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Gustavo Gutiérrez wins Gittler Prize and speaks about giving a ‘voice to the voiceless’

Published: October 9, 2014
Section: Front Page, News


On Sunday, Oct. 5 in Rapaporte Treasure Hall, Gustavo Gutiérrez, Catholic priest and founder of liberation theology, was awarded the Joseph B. and Toby Gittler Prize. Gutiérrez’s acceptance speech and talk focused on his efforts to eradicate poverty and its relationship to his Catholic beliefs.

The Gittler Prize, established by its namesakes, is awarded by the Brandeis International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life to people whose work has significant and lasting impacts on racial, ethnic and religious relations. The prize comes with a $25,000 award and is presented annually at a public lecture and ceremony. Past recipients include Kwame Appiah, a Ghanaian novelist and philosopher, and Patricia Hill Collins, author of “Black Feminist Thought.”

Gutiérrez is a Peruvian priest who is considered to be the founder of liberation theology, an element of social Christianity that focuses on liberating oppressed groups, especially the poor. Poverty is seen by liberation theologians as a response to unjust social systems. Gutiérrez’s 1971 book “A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation” focuses on supporting the poor in protests against poverty. Gutiérrez has won, among other awards, the Legion of Honor by the French Government in 1993 and is a member of the Peruvian Academy of Language.

He is currently the John Cardinal O’Hara Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

In his speech, Gutiérrez discussed the need to change the way people view poverty and the way the poor view themselves.

“For a long time, humanity considered poverty as fate,” said Gutiérrez. “Today we are conscious that poverty has causes, human causes. Persons have the responsibility for poverty. We have made poverty, and we need to eliminate poverty.”

Gutiérrez discussed the perceived conflict between some of Christianity’s core beliefs and the reality of poverty. He explained that many poor people believe their situations to be the result of God’s will, but that this is not the case.

“Behind this, for many of them, they think it is the will of God, the will of God is to have poor persons and rich persons,” Gutiérrez said.

He went on to explain that his beliefs see poverty as a man-made condition and that as a liberation theologian, he works with the poor to understand what causes poverty. Gutiérrez has spent a significant portion of his career living and working with the poor people of Peru, in his home country, to try to eradicate poverty.

Gutiérrez spoke about the different types of actions against poverty and the merits of these actions. He said that while trying to feed the hungry is a noble goal, he wants to eradicate hunger altogether. Gutiérrez acknowledged that in Latin America, where he is from, this goal can be dangerous at times.

“We have hundreds of Christians assassinated because they were committed to the poor,” Gutiérrez said.

He cited Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, who was shot and killed in 2009. Romero’s assassination came the day after he gave a sermon calling Christians to resist the government’s violations of human rights.

Gutiérrez told his audience that working to eradicate poverty and hunger are integral parts of his beliefs as a Christian and as a liberation theologian. He explained that part of his commitment to the poor is recognizing the complexities of poverty and the many factors that shape their experiences. Merely looking at the economic causes and effects of poverty is not sufficient, according to him, to create an understanding of the reality of life as a poor person.

“My goal is not to be the voice of the voiceless,” Gutiérrez said. “The goal must be that the voiceless have a voice, to be agents of their destiny.”