Liberation theologian Pablo Richard Guzman, 81, a Chilean exile who lived much of his life in Costa Rica and died on September 20 in the capital of San José, was not as well known in the North. that some of his contemporaries – say, Leonardo Boff, Gustavo Gutiérrez or Jon Sobrino.
Amazon lists only three works by Richard in English and Spanish; on the other hand, the works of or on Gutiérrez come close to two dozen.
But Richard’s voice – calm and humane, still preoccupied with what the Bible tells us today – has made important contributions to theological debate and scholarship.
As an educator, “Richard created the popular and community Bible reading movement,” wrote the Spanish theologian Juan Jose Tamayo in a tribute that appeared on September 22 in the Spanish newspaper El País.
Tamayo noted that Richard’s efforts have helped a “liberating reading” of the Bible become “a source of life and hope” for millions of people, especially those involved in grassroots Christian communities in Latin America.
Richard’s 1995 Amazon Description Revelation: A Popular Commentary on the Book of Revelation gives an idea of why.
“Fundamentalists were drawn to the book and sought to decipher its strange symbols as a coded prophecy of future events,” the description reads.
“But as Pablo Richard shows in apocalypse, the most powerful readings of the book of Revelation are through the eyes of the oppressed, living out their Christian faith in the context of the modern empire, “the description continues.” They are the ones who identify themselves most strongly with Revelation’s ultimate message of hope and life in the midst of death and persecution. “
Grassroots communities that would have been responsive to this reading were a cornerstone of Latin American liberation theology in the 1970s and 1980s, a movement which, as I described in a profile of Richard for Religion News Service in 1994, sought to combine “Christian Scriptures and Marxist analysis to improve the lot of the poor.”
Like other liberation theologians of his time, Richard, a diocesan priest, was superbly educated. He obtained degrees in theology from the Catholic University of Chile, in Holy Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and a doctorate in sociology of religions from the Sorbonne, with additional archaeological studies in Jerusalem.
Richard has held several teaching positions in Costa Rica, including at the National University and the Latin American Biblical University. He also headed DCI, the Ecumenical Research Department, a denominational education, research and training center.
The often difficult reality of Latin America in the 1970s defined the arc of Richard’s life and ministry. A supporter of Chilean President Salvador Allende, Richard left Chile in 1973 with the fall of Allende’s leftist government.
Exile in Europe proved difficult, Tamayo wrote. Richard and other Christian socialists in Chile had engaged in a “public dialogue and a convergence between Christianity and socialism” that was at once invigorating, fruitful and, typical of the time, full of hope and optimism.
But the coup that led to Allende’s death and the emergence of dictator Augusto Pinochet proved to be shattering, and Richard and other members of the Christian left were left without. A subsequent meeting with Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero while Richard was in exile rejuvenated the theologian and his commitment to the Church of the Poor. The meeting with Romero, writes Tamayo, “marked Richard forever”.
My very short but memorable meeting with Richard took place in the spring of 1994. My interview with Richard for RNS took place when Richard was a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, a year after I graduated from the Union. with a master’s degree in theology.
What I remember most about Richard himself is his kindness and patience. He was a lovely man who had infinite patience with the lingering questions of a young reporter.
The story that followed our interview, which appeared in the Washington Post, among others, focused on Richard’s thoughts on the future of liberation theology.
This question came at a confusing time in some ways – it seems so distant. We weren’t that far from the terrible wars of the 1980s in Central America – the contra war in Nicaragua, the bloody civil war in El Salvador.
But I also felt like another era was emerging. In the United States and in Europe, there was talk of a “new world order” after the fall of the Soviet Union, and these discourses were in retrospect based on a mixture of naive optimism, sheer madness and dangerous triumphalism.
And indeed, Richard, who was then a member of the faculty of the National University of Costa Rica, did not care. “He knows that in the slums and crowded streets of Latin America, Asia and Africa, the new world order that emerged after the fall of communism makes little sense,” I wrote of Richard .
“The third world has become useless and people are considered consumable,” Richard told me. “People used to be exploited. But now they don’t even matter anymore. To be exploited was at least a privilege because you were kind of ‘included’ in society,” he said.
“Now people are seen as worthless,” he said. “This has brought about a new form of violence and despair: poor against poor.
As I reread the article now, I am struck by Richard’s foresight in seeing how an era dominated by neoliberal economics and politics was going to do real damage to the world.
“In a new post-communist world order, where the free market reigns supreme in all but a few nations, Richard believes that liberation theology is not dead, but faces new challenges,” ai -I write. While Richard said it was too early to “praise liberation theology,” he also said, “with equal force”, that “the large-scale political dreams that fueled a Cuban revolution or Nicaraguan can no longer be supported ”.
However, the “immediate task of the progressive church is to work on a smaller scale: to build communities of hope among the poor”. Richard added: “If it is not possible to take political power, we have to create a new power at the grassroots. (Unfortunately, the Washington Post reduced these thoughts to an unfortunate headline: “Liberation Theologian Thinks Small.”)
“We have to develop a new theology, a new ethic of life that discerns between the God of life and the idols of the market,” said Richard. “We have to build an alternative to the logic of the market.
Here, Richard was spot on, I think: hope would come to the margins of civil society, “where alternative grassroots organizations in the third world were mobilized among the poor, women, people of color and those affected. by environmental issues. “
In these places, said Richard, it was actually “easier than ever to practice border liberation theology.”
I think what Richard was suggesting was that the threads and practice of liberation theology would prove to be lasting but in new ways. Note what Richard said in particular about grassroots environmental activism. In my current work covering international issues for Global Sisters Report, I see the grassroots activism of Catholic sisters, religious and lay people concerned with climate change and the underlying environmental injustice and moving alongside advocacy efforts at the international level, as at the United Nations.
Tellingly, in the nearly 30 years since my interview with Richard, we have seen a relentless enemy of liberation theology, Pope Benedict XVI, leave the papacy. Meanwhile, his successor, Pope Francis, who had a previous and difficult relationship with proponents of liberation theology in his native Argentina, has come to embrace some – let me stress, some – elements of the movement’s concerns, especially when it comes to economic and environmental issues.
In some ways, it feels like Francis and others have caught up with Richard and his fellow Liberationists.
Throughout his distinguished and life-giving ministry and teaching, Richard warned fellow Christians of the dangers of idolatry – an idolatry which he said was particularly pernicious when religious communities lost sight of the dangers of neoliberal ideology.
“We live in a deeply idolatrous world – economically, socially, politically, culturo-ideologically and religiously,” Richard wrote in The idols of death and the god of life.
“We live crushed under the idols of an oppressive and unjust system,” he said.
Pablo Richard wrote this in 1983. Premonitory? All you have to do is look around and find the answer.