Gustavo Gutierrez is one of the fathers of what has been termed Liberation Theology. He is a native of Peru and is most well known for his book, A Theology of Liberation. Similar in nature to Bonhoeffer, he believes that theology must start with the sufferings of the oppressed. Liberation theologians in general believe that "God speaks particularly through the poor, and that the Bible can be understood only when seen through their perspective" (www.brown.edu).
In the face of suffering and adversity identified in Peru, Gutierrez questioned the traditional term theology. He saw theology as a disconnected exercise of the intellect, and to him it made no sense to ascribe authority to a system appearing so abstract. A path needed to be carved which was to get the Church to have a hand in the struggle to supersede the Neo-Classical Capitalism with a more equitable and Bible-focused social-economic order. Theology is not a reflection on truth, or a philosophy, but more simply is a way to live. This is what Gutierrez refers to as praxis. This lead him to redefine theology as a reflection on praxis in light of the Word of God: to be committed to the poor in real situation, and to identify with them and take action on their behalf.
He believes theology should make explicit the commitments and concerns of the people, who are on the ground, with scripture in hand, trying to figure out what to do. Therefore, theology has a context. Theologians who do not realize this notion of context are disillusioned, and unaware of the fact that through this naivete they are representing an elite bourgeoisie far removed from economic suffering of the poor and oppressed. They fail to recognize the fact that due to these economic and social differences, the poor and the rich encounter Biblical revelation in completely different manners and from completely different perspectives. In the theological process, therefore, praxis must be the first stage, and theology the second. Theologians are not meant to be solely theoreticians, but also practitioners participating in the continuing struggle to liberate the oppressed.
Gutierrez believes that faith and theology are not interchangeable, but rather that faith is something that must come before theology. More clearly stated, theology comes from the belief that an individual has in God, and it is only through this belief in God that one can be able to begin to reflect in a theological sense. Gutierrez also feels that theology must be grounded purely in the Word of God, and not bound by one s own personal agenda. This is an area where Gutierrez feels that modern theology has gone astray. It has broken away from the Word of God and has lost the essential element of action. Furthermore, theology is not only spiritual, but also scientific, which Gutierrez refers to as theology as wisdom and theology as rational knowledge. All of these parts must co-exist in line with the other, and be educed from the Word of God. Liberation Theology understands this complete meaning of theology.
There are several types of Liberation Theology (such as Black Liberation Theology, and Feminist Liberation Theology), but Gutierrez focuses specifically on Latin America. By focusing on Latin America, he derives meaning out of the struggle and injustice between developed and underdeveloped nations. Liberation Theologians read the truth of the Bible as God speaking of liberation of the poor and the oppressed. Therefore, any doctrinal teachings must be understood with this notion in mind. Since God has this preferential option for the poor and oppressed, the Church should have this same preferential option for the poor, and not the rich and powerful. Only if the rich and powerful take care of the poor and oppressed will God look favorably upon them, otherwise he will look down upon them and punish them.
Since "sin is evident in oppressive structures, in the exploitation of man by man, in the domination and slavery of peoples, races, and social classes" (175), Gutierrez believes that if one tolerates these unjust social structures which exist between developed and underdeveloped nations, one is at the same time rejecting God. The word of God commands Christians to rise up against this oppression and to break free from the command of powerful nations. This command to rise up against powerful nations is part of the Marxian influence on Liberation theology. To truly break the evil roots of the problem, developing countries must break from their dependence on the rich countries. Liberation, therefore, refers to the inescapable moment that radical changes will lead to true development. Breaking away from this status quo is Liberation.
There are three main parts into which Gutierrez divides the term Liberation. First, Gutierrez speaks of liberation as freeing oppressed peoples of social classes, economic, and of social and political conflict between wealthy and oppressed nations. Throughout time, God has liberated, or freed humans. For example, "in Creation He frees man from the chaos of lower nature; in the Exodus He frees the Hebrews from oppression by the Egyptians in the House of Bondage" (class notes). Gutierrez further speaks of applying Liberation to a historical context, by implying that man can liberate himself by taking his own destiny in his hands. Liberation entails internal, or psychological liberation. Liberation is not only an attempt at better conditions and social revolution, but also "the continuous creation, never ending, of a new way to be a man, a permanent cultural revolution" (32). Finally, Gutierrez asserts that Christ is the one who liberates Christians from sin. He is the one and only savior, and through this liberation of sin, mankind is able to be in a continuous communion with Christ the Savior. Jesus Christ was a libertarian himself, and we too should follow the "paschal core of Christian existence and of all human life: the passage from the old man to the new, from sin to grace, from slavery to freedom" (35). According to the Word, sin is the root of poverty, inequity, and persecution. Christ liberated His people from sin so that they might be free. "In the Gospels Jesus mission was to free the poor and his Easter resurrection was to free human sinners from sin and the power and fear of death" (class notes). This here is the deepest meaning for Gutierrez s liberation.
