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Poverty is death, Gutierrez tells graduates


I know it is not fashionable to speak about liberation theology today. At a time when there is far more talk of freeing markets than freeing the masses from economic oppression, liberation theology is simply out of vogue.

So it came to me as a pleasant surprise to learn that the person viewed as “the father of liberation theology,” Peruvian Catholic Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, was asked to speak before graduating seniors last month at Brown University in Providence, R.I. While Brown’s motto is In Deo Speramus, “In God We Hope,” it is an Ivy League institution and one I would not quickly associate with honoring Catholic theologians.

No single definition of liberation theology adequately captures it; there are many liberation theologies. They all share a “preferential option for the poor” and maintain that our faith demands that we respond to all forms of oppression. Liberation theology teaches that the Bible, as springboard to our faith, is a story of liberation.

Gutierrez, at 72, is a professor of theology at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú in Lima where he continues to do parish work. He is best known for his 1971 work, A Theology of Liberation, in which he called attention to the poor in Latin America and challenged the church to active participation in changing the economic and political systems that foster social injustice.

Speaking at a baccalaureate service, Gutierrez told the seniors they may well be the “hope of the world,” but only if they meet certain conditions. Such a role, he said, can only belong to those who are willing to share their knowledge with the poor and who are willing to use their power to help those whom others may deem to be irrelevant or insignificant.

Looking back over the decades since he wrote his seminal work, Gutierrez observed that the gap between rich and poor has not diminished. It pleases him, however, that many church leaders, including Pope John Paul II, now commonly speak of “the preferential option for the poor.” He said that in the new global and knowledge-based economy, knowledge itself has become the new dividing line between the haves and the have-nots.

The Brown University baccalaureate service had a distinctly interreligious flavor. A reading was chosen from the Gospel of John, an account of Jesus feeding a crowd of 5,000 people who had come to listen to him on a mountain. They had only two fish and five barley loaves. Once the food was distributed, however, there was enough for all to eat. Gutierrez said Christians today are often quick to “spiritualize” the account, to make it a story about people’s need for spiritual food. Yet, he said, it should be noted that Jesus was filling a real hunger, a “hunger of the stomach.”

Nor should it be forgotten, he said, that God wills life, and nonvoluntary poverty is “just the opposite of the will for life” that God intends. “We often see poverty as an economic and social issue, but we must have a deeper understanding,” the priest told the graduates. “In the ultimate analysis, poverty is death. It is unjust and early death. It is the destruction of persons, of people and nations.”

Along with the gospel reading the Brown students also listened to a litany of songs, prayers and chants. They heard a Muslim call to prayer, a reading from a Zen Buddhist text and received a Hindu blessing, all to remind them there are many sacred paths and each contains deep truths.

One graduate who remarked he was especially glad to see the Peruvian priest was a young man named Joseph Edmonds Jr. of Baltimore. Edmonds, who received his bachelor’s degree in religious studies and economics, was quoted as saying said he had learned about Gutierrez as part of his study of black liberation theology in the United States, and sees him as “one of my profound role models.” How heartening to be reminded that Gutierrez not only remains active but that he is inspiring a whole new generation of idealistic people.

Liberation theology, rather than fading into history, continues to transform itself. It continues to spread. Maybe the students at Brown understand better than most that this new century will witness far greater interreligious communication and purpose. This is already the case in many parts of the world, including Asia, home to more than two-thirds of the world’s poor and cradle of all the world’s major religions. Years ago, with isolated exceptions, Catholic theology in Asia was academic, focusing on Western concerns, using the West’s traditional “universal theology.” Hardly any attempt was made to develop a theology in touch with the Asian reality.

That changed, however, after the Latin American bishops gathered at Medellín, Colombia, in 1968 where they examined their own situation in the light of the conclusions of renewal of Vatican II (1962-65). They gave birth to the first local Catholic theology in modern times. What gave a specific Latin American content to this theology was a methodology based on the reality of Latin America’s poverty and oppression. It was Medellín that unambiguously asserted the church’s “preferential option for the poor,” a thought that became the hallmark of liberation theology.

Today, there is growing awareness, in no small part because of liberation theology, that every theology is local. So, too, there is increased awareness among Asians that they need a theology for Asia, one that grows both out of its poverty and its unique religious wealth. Meanwhile, the struggle for liberation, being defined and redefined through deepening interreligious experience and dialogue, has become an essential point of departure for Asian theology.

As religious believers, as Christians, as Catholics, we are in the midst of a wonderful moment of transformation. The signs are everywhere if we care to look. They pop up in all sorts of places, like Brown University last month. And how proud we should be of the prophet we know as Gustavo Gutierrez.

Tom Fox is NCR publisher.

National Catholic Reporter, June 16, 2000