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Catholic Re-Visions

Between Anguish and Hope: A Response to Some Critical Re-visions of Liberation Theology

Compost is a living,breathing site of transformation from death to new life. While the following insights from liberation theology may not be articulated in the same way today or fifty years hence, their molecular substructures live on in their fertilization of theological re-visionings that are born of struggle and affirm the liberating primacy of life, love, and solidarity.

From the viewpoint of faith, the motive which in the last instance moves Christians to participate in the liberation of oppressed peoples and exploited social classes is the conviction of the radical incompatibility of evangelical demands with an unjust and alienating society. They feel keenly that they cannot claim to be Christians without a commitment to liberation. But the articulation of the way in which this action for a more just world is related to a life of faith belongs to the level of intuition and groping—at times in anguish.

Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation, 15th anniversary edition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 81.

Over fifty years have passed since Gustavo Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation was published in the English language. And yet, liberation has not become a reality for those whose early and unjust deaths fuel not only wealth accumulation for the rich and powerful, but conveniences, luxuries, and existential security for those of us who benefit from the comforts and comfortable assurances of life in the modern/colonial world. 

The preceding essays offer critical engagement with some perceived failures and inadequacies of liberation struggles and liberation theology, along with the (im)possibilities of imagining, let alone hoping for, a future in the face of such failures. In what follows, I join these authors in what feels like an experience of “groping anguish,” lamenting the horrors of historical and contemporary reality that seem to indicate what Molly Crawford names as the absence rather than presence of a liberating God. I join these authors in their questioning of hope when, as Antavius Franklin and Richard X III remind us, the world that we inhabit is predicated on and sustained by anti-black violence. 

At the same time, I remain convinced that over fifty years of liberation theology have contributed in more than “one way or another to a more evangelical [gospel-inspired], more authentic, more concrete, and more efficacious commitment to liberation.” Indeed, I remain convinced that the praxis of hope and liberation on the ground in Latin America (and beyond) has been reflected in and nourished at least in part by the theological and pastoral commitments of Gutiérrez, along with those of other theologians and pastoral agents of liberating faith and spirituality. Therefore, I place what I see as some partial but significant “victories” of liberation theology in conversation with these essayists’ challenging reflections on the legacy that Gutiérrez leaves for our own generation of theologians and generations to come. 

I do not name these partial victories as an exercise in apologetics, but in the hopes that we can keep mixing these theological transformations into the compost heap of failures, finitudes, and ambiguities that Timothy “Coup” Couper describes as the detritus from which new soils might be cultivated and new theologies might be born. I use the metaphor of compost intentionally here, since a compost heap is not a trash can or a landfill into which we discard that which no longer serves us. Compost is a living, breathing site of transformation from death to new life. While the following insights from liberation theology may not be articulated in the same way today or fifty years hence, their molecular substructures live on in their fertilization of theological re-visionings that are born of struggle and affirm the liberating primacy of life, love, and solidarity. 

In my estimation, the most fundamental, though admittedly partial, “victory” of Gutiérrez and other liberation theologians lies in the radical transformation of Latin American Christian understandings of the relationship between God and the social order. Prior to Vatican II and the Latin American Bishops’ meeting at Medellín in 1968, the dominant theology and pastoral practice of the Catholic church in Latin America affirmed that European conquest and colonization of the Americas was divinely ordained, and that the contemporary wealth and power of the mainly Euro-descendent elites were God’s will. If Gutiérrez leaves us any theological legacy, it flows from his insistent interruption of this distorted narrative of divine providence through the cultivation of historical consciousness, which he calls a “therapy for historical amnesia.” In his essay, E. David de Leon rightfully highlights this refusal to attribute the atrocities of human history and the suffering of the innocent to divine providence. Such evils “should not be thought of as finding support in God’s will or as something inevitable.” It is not God, but human beings and human systems that have created a world in which social, political, economic, and cultural structures benefit an elite minority at the cost of the lives and dignity of the poor, oppressed, and all who suffer early and unjust death. Gutiérrez thus names structures of oppression, their historical roots, and the benefits that they provide to the powerful for what they truly are—not ordained by God but false gods, idols made by human hands that demand human submission and the blood of historical victims. God does not will such idolatrous oppression, nor does God side with those who oppress or are complicit with oppression. In a world where resurgent white Christian nationalist movements claim the will of God to favor their religious, political, and cultural dominance, this revolutionary theological kenosis of divine providence and its therapy for historical amnesia are more urgent now than ever. 

