Gustavo GUTIÉRREZ and Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig MÜLLER. On The Side of the Poor: The Theology of Liberation. New York: Orbis Books, 2015. Pp. 144. $19.35 pb. ISBN 978-1-62698-115-7. Reviewed by Karen Monique GREGG, University of Saint Francis, Fort Wayne, IN 46808
Has Liberation Theology lost its relevance for the 21st Century? Not according to these two authors who take turns revealing important insights and making poignant clarifications in order to argue just how very relevant the theology of liberation still is in the postmodern period – Gutiérrez for Latin American, and Müller for Europe. But this compendium of chapters does more than this. It is also programmatic showing the way forward, expressly highlighting the steps for the ecclesia to incorporate what is useful about the theology of liberation into a praxis of their own personal historical context, whatever that may be (e.g., Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe, and even, perhaps North America, although they do not suggest this).
Although many clarifications explaining the theology of liberation from previous writings are posited, none is so clear as the distancing of liberation theology from Marxist ideology that often serves as a conversation stopper for conservatives. At many turns both authors point to the self-evident merit in Marx’s critique of capitalism as the global culprit perpetuating the economic inequality for the poor and dispossessed via the push for neoliberal economic policy, but they also make it clear that Marx’s ideology was detached from any theological understanding of liberty, justice, and humanity’s relationship with God. And although they focus on the dehumanization of the economy, and in so doing borrow terminology from Marx’s theory, the theology of liberation does not have the same end-goal in mind. This is an important distinction to make in theology for the 21st century.
There is no heavy lifting going on in this short book. Rather, the authors repeatedly point us in the direction of what needs to be done with theology today. Gutiérrez and Müller call for and provide a methodology and praxis for theologians and the Church going forward, which includes: 1) social-analytic reflection; 2) a hermeneutical, systematic reflection; and 3) a practical-pastoral reflection and application.
A minor, but important criticism entails the authors’ vacillation between levels of analysis. At times, they appear to be addressing actualizing personal subjectivity and freedom at the individual level, while other times their concern lies with whole nations subjected to neoliberal policy. Since both levels of analysis need clarification and elaboration, this may suggest a need for liberation theology’s separate treatment of its precepts at both the micro and macro levels. And, as one final criticism of this 2015 book: it over-emphasizes John Paul II (1978-2005), and neglects to even mention Pope Benedict XVI’s (2005-2013) or even the current pontiff, Pope Francis’s (2013-present) recent contributions to concern with the poor. In this way, the authors fail to bring us up-to-date as they over-rely on old argumentation strategies.
Praise is also in order for this book because it is easy to read and easy to understand, even for the layperson. Additionally, both authors tip their hats to history and the social sciences as fertile grounds to start when considering the reality, responsibility, and causes of poverty. They also call for a much-needed synthesis of different theologies (borne from different historical, social, political and cultural contexts), keeping what is useful and discarding what is no longer relevant.
This book could serve as a beginning exploration of liberation theology for the layperson. I also recommend this book as a starting point for discussions in undergraduate theology courses based on social justice. It would also be a useful example in sociology for introducing solutions for injustice and inequality in society from a religious perspective. Bible study groups searching for meaning in the scriptures could also find this read helpful as a guide for understanding putting the least among us first. Modern day theorists could derive useful direction from the methodology suggested by the two authors.