...the modern day theologians have made a break with the essential principle of liberation to embrace the chloroforming of the minds of followers to embrace materialism as their ordained destiny ... Inevitably, houses of worship have degenerated into shitholes of self-enrichment thus downgrading itself to the level of accomplices of oppression
A Note of Confession
Back in my youthful days growing up politically and ideologically, the principle and culture of liberation theology was a highly fascinating subject to my generation. However, not until very recently when I stumbled on Valpy Fitzgerald’s “The economics of liberation theology” which forms Chapter 12 of the 2008 Cambridge Collections Online, did I become aware of the ‘economics’ dimension of the liberation theme. My curiosity was further heightened by a piece penned by Rama P. Coomaraswamy, M.D., titled: “Catholic Economics and Liberation Theology”.
So, it naturally qualified for further enquiry, culminating in this discussion. We take as my point of departure a useful hint from Roland Boer [Ref his: “A Difficult Love Affair? On the Relation between Marxism and Theology”, MR Online- April 4, 2010], as he recalled what one of his former teachers once said to him, which is that:
. . . You need to know what you are talking about, since if you don’t know, how in the world are you going to communicate that to anyone else.
So, procedurally, the first step to take is decoding the central element in our discussion, liberation theology, with a follow up on how economics is linked with it.
Liberation Theology-Essence, Origins and Relevance
Liberation theology is essentially an advocacy against the poverty experienced by the people especially across Latin America where it took its initial roots as detailed by Fitzgerald when he lamented on how: “The persistence of poverty in Latin America is morally unacceptable by any standard. In 1980, after a period of rapid income growth before the debt crisis, and at the outset of the decade in which most liberation theology has been written, 40 per cent of the population of the region were officially classified as living in poverty, and nearly half of these in extreme poverty – that is with incomes insufficient to purchase the food required to meet the United Nations’ minimum nutritional standard for a healthy life”.
From the details on the background of liberation theology as provided by Gustavo Gutierrez, one of the intellectual architects of the subject, in his “A Theology of Liberation”, what a reviewer of the work teased out what serves aptly as credible reference on the origins of liberation theology, excerpted as displayed below:
Liberation theology started within the Catholic Church of Latin America in the 1950s–1960s. It has since grown into an international and inter-denominational movement as well as inspiring members of other faiths to reconsider their own religious practices and faiths. Liberation theology was a reaction to the social injustice present in Latin America and especially the abuses suffered by the marginalised and disenfranchised members of society. The term Liberation Theology was eventually coined in 1971 by the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez, who wrote a book entitled ‘A Theology of Liberation’, which would become one of the defining works of Liberation Theology.
Also on record is the fact that, in 1984 the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published an Instruction on Certain Aspects of the 'Theology of Liberation. Although the publication centred on a concern over the then perceived growing influence of Marxism on the Catholic congregation and hence liberation theology, the document was careful to point out that it offered no general criticism of liberation theology as such especially insofar as liberation theology is defined by its response to the 'preferential option for the poor'; nor, it adds, should its criticisms of liberation theology on the score of its Marxism 'serve as an excuse for those who maintain an attitude of neutrality and indifference in the face of the tragic and pressing problems of human misery and injustice'.
In her November 2, 2012 article: “Faith, Economics & Liberation Theology”, penned under the theme, Economics 101 & Theology 101 for the Institute of Faith, Work & Economics, Eliza Daniel recalled how Shannon Craigo-Snell, a theologian at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, describes liberation theology in a New York Times article as “the Sunday school Jesus who healed the sick or took care of the poor people.” The lady went further to make the point that: According to Google dictionary, liberation theology interprets the teachings of Jesus Christ in terms of liberation from unjust economic, political, and social structures in anticipation of ultimate salvation. To Eliza Daniel, therefore, liberation theology can be described as a radical, Marxist attempt to promote the Social Gospel.
In its documented origins, liberation theology emerged as a reaction against poverty and social injustice. Though its roots are in a deep concern for the poor, liberation theology is far from biblical. As G.K. Chesterton said, “Heresy is truth gone mad.” However, to de Rooij & Burity (2015), liberation theology essentially demands a need for action against poverty and more importantly the sin that facilitates it and keeps it in place and that this is part of the mission of the church in bringing justice to this world. A principal viewpoint being that the poor are a privileged channel of God's grace and that Christian dogma should reflect that. As such some have based their social action upon scripture for example: Isaiah 61:1, Matthew 10:34, Luke 22:35–38.
