Spirituality of Liberation

Alongside the demands for action in solidarity with the poor, however, the preferential option for the poor also demands a profound spirituality as an essential aspect of any liberating action. At its core, Gutiérrez' theology of liberation is, in fact, a spirituality. He developed his spirituality more fully and explicitly in the books We Drink from Our Own Wells and On Job. In the former, Gutiérrez outlined a spirituality grounded in a preferential option for the poor and, therefore, drawing on the rich resources of the lived faith of the poor. Such a spirituality would reject any separation between the life of prayer and sociohistorical action; contemplation and action are two sides of the same coin. If, as we have discussed above, one cannot understand the universality and gratuity of God's love apart from God's preferential love for the poor, neither can one's prayer, or "spiritual life," be understood accurately apart from a social praxis that makes credible in history God's love for all persons.

At the very heart of what Gutiérrez has called the "culture of the poor" one finds the expressly spiritual practices, symbols, and narratives which embody a lived faith: "From gratuitousness also comes the language of symbols. ... In their religious celebrations, whether at especially important moments or in the circumstances of everyday life, the poor turn to the Lord with the trustfulness and spontaneity of a child who speaks to its father and tells him of its suffering and hopes" (Gutiérrez 1984: 111-12). This fact reveals an important dimension of the preferential option for the poor, one which Gutiérrez himself emphasizes, but one too often missed by critics of liberation theologies: the option for the poor necessarily implies an option for the lived faith of the poor, an option for the spirituality of the poor. To opt for the poor is necessarily to pray as the poor pray, and to pray to the God to whom the poor pray. If, as Gutiérrez avers, at the center of the worldview of the poor is an unshakeable belief that "God first loved us" and that "everything starts from" that belief, then all human praxis becomes, at bottom, an act of worship, an act of prayer . . . and every act of prayer becomes a sociopolitical act. In the absence of such a practical spirituality, lived in response to God's love for us, any putative option for the poor cannot engender true solidarity or empathy. "It is not possible to do theology in Latin America," writes Gutiérrez, "without taking into account the situation of the most downtrodden of history; this means in turn that at some point the theologian must cry out, as Jesus did, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?'" (Gutiérrez 1993: 101).

Sociohistorical praxis, then, must not be understood as merely political action. Contemplation, prayer, and worship are themselves essential aspects of praxis. Indeed, in his later writings Gutiérrez is reluctant to talk about a "relationship" between contemplation and action as if these were two different realities. Rather, contemplation is itself an intrinsic dimension of all truly Christian praxis. When this intrinsic connection between action and contemplation is lived out, the option for the poor will be seen as encompassing not only a political dimension but spiritual and affective dimensions as well. The option for the poor will then be lived out as a response to God's gratuitous love, which is the "spiritual" source of that option. Likewise, solidarity with the poor will be seen to encompass not only expressly political action but also all those activities through which communion with each other and God is lived out, for example friendship, celebration, domestic life, liturgy. Indeed, in his later writings Gutiérrez places an ever greater stress on the importance of friendship as central to the struggle for justice; the most fundamental form of solidarity is that friendship with individual, flesh-and-blood human persons without which "the poor" too easily become reduced to a mere abstraction.

This emphasis on the contemplative, affective dimension of praxis and the option for the poor is nowhere more evident in Gutiérrez' writings than in his book On Job. The question posed in this extended reflection on the Book of Job is: "How can one speak of a loving God in the midst of innocent suffering?" Job is here a Christ-figure, a prototype and model for the believer committed to doing God's will. Gutiérrez invites us to accompany Job as he struggles with both Satan and God, having his faith challenged at every turn in the face of the calamities that befall him, a good man, and that are thus seemingly so unjust. Can Job continue to believe even when he receives no reward for his faith, indeed, even when he experiences nothing but affliction and humiliation before the God whom he loves? Is a genuinely "disinterested" faith possible? Or, having felt himself abandoned by God, will Job in turn himself abandon the God to whom he had previously been so faithful?

Job's response to these questions, concludes Gutiérrez, emerges only insofar as Job refuses to surrender either his conviction of his own innocence (and, therefore, the injustice of his afflictions) or his faith in God, even when, prefiguring the cries of the crucified Jesus on Golgotha, that very faith compels Job to cry out to a silent God, "My God, my God, why . . . ?" In his "dark night of the soul" Job experiences, first, the utter mystery that is God and, therefore, the foolishness of all human attempts to "make sense" of God's unfathomable love for us; and, second, a solidarity with and compassion for all those other persons who, like Job himself, live daily in the midst of death and affliction. The only (relatively) adequate response to the questions posed at the outset of the story, then, is not to be found in tomes of theology or elegantly spun theodicies, but in silence, in the silent praxis of compassion born of the contemplative, worshipful encounter with a God who is mystery. According to Gutiérrez, that mystery is revealed precisely at the point where the prophetic language of justice meets the silence of contemplative worship, at the point where the revolutionary and the mystic become one.

The connection between worship and justice is also central to another of Gutiérrez' key works, Las Casas: In Search of the Poor of Jesus Christ. The turning point of this major work of historical and theological scholarship is, again, the conversion that the protagonist undergoes when he experiences in his own life the inseparability of love of God and love of neighbor, that is, the inseparability of contemplation and action as two intrinsically related dimensions of Christian faith. Yet again, we find ourselves confronted here by the same twin themes to which Gutiérrez repeatedly returns throughout the corpus of his writing: the universality and gratuity of God's love (before which we are reduced to silent contemplation), and God's preferential love for the poor (which demands our own solidarity with the poor).

