‘Poverty, the first violence’
Fifteen years ago in 2000, I met and interviewed Dominican Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, then 72, proudly Peruvian and known as the “father of liberation theology.” He was here as a guest of the CO Multiversity then headed by Dinky Soliman, now social welfare secretary. She informed me that Gutierrez was here for an international conference of community organizers. Would I want to have coffee and conversation with him? she asked.
That was one interview I would not miss for the world. (I did write about it.) From that interview I got an understanding of poverty that was not totally new but which sank in deep because it was profoundly explained by someone who lived it and walked with the poor. As they say, the medium is the message. Or maybe his reputation preceded him.
I had been reflecting on Gutierrez’s words these past days when the subject of poverty and the poor was a hotly debated topic in the mainstream and social media. (“The fallout,” I call it.) Also because Pope Francis, when he was here for a four-day visit this month, constantly reminded us to reach out to the poor and learn from them.
I kept wondering: Would the Pope’s blockbuster visit and the unprecedented, mind-boggling turnout of six million Filipinos on his last full day in Manila, and more important, his visit to Tacloban and Palo in Leyte (his priority above all else), change our priorities?
Late last year, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines declared 2015 “The Year of the Poor.” It is the third year of the “nine-year era of New Evangelization” that began in 2013 and will end in 2021, which marks the 500th year of Christianity in the Philippines.
The CBCP explains “The Year of the Poor” thus: “This year is dedicated to committing ourselves more firmly to our vision of becoming truly a Church of the Poor. The new evangelization is also a powerful call from the Lord to follow in His footsteps to be evangelically poor. How far have we journeyed to our vision of the Church?
How shall we assist the materially poor to face the challenges of hunger and poverty, of globalization and climate change? And together with them eradicate the evil of corruption and the economic and political imbalances of our society? At the same time we realize that the materially poor in our midst have the God-given power to tell the story of the poor Christ who by His poverty liberates and enriches us. The whole Church, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, has to be in solidarity in the work of restoring integrity and truth, justice and peace—love—in our benighted land.”
One can take a nugget or two from the statement regardless of one’s spiritual or religious affiliation, or even if one has none at all. The call is not new. Some three decades ago the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences called for a “preferential option for the poor,” which has become an oft-quoted phrase, much like the Pope’s “the Church of the peripheries.”
CBCP president and Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas made an opening salvo with his New Year “Letter to Priests” for his archdiocese, a letter which included concrete, point-by-point how-tos on simple living.
While church officials with questionable lifestyles easily raise eyebrows (mine among them), I have seen many who quietly serve in the peripheries, in lonely mission outposts where few would dare go. We hardly hear or read about them. They are almost as poor as the people they serve. Their churches are the “field hospitals” and “islands of mercy” that Pope Francis spoke about.
And so in this “Year of the Poor,” I share some nuggets from Gutierrez whom the Pope met privately in 2013, something that was viewed as the latter’s way of listening to voices in the wilderness.
“Poverty is the first violence.” I was dumbstruck by the way Gutierrez said it to me, with his rolling Rs and all. And suddenly the word “poor” took on a new nuance when he kept calling them “the last ones,” “the insignificant” (the “gn” charmingly Latinized into an “ñ” sound). He didn’t keep saying “people,” he said “persons.”
But voluntary poverty as a preferential option among those who are not poor is something else. “Poverty is an act of love and liberation. It has a redemptive value. If the ultimate cause of human exploitation and alienation is selfishness, the deepest reason for voluntary poverty is love of neighbor.
“Christian poverty has meaning only as a commitment of solidarity with the poor who suffer misery and injustice. The commitment is to witness to the evil which has resulted from the sin and is a breach of communion. It is not a question of idealizing poverty, but rather of taking it on as it is—an evil—to protest against it and to struggle to avoid it… It is poverty lived not for its own sake, but rather as an authentic imitation of Christ, it is a poverty which means taking on the sinful human condition to liberate humankind from sin and all its consequences.”
The Bible, Gutierrez said, is not to be read the way we read a beautiful book, but read from the point of view of the victims, the poor of history. We miss out on this, he added, because we tend to think of religion without so many requirements; we like a “quiet religion” that revolves around our little lives. The whole view of the Bible, he stressed, is from the point of view of the poor. Not just the materially poor but those who are considered the last, the insignificant, because of class, color, gender, culture.
The major source of liberation theology is the Bible, Gutierrez reminded me, adding that “it is the effort of [this] theology to read the Bible from the concrete situation of poor persons.”
Didn’t Pope Francis tell the Filipino bishops, priests and religious at the Manila Cathedral that “the poor are at the center of the gospel”?
Send feedback to [email protected] or www.ceresdoyo.com
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.