"Gutierrez and his institute have not worked with local Protestants to any extent. With his roots in the anti-Protestant Catholic Action in Peru, he is viewed as unecumenical by Peruvian Protestants, despite his support from Protestants abroad."

From .............. National Catholic Reporter

October 18, 1996

page 28


On a recent visit to Peru, I explored a particular interest of mine: emerging forms of liberation theology that integrate feminist, ecological and indigenous perspectives. I was saddened, however, by the ambivalent relations of these new groups with "classical" liberation theology, represented in Peru by Gustavo Gutierrez and his study center, the Instituto Bartholome de las Casas in Lima.

The feminist movement, developing in Peru for about 20 years, got a strong impetus in 1983, when the All Latin American Feminist Encounter met in Lima. This network, which includes both theoreticians and practitioners who work with poor women at the base of the society, has advanced feminism by developing a documentation center on women's concerns.

Among results of that 1983 meeting, a group called Talitha Cumi emerged. Talitha Cumi (meaning "woman, rise up," an Aramaic phrase from the New Testament) has gained acceptance as the spiritual wing of feminism in Peru. But it has failed in efforts to relate its concerns for feminism with the liberation theology represented by Gutierrez.

Talitha Cumi is composed mostly of Catholic women, lay and religious, foreign and Peruvian, although Protestant women have also been active members. The group combines features of a base community, a study and publication center and provides direct service to disadvantaged women. It is now lodged within the Center for Creatividad y Cambio (Creativity and Change) which publishes pamphlets on women's issues and offers counseling to Lima prostitutes. As Talitha Cumi, its members gather bimonthly for reflection and prayer, hold workshops several times a year and publish pamphlets that specifically address theology or spirituality in relation to feminism.

The Mesa Ecumenica de Mujer, based at the Methodist school of biblical and theological studies, brings together women from various Protestant churches, including Pentecostals, some of whom also are members of Talitha Cumi. They are developing a number of research projects on culture, spirituality and gender, on identity, sexuality and religion and on the recovery of the history of Protestant women in Peru. Both groups have strong interest in ecofeminism and in the incorporation of indigenous perspectives in spirituality and ecology.

One of the unfortunate facts I discovered in my visit is the distance that Gutierrez has placed between his line of liberation theology and the emerging themes represented by these women's networks. Gutierrez has insisted until today that feminism is alien to the "Latin American reality" and is a diversion from the primary concern of liberation theology for the poor, which demands the methodology of class analysis.

Despite the fact that feminism and feminist theology have clearly emerged over two decades as an autonomous movement with their own distinct Latin American contextualization and are deeply involved with poor women, Gutienez's view continues to be the party line for those who take orientation courses at his Instituto Bartholome de las Casas.

Gutierrez and his institute have not worked with local Protestants to any extent. With his roots in the anti-Protestant Catholic Action in Peru, he is viewed as unecumenical by Peruvian Protestants, despite his support from Protestants abroad. Gutierrez has also ignored environmental damage as a theme of liberation theology and has stayed clear of spirituality from an indigenous perspective. In his major work on Bartholomeo de las Casas, the great 16th century Spanish defender of the Indians against Spanish exploitation, Gutierrez's view of the Indian is always from the eyes of the compassionate Spaniard, not from the perspective of the Indians themselves.

In Peru the indigenous people are not a historical artifact but living cultures that still utilize the aqueducts and terracing traditions of farming of their Incan ancestors, speak their own languages and celebrate festivals rooted in the indigenous religions. Especially since the 1992 year of remembrance of "500 years of resistance" of Indian people to European colonialism, indigenous peoples in Peru, as elsewhere, have found their own voice and are doing theological reflection based on their own traditions, variously related to Christianity. Since Gutierrez is himself a very Indian mestizo in physical appearance, his persistence in always speaking of the Indian from the Spanish Catholic perspective is the more striking.

My impression from those I talked to in Peru is that this careful delimitation of Gutierrez's concerns, his distance from feminism, ecumenism, ecology and indigenous spirituality, have less to do with some imperatives of the "Latin American reality" than with his perception of how to keep his work on liberation theology within institutional Catholicism. In Peru today, "gifted" by the pope with la large number of Opus Dei bishops, Gutierrez has found the space for his own work in the church increasingly restricted. He has chosen to bow to these restrictions for the sake of staying within the [Roman] Catholic church rather than venturing into new areas of concern, such as women, sexuality and reproductive issues, ecology, Protestants and indigenous religions, which [Roman] Catholic conservatives would view with added distaste.

These limitations have marginalized Gutierrez from those who are blending his work on injustice to the poor with wider concerns. A deep clericalism and paternalism marks his liberation theology. The Instituto Bartholome de las Casas is known for its reliance on a party line, rather than participatory dialogue. This way of teaching includes a careful avoidance of any critique of abuse of power by the [Roman Catholic] church itself as a part of a "class analysis" of Latin American society.

While poverty and oppression is a stark reality in Peru, identifying the "objects" of liberation theology solely as the poor does not motivate them to become subjects of their own liberation. It is by contextualizing poverty and oppression in the lives of real people with complex identities Ñ who might be Pentecostal, not Catholic, female rather than male, an Indian for whom Spanish is a second language and [Roman] Catholicism a religion imposed by force - that one situates the liberation struggle in the full complexity of what it means to be Peruvian. Simply being identified as victims of poverty in an abstract analysis that sidesteps these complexities doesn't do it.

Gutierrez deserves our tribute as founder of a movement that has reconnected theology with social justice. It is sad to see him bowing to the stranglehold of a rightist church while those who are partly his heirs move on to broader theological reflections on the realities of their society. But the future clearly belongs to those who are integrating issues of gender, ecology, ecumenism and indigenous spirituality in their struggle for a more just and livable Peru.

ROSEMARY RADFORD RUETHER - [picture caption]

Rosemary Radford Ruether is professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill.