Friday, July 20, 2018

Gustavo Gutiérrez, Father of Liberation Theology

by Frei Betto (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Gente de Opinião (em português)
July 6, 2018

Gustavo Gutiérrez turned 90 on June 8th. On the five continents, books, theses, articles and critiques about his work, as well as that of other theologians such as Leonardo Boff, Hugo Assmann, João Batista Libânio, Juan Luis Segundo, José Míguez Bonino, Elsa Támez, and many others identified with the principles and the methodology of liberation theology, proliferate.

Liberation theology occupies a prima donna position in current theology. Thanks to Cardinal Ratzinger's "Instructions" (1984), it became a subject of interest even for the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union, as I verified when I visited the country as part of a group of Brazilian theologians in June 1987.

The two "Instructions" issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the proceedings against the book Church: Charism and Power and its author, Leonardo Boff, brought theological debate into the sacred walls of ecclesiastical institutions, and gave it ample space in the media, universities and political movements.

The works of theologians provoke more interest than the personalities of their authors. This epistemological bias has its advantages. As long as the work is rigorous, according to the criteria of its specific field, there is no need to disturb the author, safe in his conquered privacy. However, divorce between author and work has not always been a mere whim of modern reason. It has sometimes served as an ideological instrument -- in the primitive sense in which Marx used the term "ideology" -- precisely to cover up the contradiction between author and work. Suffice it to recall the recent impact of the revelations that Heidegger collaborated with the Nazi regime.

In the case of dead authors, biographies are always of great interest to those who seek a better understanding of the text within the context. Who today reads Althusser with the same attention that his works provoked before November 15, 1980, when the Marxist philosopher strangled his wife? In contrast, the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a Nazi concentration camp gave his works a new character, just as the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero guaranteed a wide distribution of his sermons.

Although the main target is always the works they produce, the liberation theologians themselves have always aroused considerable controversy. In any case, we are accustomed to living in situations of conflict -- be it the occupation of lands that brought the brothers Leonardo and Clodovis Boff to prison in Petropolis on March 4, 1988, or the censures and punishments imposed by those who govern our Churches.

A certain discomfort is created in some theological sectors of the First World precisely because of this criterion, which gives liberation theology a new character. In it, theological discourse can not be separated from pastoral commitment. The liberation theologian is not an armchair intellectual, confined to libraries and reading rooms, dedicated to academic rigor, protected from current conflicts.

And liberation theology is not written without penetrating deeply, because the liberation theologian's starting point is not his supposedly enlightened mind but the pastoral practice of poor Christian communities, committed to the cause of people's liberation.

For this reason, liberation theology does not exist without a link with its source -- the liberating practice of oppressed Christian communities in the Third World. Gramsci helps us to understand this new status of theology with his concept of "organic intellectual," which defines the relationship of the theologian to the popular movement. This explains why liberation theology is representative of grassroots groups through the support it receives from an immense network of Basic Ecclesial  Communities and countless martyrs and confessors whose ecclesial life and prophecy are sources for the theologians' thought and production.

An "illegitimate" theology

In Latin America, being an "illegitimate child" does not necessarily affect one's social image. We are all sons and daughters of relationships between Spaniards and Amerindians, Portuguese and Caboclos, whites and blacks, mestizos and mulattoes. Our racism is only for social effect -- it is diluted in the heat of the tropics, where sexuality is power and party, bargain and submission, fantasy and transgression. In this part of the world, the family is as recent a concept as its constitution. To paraphrase St. Thomas Aquinas, life extrapolates thought here. Not even theology escapes from the genealogical tree of uncertain roots and twisted branches. Questioning liberation theology about its legitimate ancestors is like asking an indigenous Mexican or a Colombian coffee planter about the historical truth behind his family tradition.

Gustavo Gutiérrez can rightly be considered the father of liberation theology, for he was the first to publish a book with that title in 1971 through the Spanish Ediciones Sígueme. But he himself does not deny the importance for his work of his visit to Brazil in 1969, when he came into contact with our Basic Ecclesial Communities and experienced up close the drama of the assassination -- still unpunished today -- of Dom Helder Camara's youth advisor, Father Henrique Pereira Neto, strangled and shot by the Brazilian military dictatorship in Recife on May 26, 1969. Gutiérrez dedicated his A Theology of Liberation to him and to the Peruvian novelist José María Arguedas. Despite this, it is not possible to deny the European roots derived from Jacques Maritain's integral humanism, Mounier's engaged personalism, Teilhard de Chardin's progressive evolutionism, De Lubac's social dogmatics, Congar's theology of the laity Lebret's theology of development, Comblin's theology of revolution, and Metz's political theology.

The Second Vatican Council encouraged the conditions for the severing of the umbilical cord that kept the theology of Latin America dependent on the womb of Mother Europe. By the beginning of the 1960s, the Cuban revolution, the failure of the Alliance for Progress, the crisis of the development model, and the growth of leftist movements not linked to the traditional Communist parties were some of the factors that led Latin American theologians to root the thought in the soil that they trod. Not that it was a matter of looking for categories that would allow a reinterpretation of social and political facts. The engine of the theory was the practice of grassroots Christian communities, rooted in the struggle. As they transformed the world, they also altered the model of the Church. Social change and ecclesiogenesis are ultimately linked.

The building of an alternative political project does not leave the Church untouched, as if it were a community of angels hovering over the contradictions that cut through the fabric of society. The new element was the awareness, achieved in the life of the Basic Ecclesial Communities, that the Church is not just the Pope or the bishops, but the people of God in history. And the presence of this believing and oppressed people in the social movements of Latin America marked the faith with a critical character that gave rise to liberation theology.

An indigenous theologian

At the seventh international conference of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT) in Oaxtepec, Mexico, in December 1986, African American theologian James Cone complained that Latin American liberation theology was too white. The strange thing is that next to him was Gustavo Gutierrez, of typically indigenous appearance -- brown skin, round face, short and squat, with slightly almond-shaped eyes, revealing his Quechua ancestry. At home, his father spoke the language of the ancient Inca empire. But more than language and appearance, Gutiérrez inherited the style of the Andean Amerindians. And this is what surprises anyone who knows him. He combines -- not without some conflict -- a mind endowed with quick, rational, magisterial intelligence, which expresses itself in a language constructed like the parts of a precision instrument, and a sensibility that disarms all models of modern rationality.

In him co-exist the intellectual trained in Louvain -- where he was a colleague of Camilo Torres and defended a thesis based on Freud -- and the Amerindian of the Peruvian altiplano. This is what allows him to enter a classroom without being noticed -- as if gliding on his own feet -- or visit his friend Miguel d'Escoto without anyone noticing his presence in Managua. It is as if he could travel not only on the roads accessible to urbanized travelers but also on the tracks and trails that only the inhabitants of the jungle know. This ancestral gift allows him to dominate a new language, a new field of knowledge, or to pass through New York, Paris, or Bonn like an Amerindian sneaking through trees and leaves, observing unobserved, fast as a bird and discreet as a llama.

This characteristic allowed him to work on the draft of the famous Medellín Document, approved by the Latin American Episcopal Conference in 1968 -- a text that would become fundamental to the practice and theory of the Church of the poor in Latin America.

On one occasion, Gutierrez arrived in Rome just as the Peruvian bishops were discussing his work with the highest dignitaries of the Curia. Who can swear that the final text, more favorable to him than the original draft, was not drafted by Gutiérrez's own quill?

Discreet as a Capuchin, he moves in the political domain of theological conflicts with all the subtlety of a Jesuit. Although his expression sometimes reveals that metaphysical anguish characteristic of people to whom the narrow line separating death from life is familiar, he never panics, and his keen intuition is capable of presenting immediate solutions to complicated problems as if he had meditated for years on an issue that has just emerged. He can sit for hours in an airport seat, writing an article or listening to someone, nervously biting a toothpick all the time with his strong, slightly separated teeth. His answers are almost always ironically amusing, as if he were setting up a riddle.

In lecturing and speaking, he follows a rigid pattern so carefully assembled that he appears to have ornamented his text. His jokes give the words a flavor all his own, because he is always capable of manifesting that rare virtue that so enchants him -- humor. His sense of humor allows him to keep some critical distance from any fact. He does not allow himself to be betrayed by emotion because he knows that nothing human deserves to be taken too seriously.

I lived with Gustavo Gutierrez in Puebla in January and February 1979 during the Third Latin American Episcopal Conference. At that time, his name, like those of other liberation theologians, had been excluded from the list of official advisers. He did not have direct access to the meeting place of the bishops, but many prelates came to him for help, which obliged him to spend whole nights drafting proposals.

We were all housed precariously in two unfurnished apartments, which seldom had water and whose bathrooms lacked light. We survived with manna fallen from heaven because we had no kitchen, and in the city's restaurants we would have been easy prey of the international press, always in search of a theologian to decipher the ecclesiastical language of the texts or to give an exclusive interview that would confirm the rebellious and heretical nature of liberation theology...

