A Theology of Liberation

by Gustavo Gutierrez
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Examine the significance of Gustavo Gutiérrez's quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "Freedom is not something man has for himself but something he has for others." Accordingly, what is the relationship of this statement with regard to Gutierrez's emphasis on Eschatological Promises as it relates to the liberation process?

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Eschatology refers to the end of time. In Christian theology, time is linear, not circular. History will come to a definitive end. At that point, God will establish a New Jerusalem on earth where he will wipe all tears away. 

When Gutierrez talks about eschatological promises, he is entering into an argument about where and how the Biblical end-time promises will be fulfilled. Some theologians contend that those promises will come to fruition only in the afterlife. We should simply forget about conditions getting better on earth, they say, and focus on our own salvation after death. The liberation theologists, including Gutierrez, strongly reject that concept, saying we humans are told to co-create with God a just society here on earth, within human history. For example, Jesus told Peter three times: "Feed my sheep."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's theology was formed within the context of Nazi Germany and has had an enormous impact on liberation theologies around the world. He was a pastor in the Lutheran/Reformed Church when Hitler took power. Hitler almost immediately tried to remake the Protestant church in his own image, establishing a German Christian Church that excluded Jews (even those who had already converted) and other non-Aryans. Bonhoeffer immediately reacted. He opposed collaboration with the Nazis or any reinterpretation of the Bible. He believed very strongly that the Christian church had to actively and openly oppose Hitler. Most of his cohort, however, capitulated to the Nazis and, out of fear, went along with the new ideology. They buried their heads in the sand, falling back on the theology of the afterlife. They said there is nothing we can do about the conditions on this earth.

Bonhoeffer was deeply appalled and spent the last 12 years of his life, before the Nazis executed him, opposing this theology of withdrawal. He believed that God is both in heaven and, as the Jewish scriptures say, in the center of the village here on earth. We ought to be in the center of the village too, Bonhoeffer said, building God's kingdom here and now on earth.

When Bonhoeffer said freedom is acting on behalf of others, that sentiment came out of his recognition of his own privilege. He was a wealthy Aryan from a prominent family. He knew, for instance, that the Jews and other oppressed minorities could not speak up for themselves. Christians, Bonhoeffer said, have a central responsibility to stand up for the oppressed. Christians, he argued, must construct a "this-world" theology that focuses not on the afterlife or personal salvation, but on living here and now for other people. 

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The idea of "freedom is not something man has form himself but something he has for others" helps to illuminate a social construction.  For Gutiérrez, one of the significant challenges of the Church in Latin American communities is its absent embrace of social reality.  Bonhoeffer's quote relates freedom to the idea that one's actions have direct implications on others and freedom exists, in part, outside of one's self. Gutiérrez suggests that there can be greater meaning in Eschatological Promises when it seeks to link itself to the temporal condition of social injustice that faces so many:  "“Salvation is not something otherworldly,” but rather “something that embraces human reality, transforms it, and leads it to its fullness in Christ.”   Gutiérrez makes the argument the church has failed to understand the need to connect its own actions to the social conditions that surround individuals in their daily life.  In this, freedom is not something purely individualistic.  Rather, it is something offered to another, helping them realize the power of spiritual identity both in this life and beyond it.  Through this, Gutierrez makes the argument that the liberation process can be actualized and understood in a more profound way.  

The "self- creation of man" and the remedying of social injustice are elements that are embedded in this notion of freedom, something that Gutiérrez sees as essential to the fulfillment of Eschatological Promises. Linking this argument to a growing condition of exploitation within capitalism, Gutiérrez uses a more collective notion of freedom to ensure that spiritual identity can be experienced both in the temporal and in the transcendental conditions of being.  The world of Christian teachings can be applied to remedying social and economic injustices, as the liberation process is linked to the present tense.  When the Pope embraces a severely disfigured man, reaching out to the temporal reality of others, and Tweets, "Lord teach us to step outside ourselves... Teach us to go out into the streets... and Manifest your love," one can see Gutiérrez's notion of liberation and its construction of freedom realized in a new and transformative manner in the current Papal leadership.

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