The online medium, Wikipedia notes that Christian theological praxis is a term used by most liberation theologians to express how the Gospel of Jesus Christ is to be lived in the world. It explains further to describe Praxis ‘as a combination of reflection and action that realizes the historicity of human persons’. It is pertinent to note that, scant if anything has come out from the foregoing to reveal the connection of economics to liberation theology, a task that poses itself prominently in the phrasing of the discussion topic.
Decoding the Economics of Liberation Theology: As Principle and Context
In the work by Fitzgerald cited at the opening, the author’s introduction of the subject is direct, simple and useful, on the note that:
Economics – in the general sense of the critical study of production, distribution and consumption of wealth in human society – is a central theme of liberation theology. Although liberation theologians do not address the technical questions that constitute modern economic theory, they are concerned with the broader issues of the way in which economic organisation relates to the historical experience of humanity in general and to the ‘infinite value’ of the poor to God in particular.
In a 1997 article, “Liberation Theology and Economics: Like Oil and Water?” by Michael S. Johnson, Professor of Economics Spring Hill College, the definite even if subtle relationship between Economics and Liberation Theology was brought out in the submission that: “The basic issues of economic development have become an issue of the Christian faith, as many ask, what can be done to bring justice and plenty to all people?”. The author recalled a presentation made in 1971 to the second assembly of the synod of Roman Catholic bishops following Vatican II, which runs as follows:
In the last twenty-five years a hope has spread through the human race that economic growth would bring about such a quantity of goods that it would be possible to feed the hungry at least with the crumbs falling from the table, but this has proved to be a vain hope in underdeveloped areas and in pockets of poverty in wealthier areas . . .
The observant reader may see through the patronizing tone of the submission above, but we may not tie ourselves down to its aberrational suggestion. The comment entered by the Economics Professor named above on the quoted submission to the 1971 Synod of Bishops serves as a very helpful clarification simultaneously on both the connection and disconnection between economics and liberation theology as championed by their respective practitioners. Hear the comment;
As this quotation suggests, there should be a natural kinship among economists and theologians, since the well-being of the poor is a key concern of both. Both disciplines have long standing concerns for social justice and for the problems of poverty, yet the two disciplines do not seem to mix well. Many theologians think economists are uncaring, hard-hearted, and largely unaware of the moral implications of their ideas. Many economists view theologians as irrelevant to the real world, and naive as to the workings of the economy. Unfortunately, there is plenty of evidence that both groups are partially right.
From the presentation and the comment on it, we can see that there is indeed a factual connection between economics and liberation theology when economic development is taken as the focus of economics in which development is interpreted as inclusion of all members of the society in the bracket of beneficiaries of economic progress in opposition to the observed gross income inequality across the globe and especially the pervasive poverty in the Global South co-mingling with obscene wealth of the few. This is why we need to remember that in its early outing, economics-then political economy- was rooted in ethics and justice as ably referenced by the Professor Johnson as follows:
Although most economists today claim some degree of scientific objectivism as the basis for their analyses, this was not always the case. Early economists aggressively took sides on issues of fairness and poverty. Most of us are aware of Karl Marx's concerns for social justice, but he was by no means a voice crying in the wilderness. During the formative years of modern economic thought, issues of income distribution and social justice played a major role, and many writers argued from a position of morality. This can be seen in the writings of Adam Smith, who argued that higher wages were a positive sign for an economy, and who worried about the social consequences of manufacturing on workers. Smith stated: No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe and lodge the whole body of the people , should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to themselves be tolerably well fed, clothed and lodged
The confluence of economics and liberation theology has thus outlined itself, leading to the clear road of concern for the poor, the essence of liberation theology. Although somewhat controversially rendered, there’s some merit in Prof Johnson’s summary submission rendered as academic commentary on the critical issue of dependency, that: The liberation theologians, understandably concerned with the lack of advancement among the poor of Latin American societies, were attracted to the dependency view for many reasons. First, the dependency theorists offered a more socially conscious vision than did the perceived economic orthodoxy. Second, there was a strong predisposition toward an approach which was identified with Latin America itself. Third, the appeal to science lent dependency theory an aura of correctness, regardless of the facts. Finally, there was a general anti-market and pro-socialist orientation among the liberation theologians.
The core point in this rendition is an affirmation of the validity of the law of combined and uneven development advanced and empirically demonstrated by Marxists. The law is to the effect that the richness of the Global North is erected organically in the poverty of the Global South enacted historically through the process of exploitation and expropriation by enforced unhealthy division of labour and unequal exchange in trading.