From these apophatic moments of emptying out theological justifications for oppression, Gutiérrez incessantly flows into affirmations of the God of the Bible as a God of Life, and thus a God of liberation, which is a praxis of seeking freedom for embodied life to flourish. In the face of a theological system that identifies violent death (by genocide, enslavement, colonialism, racism, heteropatriarchy, economic exploitation, and any number of other evils) as divinely ordained, naming God as Life and as Love that liberates and gives life, is a radical, transformative act, a victory in itself. Naming God’s will for liberation—for freedom to live and live abundantly—was and continues to be revolutionary, not only for the Christian understanding and experience of God, but for our conceptions of how the church and how Christians ought to relate to the social order.

No longer should the poor and oppressed suffer their burdens silently and await their reward in heaven. No longer should the elite minority engage in a “spirituality of evasion” or an individualist spiritualism that “interiorizes and robs of their historical bite categories reflective of the objective realities in which individuals and peoples live and die, struggle and assert their faith.” Rather, Christian faith in a liberative God necessitates liberative action, for this God “cuts straight through the love of a liar—the love that forgets sisters and brothers and pretends to direct itself toward God instead, pretends to direct itself ‘spiritually’ . . . [I]n order to know and love God, one must come to grips with the concrete life situation of the poor today, and undertake the radical transformation of a society that makes them poor.” 

Note the embodied, pastoral commitment to the “concrete life situation” of the poor here. Gutiérrez does not theorize about oppression and liberation in an ivory tower—he lives it and is deeply, actively, and concretely committed to seeking life and freedom in solidarity with real people in his community, throughout Latin America, and around the world. In fact, he is first and foremost a pastor who spends decades living, working, collaborating, conversing, reflecting, and writing in the midst of and informed by the material and ecclesial life of one of the poorest parishes in Lima, Cristo Redentor

From this place of pastoral commitment, Gutiérrez insists that the church can no longer provide blanket support for the powerful but rather must engage in prophetic denunciation of injustice and oppression, along with annunciation of the gospel dream of a world in which justice, communion, and abundant life reign. This means placing Christian discipleship and ecclesial mission directly in the midst of a conflictual reality. Indeed, at a time when popular movements and revolutionary processes were aflame throughout Latin America, Gutiérrez insisted that the Church “must place itself squarely within the process of revolution, amid the violence which is present in different ways. The Church’s mission is defined practically and theoretically, pastorally and theologically, in relation to the revolutionary process.” This is not a call to reformism or developmentalism that would progressively move Latin American societies towards inclusion as an equal actor on the world stage, which Richard X III’s critique of liberation would seem to indicate. Rather, it is a radical break with an unjust social order and a commitment to the construction of a new society, starting from the underside of history, from the struggles of the poor and oppressed. 

Again, this commitment to liberation from below is no theoretical exercise. Under the inspiration of the gospel and its preferential option for the poor, thousands upon thousands of members of Christian base communities, lay catechists, parish priests, vowed religious persons, and even archbishops have made this commitment and too many of them have borne witness to this commitment to the very end, in their violent deaths as martyrs. Faced with such violence, which is by no means a thing of the past, perhaps we should recognize what Timothy “Coup” Couper boldly names as “the catastrophic failure of liberation theology to ameliorate the material conditions of the least of these.” And perhaps we should concede, with Molly Crawford, that we are left with an aching memory of the absence of a liberating God. Clearly, liberation has not come to fruition in the transformation of social structures on local let alone global scales. Those who actively seek liberation are too often violently silenced, the movements to which they belong are repressed, and Christian communities inspired by the gospel and the memory of their martyrs must therefore continue to struggle for their collective liberation. La lucha sigue

