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Catholic Re-Visions

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?

The God of Christianity and the Bible is a God that liberates in history. So goes the central claim of liberation theology. According to the father of liberation theology, Gustavo Gutiérrez, this begins with “liberation from social situations of oppression and marginalization that forces many …to live in conditions contrary to God’s will for their life.” (xxxviii) This liberation is rooted in God’s remembrance of the people, for God “has a very fresh and vivid memory of the smallest and most forgotten.” (194) From of this conviction, in the fifty years since the publication of Gutiérrez’s hallmark text A Theology of Liberation, liberation theology has reshaped the very discipline of theology.

And yet, given the material conditions of our world, namely the rising economic and social inequality driven by capitalist greed, the claim that our God is one who liberates, one who transforms society by raising up the lowly and casting down the oppressor, appears more as a wistful dream than a memory of what is possible.

As we find ourselves fifty years out from its original scholarly articulation, what, if any, relevance does Christian liberation theology, and Gutiérrez’s thought in particular, 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 return to Gutiérrez’s work, after A Theology of Liberation, namely his wrestling with the question of unanswered evil through the Biblical figure of Job offers the possibility that it is in confronting the absence of God and the impossibility of making sense of our world that we can touch liberation.

Half a century ago, Gutiérrez’s work connected liberation with memory, arguing that God liberates through remembering. Gutiérrez rooted this in his understanding of scripture as a narrative memory of God’s active liberation of oppressed people in history. The paradigmatic texts of liberation, namely the Exodus story and Christ event, are narratives, according to Gutiérrez, that persist in the memory of God (33-7). They are not only memories of what God has done for the people in the past but also promises or imaginative pathways of new life for the future because “God is revealed as a force in our future and not as an ahistorical being” (95). They are a promise of liberation for the oppressed grounded in God’s remembrance of them.

This remembrance reveals itself materially as the transformation of social systems that oppress and marginalize. As Gasper Martinez, a scholar of Gutiérrez’s work, articulates it, this means that “the socioeconomic structures that hinder that human movement toward fulfillment must be radically changed to put them at the service of human realization.” (127) In the last fifty years, this material liberation has not been realized. Rather, in the U.S., poverty rates have not changed, inequality has climbed, and an increasing majority of the world population has found themselves beholden to the interests of a wealthy, powerful few. This oppression flows from our continued reliance on the socioeconomic structure of racial capitalism, the same system Gutiérrez critiqued, whose logic places people and the planet at the service of limitlessly increasing profit. In fifty years, this system has not substantially changed but only become more unfettered, leading to ever greater exploitation, leaving the poor, particularly those of the Global South, to pay the highest price.

Moreover, in recent decades, developments in decolonial and deconstructionist thought have pushed the dark moments of our history, namely the legacies of slavery, colonization, and the capitalist consumption of persons, to the forefront of our social analysis. They have demanded we reckon with Christianity’s complicity and often authorship of these legacies. This research has unearthed that Christianity has been anything but liberative for many lives. In our moment, the memories of unanswered atrocities and ongoing social oppression are more vivid than any sense of liberation. This reality betrays that the promise of God’s remembrance remains unfilled, perhaps even that liberation has failed.

The moment of liberation theology’s birth may have been a moment pregnant with new hope for Christianity. But today, we stand in a world seemingly unmaking itself, disillusioned by Christianity’s promise as we wade ever further into the ruin of its tragic history of violence and oppression. While we still long for liberation, this failure of Christian hope is the memory by which we find ourselves most haunted.

This bleak assertion is not to ignore or diminish the ongoing presence of liberative faith across the globe that arose from the insights of liberation theology. Notably, the communities keeping alive the hope of a God that liberates are comprised predominately of the oppressed as they struggle to survive. Their witness remains the prophetic voice calling the world to conversion, and their bodies are the ones most diligently laboring for the change of social systems. These communities are evidence that liberation theology has a living legacy of meaningful impact on people’s lives and influence on social structures.

These communities live out the human call to liberation articulated by Gutiérrez, for “the grace of God is a gift, but it also sets a task. The process by which we are saved includes both the gratuitous initiative of God and the free response of human beings” (140). However, what of God’s side to this grace of liberation in history? In appraising the legacy of Gutiérrez’s work theologically, one would be remiss not to grapple with the absence of substantial material liberation in history, that is, the absence of socioeconomic transformation and the growing awareness of the reality of Christianity’s history in modernity as a bloody path of domination.

