Over the past 15 months, most of the world has been radically transformed by COVID-19, which has killed more than 3.7 million people worldwide. The pandemic has uncovered the inequalities inherent in current systems in the United States and throughout the world. As we reflect on these situations, as people of faith, we are looking at what theologies are available to us to help process the framework that exacerbated so much of the suffering resulting from the pandemic. I think severe reflection and revising of Liberation Theologies like the one developed by Gustavo Gutierrez can provide us key hallmarks for creating a more empathic and responsive church.
In 1971, Peruvian Catholic Scholar and Priest Gustavo Gutiérrez wrote Teología de la liberación: Perspectivas (retitled in 1973 as A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation). This groundbreaking work helped many rekindle the original message of Jesus Christ in America through its focus on the impoverished. Gutiérrez developed his theology as an option for the poor in response to the rampant suffering and poverty. This theology proposes a concrete way to dismantle systems of oppression and injustice. He challenged the concepts brought by European invaders who led the Catholic Church to convert the “pagans” or to kill them. Gutiérrez wrote, “the salvation of the pagans was raised at the time of ‘discovery of peoples’ belonging to other religions and living in areas far from those where the Church has been traditionally rooted.”
Gutiérrez uncovers the church’s role as a regular part of the levers of oppression, complicit with both colonizers and the era of independent republics throughout America. This analysis focuses his attention on how systematic oppression and injustice work to keep the native population and their descendants in poverty. To make this theological and logical connection, Gutiérrez exposes a critical theological reflection on Christian praxis. “Only authentic solidarity with the poor and a genuine protest against the poverty of our time can provide the concrete, vital context necessary for a theological discussion of poverty. The absence of a sufficient commitment to the poor, the marginalized, and the exploited is perhaps the fundamental reason why we have no solid contemporary reflection on the witness of poverty.”
To understand his theological discussion and the option for the poor, we must consider the solidarity and protest he urges. In Gutiérrez’s work, he provides precise definitions of the words he uses to ensure no ambiguity. He wrote, “poverty is a scandalous condition inimical to human dignity; therefore, contrary to the will of God,” spiritual poverty is an attitude of openness to God and spiritual childhood; moreover, “poverty as a commitment of solidarity and protest.”
For Gutiérrez, poverty is a scandalous condition because it shows society’s systematic problems and values. Through exclusionary laws, individuals are not permitted to leave the state of poverty, and that is injustice; this system should be antithetical to followers of Christ. However, Gutiérrez provides an option for the individual and society, a real commitment to solidarity with the impoverished population. Gutiérrez calls the preferential option for the poor as the decision for us to respond to the system that provides us with privileges, money, opportunities, and supremacy. Instead, we have the choice to be on the side that God is concerned for.
As groundbreaking as his text was in 1971, unfortunately, theology does have shortcomings. Specifically, Gutiérrez does not address or reflect on the primary individuals who live in impoverished conditions – women and children. He fails to indicate that most oppressed and most vulnerable individuals seem to find no voice in his work. This oversight is likely due to him being a product of his time but is still a significant oversight. It is scandalous to know that millions of individuals, even working more than 40 hours a week, get a salary that is not enough to live a decent life. Gutiérrez’s writings are about scandalous conditions in American continental territories and in all societies where the church and the rich are in power while the poor are marginalized. This contrasts with Jesus’ message in which the marginalized and the poor are at the center.
During the current global COVID-19 pandemic, the impoverished and those living on the margins of society are more profoundly seen. Individuals who work long hours can barely survive, while on the other hand, rich people make more money today by taking advantage of people’s desperation. Can we say that the system is working for those in need? Suppose we continue to be complacent with systems that maintain the status of a few due to the oppression of others. If we opt for the comfort of the few and at the expense of all, we know we are doing wrong, it shows we are far from understanding liberation. Working for equality and inclusion needs to be one of our priorities. Is the church ready to believe and practice liberation theology?
Yenny Delgado-Qullaw (she/her/ella) Social psychologist and contextual theologian. She writes about the intersections between politics and faith.