Liberating history – a radical precedent
Gutierrez’s theology of salvation, discussed in a previous post, centers on the work of salvation as “a reality which occurs in history” and which “gives to the historical becoming of humankind its profound unity and its deepest meaning” (Gutierrez, 143). Gutierrez and others look to the figure of Christ as a radical precedent for the liberation and salvation of history. Gutierrez highlights the marginalized church of the first centuries as a church whose status meant its recognition of wider church struggles and close attention to “the action of Christ beyond its frontiers, that is, to the totality of his redemptive work” (Gutierrez, 144). This status changed dramatically over the centuries, and much of the church’s privileged presence around the world is the contemporary manifestation of this change. As Gutierrez notes, the contemporary church in the developed world is plagued by “intraecclesial problems” of varying types (Gutierrez, 148). Preoccupation with internal struggles is hardly the vocation the church was intended for.
Richard Horsley identifies a rich history of precedent for radical liberation in the “people’s movements” of the early Roman Empire. These movements were deeply rooted in the realities faced by communities of faith. The Roman Empire wielded shocking military power (Horsley, 23), economic prowess (Horsley, 26), and an ideological strength that contributed to its widespread governance (Horsley, 39). And yet, resistance to the Empire was as widespread as its reaches. Horsley identifies several types of movements, including “prophetic and messianic movements of resistance…the principal ways in which the people of Judea and Galilee made history” (Horsley, 85). This historical resistance provided the context for the growth of the first Christian church.
Relevant church – a radical fellowship of unity
If the challenges of the contemporary church could be summarized in a word, that word would be ‘relevance.’ Gutierrez writes “For many there has even been a kind of evaporation of any meaning of the Church” (Gutierrez, 142). Declining memberships, decreasing engagement with the world, and internal decay have been the norm of the church in the developed world for the past few decades. And yet, the world of suffering and oppression that surrounds the broader community of Christian faith is desperate for liberation. The question Gutierrez poses for the Latin American churches should be the same for the church everywhere: “The question is in what direction and for what purpose is it going to use its influence: for or or against the established order” (Gutierrez, 152). Gutierrez argues that unity against the oppressive realities of the world is “the fundamental vocation of the church” (Gutierrez, 160). Joined in Eucharistic community with the global church, the vocation of the church in the developed world is to live “according to the demands placed on us by the other,” through “casting our lot with the oppressed and the exploited in the struggle for a more just society” (Gutierrez, 149-151). By reclaiming our communion with the community of faith beyond our doors, the church is better able to live out Christ’s redemptive and salvific work in history. This fellowship and communion risks relevance in a world that challenges the Gospel message of the church.
Salvation – From ancient to contemporary times, the theology and emotion surrounding the concern of salvation has been diverse and passionate. Gutierrez, along with other liberation theologians, examines the nature of salvation as both quantitative and qualitative mystery. The ‘two-dimensional’ mystery plays out in contemporary culture, with public attention given to debates about those who have been saved or risk being “left behind.” For Gutierrez, the theme of salvation has both a quantitative sense, as a cure for sin, and a qualitative sense, as communion with God and community (Gutierrez, 84-85). Departing from the preferences of the quantitatively inclined, Gutierrez locates salvation in the world as “something which embraces all human reality, transforms it, and leads it to its fullness in Christ” (85). Key to Gutierrez’s thought is the theology of salvation as present in human history, salvation as “intrahistorical reality” (86). Rather than existing beyond the borders of history, salvation is recognizable as “historical-salvific fact” and requires human agency in its fulfillment (89).
Christ – If salvation is seen as a present feature of history, Christ then becomes the bearer of this salvation and liberation. Gutierrez identifies sin as “the fundamental alienation, the root of a situation of injustice and exploitation” – a deeply tangible historical reality (103). For Gutierrez, Christ enters into this reality of sin in historical context as liberator. Christ is the redemptive historical and salvific figure who addresses three categories of liberation from sin: “political liberation, human liberation throughout history, liberation from sin and admission to communion with God” (103). Christ is the figure who fulfills the mystery of salvation in historical context.
Kingdom – A salvation and a Christ which are linked in historical reality enriches an eschatological vision which is equally tied to history. The future and present of human history are made intelligible through God’s participation in human reality (95). God is not separated from history, but an actor in it. God’s kingdom is thus also a reality of history, incompletely encountered, but promised as a feature of eschatalogical reality. The promise of God’s kingdom for humanity “is a process which occurs historically in liberation, insofar as liberation means a greater human fulfillment” (104). The fulfilment of God’s promised kingdom rests not only on God’s presence in the world, but also on the human agency that presence allows. This agency also finds its center in history: “Without liberating historical events, there would be no growth of the kingdom” (104). The promise of salvation in history and the coming of God’s kingdom require and give meaning to human actions for liberation.
Church – Reading the signs of the times and the “New Christendom”
Central to the present and future of the Latin American church is the recognition of “the commitment of Christians in history” as “a true locus theologicus” (Gutierrez, 47). For Gutierrez, a theology centered in the academy and religious theory has lost its relevance. In its place is the necessity of a “New Christendom” defined by a “Christian community…beginning…to read politically the signs of the times in Latin America” (Gutierrez, 58). Where development models have failed, leaving only dependence and underdevelopment, the church has the obligation to speak out and correct systems of injustice. In an era of empire, Gutierrez witnesses to the possibility of a church that can speak truth to power and contribute to the transformation of systemic injustice and oppression.
Challenges – Journeying With the Nonviolent Christ?
Gutierrez witnesses to the need of “a profound transformation, a social revolution” which will respond to the needs of the most vulnerable and oppressed (Gutierrez, 55). According to Gutierrez, Latin America is “in the midst of a full-blown process of revolutionary ferment” (Gutierrez, 55). The complexities of these revolutionary realities have “caused many to substitute working for the Kingdom with working for the social revolutions…the lines between the two have become blurred” (Gutierrez, 59). Gutierrez acknowledges the “problem of counterviolence” and that some religious leaders “participate actively in politics, often in connection with revolutionary groups” (60-61). A central unanswered question emerges from Gutierrez’s work so far. A recently published Presbyterian devotional resource on nonviolence bears the title Resurrection Living: Journeying With the Nonviolent Christ. What role does Christ’s model of nonviolence play in the struggle for the transformation of Latin America and the world?
Questions – Defining the community of faith
Gutierrez raises other critical questions which will define the community of a liberating faith. Key among these are the faith, contemplative praxis, and unity of the church. Christians are present “among the oppressed and persecuted and others among the oppressors and persecutors, some among the tortured and others among the torturers or those who condone torture” (Gutierrez, 75). What does a theology that answers to all Christians in such contexts look like? How does such a church pray? How does the community of faith live out its communion? Does the church have a responsibility to speak out against injustice and work unceasingly for the transformation of the world? These are questions not only for the Latin American church, but for the churches at the heart of and on the periphery of Empire. The community of faith is liberated through the work of the Holy Spirit – always “in the process of becoming” (Gutierrez, 75).
Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation [TL]. 15th Anniversary Edition, with a new introduction by the author. Orbis Books, 1988.