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Las Casas as Theological Counteroffensive: Liberation Theology and the Bible

Sunday, September 21, 2008

“Like one who kills a son before his father’s eyes is the person who offers sacrifice from the property of the poor.  The bread of the needy is the life of the poor; whoever deprives them of it is a murder.  To take away a neighbor’s living is to commit murder; to deprive an employee of wages is to shed blood.”
-Sirach 34:24-27 (NRSV translation)

Since I gave you guys a previous link on Bartolomé de las Casas I thought I would share this article on the Dominican priest Gustavo Gutiérrez’s book Las Casas: In Search of the Poor of Jesus Christ which was published in 1993.

Smith, Christian. “Las Casas as Theological Counteroffensive: An Interpretation of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s Las Casas: In Search of the Poor of Jesus Christ.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 41, no. 1 (March 2002): 69-73.

The abstract of the article states:

Peruvian liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez’s massive work, Las Casas: In Search of the Poor of Jesus Christ, should not be read as a defensive or retreating move for liberation theology in the face of two decades of opposition. Rather, it is best understood as a creative and strategic counteroffensive to advance liberation theology in terms that the Vatican can only find difficult to counter. Nevertheless, liberation theology struggles with the difficulty of intellectually justifying itself on nondependency and non-Marxist grounds. In any case, the struggle for the work of liberation in Latin America continues. (Bold mine)

One point of interest I would like to point out is that both Bartolomé de las Casas and Gustavo Gutiérrez were Dominican priests with Las Casas residing (for some time) in Peru and Gutiérrez being born (and lived for some time) in Peru.  While both were separated by 400 years they both advocated for the rights of the poor, the indigenous, and the need for armed self-defense against unjust oppression.

As you can see in the abstract, Smith argues that Gutiérrez work is not the signal of a school of theology in decline but in fact is a counter attack:

Las Casas, it seems to me, is not most plausibly read as a defensive retreat to the comfort of the past. Rather, Las Casas is best read as a strategically offensive move that challenges Rome— indeed, the entire Catholic Church—with the imperative to reconstruct the very essentials of Christian systematic theology. Guti´errez is not hunkering down. He is taking aim at the heart of the Vatican-guarded doctrines of christology, soteriology, eschatology, and missiology, and doing so in a politically keen way that leaves him virtually invulnerable to counterattack. (Bold mine) [1]

Briefly, Las Casas chronicles the the life and writings of Bartolomé de las Casas and his theological reasoning behind his defense of the indigenous population of Latin America, the counter-attacks that came against him, his responses to them, the view of the indigenous population and how they were decimated by the Spanish, and what it means for us today.

Gutiérrez states that Las Casas was not a man ahead of his time but a man of his time and who was engaged in his era:

[C]alling him modern…is an outgrowth of the arrogance of the modern spirit, which regards itself as the final stage of history and which distorts past reality accordingly. [2]

He then sums up why Las Casas is important for us today:

Bartolomé had another penetrating intuition.  He saw in the Indian, in this “other,” this one-different-from-the-Westerner, the poor one of the gospel, and ultimately Christ himself…

How often have we asked ourselves the same question, in this, the hour of Latin America and Peru!  Why indeed does death continue to be so sovereign over us?…

Part of this memory means acknowledging our responsibility in what the poor have always had to suffer.  The Christian manner of assuming this responsibility is to beg humble forgiveness from God and the victims of history for our complicity, explicit or tacit, past and present, as individuals and as a church. [3]

Going on (briefly) to Smith’s analysis.  Smith states that the book has a very simple argument:

if one begins with the basic, inescapable gospel commitments to love and to work for the salvation of one’s neighbor, and if one then experiences firsthand the unjust slaughter of the poor by a brutal social system, and if one then discovers that the Church’s established theology is actively legitimating this lethal social system, then one will have no option but to modify radically that theology so that it actually promotes, rather than violates, the gospel imperatives of love and evangelization. That is the book’s core assertion. [4]

One concern that Smith has with the book (and one that I mildly share) is the absence of Marxist analysis:

However, the deafening silence present in Gutiérrez’s argument is that of Marxist analysis and dependency theory. Marxism? Dependency theory? Who needs these to arrive at liberation theology? Las Casas certainly didn’t. [5]

Smith goes on to explain that the lack of dependency theory and Marxism in his argument is part of his brilliant counter-offensive against then Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) and the Pope John Paul II.  But that was only one part of his counter-offensive; the other part was co-opting and assimilating the then Pope John Paul II’s idea of “new evangelization” for that of liberation theology. [6]

But, Smith argues:

a certain conceptual danger does reside in the breaking of liberation theology’s association with dependency theory. [7]

For myself, however, I don’t find this as much as a problem as Smith does.  Although perhaps Smith is merely highlighting contradictions here more as a scholarly exercise than a firmly held concrete belief.  The fact that Gutiérrez continually reasserts the need for the liberation of the poor today and the relevancy that Las Casas has for Latin America today and that he states “Why indeed does death continue to be so sovereign over us?” [8] means that we need more than just a theological tool to look at the present day injustices of our world.  We need a socio-economic tool as well since the root causes of poverty in Latin America aren’t just people turning a blind eye but structural and embeded within a certain system of expoitation.

That “Death,” is what liberation theologian Franz Hinkelammert calls capitalism; which to him, is the “ideological weapon of death.” [9]  And because Gutiérrez argues from a religous realm of the need for justice for the poor and the working class in Las Casas and because he argues from a socio-economic realm of why that injustice exists in A Theology of Liberation [10] we must, as Christians (and non-Christians, obviously) use Marxism as a tool to attack capitalism.


1. Chrsitian Smith, “Las Casas as Theological Counteroffensive: An Interpretation of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s Las Casas: In Search of the Poor of Jesus Christ,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 41, no. 1 (March 2002): 69.

2. Gustavo Gutiérrez, Las Casas: In Search of the Poor of Jesus Christ, trans. Robert R. Barr (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1993), 8.

3. Gutiérrez, Las Casas, 456-457.

4. Smith, “Las Casas as Theological Counteroffensive,” 70.

5. Ibid., 71.

6. Ibid., 71-72.

7. Ibid., 72.

8. Gutiérrez, 456.

9. Franz Hinkelammert, The Ideological Weapons of Death: A Theological Critique of Capitalism, trans. Phillip Berryman (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1986).

10. Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: 15th Anniversary Edition, trans. Caridad Inda and John Eagleson (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988).

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  1. links for 2008-09-22 | kingdom praxis | a.k.a. eliacín's blog

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