After dodging all foreign correspondents for days, on Sunday afternoon, February 4, 1979, Gutierrez accepted the suggestion of the Mexican Center for Social Communication (Cencos) to hold a press conference at the El Portal hotel. In his comments, he emphasized that liberation theology had not planned to begin with a reflection on the poor. The poor themselves, agents of historical transformation, began this theological reflection. The goal of liberation theology is to give the poor the right to think and express themselves theologically. The more the journalists pressured him to let something escape that might sound like heresy, the more Gutierrez was faithful to the poor and to the Church. He is a master at reconciling (harmonizing) seemingly opposing poles, presenting syntheses that encourage us to reinterpret tradition and the world around us.

I met him on different occasions in his office - the "tower" of Rimac, a poor neighborhood in Lima. It was definitely one of the most cluttered offices I've ever seen. Scattered and mixed on the floor were Coke cans and Cardinal Ratzinger's books. Also bottles on top of papal documents, torn electrical wires roaming among dusty papers. There was no hint that a mop had been there since Francisco Pizarro's arrival in Peru.

Despite that, the confusion was logical for him. He knew exactly where to find everything. And amid that pile of papers, he devoured the books he received. When he felt hungry, he ate some undefined common meal, together with the unemployed and underemployed.

Gutierrez always preferred reading to writing. He had his own dynamic reading method, as if an antenna would show him the quality of the content of a work. Writing, for him, is a painful act. And when he writes, admitting that he has reached the final version is a sacrifice. He always considers it provisional text, to be revised and improved. For this reason, almost all of his works began as mimeographed lectures. It is very likely that he is the author of more unpublished works, known only to a small circle of readers, than published ones. In general, he does not even sign the mimeographed texts, which include an excellent introduction to the ideas of Marx and Engels and their relationship to Christianity.

In January 1985, on the eve of Pope John Paul II's visit to Lima, I met him in the "tower" of Rimac, writing a series of articles related to this important ecclesial event. As we talked, Gutierrez tried to untangle a long telephone wire, which looked more like a ball of yarn in the mouth of a playful cat. He always keeps his hands busy when he is nervous, whether twisting a rubber band or playing with a ballpoint pen. And at that moment he had more than enough reasons to be tense, because Cardinal Ratzinger had announced for September a response to Leonardo Boff's defense of his Church: Charisma and Power against Rome's criticism. Christmas had passed and the Curia still remained silent. The second "Instruction" on liberation theology, based on a consultation with the bishops of Latin America, promised for November or December, had also not appeared.

Perhaps it had been decided that the pope should make a more official statement on liberation theology on the spot. Nothing could be more timely than a pronouncement during a visit to the birthplace of the father of liberation theology. Gutiérrez feared that the Pope would say something that could be interpreted as condemning his theology. It would be disastrous. Nevertheless, he was ready to leave the "tower" that protected him from the siege of the press and appear at the Pope's meeting with priests and laity in the square. Once again he seemed certain that because of his native roots, as a person able to walk at night in the forest without awakening nature from its sleep, his presence would be as discreet as the drizzle that covers the roofs of Lima before dawn.

Admirers and inspirers

On the way to Cuba, brothers Leonardo and Clodovis Boff and I passed through Lima in the late afternoon of September 4, 1985. We found Gutierrez in the worker parish where, together with Father Jorge, director of the Workers' Ministry of Lima, the theologian exercised his priestly ministry. We insisted that he go with us to Havana because Fidel Castro had shown a great desire to meet him. Gutiérrez was evasive, objecting that at that very moment a group of Peruvian bishops, led by Dom Durán Enriquez, was preparing a textbook criticizing his writings, which meant that he would have to concentrate on producing a kind of advance defense.

Some time later, Gutiérrez confirmed that he had not come to Cuba in response to a request from Father Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, then general secretary of the Cuban Bishops Conference, who had been his colleague in Rome. The Cuban priest was afraid that the presence of the Peruvian theologian in Cuba would be exploited politically.

The night after our meeting in Lima, the brothers Leonardo and Clodovis Boff and I met Fidel Castro in Havana. We handed him the letter that the theologian had sent him. When he finished, Fidel commented that he had just read A Theology of Liberation and said he was impressed with its scientific basis and its ethical impact. He mentioned in particular the honesty with which Gutierrez treats the issue of class struggle and the dimension of poverty. He added, with emphasis, "We need to distribute books like this to the Communist movement. Our people know nothing about this. It is harder for you to write a book like this than for us to produce a text about Marxism." A few days later Fidel declared, in the presence of Dom Pedro Casaldaliga from Brazil who was visiting Cuba, that "liberation theology is more important than Marxism for the revolution in Latin America."

