Economics 101 & Theology 101

Faith, Economics & Liberation Theology

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Wood-carving inspired by the crucifix that appeared on the cover of “A Theology of Liberation,” by Gustavo Gutierrez, one of the intellectual architects of Liberation Theology.

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.” She says,

It’s what your Sunday school teacher taught you if you grew up in a church. It isn’t something people should be afraid of, unless they’re invested in poor people not getting fed or sick people not getting healed.

She makes liberation theology sound like a children’s bedtime story or an episode of Veggie Tales.

But this theology isn’t all smiles, rainbows and singing cucumbers.

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. It can be described as a radical, Marxist attempt to promote the Social Gospel. It began in the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America in the mid-twentieth century, and has since grown into an international and interdenominational movement.

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.”

In the following round table discussion, Michael Miller, Samuel Gregg, Anielka Munkel, and Jordan Ballor of the Acton Institute discuss what the liberation theology movement means for evangelical Christians today.

This video clip highlights three important points:

1. Liberation theology loses the person of Christ.

Gregg says liberation theology is like putting a Marxist face on the person of Christ’s head and saying, “this is who Christ really is.”

Munkle, who grew up in Nicaragua under liberation theology, echoes this thought. In her experience, she said, leaders in her church portrayed Jesus as “an armed political leader that would fight, that would take up the arms, to defend the oppressed.” Munkle says,

That is not congruent with the image of a Jesus that came to lay down his life for us.

Jesus was not a revolutionary dressed in guerrilla fatigues carrying a rifle. This picture of Christ is entirely incorrect and reflects the Church’s emphasis on “doing” more than “learning” biblical principles.

This serves as an important reminder that action is important. “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:17), but our actions must be informed by a faith rooted in a proper biblical worldview.

2. Liberation theology is rooted in a very materialistic worldview.

The founder of liberation theology, theologian and priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, coined the phrase “preferential option for the poor.” This expression says that God gives preference to the well-being of the poor in the Bible. But when this concept is mixed with Marxist ideology in terms of wealth redistribution, it turns heretical.

In the video clip above, Gregg comments on this theological flaw:

Christ cares about the poor, but the poor for the Christian is more than just the materially poor. It’s the morally poor, the spiritually poor and in fact if you look at the scriptures and you look at the word poor and the way its used in Hebrew and Aramaic, we’re all poor. We’re all inadequate. We’re all in need of salvation. We’re all in need of grace. We’re all in need of moving towards human flourishing.

Gregg points to a humble and biblical approach to understanding the poor versus liberation theology’s Marxist, solely material interpretation of poverty.

When approaching the problem of poverty, we need to remember we are all spiritually poor and in need of salvation. We are also not responsible for bringing about the Kingdom alone, that’s God’s job. He is merely using us as instruments through our work.

3. Liberation theology is re-emerging in parts of the evangelical world today.

Ballor mentions three significant reasons why evangelical protestants are currently toying with liberation theology:

  • Protestant churches are seeking cultural relevance.
  • Some evangelical churches lack the structure to condemn liberation theology and root it out.
  • Protestants are not learning from past mistakes made by the Catholic Church decades ago in Latin America.

Evangelicals can instead play a significant role in standing for biblical doctrine and sound economic principles. According to Discover the Networks, three major factors extinguished liberation theology in Latin America in the late 1980’s:

  • Theological opposition of the Catholic Church hierarchy.
  • Defeat of Latin American Marxists leaders.
  • The Latin American free market economic boom that proved to be a more efficient means of fighting poverty than armed struggle.

Let’s not stumble over the same stone twice.

The lessons of the liberation theology movement that swept Latin American teach us that true liberation will not be found in the greatest social movement or the most perfect economic structure. It serves as a humbling reminder that we are all poor and we are all in need of liberation through Christ alone.

What is your view of Liberation Theology? Do you agree or disagree with my assessment? Share your opinion here

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  • So glad Elise is engaging in these thoughts. That she is addressing Zizek, and Liberation Theology, etc. shows she is aware of groups within and near to the church which are being influenced by these ideas, but which have not be thoughtfully responded to by orthodox theology or sound economics.
    That said, Marxist thought within liberation theology has at its root a desire to deal with historic injustices. What approaches does orthodoxy or economics offer to address historic injustices. Buchanan starts from a status quo position, and Nozik can only address appropriate processes for justice moving forward.
    I believe a thorough solution requires adoption of radical self sacrifice, yet renounces the use of violence. What are your thoughts?

    • Elise Amyx

      Nathanael, you bring up a very interesting point about the Marxist desire to “fix” historical injustice. This reveals another theological problem relating to repentance and forgiveness. How can a society be forgiven of past injustices? Do I owe you something to you because my great grandparents sinned against your great grandparents? Liberation theology seems to follow the idea that individual reconciliation with Christ isn’t enough, that society needs to do something as a whole to make up for past sins.

      But if I steal something and repent, I should still return it. So I don’t think the desire to make up for past injustices is a completely flawed notion on a personal level (so long as I understand I am not forgiven because I return the stolen item, but because of Christ’s sacrifice). But when this idea is applied in a communal sense, the relationship between the individual and Christ is minimized. And that is the bigger threat of liberation theology than wanting to correct the past.

      I agree with you the solution to societal injustice requires radical self-sacrifice because this is the heart of the Gospel, but I think we need to really define self-sacrifice. I’ve heard Obama say things like “we’re all in this together” as if we are all sacrificing for the better of the nation as a whole. But the problem with that is, we are not actually acting self-sacrificial at all because wealth redistribution is not voluntary. Self-sacrifice is only true if we are given a choice not to sacrifice anything at all.

      I really believe “the bigger the government, the smaller the citizen” and welfare programs, for example, crowd out private charities. But you’ll hear people say charities can’t or won’t meet the safety net needs of society, and we need to government to provide this. But I would argue the government isn’t even successfully meeting these needs right now anyway mostly due to the information problem. if given the opportunity, citizens will rise to the occasion because they have the information the government does not.

      It’s a means question. Who is a better agent to correct injustice: us or the government? It has to be us, churches, and private charities because that is the only true way for a self-sacrificial solution to take place.

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