Options for the Churches – Defining church, its challenges, and its questions

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.

Theology and Liberating Praxis – Theology as “second act”

Context – Human agency and traumatic history
Ivan Petrella, in his chapter “The Poverty of the Majority” from Beyond Liberation Theology: A Polemic, devotes two full pages to statistics which reveal the devastating human cost of globalization. Petrella uncovers the realities of global “idolatry” that result from the sovereignty of international systems which abandon all concern for the wholeness and well-being of the majority of the world’s population. Shocking poverty, a widening gap between rich and poor, pervasive denial of basic human rights, and no end in sight to such abuses, serves as the context for theological reflection. Gustavo Gutierrez, in his work A Theology of Liberation, highlights this context alongside social praxis as a first step for developing theological reflection. He writes of the growing awareness of humankind as “an active subject of history, ever more articulate in the face of social injustice” and human trauma (Gutierrez, 30). Human beings are, more than ever before, aware of their historical context and its traumatic injustice. A critical theological praxis and reflection is the responsibility and mandate of the church in such a context.

Theological reflection – A “second act”
Gutierrez departs from tradition in his conviction that theology reflection should only occur after or alongside an investment in action and interpretation in historical context. Gutierrez writes “The first stage or phase of theological work is the lived faith that finds expression in prayer and commitment,” rooted in the experience of Christian life in historical context (Gutierrez, xxxiv). Only with this first stage in progress can theological reflection begin. The role of theology, then, is “to read this complex praxis in the light of God’s word” (Gutierrez, xxxiv). For Gutierrez, praxis and theology are inextricably linked. On one hand, “A theology which has as its points of reference only ‘truths’ which have been established once and for all…can only be only static and…sterile” (Gutierrez, 10). On the other, praxis is only prophetic when it “interprets historical events with the intention of revealing and proclaiming their profound meaning” in light of the Christian narrative (Gutierrez, 10). This interdependence of theology and praxis reveals with greater clarity God’s self-revelation in human agency in historical contexts.

Praxis – Human agency and transformative future
The most essential role of theology in the current era, for Gutierrez, is its interdependence with historical praxis as the foundation for liberation and the restoration of human dignity. Gutierrez writes “Theology as critical reflection on historical praxis is a liberating theology, a theology of the liberating transformation of the history of humankind and also therefore that part of humankind…which openly confesses Christ” (Gutierrez, 12). A focus on liberation transforms theology from a primarily internal endeavor to an undertaking that is profoundly committed to the transformation of the world as a reflection of God’s Kingdom. Through “commitment and interpretation,” the Christian community is called to encounter the “signs of the times” and act prophetically in the world it inhabits” (Gutierrez, 23). Salvation thus becomes vocation. Human action “beyond all distinctions, gives religious value in a completely new way to human action in history…the building of a just society…a salvific work” (Gutierrez, 46). The working out of the world’s salvation in fear and trembling is the work of liberation theology, Christian praxis, and the relevance of the Christian narrative for the transformation of the world.

Petrella, Ivan. Beyond Liberation Theology: A Polemic. SCM Press, 2008.

Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation [TL]. 15th Anniversary Edition, with a new introduction by the author. Orbis Books, 1988.

U.S./Latin America as System – Complicity, injustice, and hope out of chaos

Complicity – U.S. intervention and the collapse of a region
René Girard, in Violence and the Sacred, writes “The god who has appeared malleable and complaisant, a willing servant of mankind, always manages to slip away at the last moment, leaving destruction in his wake” (Girard, 143). This quote seems a strikingly accurate likeness of United States political and economic intervention in Latin America. U.S. and international influences appeared on the surface to be “informal” and cooperative; influence as “new-model imperialism” was touted as a “civilizing mission…a blessing to the dominated countries” (Galeano, 207). As the Girard quote above suggests, however, the pretense of blessing swiftly disappeared, leaving broken and dependent countries behind. Multinational industry and corporations, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, and other international powers all joined in a promise of development and stability for Latin America. What remains of this promise is evident in the human cost of failed economic and often violent political interventions.

Injustice – The human cost of a corrupt system
The widespread intervention of U.S. and international financial interests in Latin America has had shocking consequences for human dignity in the region. In Brazil, economic failures linked to the interference of multinational corporations led to widespread poverty and the brutal suppression of groups seeking economic justice and equality (Galeano, 212). International Monetary Fund policies, heralded as the saving grace for the economically isolated, weakened Latin American states to the point of and over the brink of collapse. The human cost of these “saving” policies was, and continues to be, crippling poverty and violent internal conflict (Galeano, 221). Without self-sustaining industry and production to create jobs, even the human capital of the Latin American population – educated scientists and technicians – is drained from the continent. International promises that wealth would eventually reach the entirety of a country’s population continue to ring hollow in the ears of the millions of people living in abject poverty. The inequality gap between the rich and poor continues to widen.

Hope out of chaos – Christ as a liberating force
Out of chaos and broken promises, the voices of the most vulnerable have found power in the message and promise of the Gospel. Theology in the Latin American context is one that seeks to “take seriously the suffering of the innocent” as the only way to “speak out of their hope” (Gutierrez, 319). The only fitting theology is one of liberation. A liberating theology necessarily locates itself in the tangible realities of human suffering. In a world dominated by broken promises, Latin American liberation theology raises its voice amidst the deepest of suffering – proclaiming the promise and power of God’s love and a call for justice. Latin America’s Christians bear witness to a history of suffering and call for the world to recognize its complicity in the destruction of human life. The message of liberation theology in Latin America reveals a God who brings not devastation and abandonment, but one whose ultimate and infinite plan for human history is one of fullness, shalom, and grace.