in the corridors, heard him speak and preach and, one afternoon shortly before I left Lima, I attended an Advent mass at which he preached and presided.
He was short, in a rush, constantly pressed for comment or answers. Concluding a student conference he preached on Zaccheaus (Luke 19), encouraging us to come down from our viewpoint in the treetops and get involved in what was going on in the crowds below.
At the mass held in a sunlit room at the centre, he reminded us that the bread and wine should be taken 'on foot and in haste.' They were to nourish and sustain us for our active life.
Recalling these brief encounters, two things strike me that correspond to this week's re-reading of A Theology of Liberation: his constant example and encouragement (more a demand) that the church is actively present in society. It is then no surprise that he begins his theology from action or praxis. He describes theology as the second step. Secondly and correspondingly, that he is nourished by the tradition, the word and sacraments.
Today I continue to appreciate the unwavering clarity in which Gutiérrez lays aside generalizations and claims to neutrality, to stand bravely with the poor, abused and broken.
Is the Church fulfilling a purely religious role when by its silence or friendly relationships it lends legitimacy to a dictatorial and oppressive government? (2001:93)
He writes of the surprise radicalism of some Christians (considering the Latin American church's generally conservative history) – and the shock of repression against priests, nuns and lay leaders in a Christian continent. Today we know the long martyrdom of the Latin American church was many years from ending when Gutiérrez wrote in 1971.
The main criticism of the book has been that Gutiérrez confused human movements for liberation (Marxism and armed revoluntionary movements implied) with God's work of salvation. Yet in re-reading Gutiérrez makes the distinction between them again and again. There is a mutual relationship but in no way an identification of what is penultimate with what is ultimate (to draw on Barth).
Without liberating historical events, there would be no growth of the Kingdom. But the process of liberation will not have conquered the very roots of human oppression and exploitation without the coming of the Kingdom, which is above all a gift. (2001:176)
Speaking from daily contact with poverty and repression, he has firm words for those who 'fudge' the issue in order to stay uncommitted to the struggle for human lives and dignity.
It is those who refuse to see that the salvation of Christ is a radical liberation from all misery, all despoliation, all alienation. It is those who by trying to ‘save’ the work of Christ will ‘lose’ it. (2001:176)
Many western Christians struggle with the notion of God's preference for the poor. Again, Gutiérrez is at pains to stress this does not negate God's love for all.
The universality of Christian love is, I repeat, incompatible with the exclusion of any persons, but it is not incompatible with a preferential option for the poorest and most oppressed. (2001:250)
No-one is excluded from God’s love. As we read in story of Zacchaeus, ‘are loved by God and constantly being called to conversion.’ (2001:250)
From the other side of the room, radical theologians have criticised A Theology of Liberation for remaining within a classical theological structure, rather than drawing also on radical and indigenous traditions of Latin America. A related frequent criticism is that the early liberation theologians such as Gutiérrez have failed to take into account the complexity of 'the poor' and see factors such as ethnicity and gender as important. Elina Vuola feels that the founding fathers of the movement have been less able to respond to the diversity of issues needing to be addressed today:
Liberation theology has largely remained unaffected by such recent developments in social theology as gender theory and postcolonial discourses… Prominent liberation theologians such as Enrique Dussel, Pablo Richard and Leonardo Boff, amongst others, grasp the need for these ‘new subjectivities’ within liberation theology, but are unable to include them because of the radical critique these new forms of social critique entail to certain traditional positions held by liberation theologians themselves. (Vuola 2002:16–17)
While I agree with Vuola, in recent articles (and even in the introduction to the revised 1988 version of A Theology of Liberation Gutiérrez does acknowledge the complexity of the situation and mentions organizations such as EAWOT that brought together theologians from poor communities around the world, each working from a distinct but related context. Nevertheless, as Marcella Althaus-Reid observes, many of the 'founding fathers' of liberation theology have remained conservative on the issue of women's rights and sexuality. In a week in which Nicaragua has voted to ban abortion, and South Dakota continues to debate whether it will uphold it's ban, both with the support of conservative church leaders, such reticence is frightening.
Finally, Marcella Althaus-Reid is bitingly critical of the conventiality of and the subsequent comercialization of liberation theology and of 'church tourism' by western Christians to find and photograph 'fashionable' base communities.
They came with notebooks and cameras to take photos, and returned to their countries of origin suntanned, with some traditional shirt from Latin America and notes for a future book to be published on Liberation Theology. Meanwhile, the liberationists were loosing the initial indecency of their project of theological dissemination. Too much clapping and admiration was as bad as the criticisms.' (Althaus-Reid 2000:26)
She makes for uncomfortable reading.
Acknowledging these and other criticisms, Gutiérrez's book continues to inspire me, calling me down from the tree and into the confusion and life of the crowds below.
To know God is to work for justice. There is no other path to reach God. (2001:245)
1 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner." 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." 9 Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost." (Luke 19:1-10)
Gustavo Gutiérrez ( 2001) A Theology of Liberation London: SCM Press
Elina Vuola (2002)Limits of Liberation: Feminist Theology and the Ethics of Poverty and Reproduction Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press
Marcella Althaus-Reid (2000) Indecent Theology Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender and Politics London and New York: Routledge