Liberation Theology and Marxist Economics

By Currier, Fred J. | Monthly Review, January 1987 | Go to article overview

Liberation Theology and Marxist Economics

Currier, Fred J., Monthly Review


It takes no formal initiation to enter the ranks of Liberation Theology. What it does take is a spiritual commitment to the liberation of the poor and oppressed in Latin America and the placement of Christian theology at the service of this liberation. Theologians of liberation have encountered the poor who are exploited in a society that is created by dependent capitalism, and thus they generally espouse the demand, expressed by Jose Miguez Bonino, for "revolutionary action aimed at changing the basic economic, social, and cultural structures.'1 At the Medellin Conference in 1968 the bishops of Latin America embraced this thrust toward liberation, denouncing "international monopolies and the international imperialism of money' as the cause of Latin American dependence. The bishops decried the "institutionalized violence of the status quo' and they stated that development for the poor required "urgent and profoundly renovating transformations' of the world economic order. A decade later, meeting at Puebla in 1979, the bishops reaffirmed the Church's "duty to proclaim the liberation of millions of human beings.' Puebla's final statements recognize the impoverishment of masses of people as a situation of "social sinfulness' which is "permanently violating the dignity of the person.' Once again placing the blame on unjust economic, social, and political structures, the bishops included in their denunciations "multinational conglomerates that often look after only their own interests at the expense of the welfare of the country' and the "lack of structural reforms in agriculture' which leaves millions of peasants without access to land.

What is striking about Liberation Theology is that stripped of its biblical and mystical trappings, it is a body of ethical theory attempting to come to grips with fundamental economic and social facts about third world societies, Latin America in particular. Why is there always widespread poverty even when resources are abundant? Why is the land used to enrich property owners, while it is abused from the standpoint of those who go hungry and are denied the right to work? Why do foreign powers take interest in upholding regimes of the rich? What happens to the capital produced by a country whose economy is "developed' by foreign capitalists?

In their critiques of "structures' and in their call for transformation of society, theologians of liberation are still at a utopian stage of the movement. They have no body of economic theory to call their own. They wish to transcend capitalism, and in that hope they express beautiful aspirations toward equality and justice, but without any clear sense of how to get there. They have moral insights but, like the utopian socialists who preceded Marx, their critique of capitalism awaits comprehensive analysis. Marx's dictum--"The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it'--seems relevant to Liberation Theology's dilemma. Christianity without recourse to a science of society and of economics is only of limited relevance to the needs of third world masses--even worse, it may obfuscate, misdirect, appeal with hopeless ideals of love and dignity without any prospect of fulfillment--that is, it may serve as an "opiate of the people.'

Gustavo Gutierrez, a leading figure in the movement, has been forthright in denouncing dependency and pointing the way toward liberation: "There can be authentic development for Latin America only if there is liberation from the domination exercised by the great capitalist countries, and especially the most powerful, the United States of America. This liberation also implies a confrontation with these groups' natural allies, their compatriots who control the national power structure.'2

Leonardo Boff is also clear that in the confrontation with dependent capitalism, what is needed is "critical knowledge of the mechanisms that produce this misery' of the poor. …

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