And yet, I wonder: Ought we deem this continued struggle a failure? And ought we understand the memory of martyrdom as a mere memory of divine absence? Or might we recognize and honor the spirit of resurrection and divine presence at work in the resilience and resistance of communities who remember God’s presence in their martyrs, and who carry on the legacy of those martyrs, rising again from the blood-soaked ashes of death and defeat to persistently demand life in abundance? Perhaps feminist, womanist, and mujerista critiques of liberation theology are instructive here in their insistence that liberation is also, and perhaps primarily, sought and experienced in lo cotidiano—in everyday, life-giving acts and experiences of care and compassion, justice and mercy, resilience and resistance. While liberation struggles have not brought about a “victoria final,” they have contributed in many instances to what womanist theologian Delores Williams names as “survival and quality of life.” Cooperative economics, autonomous knowledge production, communal lament, aesthetic self-expression, resistance to extractivist projects of death, retrieval of Indigenous and African spiritualities—these are all practices of liberation that contribute to survival and quality of life in Christian communities across the Americas and around the world. 

I name these not necessarily as “successes” of liberation theology; in some instances, these practices have been empowered by engagement with liberation theology, and in other instances they have arisen more spontaneously from broader Christian commitments to justice and peace and/or human creativity and will-to-live in the face of adversity. My larger concern here is that we understand liberation theology as not only critical reflection on systems of injustice and oppression or on the praxis of grand historical movements for liberation that resist such systems, but also, and perhaps primarily, critical reflection that emerges from and engages the everyday praxis of seeking life and liberation, an everyday process in which Gutiérrez himself was engaged in his own pastoral ministry. Perhaps some resonance can be found here with Antavius Franklin’s wariness of hope in the political and his turn to “the moan”—to “music, dance and other vibrations [as the] first acts of theology, a spirituality.” It is not in the political mechanizations of the nation-state, but in the silent cries for life that arise from lo cotidiano that hope for life finds a home. 

However, I also worry that writing off politics entirely cedes too much ground to Empire. Politics is an unavoidable praxis of being human—we are social creatures who live together in communities and must organize ourselves to meet our individual and communal needs. Rather than cede all political activity to the necropolitics of the fiscal-military nation-state, Gutiérrez calls us to a praxis and a politics of life and he offers tools for discerning when and where politics promotes abundant life, and when and where it produces death. 

In this vein, it is important to remember that the language and praxis of liberation is the language and praxis of life, or the freedom to live, with a preferential option for those whose lives and very humanity are negated by the ways of the world—the poor and oppressed and all those who suffer early and unjust death. Gutiérrez’s work and his theological legacy is a testament to faith in a God who offers life to those whom human history has deemed “non-persons,” less than human, unworthy of life or existence itself. Indeed, liberation is the praxis whereby the non-persons of the world join with God in asserting and incarnating the right and the freedom to exist, to live, and to be human (according to their own understanding of being human, not the liberal, white supremacist standards of Western modernity). Richard X III poses an indispensable critique here, though, in his analysis of how the liberation of the non-person—the life and coming into free personhood of the non-person—requires non-being for those whom he follows Afropessimism in calling “the Black.” 

However, I worry that the Afropessimist critique severs theory from praxis, and critical analysis from the very real lives and bodies and being of Black and brown, Indigenous, impoverished, queer, trans, feminine, disabled, and all discarded people in the world as it is currently structured. For Gutiérrez, non-personhood is the incessant threat of non-being in a world that dehumanizes and metes out early and unjust death on all those whose lives are expendable for the sake of power and profit. If the liberation of the non-person simply results in their own “inclusion” in the modern/colonial world at the expense of physical, cultural, or metaphysical existence for the Black, or for anyone at all, it is not the liberation for which Gutiérrez hopes and struggles. If liberation is life for some at the cost of death for others, then it is not liberation at all, but rather a coopted and distorted mirror of the “progressivist” bourgeois theologies that he takes great pains to critique. For Gutiérrez, and for the legacy of liberation theology more broadly, liberation cannot mean making the tables of the world as it is currently structured more accessible or expansive, at the expense of those on whose backs the tables of the world are built. Rather, the abundant life that liberation demands requires turning over those tables in favor of freedom and dignity for everyone and for creation as a whole. In the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” 

To consider just one concrete example here: Expanding access to technology that depends on metallic mining, which in turn devastates ecosystems, displaces local communities, and poisons the water sources and food supplies of communities that remain—this is not a project of liberation but of extractivism, developmentalism, and death. Liberation does not seek to include the non-person in “la vida buena” (the good life), which depends on the death of expendable human beings and the planet for its generation and maintenance. Rather, liberation is a dynamic process of “buen vivir” (good living), an Indigenous-inspired name for cosmovisions and lifeways that seek harmony and well-being for the earth and all its inhabitants. If purported projects of liberation depend on death and non-being for individuals, communities, or the planet, Gutiérrez is very clear that we should be wary of them as wolves in sheep’s clothing. Furthermore, Gutierrez’s theological method teaches us that we must listen to and learn from the impacted communities that are on the frontlines of resisting such projects of death. It is with no small appreciation for the liberating nature of this method that I conclude my reflections.

