50 years later, Gustavo Gutierrez’s ‘A Theology of Liberation’ remains prophetic.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication in English of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation. That first edition of Gutiérrez’s book served as a primary introduction to a new way of doing theology and becoming church with the poor and insignificant.
A Theology of Liberation is a significant book about the insignificant ones of history who live in insignificant worlds. Insignificance is the prism for grasping what is at the heart of the book, what it points to, what it resignifies. For something or someone to be considered significant means that it is recognized as something known, confirmed as something important. Conversely, that which is insignificant lacks meaning, does not convey anything of importance, does not transcend itself in signification. Insignificant ones exist without leaving a mark in history, and ultimately, they lack historical presence.
To do theology—“el quehacer teológico,” in Gutiérrez’s words—from the perspective of the poor is to affirm the right of the poor to thinkfaith from their own experience.
A Theology of Liberation discerned the irruption of the presence of the poor into a world of signification, with the biblical claim that it is insignificant persons who most signify and make present the presence of God. In the original Spanish introduction to the book, Gutiérrez clarified that the book’s real question is the theological status of the process of liberation; phrased differently, it is about the deep meaning of faith and the mission of the church in a world of captivity. To be Christian, to be church, the book argued, is to live permanently a process of liberation whose referent is always the mystery of God made flesh, who in radical freedom chooses what is insignificant for God’s own revelation. To grasp the irruption of the presence of the poor, one must undergo an epistemological rupture, a new way of encountering and reading reality through faith in the living God.
In a new introduction titled “Mirar Lejos” (“to see far”—the English translation calls it “Expanding the View”) that Gutiérrez wrote for a later edition in the late 1980s, he invites us to rethink our notion of historical time in relation to the process of liberation, and not to lose sight of three points that are basic to liberation theology: the viewpoint of the poor, the doing of theology and the proclamation of the reign of life. The following three organizing principles are the pillars of Gutiérrez’s work and fundamental for any assessment of the book.
1.) The perspective of the poor requires being close to the real poverty that overdetermines their life. Gutiérrez refers to this poverty as a universe that exceeds socioeconomic aspects. To be poor and insignificant is to exist in proximity to death. The perspective of the poor, however, also includes their struggle for justice and peace, for life and freedom, for joy, for presence in a society that eradicates their right to exist.
2.) To do theology—“el quehacer teológico,” in Gutiérrez’s words—from the perspective of the poor is to affirm the right of the poor to thinkfaith from their own experience. Doing theology is a necessary element of a community of faith that is attempting to understand their joys and sorrows, their prayers and commitments, their encounter with the Spirit of the Living God manifest in their own story. Thinking faith in the midst of poverty and insignificance is a process of discerning how the God of life is already laboring in that history.
3.) To proclaim the reign of life is to commit one’s life with other communities in the transformation of institutionalized violence that brings death. Ultimately, to proclaim life is to join in the work of sanctification, a hallowing of earth and all creation, fully aware that the God of creation is the God of liberation who sets a people free. But as the title of the 1988 introduction to A Theology of Liberation states, we must learn to see far lest we mistakenly confuse and identify God’s freedom to create and liberate with our own limited historical projects and timelines.
The colonial destruction of past centuries continues in our day, leaving behind a trail of death, the carcasses of worlds deemed insignificant.
Dead ends and conversion
The theology of liberation that emerged 50 years ago was the fruit of a lived spirituality centered on the following of Jesus. The methodology for reading the signs of the times structures the book, which allows Gutiérrez to discern the dead ends (practical and theoretical) that no longer responded—or perhaps that never responded—to an understanding of faith. The following of Jesus required making sense of a new historical context—a new epoch—where a people had become aware of the radical inequality and oppression that dictated their everyday life and condemned them by the millions to an early death before their time.
The first half of the book assesses previously given responses to the relationships between faith and politics, liberation and notions of salvation, pastoral work and theological reflection, the transformation of history and the reign of God. The second half offers Gutiérrez’s creative reconfiguration of the classical axes of theology, inviting a rethinking of the very foundations of how to do theology, of how to say something coherent and credible that arises from, and responds to, the density of one’s historical present.
The book is unambiguous about the confrontation that marks the following of Jesus. To transform persons and structures that generate poverty and the conditions that keep a people in captivity (Lk 4:18) required a break that was nothing less than a conversion (see the document on “Justice” from the 1968 Latin American Bishops Conference in Medellín, Colombia). Turning one’s life around to follow Jesus is not the choosing of a new religious brand, but is rather a transformed way of living and loving, and “to wish to accomplish it without conflict is to deceive oneself and others.”
I will quote Gutiérrez at length because his words on conversion go to the core of what is also at stake for the church 50 years later in the midst of a synodal transformation that is bringing to the surface ecclesial conflicts and confrontations that have been suppressed for far too long. In A Theology of Liberation, he writes:
We have to break with our mental categories, with the way we relate to others, with our way of identifying with the Lord, with our cultural milieu, with our social class, in other words, with all that can stand in the way of a real, profound solidarity with those who suffer, in the first place, from misery and injustice. Only thus, and not through purely interior and spiritual attitudes, will the “new person” arise from the ashes of the “old.”
