Latin American Liberation Theology

Jung Mo Sung

Born at the end of the 1960s – in a Latin America marked by military dictatorships, a rural exodus that gathered the poor in the peripheries of cities, the Cuban revolution’s impact on popular movements, and the renewal of the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council – Latin American liberation theology (LALT) is a child of its time. This article will discuss LALT in a sociohistorical perspective, bringing to light what is original from its first phase – the late 1960s and 1970s – as well as the issues that emerged with the advent of neoliberalism in the early 1980s. Even though many works on LALT have found their way into Europe and the United States, there are unfortunately a fair amount of works from LALT’s second phase that are not accessible to English speakers since they were published only in Spanish and/or Portuguese and have not yet been translated. In short, this entry will focus on the most essential themes that made LALT unique and impactful in the struggles of the poor in the life of the churches and society. The article is divided into five parts: (1) ethical outrage, spiritual experience, and theology; (2) the option for the poor; (3) socioanalytical mediation and social sciences; (4) hermeneutical mediation, capitalism as religion, and idolatry; (5) practical mediation, utopia, and the limits of history.

1 Introduction

Is there still sense in discussing liberation theology? After the collapse of the socialist bloc, the decline of Marxist thought, the hegemony of neoliberalism, and the visible withering of liberation theology in the churches, it seemed that liberation theology would only be seriously studied in the history of modern theology as something from the past, like a museum item.

However, the increase in social inequality and the ecological crisis – both related to the globalized capitalist system – have brought liberation theology firmly back into discussion. In fact, it is the theology that has most often discussed the problems of poverty and capitalism in the last fifty years.

Moreover, the theological critique of the new idolatry of money and the deified market, developed by the Latin American liberation theology (LALT), has also become part of the theological and social teaching of the Catholic Church under Pope Francis (2013, notes 55–56). This shows that LALT is still relevant today.

But first, it is necessary to explain that there are two types of liberation theology. The many types of theology that are referred to as liberation theology have two common aspects: the preference for those who are unjustly treated by oppressive systems, and the struggle within the relationship between the praxis of liberation and theological reflection.

In the words of Itumeleng Mosala, an African liberation theologian, ‘the category of struggle provides the lens for reading the text in a liberating fashion’ (1990: 8). In this sense, there is a set of liberation theologies that take on certain specific themes, such as Black liberation theology from (for example) the United States or South Africa, or Palestinian liberation theology. These theologies reflect some particular theological issues, based on the concept of liberation, but do not attempt to build a complete theological system (including treatises on God, church, Spirit, history, sin, etc.). By contrast, LALT claimed to build a theological system capable of reflecting on all theological treatises or subjects, including biblical hermeneutics, from a liberation perspective.

Since it is not possible to portray all the various liberation theologies, this essay will focus on the main ideas and method of LALT, as it provides the best basis for theological study of the relationship between the life/death of the poor and capitalism. It is also the theological method best suited to articulating the connection between liberation practices and theological reflections, in dialogue with social sciences. Furthermore, it is the theology that is most critical of the self-image of modernity as secularized and rational, and it develops a radical theological critique towards the idolatry and sacrificialism of capitalism.

2 Ethical outrage, spiritual experience, and theology

The most common perception by those who study or have heard about LALT is that this theology, in contrast to others, does not start from doctrinal or conceptual questions but from liberation struggles of and for the poor. Such a theology dialectically articulates the relation between the praxis of liberation and theological reflections according to the struggles for liberation.

However, the main theologians of liberation since the emergence of liberation theology in the late 1960s and early 1970s – such as Gustavo Gutierrez and Hugo Assmann – have made it explicit that the ‘ground zero’ of this dialectic between praxis and theological reflection is an ‘ethical-spiritual’ experience of the sufferings of the poor and of the victims of unjust human-social relations.