About midway through The Power of the Poor in History, which was published less than ten years after A Theology of Liberation, Gutiérrez raises the question of whether it “makes any sense to continue to do theology in today’s world of agony and oppression?” The authors of the preceding essays all seem to be grappling with this same question in one way or another. I myself struggle with it on a daily basis. What good does God-talk do when the world is quite literally on fire? 

The first response that Gutiérrez offers to this question is that “[e]ven the poor have the right to think. The right to think is a corollary of the human right to be, and to assert the right to think is only to assert the right to exist.” In conversation with James Cone and Black theology, along with other theologies of liberation around the world, Gutiérrez refuses to “give ground” by renouncing the right to think. In fact, he concludes that “theology should be looked upon as an expression of the right to think on the part of the ‘wretched of the earth.’” For decades, Gutiérrez’s pastoral ministry and theological method has included organizing and facilitating popular theology courses that curate spaces for poor and marginalized folks and their accomplices, lay people, priests, vowed religious, missionaries, and people from all walks of life to come together to think theologically about the relationship between their faith in God and their collective struggles for liberation. His own writing is inspired by and gives public witness to the praxis of liberation that takes place in these spaces and others like them. 

If the work of Gutiérrez and liberation theology more broadly leave any legacy, it is in this not-so-small victory, which I have heard referred to in the ecclesial base communities of El Salvador as “tomar la palabrataking or seizing the word and raising one’s voice to speak the truth of one’s existence when one’s existence has been negated and one’s voice has been marginalized or silenced. Decolonial scholars today refer to this process as “epistemic disobedience,” or “delinking” from the coloniality of knowledge, being, and power. Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, OP, is a lifelong witness to the hope and, indeed, the joy that are found in this process of seizing the right to think, to speak, and to exist. Through his work we have the privilege of learning from the re-visions that have sprung from the thinking, speaking, and existing of liberated and liberating human persons. And thanks to his work—along with the work of other first generation liberation theologians around the world—those of us who have written these essays have the right and the privilege of re-visioning theology through our own attempts at thinking, speaking, and existing in our own time and place. 

In the Absence of a Liberating God – 50 years after A Theology of Liberation

Fifty years after the publication of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation, what, if any, relevance does Christian liberation theology and Gutiérrez’s work have for our present moment? Do we still have a memory of a liberating God? And if not, is there a liberative power in grappling with the absence of this memory?

A Spirituality of Liberation and The Destruction of Hope

If we are to hope for anything beyond the end of hope, it is in the incommunicable and incommensurable nature that is the moan.

Liberating Liberation Theology: Notes from the “Non” on the 50th Anniversary of A Theology of Liberation

What if Liberation itself must be liberated? Or maybe, like the nonperson and the nonbeing, it has always been breathed into by the breath of white violence.

After Certainty: Liberations of Failure

Liberation, caught between queer nihilism and eschatological certainty, must seek an third way beyond the binary of hopefulness and hopelessness through the negation of both. It must transpose itself into an apophatic register as the experience of continual failure, an uncertain endless becoming, that might be called simple hope.

Sifting for God’s Will: Sketching Providence in the work of Gustavo Gutiérrez

The question then is not so much: “Can providence be liberative?” but rather, “How might liberation be understood as God’s providence?”

Between Anguish and Hope: A Response to Some Critical Re-visions of Liberation Theology

Compost is a living,breathing site of transformation from death to new life. While the following insights from liberation theology may not be articulated in the same way today or fifty years hence, their molecular substructures live on in their fertilization of theological re-visionings that are born of struggle and affirm the liberating primacy of life, love, and solidarity.

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