Theology Book Review

A Theology of Liberation

by Gustavo Gutiérrez
Reviewed date: 2021 Aug 29
334 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson. New introduction and revisions to this edition translated by Matthew J. O'Connell.
cover art

Heretical and Marxist, so it's wrong twice.

The following is a transcription of the handwritten notes I took while reading A Theology of Liberation.

Introduction to the Original Edition
xiv "the critical function of theology" … "is the struggle to construct a just and fraternal society"

"The Bible presents liberation—salvation—in Christ as the total gift." "Liberation canthus be approached as a single salvific process."

Book has three parts: First, define terms. Second, look at how theology has traditionally responded to the problem of liberation. Third, reconsider the practice of theology in light of Latin America, where a Christian majority is oppressed (a unique situation in the world.)

Even in the introduction, Gutiérrez is conflating salvation and liberty -> but liberty is justice and economic.

Introduction to the Revised Edition: Expanding the View
Make things more clear.
It's not just poverty, but racism and women's rights

xviii "it is therefore necessary to deal respectfully with other persons and with what they think they find in works written from the theological perspective." Nice. I like him. He seems open to real, respectful dialog and debate.

xxiv - easy to acknowledge poverty, hard to confront the reasons behind it."xxv - Three meanings of poverty:
real poverty, an evil God doesn't want
"spiritual poverty, in the sense of a readiness to do God's will"
solidarity with the poor, protesting their conditions. "Preferential option for the poor"
preference, priority -> not exclusivity

xxvi - the church must be: "universality and preference for the poor"

xxviii "the poor deserve preference not because they are morally or religiously better than others, but because God is God, in whose eyes 'the last are first'". This is in contrast to what I see in progressive Western thought, which is that oppression and poverty are moral virtues. Liberation theology is NOT an offshoot of Western European progressive theology.

xxx "racism and machismo" - I guess machismo is a bigger problem than I thought.

xxxiv "How can we find a way of talking about God amid the suffering and oppression that is the experience of the Latin American poor?" "How is it possible to tell the poor, who are forced to live in conditions that embody a denial of love, that God loves them?"

To which I respond, maybe point out that Jesus saves them from their sins? Salvation, maybe? That would work, as long as the gospel isn't being preached by the oppressor.

xxxvii - 3 levels/dimensions of liberation

  • socio-economic
  • personal transformation, inner freedom
  • liberation from sin

xxxix "Liberation … is the central theme of evangelization" "It is at the heart of the Lord's saving work and of the kingdom of life; it is what the God of the kingdom seeks." OK sure. But what is the "kingdom of life?"

Remember: Medellín, Pueblo, Oscar Romero

xli - the church in Latin America should be poor, missionary, and paschal.

Chapter 1: Theology: A Critical Reflection
p8. "influence of Marxist thought". "Contemporary theology does in fact find itself in direct and fruitful confrontation with Marxism."

orthopraxis on equal footing with orthodoxy

Quoting Edward Schillebreckx: "It is evident that thought is also necessary for action. But the Church has for centuries devoted its attention to formulating truths and meanwhile did almost nothing to better the world." (My note: reminds me of Augustine St. Clare)

"In other words, the church focuses on orthodoxy and left orthopraxis in the hands of nonmembers and unbelievers."

p9 "Theology must be a critical reflection on humankind", which looks at history and society and the church; not just revelation and tradition. Uh, so we find truth in history?

p11 "theology as a critical reflection on Chrsitian praxis in the light of the Word"

p12 "Theology as a critical reflection on historical praxis is…a theology of the liberating transformation of the history of humankind…a theology which does not stop with reflecting on the world, but rather tries to be a part of the process through which the world is transformed."

Hmm. So, focus on changing the world. Theology that I know is focused on knowledge and wisdom with the goal of transforming the individual into a more Christlike character, but not with changing political systems. When and where Christians in America/West try to get involved in politics (e.g., Evangelicalism as a political force) the world hates it.

Also, I reject the premise that the church has done nothing to better the world. To the contrary: we've done a great deal.