Gutiérrez’s formulation of liberation theology is a vital reminder that the community called church exists to the degree that it lets itself be formed and transformed by the presence of the Spirit of God active in history. His formulation invites the church into the agonizing crucible where God’s good creation—human and more than human—is being destroyed by structures of sin. The destruction of cultures, of languages, of humanizing values and traditions, of social bonds and integral relationships with all creatures—all of this is the loss of whole worlds that have been deemed insignificant by what Pope Francis has called in “Laudato Si’” the technocratic paradigm of modernity. The colonial destruction of past centuries continues in our day, leaving behind a trail of death, the carcasses of worlds deemed insignificant.
A Theology of Liberation is what the title claims: a theology, a reflection, God-talk that arises from the historical struggle for freedom and what that struggle tells us about the freedom of God.
Remembering with God
In 1971, the first edition of Teología de la Liberación: Perspectivas was printed at the Centro de Estudios y Publicaciones in Lima, Peru, a publishing house that Gutiérrez and friends started in 1970 with the aim of contributing to the construction of a world with more solidarity and justice. The book was then translated into English in 1973 as A Theology of Liberation and published by Orbis Books, which is releasing a 50th-anniversary edition this year.
In light of Peru’s contemporary reality, and the state of the world more broadly, one can raise the question of whether or how Gutiérrez’s seminal book and liberation theology as a whole have affected sociopolitical structures. In the past five years Peru’s democracy has had six different presidents, more Covid-19 deaths per 100,000 people than any other country in the world, and massive ongoing protests by Indigenous communities who are tired of the contempt and disdain they receive from their own government. Certainly, if one were to measure the impact of this book by the effect it has had on that country’s (or on the world’s) sociopolitical liberation, or by the reduced percentage of people who are living in poverty, then arguably it has failed to make a significant impact.
The impact and significance of the book, however, cannot be measured by creating such facile causal links, as others have attempted to do in prior decades. To do so would be like saying that the truth of Christ is determined by the church, which would be a failure in understanding the basic relationship and difference between Christ and the church. A Theology of Liberation is not a political or economic manual for eradicating poverty and social insignificance. A Theology of Liberation is not a way of “baptizing the revolution” or of placing an ecclesial flag on the highest standard that goes off to the latest war of liberation, no matter how just the war may be considered. Gutiérrez firmly criticized these misinterpretations of liberation theology in his 1979 book The Power of the Poor in History. No, A Theology of Liberation is what the title claims: a theology, a reflection, God-talk that arises from the historical struggle for freedom and what that struggle tells us about the freedom of God.
For all of the great insights and contributions that can be attributed to this book, it remains a book, and a book of theology at that, but this is in fact its greatest revolutionary gift. In the brief conclusion, Gutiérrez himself specifies how we are to evaluate theological reflection, and thus how to evaluate A Theology of Liberation:
If theological reflection does not vitalize the action of the Christian community in the world by making its commitment to charity [love] fuller and more radical, if—more concretely—in Latin America it does not lead the Church to be on the side of the oppressed classes and dominated peoples, clearly and without qualifications, then this theological reflection will have been of little value. Worse yet, it will have served only to justify half-measures and ineffective approaches and to rationalize a departure from the Gospel.
The true significance of A Theology of Liberation can be measured only in relation to the church, for its subject is a people of faith attempting to remember their fidelity to the mystery that orients their most profound longings. It is in relation to the church, as community and institution, that we can ask more specifically about the impact of the book, about the ways in which it has helped to transform or convert the church away from the dominant worlds of signification and toward the universe of the God of the insignificant.
In assessing the degree of the church’s conversion, we cannot forget the countless number of people who have offered their life in love, in commitment with and for the poor. Some of these martyrs are known, but most are unknown, desconocidos, killed for contributing to the construction of solidarity and justice with the forgotten.
As Bartolomé de las Casas once wrote, God has a fresh and living memory of the smallest and most forgotten.
The invitation of Jesus
Those who shape the dominant narratives of history and who also influence the dominant narrative of the church desire the erasure of the memory of the struggle—of what has been fought and who has been lost in the process of ecclesial conversion. But as Bartolomé de las Casas once wrote, God has a fresh and living memory of the smallest and most forgotten. God remembers, and the ongoing transformation and conversion of the church depends on our capacity to remember with God.
Since the bishops’ conference in Medellín in 1968 and the early days of liberation theology, a profound transformation has indeed taken place in the Latin American church. It is one that has also affected the global church, most recently through the papacy of Francis and the “sabor and saber”—the flavor and the knowledge—with which he is transforming the structures of the church.
At the conclusion to his book On Job (1985), Gutiérrez asks a version of the question that shows up in all his writings, the question that has guided his life and that he asks of us all: “How are we to do theology while Ayacucho lasts? How are we to proclaim the resurrection of the Lord where death reigns, and especially the death of children, women, the poor, indigenes, and the ‘unimportant’ members of our society?” Ayacucho is one of the poorest indigenous regions in Peru and is symbolic of every place where humanity is confronted with the death that oppression brings. Our response to his question must have its own accent, according to the needs of every particular time and place. At the root, we are faced with an invitation that all followers of Jesus must confront and for which we must give an account.
A Theology of Liberation was Gutiérrez’s first major account of his faith, of the faith of his people, of the faith of the church. Fifty years later, that account is a significant contribution to help us remember how to be and become church with and for the poor and insignificant. Its impact is just beginning to be felt globally within the structures of the church as we live into the maturation and ecclesial conversion that is required for any genuine following of Jesus Christ.