Search Term Friday: Gustavo Gutiérrez on Job (and More Reflections on Progressive Christians and Spiritual Warfare)

Someone recently came to the blog searching for "gustavo gutiérrez on job."

As you may or may not know, Gustavo Gutiérrez is considered to be the seminal figure in what is called liberation theology, and in 2013 I wrote a few posts discussing  Gutiérrez's book On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent.

One of the things I wrote about is how, in this book, Gutiérrez discusses the relationship between prophecy and worship. This gets to what Thomas Merton has called the contemplative core of Christian activism.

For example, in recent weeks I've written about how progressive Christians, who orient toward political activism, have tended to eschew language of spiritual warfare and have often failed to articulate a vision of spiritual bondage as a part of their appeals to Christus Victor theology. When I make those observations and criticisms I have Gutiérrez in mind, the father of liberation theology discussing the need for doxology. When I critique progressives about Christus Victor theology or spiritual warfare what I'm speaking to is the point Gutiérrez makes, the role of doxology in the writing, activism and personal spiritual lives of progressive Christians.

To start, as the subtitle of his book indicates, Gutiérrez is looking for ways to properly speak about God in the face of human suffering.

Unsurprisingly, as the father of liberation theology, Gutiérrez argues that our language about suffering must be prophetic in nature. Our language should be in solidarity with those who are suffering and align with God's preferential option for the poor and victimized in the world.

In the book Gutiérrez shows that Job himself makes this journey. Though Job is suffering himself as the book continues Job begins to reflect less on his own suffering and more upon the sufferings of others, the poor in particular. Even in the midst of his own pain Job's theology becomes other-oriented, focused on the suffering of others. You can see this focus in a passage where Job offers up what is, perhaps, the most stinging prophetic rebuke in the bible of those who exploit the poor:
Job 24.2-14
Evil people steal land by moving the boundary markers.
They steal livestock and put them in their own pastures.
They take the orphan’s donkey
and demand the widow’s ox as security for a loan.
The poor are pushed off the path;
the needy must hide together for safety.
Like wild donkeys in the wilderness,
the poor must spend all their time looking for food,
searching even in the desert for food for their children.
They harvest a field they do not own,
and they glean in the vineyards of the wicked.
All night they lie naked in the cold,
without clothing or covering.
They are soaked by mountain showers,
and they huddle against the rocks for want of a home.

“The wicked snatch a widow’s child from her breast,
taking the baby as security for a loan.
The poor must go about naked, without any clothing.
They harvest food for others while they themselves are starving.
They press out olive oil without being allowed to taste it,
and they tread in the winepress as they suffer from thirst.
The groans of the dying rise from the city,
and the wounded cry for help,
yet God ignores their moaning.

“Wicked people rebel against the light.
They refuse to acknowledge its ways
or stay in its paths.
The murderer rises in the early dawn
to kill the poor and needy;
at night he is a thief.
The indictment of the rich here is searing. This speech is as harsh if not harsher than anything we find the prophets. And in this we see how Job's speech about God--his theology, his God-talk--finds its way forward by becoming properly prophetic, aligned with the plight of the poor and those who are suffering.

That much you'd expect from a liberation theologian. But Gutiérrez goes on to say--and this is the part that interests me when I criticize progressive Christian activism--that prophetic speech is not enough. The language of justice is unable to capture all that needs to be captured when we talk about God.

What else is needed?

Gutiérrez argues that we also need the language of contemplation, mystery and worship. We see this in Job at the end of the book when Job, after his encounter with God, moves from prophetic speech to worship. This movement is important as Gutiérrez suggests that the language of justice, if left by itself, becomes vulnerable as speech about God. For two reasons in particular.

First, if left alone the language of justice can slip back into the theology of retribution that Job has been rejecting throughout the dialogues with his friends. To be clear, we need to be careful here. We do want justice. But we need to be careful lest we reduce the Kingdom of God to the bringing of punishment upon evil-doers. Justice alone provides no room for grace, love, and mercy.

And this relates to the second concern about the naked language of justice. Namely, the preferential option for the poor isn't rooted in the virtue of the poor. The poor aren't preferred because they are Righteous Angels of Light. The poor are preferred because of God's love. If this is forgotten the oppressed and their allies (e.g., progressive Christians) can come to see themselves as God's divine agents and, in seeking justice and redress, the victims and their allies can become the perpetrators.

And yet, we need to be careful here because if the language of worship--the language of God's grace and love--becomes disconnected from the language of prophecy and justice, disconnected from the suffering of others, it becomes ineffectual, pietistic, idolatrous and irrelevant.

So what we have here is a dialectic, with the language of worship keeping the language of prophecy rooted in God's grace and love and the language of prophecy keeping the language of worship connected to the suffering of others. When I speak of the need for a vision of spiritual warfare among progressive Christians I'm talking about this dialectic, the need for doxology with its vision of God's love for all people as the spiritual struggle against the dark temptations of activism in tension with the prophetic call to justice as the spiritual battle against the principalities and powers.

Gutiérrez writes:
This new awareness in turn showed [Job] that solidarity with the poor was required by his faith in a God who has a special love for the disinherited, the exploited in human history. This preferential love is the basis for what I have been calling the prophetic way of speaking about God.

But the prophetic way is not the only way of drawing near to the mystery of God, nor is it sufficient by itself. Job has just experienced a second shift [after his encounter with God]: from a penal view of history to the world of grace that completely enfolds him and permeates him...[But] in this second stage the issue is not to discover gratuitousness and forget the demands of justice, but to situate justice within the framework of God's gratuitous love...

The world of retribution--and not of temporal retribution only--is not where God dwells; at most God visits it...

The poet's insight continues to be value for us: the gratuitousness of God's love is the framework within which the requirement of practicing justice is to be located.

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2 thoughts on “Search Term Friday: Gustavo Gutiérrez on Job (and More Reflections on Progressive Christians and Spiritual Warfare)”

  1. Richard, you wrote, "The poor are preferred because of God's love. If this is forgotten the oppressed and their allies (e.g., progressive Christians) can come to see themselves as God's divine agents and, in seeking justice and redress, the victims and their allies can become the perpetrators."

    Are we to understand that "the allies of the oppressed" and "progressive Christians" are one and the same thing? Is that an exclusive identity (equivalence), or might "the allies of the oppressed" include other groups as well, or is the apparent identity I have inferred here just a polemical-rhetorical device that shouldn't be taken quite so seriously?

    Just curious,


  2. Thank-you, Richard. I have really struggled to maintain a doxological life and language on my journey from (rather liberal) conservatism to a more progressive Christian faith. The only vocabulary I have access to sounds so hollow, hypocritical, cliche-ridden, self-centred, self-indulgent and exclusive these days. When it comes to worship, I find myself literally at a loss for words. I think what I take from your post is the necessity for doxology to flow out of an empathic insight into the suffering of others, but I wonder if you, or my fellow readers, have come across contemporary expressions of this other-centred doxology that echo the historical testimony of Job. I'd love to read them.

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