However, it is also prudent to realize that Gutierrez is not strictly referring to Christians. Liberation is not just religious liberation. He refers to a God not restricted to a strictly religious realm, but to a God that is at the core of society, even a secular society. There is only one human history, and it is the same for both those who believe and those who do not. It is important, therefore, that the church extends beyond a solely religious domain and instead must join together with the rest of society in a collective effort that fights against secular social structures of political and economic inequity.
The use of violence is probably one of the most controversial aspects of Liberation Theology. Liberation theologians believe that those who are oppressed can, and do sin, by bowing down to their bondage. To live passively with oppression rather than resisting it and attempting to overthrow it, by violence if necessary, is sinful (again, the Marxian influence). Thus, violence used for resisting oppression is not considered sinful. A particular action such as killing may be regarded as sinful if an oppressor commits it. However, viewed in the light of being committed by the oppressed in the struggle to remove inequities, such action would not be viewed as being sinful. So Marxism has its influence because Liberation Theology is anti-authoritarian, anti imperialist, has a preferential opinion for the poor, and stands against laissez-faire capitalism and oppression. However, it should be noted that Marxism was atheistic and had an anti-Christian ideology, which stood for violence to achieve goals. This is in conflict with the spiritual and prophetic ideals that have identified the liberation movements.
Marxist class analysis is also used to examine the social-political-economic class structure of the oppressing society. This is possible in the context of liberation theology because oppression is not claimed to be simply confined to a religious and spiritual realm, but it also is applied to political, social, and economic domains. The Church can use this type of analysis without becoming "Marxists" or "Communists" because she is merely using philosophical ideas for religious purposes in an attempt to clarify context, and to suggest possible solutions. Through this class analysis, the Church suggests two courses of action that are believed to lessen or eradicate the problems of poverty and to obtain a social order of Biblical justice (class notes).
The first course of action rests in land reform, through which those who own large amounts of land would be required to give up some of their vast amounts of land, which they may have obtained from smaller farmers through unlawful or unethical means. The large landowner, however, is not merely expected to give up his land without compensation. Through participating in the land reform, this landowner would be fairly compensated for the land that is given up. If a large landowner is unwilling to participate in the land reform, it is the States responsibility to convince (or force) him to participate through their assumed power. This course of action is meant to increase the number of small farmers who own their own land and can produce their own harvest. The second course of action rests in creating more sufficiently paid jobs in both the cities and towns. "Decently paid urban jobs must be created for landless immigrants to cities. And those jobs which cannot be produced by the private business sector must be subsidized, partially or wholly, by the public sector or the state through tax funds" (class notes).
I will close with the words of Gutierrez himself, once again summarizing his passionate view of Christian poverty as not only a loving act of cohesion with the poor, but also a liberatory protest against destitution:
"Poverty is an act of love and liberation. It has a redemptive value. If the ultimate cause of human exploitation and alienation is selfishness, the deepest reason for voluntary poverty is love of neighbor. Christian poverty has meaning only as a commitment of solidarity with the poor, with those who suffer misery and injustice. The commitment is to witness to the evil which has resulted from sin and is a breach of communion. It is not a question of idealizing poverty, but rather of taking it on as it is- an evil- to protest against it and to struggle to abolish it. As Ricoeur says, you cannot really be with the poor unless you are struggling against poverty. Because of this solidarity which manifests itself in specific action, a style of life, a break with one s social class one can also help the poor and exploited to become aware of their exploitation and seek liberation from it. Christian poverty, and expression of love, is solidarity with the poor and is a protest against poverty46. This is the concrete, contemporary meaning of the witness of poverty. It is a poverty lived not for its own sake, but rather as an authentic imitation of Christ; it is a poverty which means taking on the sinful human condition to liberate humankind from sin and all its consequences" (300-301).