Initial thoughts on Gutierrez’s Theology of Liberation

I just finished reading, for the first time, Gustavo Gutierrez’s Theology of Liberation. My understanding is that it was one of the earliest works of liberation theology, coming out of a Latin American, specifically Peruvian, context.

What’s interesting to me is that, not having much background in LT, I was expecting something like warmed-over Marxism with Christian window dressing (at least, that’s how some conservative critics of LT portray it). What I found instead was an intensely theological vision where political liberation is one aspect of an “integral salvation” of humanity from the bonds of sin. The gospel, Gutierrez contends, is political precisely because the root of human sin is that we have ruptured our friendship with God and with each other; conversely, the restoration of that fellowship must have political consequences. If the wealthy landowner is grinding the peasant’s face in the dirt, how can you say they’re brothers reconciled in Christ?

Not that I didn’t have any reservations about Gutierrez’s vision. I would question whether he’s too optimistic about humanity’s (even redeemed humanity’s) ability to effect a truly just society. He’s somewhat vague on this score, at times cautioning that even the best of human political arrangements fall short of the Kingdom of God, but then emphasizing the need for a complete overturning of the present order and its replacement with a “truly just society.” In fairness, even if human political acheivements all have their limitations, revolutions may sometimes be justified, and Gutierrez’s Latin America may be one of those ocassions. However, Gutierrez is also sketchy on the means of the revolution, which makes a big difference.

Another worry I have is that Gutierrez seems to share the excessive optimism of some theology from the 60s and 70s–specifically that theology which maintained that humanity had finally “come of age” and could take charge of its own destiny. (The book was originally published in ’71, though the edition I’m reading is the 15th anniversary edition, on loan from my bro-in-law. Thanks, Josh!)

In Gutierrez’s case, this seems to be his attitude concerning not only humanity’s ability to establish a just society, but also to “dominate the earth” and “transform nature” to meet human needs. Indeed, ecological concerns are entirely absent from the book (understandably, perhaps, given the situation Gutierrez is mainly concerned with – the dreadful oppression of poor people in Latin America). One might also, of course, want to revisit Gutierrez’s rather sanguine attitude toward socialism, though he doesn’t seem dogmatically committed to a particular political ideology.

All this aside, it’s tough to argue with Gutierrez’s main contentions: that the gospel is for body and soul; that God in Jesus entered into solidarity with the poor and oppressed of the earth; that God sides with these victims of oppression; that we serve God insofar as we serve the least of his brethren; and that it is part of the calling of Christians to be in solidarity with the victims of injustice and to be agents of a political liberation aimed at allowing each person a chance at a flourishing life.

In fact, maybe the reason I wasn’t shocked by Gutierrez’s radicalism is that these assumptions–in large part because of the work of liberation theologians–have penetrated so far into mainstream theology. Yet it still stands as an indictment of our too-comfortable churches and the easy peace we make with political injustice. I’m looking forward to reading a bit more in the literature–suggestions for further reading are welcome!

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3 thoughts on “Initial thoughts on Gutierrez’s Theology of Liberation

  1. Spot on. Overwrought optimism about human potential to build the Kingdom denies the fallen, sinful nature that thrives in each individual. But then again . . . I’m Lutheran. Most liberationists are not.

  2. In Gutierrez’s defense – he does distinguish between the Kingdom and the political efforts of human beings. But even given that he does seem to think that creating a just society full stop (rather than a more just society) is within our grasp. I’d like to see him elaborate on this a bit more – does he think that a “just society” is a historical possibility, or is it more like an ideal that we can approach? I’m inclined to think that any human political structures will be imperfect and sinful, even though–of course–some are preferable to others.

    Jamelle, thanks for the recs. I’ve been intrigued by Cone’s work, especially in light of the Obama/Jeremiah Wright dust-up during the primary season. My understanding is that Cone’s version of black liberation theology was a significant influence on Wright.

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