Chapter 2: Liberation and Development
p14 poor countries think rich countries get that way by "the fruit of injustice and coercion." * So, wealth is a symptom of evil.

p16 Third World social scientists conclude "dynamics of world economics leads simultaneously to the creation of greater wealth for the few and greater poverty for the many."

p16 Christianity and Marxism share a concern for human values (It helps that I've read Marx.)

p17 poor countries are underdeveloped because they are dominated by rich countries

p19, 20, 21 So much Marx, and Freud. Just psychologists, both of them! Not impressed with Gutiérrez here. Also, he seems to presuppose, like Marx, that psychological liberation is only possible under socialism, not capitalism.

p24 "Sin—a breach of friendship with God and others—is according to the Bible the ultimate cause of poverty, injustice, and the oppression in which persons live."

p25 I think he's saying that "liberation" is a better term than "development" to describe what the third world needs

p25 There's more Marx than Jesus so far, but he's only just defined his terms. Presumably Jesus will show up.

Chapter 3: The Problem
p29 liberation theology: "what relation is there between salvation and the historical process of human liberation?" It's a political theology, i.e., how does the Church get involved in politics and revolution? -> This seems opposed in principle to the separation of church and state, and in particular, not compatible with American tax-exempt churches.

p33 Liberation theology means "abolish the present status quo" and "build a just society based on new relationships of production." Sounds like Marxism.

p32 the old way was "Stress was placed on private life and on the cultivation of private values; things political were relegated to a lower plane"

So: Latin America is poor and suffering, it's the fault of rich countries, and the Church should help by fomenting revolution and establishing socialism.

Chapter 4: Different Responses
Christendom mentality - Christians work for the Church and are not permitted to be politically active.

New Christendom - individual Christians work to create a "profane Christendom," a society based on Christian principles. To do this, they create non-Church organizations. Their their actions are their own, they don't reflect on the church as a whole.

* Distinction of planes: The Church should not interfere in temporal matters like politics. Church's role is to "evangelize" and inspire the temporal sphere. I.e., the clergy evangelizes and inspires the Church, but does not touch the world. Then, the laity, being inspired, work "to create with others, Christian or not, a more just and more humane society."

So, making the world better is our day job, not what we do as the church per se.

The distinction of planes dominated in Europe, but not in most of Latin America.

Chapter 5: Crises of the Distinction of the Planes Model
p40 youth groups became politically active, drawing the church into a plane it officially couldn't enter. E.g., what if my local church youth group endorsed a Dallas mayoral candidate who promised to address the homeless with housing and jobs and such? How would that go over?

p40 Church nonintervention is tacit support for existing social authorities, who are oppressive (in Latin America)

p42 the world is become more secular, less Christian

p43 there should be no separation between the natural and the supernatural

p46 "The building of a just society has worth in terms of the Kingdom"—good.
"to participate in the process of liberation is already, in a certain sense, a salvific work."—heresy.

Chapter 6: The Process of Liberation in Latin America
p47 Latin America is the only continent that is both 1) Christian, and 2) oppressed.
Thought: liberation theology is a political ideology inspired by Christian values and based on Marxist psychology.

p50 undeveloped Latin American nations could not make the jump from economic dependence on imports to developed, industrial, independent economies. Why? Because they ignored political realities.

p52-54 Development cannot happen while there is still dependence, which has a political component, and a class component

p54-56 The liberation movement: Latin America can only achieve development if liberated from oppression and domination by capitalist countries; chiefly USA. This liberation must be a homegrown Latin American socialism, not just a copy of Marxism, although it is influenced by Marx.

Oh you poor deluded fool You think you can make socialism work for you. You fool. The gulags, man. Never forget the gulags.

I do agree with Gutiérrez on one point though: if Latin Americans want freedom, they have to figure it out themselves. Nobody will give it to you, you have to take it and make it for yourself. I recommend the US Constitution and Western respect for the rule of law as a good starting point. It works, unlike Marxism.

Chapter 7: The Church in the Process of Liberation
p59-62 Lay people, priests, and bishops are getting politically active, and are experiencing violent opposition from right-wing anti-communist groups, and from governments

p64 do not equate the unjust violence of the oppressors with the just violence of the oppressed

p64 "underdevelopment of Latin America is a byproduct of capitalist development in the West." It is neocolonialist.

p64 liberation is replacing development as the goal because of the recognition that dependence on the West is what's holding them back.

p65 the priests are self-described socialists, seeking to "eliminate all forms of man's exploitation of his fellow man."

p66 specifically, no private ownership of the means of production. *sigh*

p68-71 The church must:

  1. denounce injustices as sin
  2. conscienticizing evangelization -> inspire the oppressed to take action
  3. be a poor Church
  4. restructure the Church
  5. change the lifestyle of the priests to be more in solidarity with the poor

Chapter 8: Statement of the Questions

  1. What is the meaning of faith in a life committed to the struggle against injustice and alienation?
  2. Latin America is in a deeply conflicted moment in history
  3. The Church is divided, some rich, some poor. Some oppressors, some oppressed.
  4. In a revolutionary culture, how does the church be in the world but not of it?
  5. Should the Church put its weight behind social transformation?
  6. The Church appears rich, not poor. It should be poor, to be in solidarity with the oppressed.

