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Posted November 3, 2008

The multi-faceted challenges of poverty

By Father Eugene Hemrick
Catholic News Service

They came out in droves to hear and award a simple Dominican pastor and theologian who has helped change the way Catholic theology views the poor. In November 2007, Peruvian Father Gustavo Gutierrez received the prestigious Sophia Award at Washington Theological Union in Washington, which educates seminarians and lay people for leadership.

Father Gutierrez was born June 8, 1928, in Lima. He is regarded as the founder of liberation theology, which holds that Christian poverty is an act of loving solidarity with the poor as well as a protest against poverty.

Like many before him who have championed the liberation of the poor, Father Gutierrez was criticized and even questioned by Rome about his orthodoxy. Like a true champion, he was exonerated and continues his mission.

"Poverty is very complex," Father Gutierrez told his audience. Usually it is envisioned in economic terms. It is not only about people deprived of material goods; it is also about people living in cultures other than their own and not being accepted.

It is about being a female living in a culture that degrades females. It is about lacking an education. It is about being on the margins of society, experiencing sadness and death.

Interestingly, Father Gutierrez pointed out that even tax collectors during Christ's time can be considered poor because they were outcasts. He also pointed out that poverty doesn't exist only in poor ghettos or barrios; a rich person afflicted with depression ranks among the poor.

Poverty is universal. It is found everywhere. It is sadness, the direct antithesis of joy.

Father Gutierrez considered people who see poverty as their fate. He spoke of a woman who felt women were born into suffering. She accepted this as natural and felt it to be the will of God.

To this Father Gutierrez said, "Poverty has causes. We make poverty, and that which we make we can unmake." It is our God-given duty to stand against philosophies and theologies that accept poverty without raising essential and ultimate questions about its causes.

Fighting poverty isn't only about donations; it involves speaking out against its causes.

"Poverty ultimately means death," Gutierrez said. "Too many poor people are dying before their time. Just look at Africa! As Christians it is our duty to always champion life over death."

How do we best fight poverty?

One way is to read the Bible and the life of Christ from the viewpoint of the poor -- to cultivate a biblical spirituality of the poor. A great power of the prophets in the Old Testament was their ability to read the times and speak to them in down-to-earth terms through the eyes of God.

Father Gustavo Gutierrez did this the night of his award at Washington Theological Union.