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Gustavo Gutiérrez and the preferential option for the poor
Nov 8, 2011
by John Dear
Blog | On the Road to Peace
WN: What can one say? The highlighted article is deeply humbling. I could have cited the entire article, so full of wisdom and insight–and great challenge!
As well, the overwhelming opposite juxtaposition leaps out in light of the just-released McCarrick Report: The Vatican Owns Up To Enabling Abuse. In the above Report, we read that Pope John Paul II elevated a narcissistic sex offender to the highest office of the Church: Cardinal. In the latter case, the Pope censured priests and Bishops who lived out the “preferential option for the poor”; many of whom paid for that commitment with their lives; all of whom sought to model their lives on Jesus . . .
One could slightly paraphrase Jesus in Luke 10:36ff:
“Which of these two do you think was a neighbor to those who fell into the hands of [militarized capitalistic] robbers: McCarrick or Gutiérrez”?
The answer shouts from the housetops:
“The one who had mercy on [them].”
Then comes the hard part:
“Go and do likewise.”
At which point I acknowledge deeply I am not without sin, and also would like to slink away . . .
“I hope my life tries to give testimony to the message of the Gospel, above all that God loves the world and loves those who are poorest within it.”
That’s the recent summation of his life by 83-year-old [91 in 2020] Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, founder of liberation theology and its central tenet, “the preferential option for the poor.”
These days, Gutiérrez works and writes at Notre Dame, where his colleague, my friend Fr. Daniel Groody, has just completed an excellent anthology of his work: Gustavo Gutiérrez: Spiritual Writings (Orbis Books, 2011). Gutiérrez reminds us of God’s preferential love for the poor and our own need to side with the poor and oppressed everywhere in their struggle for justice.
Gutiérrez’s groundbreaking work, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, published in 1971, changed everything. It seemed to chart a whole new course for the church, not just for Latin America, but everywhere. Vatican II challenged scholars to renew their theology and biblical study. Gutiérrez responded by examining our concept of God and the scriptures within the Latin American reality of extreme poverty and systemic injustice. That led to a renewed realization of Christ’s presence among the poor and oppressed, especially in their struggle to end poverty and oppression.
In his introduction, Groody reviews Gutiérrez’s three bottom-line principles about life and death at the bottom. First, material poverty is never good but an evil to be opposed.
“It is not simply an occasion for charity but a degrading force that denigrates human dignity and ought to be opposed and rejected.”
Second, poverty is not a result of fate or laziness, but is due to structural injustices that privilege some while marginalizing others.
“Poverty is not inevitable; collectively the poor can organize and facilitate social change.”
Third, poverty is a complex reality and is not limited to its economic dimension. To be poor is to be insignificant. Poverty means an early and unjust death.
An early and unjust death. I remember hearing Gutiérrez say those words at a talk I attended at Maryknoll in 1984. The following year, while living in El Salvador, I remember Jon Sobrino using the same expression. Most people in history suffer “early and unjust deaths,” they said. When they wake up, they know that because of poverty, they may die before the day is over. That is the greatest injustice, they insist.
Gandhi put it this way: poverty is the greatest form of violence.
When Jesus said “Blessed are the poor,” Gutiérrez points out, he does not say, “Blessed is poverty.” For Gutiérrez, “Standing in solidarity with the poor began to mean taking a stand against inhumane poverty.” Groody explains:
Gutiérrez makes distinctions between material poverty, voluntary poverty and spiritual poverty. Real poverty means privation, or the lack of goods necessary to meet basic human needs. It means inadequate access to education, health care, public services, living wages, and discrimination because of culture, race or gender. Gutiérrez reiterates that such poverty is evil; it is a subhuman condition in which the majority of humanity lives today, and it poses a major challenge to every Christian conscience and therefore to spirituality and theological reflection.
Spiritual poverty is about a radical openness to the will of God, a radical faith in a providential God, and a radical trust in a loving God. It is also known as spiritual childhood, from which flows the renunciation of material goods. Relinquishing possessions comes from a desire to be more possessed by God alone and to love and serve God more completely.
Voluntary poverty is a conscious protest against injustice by choosing to live together with those who are materially poor. Its inspiration comes from the life of Jesus who entered into solidarity with the human condition in order to help human beings overcome the sin that enslaves and impoverishes them. Voluntary poverty affirms that Christ came to live as a poor person not because poverty itself has any intrinsic value but to criticize and challenge those people and systems that oppress the poor and compromise their God-given dignity. It involves more than detachment, because the point is not to love poverty but to love the poor.
The Christian sides with the world’s poor, Gutiérrez teaches, consciously acknowledging the forces of greed, violence and death that crush them. The Christian sees Christ present in the poor and marginalized, and joins their struggle to end poverty.
“A spirituality of liberation will center on a conversion to the neighbor, the oppressed person, the exploited social class, the despised ethnic group, the dominated country,” Gutiérrez writes. “Our conversion to the Lord implies this conversion to the neighbor. To be converted is to commit oneself lucidly, realistically, and concretely to the process of the liberation of the poor and oppressed.”
Christians have not done enough in this area of conversion to the neighbor, to social justice, to history. They have not perceived clearly enough yet that to know God is to do justice. They have yet to tread the path that will lead them to seek effectively the peace of the Lord in the heart of social struggle.
Reading his theological reflections, I was deeply moved by Gutiérrez’s insistence on “the gratuitousness of God” as the basis for his liberation theology. Everything in life comes from the lavish, universal love of God, he insists. The best way to understand this gratuitous love of God is to see God’s love for the poor and oppressed and to make that same love central to our own lives.
“We have been made by love and for love,” Gutiérrez writes. “Only by loving can we fulfill ourselves as persons; that is, [by responding] to the initiative taken by God’s love. God’s love for us is gratuitous; we do not merit it. It is a gift we receive before we exist, or, to be more accurate, a gift in view of which we have been created. Gratuitousness thus marks our lives so that we are led to love gratuitously and to want to be loved gratuitously.
Please click on: Preferential Option For The Poor