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How a radical priest forged my politics

Gustavo Gutiérrez’s revelatory book showed me that faith and economics could not be separated.

By Chris Bryant

It was 1984 and I was a conservative (as opposed to Conservative) 22-year-old training to be a priest in the Church of England when I first came across this book by the Peruvian Catholic priest Gustavo Gutiérrez. A Theology of Liberation was the foundation document for the Latin American movement of liberation theology, which preached that in Jesus, God had made a preferential option for the poor.

It was the diametrical opposite of the old hymn: “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate; God made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate.” One chapter exposes the Bible’s passionate belief in economic justice, from the prophets declaiming oppression to Jesus announcing, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.”

This wasn’t just a metaphysical message. It had real, revolutionary consequences. Thatcher was in Downing Street, the inner cities were in despair and the miners were striking for their livelihoods. The book opened my eyes to the world around me. It prompted me to spend my last year at college studying in Latin America, living in a shanty town in Lima, joining Gutiérrez’s summer course and working for a human rights organisation in Buenos Aires. My brief stay in Chile ended when I attended the funeral of a lad who had been set on fire by Augusto Pinochet’s police and I was asked to leave the country.

Back in the UK, I joined the Labour Party. I’d always wanted to change the world, but faith and politics couldn’t be disaggregated. Justice and peace must kiss one another. Poverty was not a mysterious dispensation from on high, but had human causes and must be susceptible to human remedies. I’d read the book in Spanish, but translating its message into British politics became my life’s purpose.

Chris Bryant is MP for Rhondda. His most recent book is “James and John: A True Story of Prejudice and Murder Hardcover” (Bloomsbury)

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[See also: Anna Burns’s Milkman and the politics of hatred]

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This article appears in the 13 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Keir Starmer’s soul

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