It may not be fashionable, but it is very much on my mind. Tomorrow evening my plane will descend through perennial clouds to land in a chaotic and fragmented, but somehow functional, third world city, Lima, Peru. On the way from the airport I may well go by a walled in area of ancient pyramids; Lima has experienced some ten millennia of human habitation. Near one set of pyramids, in an intriguing continuity, opens the impressive modern campus of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru.
Once, one of its professors created a tsunami in Catholic and other Christian thought. Pope Benedict XVI, when he was just Cardinal Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, built sea walls to weaken this thought’s flood. It began when the professor, Father Gustavo Gutierrez, traveled to an international conference while thinking about theological responses to the poverty of so much of Latin America. He coined a term hat has gone on to have a life of its own, not unlike the t-shirts and coffee mugs of his contemporaries, Che Guevarra and Chairman Mao, one can buy in any market these days. Just like them, it too shook the world.
Liberation theology he called it. A simple idea: the ills of society, such as those that lead to poverty, are sinful and a matter of concern for God. Society too must find salvation; it too must walk a more holy road that will lead to human liberation/ salvation. At the conference, Gutierrez’ colleagues spoke of development but Gutierrez dared to use the politically charged term liberation at the time nationalist movements around the world sought independence and the West feared a worker’s revolution.
Gutierrez’ simple idea, that society must grow spiritually and that society, not just individuals, were subjects of Christ’s saving sacrifice, flooded Latin America and many other areas of the world. It spawned concern for the sinfulness of poverty and how to alleviate it, while helping people shed the oppression, inner and outer, which bound them. It questioned a Church tied to the well-off and said that if the Church must choose a social group with which to side it must claim a preferential option for the poor as the social group the quality of whose existence is the measure of social salvation. It led to a vision of Christ as one who questioned inequalities in society, not just of individuals, and challenged the status quo as Christ sought liberation for the souls of human kind and the societies they live in.
Embraced by CEPAL, the Latin American Bishops Conference, in Medellin and then in Puebla, this set of ideas took hold and shifted much of the pastoral work of the Latin American Church to a concern with saving society and improving the condition of the poor. It was an activist vision and it drew the ire of a Polish pope and his German theological pinscher. They began to attack it for many things, including a concern with class analysis while forgetting about the mystery and universality of the Church, a concern with social politics over individual spirituality as guided by the Church, and so on. By carefully appointing conservative Bishops and censuring key theologians, except for Father Gutierrez, the Vatican pushed the movement underground. But Father Gutierrez and his ideas still reach out from Lima.
The ideas are not sexy these days. But they do take you to neighborhoods, like the shanty town of Villa El Salvador, where undoubtedly not too long ago new constructions of mats were thrown up almost overnight by homeless men, women, and children in order to claim a floor and a roof. On the sand dunes where they build, one still finds priests, nuns, and lay workers who have drunk deeply from Gutierrez’ sea working with them.
Curiously, the poor themselves do not seem much moved by Gutierrez ideas, although the Catholic religious orders among them have been. Instead the poor are shaken, often literally, by charismatic Christianity, Pentecostalism and its Catholic form. Here they embrace a kind of theology of prosperity, a hope for what the well off seem to have. In so many ways this is not surprising. People want a house and they would also like other material things in a consumer-driven world. That seems much of the measure of life.
Still there is spiritual power to Gutierrez ideas of liberation. They give eternal weight to how societies are organized; they measure societies according to the standards of salvation and liberation. One can argue the economics and political theory of what might constitute liberation. But the simple idea, that God is concerned that we humans attain a spiritually optimal society that includes equality and human freedom in the here and now, stands as a challenge for Catholics and other Christians. Just the other day a BYU professor asked me if I knew of anyone working on a Mormon liberation theology.
My taxi will not traverse the city in which Father Gutierrez wrote, but its descendant stirring with neoliberal vigor. McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Ripleys, and Casinos thrive in many neighborhoods. Nevertheless, there are still people who seek a piece of sand on which to throw up some reeds and wonder how to get money to taste a Big Mac. And Gustavo Gutierrez? His ideas are still there too—although he also spends time in Notre Dame. Peru has an ancient myth that times will change. The old and forgotten may lie buried like mummies in the desert sands. But someday they will return to walk under a new sun.