It is important to highlight this point, because many have criticized the LALT as a purely political theology with no reflections on spirituality. That critique is answered by the following quotation from Hugo Assmann from the early 1970s:

If the historical dependency and domination of two thirds of humanity, with its 30 million annual deaths from hunger and malnutrition, does not become the starting point of any Christian theology today, even in rich and dominant countries, then theology will be incapable of historically situating and concretizing its fundamental themes. Your questions will not be actual questions. They will walk away from an actual man. Therefore, [...] it is ‘necessary to save Theology from its own cynicism.’ Because in the face of today’s world problems, many theological writings are reduced to cynicism. (Assmann 1976: 40)

This statement is ‘strong’ and ‘sharp’ in the sense that it is divisive and demands answers, and its ideas cannot be left aside unless one wants to remain in the dark regarding social reality.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization/United Nations (2022) report, around 2.3 billion people in the world (29.3%) were experiencing moderate or severe food insecurity in 2021, with almost 924 million people (11.7% of the global population) facing food insecurity at severe levels. Avoiding this discussion about millions of deaths from hunger can only be done by shifting the focus onto other issues.

The focus is often placed, in the interests of broader evangelism, on topics such as the ‘salvation of the soul’ or the critique of atheism and the secularization of the modern world. This raises the issue of which themes are fundamental for contemporary theologies.

Choosing fundamental themes implies a prior ethical-spiritual option as well as an anthropological and political conception of the human being who ‘deserves’ to be studied and cared for. There is a danger within a theology of the Christian world of denying the real, corporeal human being in favour of an abstract view of the human being and reducing the church’s mission to the salvation of the soul. Moreover, the human beings to be ‘cared for’ in these theological discussions would likely not be the poor and other social groups who are victims of injustices but those who are well-integrated into society. Of this tension, Assmann writes: ‘Your questions will not be actual questions. They will walk away from an actual man’ (Assmann 1976: 40).

Assman, after introducing the theme of dominion over two thirds of humanity, while writing about choosing theological themes and their anthropological conception refers to a statement given at a meeting by a Christian militant engaged in socio-political struggles: ‘it is necessary to save Theology from its own cynicism’ (Assmann 1976: 40). Such a statement is not merely a minor embellishment in the construction of an argument, but a central piece. Accusing theologies of cynicism and demanding their liberation from cynicism is a way of dividing theologies into those struck by the sufferings of the poor and those that are not.

Another important aspect is the dialectical relationship between the militants’ affirmations and the theological communities’ role in defending the right of the poor to live in dignity. Assmann concludes that, ‘when faced with the fundamental problems today, many theological writings are reduced to cynicism’ (Assmann 1976: 40).

Assmann and many others who engage in pastoral, social, and political work to liberate the poor from hunger and suffering in the name of Christian faith are constantly confronted with the insensitivity and cynicism of members of the church and society. Hence his plea to free Christian theology from cynicism.

Catholic and Protestant theologians have assumed the task of answering theological questions that emerge out of the struggles of the poor, justifying, illuminating, and criticizing practices of liberating the poor and oppressed within the realms of the church, politics, and society. Moreover, it is precisely the spiritual origin of such theology that allowed and fostered dialogue – and cooperation – with other religious communities.

It is important to note that this ecumenical dialogue within Latin American Christianity did not take place around doctrinal issues, as is very common in dialogues between the various Christian churches. Nor was it around the theoretical differences and convergences between different theological schools, but rather around real common problems and objectives: the struggles on behalf of the poor and oppressed. What enabled this dialogue and cooperation between theologians and communities from different Christian traditions was the fact that they shared the same biblical foundations.

Milton Schwantes, a Lutheran and one of the most important biblical scholars in Latin America, said in his doctoral thesis at the University of Heidelberg in 1975:

In his decisive work for the reinvigoration of theological reflection in Latin America – A Theology of Liberation – Gustavo Gutiérrez drew attention to the relevance of biblical statements on poverty, especially those of the Old Testament, in the elaboration of Christian witness, ‘on which the authenticity of the proclamation of Christian witness depends’. (Schwantes 2013: 13)

And the importance of the Bible in LALT is not restricted to the academic field. One cannot understand the impact of liberation theology in Latin America without taking into account the biblical movements in popular communities, especially the popular reading of the Bible. Carlos Mesters, a Catholic and one of the main biblical scholars in this tradition of liberation theology, said in 1991:

In the course of these years, slowly, from within this renewed interest in the Bible, there grew up a new concept of revelation which is of great importance for an understanding of popular interpretation. In this, God did not only speak in the past; he continues to speak today! (Mesters 2006: chapter 30)