Building on a Christian Foundation: Islam and Liberation Theology
The founder of liberation theology, theologian and priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, coined the phrase “preferential option for the poor”; which is saying that God gives preference to the well-being of the poor in the Bible. To Gustavo Gutiéérrez [see his. 1988. A Theology of Liberation. 15th anniversary edition. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books]:
Development must attack the root causes of the problems and among them the deepest is economic, social, political, and cultural dependence of some countries upon others - an expression of the domination of some social classes over others. This analysis of the situation is at the level of scientific rationality. Only a radical break from the status quo, that is, a profound transformation of the private property system, access to power of the exploited class, and a social revolution that would break this dependence would allow for the change to a new society, a socialist society - or at least allow that such a society might be possible.
It is in the quoted sense that the led to the charge of ‘Communist appropriation of Christianity’ contested by Nathan Coombs in the two-part series piece, “Christian Communists, Islamic Anarchists? Published in MR Online on December 9 & 10, 2009, given the fact, as the author points out, that Marxism is basically an ’emancipatory project’, without prejudice to the Marxian argument that religion is the ‘opiate of the people’. Invoking Hegel, the philosopher of dialectics albeit of the idealist mode, Coombs provides an introduction to Islamic liberation theology, averring that:
Islam is foundationally closer to the quest for abstract unity in Jacobin Terror: “during which all differences of talents and authority were supposed to be cancelled out . . . because all institutions are incompatible with the abstract self-consciousness of equality”
Coombs drew attention to the early divisions among early followers of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) referred to as ‘first Islamic civil war’ between the Sunni and Shiite sects which moved close to what Hegel describes as “abstract self-consciousness of equality. They advocated tyrannicide and waged a brutal civil war against the Caliphate, advocating the complete equality of access to God and the destruction of institutions of power.” In demonstration of the liberating concern of Islam, the author invoked Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations with the narration:
In a profound sense the advent of Islam had itself been a kind of revolution. The new faith overwhelmed existing doctrines and churches, bringing not a third testament to add to the previous two, but a new scripture to supersede them. . . . In Islam, as ideally conceived, there were to be no priests, no privileged orders or castes or estates of any kind. . . . In Islam, unlike the ancient world, a slave was no longer a chattel but a person, with a recognized legal and moral status. Women, although still subject to polygamy and concubinage, were accorded property rights not equaled in the West until modern times.
Thus we see that Islam indeed has a robust standing on the issue of equality of humans and thus representing active liberation theology. Using Nigeria as reference point, what do we find concretely on the ground-as per both Christianity and Islam?
The Nigerian Scene
A visit to the contemporary Nigerian religious scene reveals a cacophony of voices and tendencies most of which place premium on prosperity while spirituality receives secondary attention. In this unfolding religious orientation, economics of liberation has been privatized and emptied of its theological essence. Thus, an opinion piece, “The Gospel of Materialism – Nigerian Pentecostalism and Hypocrisy” in Sahara Reporters of September 26, 2008 with special concern about the spread of materialism among Pentecostal Churches, cried out against how
Nigerian Pentecostalism has been thriving on the people’s ignorance, surviving on a mixture of evangelism which incorporates African traditional beliefs. They have been surviving on befuddling the populace with miracles and promises of prosperity . . . The Christian teaching have always emphasized that the pursuit of God, while not in contradiction with material comfort, has nevertheless stressed its incompatibility with unbridled pursuit of materialism. . . While we have no quarrel with an honest business that generates profits, all we ask of these material men of God is to be sincere and stop this deception.
In a similarly critical but more general tone in their December 2019 article, “Materialism as the Bane of Social Action Evangelism in the Contemporary Nigerian Society”, published in the Journal of Church & State Volume 63 Issue 1, Benjamin C. Diara and Favour C. Uroko observed that “The church is quickly losing its essence over the history of laboring for soul winning and social transformation in Nigeria owing to the materialistic attitude of Christians and the church”.
Our limited focus here on the Church should not be interpreted as being blind to the growing culture of materialism among the Muslim clerics; however, the latter appear clearly more restrained such that, for example, private jet ownership is hardly heard of. The explanation derives logically from the fact that levies collected go largely to the collective purse; privatization of commonwealth thus moderated.
Lesson as Takeaway
Liberation theology was informed at its emergence by the kindest of intentions and a sincere desire to mobilize support for the poor in their escape bid from the trap of oppression; however, all such efforts, even when falsely labelled as Marxist-inspired could not go far because they remained both in analysis and praxis within the oppressive capitalist socio-economic order. Sadly, the modern day theologians have made a break with the essential principle of liberation to embrace the chloroforming of the minds of followers to embrace materialism as their ordained destiny only if they believe. Inevitably, houses of worship have degenerated into shitholes of self-enrichment thus downgrading itself to the level of accomplices of oppression. This is the way ‘economics of liberation theology’ has become a fact of the abuse of religion for material ascendancy. I come in peace, please.
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