The book Las Casas treats, of course, the life and thought of the great Spanish missionary and theologian Bartolomé de Las Casas. This is, in some sense, Gutiérrez' "magnum opus," having occupied him, off and on, over the course of 25 years. Known as the "Defender of the Indians," Las Casas' prophetic criticism of Spanish violence against the indigenous peoples of America was made possible only by his conversion from an encomendero, or slaveowner, to one who made his own preferential option for the poor. And his conversion took place precisely at the point where his life of prayer encountered his life in the political realm.

The intrinsic connection between orthodoxy and orthopraxis has never been exemplified as clearly as in Las Casas' conversion, while he was preparing to celebrate the eucharistic liturgy on Pentecost, 1514. Reflecting on the scripture readings for the day, he came upon the following words in the Book of Sirach (34: 18-22):

Tainted his gifts who offers in sacrifice ill-gotten goods! / Mock presents from the lawless win not God's favor. / The Most High approves not the gifts of the godless. / [Nor for their many sacrifices does he forgive their sin.] / Like the man who slays a son in his father's presence / is he who offers sacrifice from the possessions of the poor. / The bread of charity is life itself for the needy, / he who withholds it is a person of blood. / He slays his neighbor who deprives him of his living; / he sheds blood who denies the laborer his wages. (Gutiérrez 1993: 47)

As he read them, Las Casas saw himself mirrored in and challenged by those words: he was preparing to offer to God bread and wine produced by his own Indian slaves. What was thus ostensibly an act of Christian worship was, in fact, an act of idolatry; he was purporting to worship the God of Jesus Christ while, in reality, worshipping a god of violence and destruction, a god who accepted the fruit of exploited human labor. While condemning the Amerindians for their practice of human sacrifice, he himself - along with the rest of the Spaniards -had been sacrificing human blood, sweat, and tears in the form of bread and wine. As Las Casas insisted repeatedly in the wake of his conversion, that metanoia implied not only a different way of living but, in so doing, it also implied belief in and worship of a radically different God from the "god" to whom he had previously been offering the Mass. Conversely, any worship conducted in the absence of a solidarity with the poor can only be idolatry.

As the methodological key to Gutiérrez' theology, the preferential option for the poor becomes not only a privileged criterion of Christian orthopraxis (correct practice), calling us to live our faith; it is, more fundamentally, a privileged criterion of orthodoxy itself (correct worship, or doxa), calling us to believe in and worship a God who is revealed on the cross, among the crucified peoples of history. Unless we place ourselves alongside the poor, unless we look at reality through their eyes, we are unable to see, recognize, or worship the God who walks with the poor. Conversely, if we lack such a practical solidarity with the poor, the "god" in whom we believe and whom we worship will necessarily be a false god, an idol of our own making.

At the same time, I think we misread Gutiérrez' understanding of the option for the poor if we interpret it as reducing Christian faith to such a practical option. It bears repeating that throughout his writings Gutiérrez insists that the warrants for a preferential option for the poor are, above all, theocentric: "the ultimate basis for the privileged position of the poor is not in the poor themselves but in God, in the gratuitousness and universality of God's agapeic love" (Gutiérrez 1987: 94, emphasis in original). Our praxis of solidarity with the poor is not itself the foundation of Christian faith; rather, that praxis is a response to God's own initiative, a response to God's own gratuitous revelation in our world and in our own lives. "'God first loved us' (1 John 4: 19)," writes Gutiérrez, "[e]verything starts from there. The gift of God's love is the source of our being and puts its impress on our lives . . . The other is our way for reaching God, but our relationship with God is a precondition for encounter and true communion with the other" (Gutiérrez 1984: 109-12). Before we can "opt for" God or others, God has already opted for us; we can opt for the poor in a preferential way because God has already opted for the poor preferentially. And because the God who has chosen and loved us gratuitously is revealed in scripture, in tradition, and in history as a God who has chosen and loved the poor preferentially, we are compelled and empowered to love the poor preferentially. "The ultimate basis of God's preference for the poor," avers Gutiérrez, "is to be found in God's own goodness and not in any analysis of society or in human compassion, however pertinent these reasons may be" (Gutiérrez 1987: xiii).

Indeed, the Peruvian theologian warns against such distorted interpretations of the option for the poor:

A hasty and simplistic interpretation of the liberationist perspective has led some to affirm that its dominant, if not exclusive, themes are commitment, the social dimension of faith, the denunciation of injustices, and others of a similar nature. It is said that the liberationist impulse leaves little room for grasping the necessity of personal conversion as a condition for Christian life . . . Such an interpretation and criticism are simply caricatures. One need only have contact with the Christians in question to appreciate the complexity of their approach and the depth of their spiritual experience. (Gutiérrez 1984: 96)

The caricatures to which Gutiérrez refers quickly became widespread in the media, despite Gutiérrez' clear and consistent assertions that, in the words that appear on the very first page of A Theology of Liberation, our purpose is not to elaborate an ideology to justify postures already taken, nor to undertake a feverish search for security in the face of the radical challenges which confront the faith, nor to fashion a theology from which political action is "deduced". It is rather to let ourselves be judged by the Word of the Lord, to think through our faith, to strengthen our love, and to give reason for our hope from within a commitment which seeks to become more radical, total, and efficacious. It is to reconsider the great themes of the Christian life within this radically changed perspective and with regard to the new questions posed by this commitment. (Gutiérrez 1973: ix)

What defines and makes Christian faith possible is not praxis as such but praxis as encountered by God's Word. And it is precisely a supreme confidence in God's gratuitous love for us, as that love is revealed in our lives and in God's Word, that above all characterizes the faith of the poor themselves. Over the years, Gutiérrez' writings have increasingly focused on the faith of the poor as a rich spiritual resource that has sometimes been overlooked in the struggle for justice; the seeds of liberation, which are fundamentally spiritual ("theocentric") are already present in the lived faith of the poor.

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