For Elsa Támez, a Methodist:

The popular reading of the Bible, in spite of its weaknesses, has been Latin America’s most significant contribution to Christian hermeneutics. In the context of oppression, repression, persecution, and exclusion of Abya Yala, this reading has helped communities to discern the present times, to struggle for life with dignity, and to strengthen the hope that the situation of death can change because the God of the Bible is a God of justice, love, and peace in solidarity with the poorest of the poor. (Támez 2006: chapter 1)

From the biblical perspective of liberation theology, the main aim of interpreting the Bible is not to read the book itself but to interpret life with the help of the Bible. In this sense, the Bible is the fundamental criterion by which believers can discern where God is today. In order to avoid confusion, it is worth restating the difference between LALT and the notion of ‘Christianity of Liberation’, proposed by Michel Löwy, a non-Christian social scientist. He states:

Usually this broad social/religious movement is referred to as ‘liberation theology’, but this is inadequate, in so far as the movement appeared many years before the new theology and most of its activists are hardly theologians at all; sometimes it is also referred to as the ‘Church of the Poor’, but this social network goes well beyond the limits of the Church as an institution, however broadly defined. I propose to call it liberationist Christianity, this being a wider concept than either ‘theology’ or ‘Church’, including both the religious culture and the social network, faith, and praxis. (Löwy 1996: 33, original emphasis)

As for the problem of cynicism in theology, the key point concerning theologies is not their doctrinal or theological content but their cynical perspective, and whether they are sympathetic towards ‘hunger’. Accordingly, Juan Luis Segundo, a major Latin American theologian of the twentieth century, stressed that no liberation theology is possible without liberating theology from its conscious or unconscious ties to societies’ status quo. To Segundo,

a political option for a shift towards liberation is an intrinsic and de-ideologizing element of faith. In other words, we will only have authentic faith when engaged in an authentic struggle that opens our eyes to new possibilities and meanings of the Word of God. (Segundo 1978: 107)

Thus the doctrinal or theological errors are articulated with political practices of dominion, based on ethical-spiritual cynical stances regarding the sufferings of the poor. These spiritual, practical-political, and theological-doctrinal errors conceal or blunt new possibilities and meanings for the word God within history.

In light of a critique of the cynical theologies that have been adapted and made subservient to the status quo, many academic theologians accuse LALT of being political. However, as Juan Luis Segundo states, ‘pretending to ignore its own relation to the status quo, in reality it is seeking a scapegoat for its own guilt complex’ (1978: 84).

Indignation towards cynical theologies – as expressed in a meeting of militant Christians in Buenos Aires during the 1960s, and preserved in the memory of LALT’s history – was the driving spirit of Christianity of liberation at that time, especially of the Base Ecclesial Communities. The indignation was not only directed against the cynicism of theologies and churches but also against the massive process of impoverishment in cities throughout Latin America.

The region’s economic growth was driven by a process of industrialization, with intensive use of labour at very low wages, export of minerals, and monoculture agriculture, resulting in the eviction of peasants in a rural exodus towards cities unable to receive them.

As a result, rural workers were crowded into slums on the peripheries of cities, with no work and no social assistance from the state. Simultaneously, the wealthy and middle classes enriched themselves in a way previously unknown. Social tension grew, as did the ethical outrage of those who saw the growing injustice.

To better understand this social context, two issues should be considered: the myth of social development, and the Cold War. One of the philosophical or ideological foundations of modernity was the myth of progress, which in the economic and social field was called the ‘myth of development’ or developmentalism. In this myth, the advance of technology and economic growth would lead to social improvement for all of humanity, including the poor. Social and political movements in favour of the poor were fighting for the fulfilment of these promises of capitalism and modernity. On the other hand, the defenders of the dominant economic and social model were justifying the existing social inequality in the name of the thesis that it is necessary to first increase wealth in the hands of a few and then distribute it.

The second aspect of social tension was the ‘cold war’ between the capitalist states and the communist states. In addition to the political-economic conflict between these two blocs, there was an ideological-religious war over the future of civilization: the Christian West versus the atheist communist bloc.