Section One: Faith and the New Humanity
Chapter 9: Liberation and Salvation
? What is the "universality of salvation" in Catholic teaching? -> all adults have the opportunity for salvation.

Salvation is not just for the next world, but for this one too: in this life, sin is "an obstacle to life's reaching the fullness we call salvation." p85

Is this fresh heresy, or just standard Catholic teaching?

p86-91 Creation, the Exodus, and the work of Christ are all part of God's liberation

p90 "the work of Christ is presented simultaneously as a liberation from sin and from all its consequences, despoliation, injustices, hatred." -- Yeah, but that's just clever rhetoric; it's poetry, artistic license, it is not literally true, not in the way he has previously defined liberation.

p91-97 Some inscrutable blathering about eschatology, how it's not all about the future but about the power to "transform unjust social structure." I'm not buying it, except maybe in some vague postmillennialism sense. But not in this sense.

p97 "the struggle for a just society is in its own right very much a part of salvation history."

Chapter 10: Encountering God in History
p110 "we meet God in our encounter with others"

p110-112 exhortation to love your neighbor, not to hold back wages, to cease evil and do good and champion the oppressed

p112-116 Parable of the final judgment (Lord, when did we see you hungry, thirsty, etc.), Parable of the Good Samaritan, Love

p114 "love for God is unavoidably expressed through love of one's neighbor

p116 our "neighbor" is also the exploited, the dominated, the marginalized. We need "transformation of a society" specifically, "radical change in the foundation of society, that is, the private ownership of the means of production"

p117 Latin American Christians are criticized by orthodox Christians because "orthodox" Christianity is spiritually dead and forsakes the gospel. Uh, begging the question, I think.

Chapter 11: Eschatology and Politics
p121-122 Latin America looks to the future, the West is fixated on their "affluent present"

p126 Hegel, Feuerbach, and Marx. And the greatest of these is Marx. Is he really using Marx as an example of good theology? Marx? Really?

Jesus and Politics
p132 Jesus was not a Zealot. Jesus confronted the oppressive Jewish authorities. Jesus was executed by the political authorities on charge of being a Zealot.

Therefore…Jesus was a revolutionary whose message struck at the root of injustice. Seems like a series of strained conclusions. Unlikely on a plain reading of the text of the Bible.

p135-140 Incomprehensible rambling about utopia. Gutiérrez sounds like he's on LSD.

Section Two: The Christian Community and the New Society
Chapter 12: The Church: Sacrament of History
The Church is a visible sign of God in the world

p148 "the Church must be the visible sign of the presence of the Lord within the aspiration for liberation and the struggle for a more human and just society."

p152 "Rather, the question is in what direction and for what purpose is it [the Church] going to use its influence: for or against the established order, to preserve the social prestige which comes with its ties to the groups in power or to free itself from that prestige with a break from these groups and with genuine service to the oppressed?"

p157-15 1) Class struggle—labor vs. capital—is a fact. 2) "This harsh and painful situation cannot be ignored." Uh, why is it, a priori, harsh and painful? I find free market labor empowering and dignifying.

p160 "The universality of Christian love is, I repeat, incompatible with the exclusion of any persons, but it is not incompatible with a preferential option for the poorest and most oppressed."

Chapter 13: Poverty: Solidarity and Protest
p163 What is poverty?

  1. Material poverty - "lack of economic goods necessary for a human life worthy of the name"
  2. Spiritual poverty - unclear, maybe "an interior attitude of unattachment to the goods of this world." I.e., the poor in spirit

p169-170 "Blessed are you poor for yours is the Kingdom of God" does not mean, it seems to me, "Accept your poverty because later this injustice will be compensated in the Kingdom of God." Rather, it means the Kingdom will fight poverty here on earth

p171 "Material poverty is a scandalous condition. Spiritual poverty is an attitude of openness to God and spiritual childhood." Or, a third meaning: "poverty as a commitment of solidarity and protest."

p172 "poverty is an act of love and liberation." Jesus' incarnation was an act of poverty.

"Christian poverty, an expression of love, is solidarity with the poor and is a protest against poverty."

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