But whoever thinks that politics speaks louder in the heart of Gustavo Gutierrez is mistaken. He is above all a mystic. His most famous books, The God of Life, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent, and We Drink from Our Own Wells are fundamentally spiritual, aiming to nourish the faith life and prayer of Christians committed to the people's struggle.

For Gutiérrez, theology is secondary. The essential thing is to do God's will in liberating action. And his keen theological vision captures the presence of the Lord, solidary where He seems to be most absent, in the suffering of the poor. This suffering permeates the life of Gustavo Gutierrez himself, because his delicate health requires constant care. But he does not complain. He prefers to cry out for the poor.

On one occasion, I spent a whole day with him at the Summer Course in Lima, where thousands of militants from Christian base communities came in search of a theological foundation. I realized that he was sad, although he had presented his class with his usual vivacity. There was a shadow on that face that lights up, happy, when surrounded by simple, poor people, dedicated to the utopia of the Kingdom. We talked and not a word of self-pity came from his lips. Only later did I hear that his mother had died that day.

The book about Job is a disguised autobiography of Gustavo Gutierrez. From its pages comes the deep conviction that all liberation theology derives from the effort to make sense of human suffering. In pursuit of this meaning, the theologian knows that, as Clodovis Boff says, everything is political, but politics is not everything. Solidarity with the poor is not exhausted in the cause of justice; it leads us to the sphere of gratuitousness, where spiritual emptying opens the way to communion with God.

Just as in Latin America the life of faith can not be separated from the demands of politics, so the revolutionary project should find in the Christian mystic the model for the formation of new men and women. Consequently, liberation theology can only be accused of despising the spiritual dimension by someone who does not know the long list of works that have come from the contemplation and hands of Segundo Galilea, João Batista Libanio, Elsa Támez, Carlos Mesters, Arturo Paoli, Raúl Vidales, Pablo Richard and Leonardo Boff.

The divine stigmata burn within Gustavo Gutierrez. It is impossible to grasp the full depth of his intellectual inspiration, his prophetic role and his mystical soul without knowing those three Peruvians who are at the root of his genius: José Carlos Mariátegui, César Vallejo and, above all, José María Arguedas.

From the communist Mariátegui, author of the classic Siete Ensayos Peruanos ["Seven Peruvian Essays"], Gutiérrez learned the technique of cultural cannibalism necessary to Latin Americanize all the theoretical baggage of his years of studies in Rome, Belgium, France, and Germany. From the poet César Vallejo, author of Trilce -- poetry as important to modern literature as Ulysses -- he inherited the nostalgic lament of the suffering creature before the silence of the Creator: "My God, if You had been human today, You would be able to be God" (Los dados eternos). "I was born on a day when God was sick" (Espergesia).

However, the greatest influence was the novelist José María Arguedas, of whom Gutierrez was a friend and to whom he pays tribute in many of his lectures and writings. It is interesting that he chose as the epigraph of his A Theology of Liberation a page from the book Todos las Sangres by this Quechua author, specifically the one in which the indigenous sacristan of Lahuaymarca tells the priest, "Your God is not the same. He makes people suffer without consolation ..."

"Was God in the hearts of those who broke the body of the innocent teacher Bellido? Is God in the body of the engineers who are killing 'La Esmeralda'? In the authorities who took from its owners that field of corn where, at every harvest, the Virgin used to play with her Little Son?"

In November 1981, I met Gustavo Gutiérrez in Managua. There, between theological discussions with the Sandinista leaders in an attempt to help them understand the different positions of Christians regarding the revolution, what later became his book on Job was born. In it, he raises the fundamental question and asks himself: How can we talk about God in the midst of so much oppression? If we want to do theology, talk about God, he said, we must first be silent before God. From this silence, which surrounds the hearts of the poor, wisdom is born. And we must repeat with Job, in the midst of so many Latin American crosses and a deep thirst for love: "Before, I only knew you by hearsay but now my eyes have seen you." Everything in Gustavo Gutiérrez, his work and his life, converges toward this vision.

Today, Gutiérrez is my confrere in the Dominican Order.

Frei Betto is an adviser of pastoral and social movements, author of Fidel & Religion (Ocean Press, 2006), among other books. Gustavo Gutiérrez is the author of many books, the newest of which is De Medellin a Aparecida (Centro de Estudios y Publicaciones, 2018)