Delores Williams, the great womanist theologian, raised this issue in response to Black Liberation theologian James Cone, questioning the claim that God is the God of the oppressed when, for many Black women, this reality of liberation has yet to be experienced (128). Yes, of course, according to Gutiérrez, we must work towards and await the final eschatological fullness of liberation. But liberation theology staked its theological system and message of hope on the claim of “God’s unmerited action in history,” that God is a God who liberates in the here and now (xlix). Gutiérrez understood liberation to be God’s remembering and thus being present to the oppressed in history. Looking back over history and the historical reality of Christianity in particular, the majority of humanity appears forgotten and the liberating God absent. As such, while wishing to honor the faith others hold in a liberative God, I fear, if we are honest with ourselves, that we do not have a clear memory of a liberative God, only a hope against hope that one will arise.

If it is true that we live, move, and have our being amidst the absence of a liberative God in history, what, if anything, remains of liberation theology? Can we grasp any hope from Gutiérrez’s theology of liberation from the ruins of Christianity?

Living in the destruction of Christianity’s liberative promise as the post-liberation theology generation, this absence of a liberative God is our inheritance. That is, paradoxically, this absence might be our last remaining grounds to encounter the God of liberation. In sensing this absence, we are reminded and subsequently name that something and someone should be here. Matthew Asheley describes this awareness of what is missing through the German word Verminsenwissen, “a knowledge shaped by a sense of what is absent, missing or lacking” (60). Therefore, naming this absence is a form of acknowledging what we experience to be true – that we live without the presence of material liberation and the history of our tradition in which so many seek comfort is dark. We can understand this absence then, ironically, as a memory, one that haunts us with the truth of the past and nags us to respond to the unanswered suffering of the present. (For more on this notion of memory and specifically dangerous memory, see the work of Johann Baptist Metz.)

Memory is not history. Instead, it threatens to undo our sense of history or reality with new meaning. This aching absence, if listened to and not suppressed, is revelatory, for it functions to illuminate the cracks of Western modernity. It forces us to face the reality of suffering in our midst, examine the social structures built to generate this misery and identify the leaders and ideologies which function to normalize this oppression. Admitting we do not presently know liberation forces us to ask why and, perhaps more harrowingly, it reminds us that to seek a new world order means our present one must die away, including our current beliefs in and understandings of God.

This is a disquieting practice but also an essential and honest one because it forces us to get beyond the simple platitudes of spirituality and the impulse to make excuses for the pasts of our faith, even for God. We so easily make idols out of our churches and our theologies. These have to be broken if we want historical liberation, and facing the absence of God will help us do so. Gutiérrez offers a helpful example of this in what is rumored to be his favorite of his books: On Job. Here, Gutiérrez argues after Job’s long emotional battle to get God’s attention and an answer for his suffering, he confronts God. In so doing, he surrenders into the mystery, moving past the limited theology of justice to which the book’s characters try to convince Job to remain faithful.

According to Gutiérrez, it is precisely in this commitment to confronting the unknown, the absence of God, and the impossibility of making sense of our world that we can touch God. Gutiérrez writes Job “flung himself upon the impossible and into an enigmatic future. And in this effort, he met the Lord” (92). In sitting with the absence of liberation, we are forced, in our frustration, to ask, as Job does, “where is God?” Gutiérrez tells us this “is an utterance of faith; the failure to ask it is a kind of forgetfulness” (66). Probing this absence is our profession, however weak, of longing to remember a liberative God. In so doing, we uncover our fidelity not to a tradition or abstract theological concept but to real historical liberation.

This is not an easy path, for it is a stepping out into the unknown when all we have to hold onto is an aching wound of absence – an absence of liberation, of faith and trust in our traditions, in hope that the God of liberation will come to save us. As harsh as this sounds, I argue this is a practice that Gutiérrez envisioned was necessary for the genuine social revolution of liberation. “We have to break with our mental categories, with the way we relate to others, with our ways of identifying with the Lord, with our cultural milieus, with our social class, in other words, with all that can stand in the way of real, profound solidarity with all those who suffer…from misery and injustice” (118). Confessing the absence of a liberative God allows us to move closer to this solidarity.

We need this kind of critical awareness and honesty with the real (to use the words of another liberation theologian, Ignacio Ellacuría) if we are to re-envision the future of liberation theology and the Catholic tradition as a whole. Gutiérrez’s work helpfully set the standard, asserting that “the goal is not only better living conditions, a radical change of structures, a social revolution; it is much more: the continuous creation, never-ending, of a new way to be human, a permanent cultural revolution” (21). Liberation theology is not dead, but like all models of faith and theology, it is meant to be broken, its limitations confronted, and thus moved beyond into greater depths of solidarity, of being human, of being liberated.

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?

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