In Latin America, this Cold War took the form of a sequence of military coups, with the imposition of dictatorships to maintain and grow an economic and social model that, according to critics, enriched the few and created suffering for the workers and the poor. Military coups and dictatorships were the responses of the elite to social and political movements in favour of workers and the poor. It was in this context that LALT was born and grew and, as was to be expected, the proponents of this new type of Christianity in Latin America were repressed and many of them were tortured or killed. It was in this environment that one of LALT’s fundamental themes developed: the relationship between faith and politics. It is impossible to understand the birth of Christianity of Liberation in the 1960s and the beginning of the seventies without comprehending this new social condition and outrage. LALT is an attempt to provide a response to – and, at the same time, a result of – this outrage within Latin American Christianity.

Gustavo Gutiérrez, in his book A Theology of Liberation, wrote:

Indigent, weak, bent over, wretched are terms which well express a degrading human situation. These terms already insinuate a protest. They are not limited to description; they take a stand. This stand is made explicit in the vigorous rejection of poverty. The climate in which poverty is described is one of indignation. And it is with the same indignation that the cause of poverty is indicated: the injustice of oppressors. (Gutiérrez 1973: 167)

As Gutiérrez says, such a description of the social reality of oppression is not the result of a modern scientific stance that defends an alleged ‘ethical neutrality’. Given the unjust sufferings of real people, scientificism can be nothing more than cynicism. Therefore, it is both a description and a protest fuelled by a spirit of ethical and spiritual outrage. Central to an understanding of LALT during its origins and also in present times is the sense of outrage.

This section began by criticizing the cynicism of theologies that fail to seriously consider the hunger and poverty of two thirds of humanity – people who feel no outrage regarding this situation. However, Christian theologies and communities are not only divided between the cynical and the outraged; there is also an internal division among those who are outraged. There are those on the one hand who believe that the problems of hunger are due to dysfunctions or problems within the social-economic system that need to be improved, and those on the other hand who affirm that this unjust situation arises from the logic of the system itself. The latter has been the position of LALT since its inception.

However, since the early 1980s, the context of the Western world has changed due to the strengthening of neoliberalism and its culture, leading to a clash of interpretations concerning ‘ethical indignation’. Formerly the discussion was about whether or not outrage over hunger was justified from a Christian perspective or from the values of the modern world. Now the discussion is about whether it is just or unjust to fight for the lives of the poor.

Those who accept the fundamental principles of neoliberalism become outraged when the state uses revenue from taxes to develop welfare programmes in favour of the poor. According to neoliberal principles, the poverty of those receiving welfare is proof that they do not work hard enough to deserve a better life, and taxation of the wealthy and middle classes to pay for welfare is unjust.

Therefore, it is necessary to theologically discern what kind of outrage is driving social groups and churches that are in favour of or opposed to struggles for social justice and defending the lives of the poor. There are two main groups: first, the ones who are outraged by the amount of investment by the state in social programs, and second, those who feel outraged by the insensitive members of society whom they believe ignore the suffering of two thirds of impoverished humanity. This latter group is subdivided between those who believe it is possible to solve such problems within the capitalist system and those who believe that only by changing to another system can this situation be overcome.

One fundamental feature that differentiates the outrage of neoliberal culture from the outrage that Gutiérrez and others refer to can be observed. In the neoliberal perspective, the basis of the sense of outrage is ‘my’: my desire, my property, my rights. The outrage of Gutiérrez and others focuses on the rights of the ‘other’, the poor and those excluded from society. In other words, outrage arises from the person experiencing the outrage from within, but also from seeing the other who suffers.

What drives this ethical outrage is not economic or political reasoning but recognition that the poor are being subjected to an unjust living situation which is incompatible with their dignity as human beings. Outrage arises from witnessing such undignified treatment of a person.

To better understand the novelty of LALT, it is important to consider the notion of the struggle for the defence of the life and dignity of the poor. The notion of the poor makes explicit and concrete the people who are suffering because of unjust and oppressive economic and social relations. Without this historical concretization, Jesus’ gospel could not truly be ‘good news’.

This does not mean that a poor person won’t have other relationships and dimensions of life that are also under oppressive relations. There are women and men who are poor, just as there are poor white people, Black people, mestizos, Indigenous people, Asians, and others. These people suffer many unjust interpersonal and social relationships because they are poor, but it is also common that a poor Black woman suffers more than a poor white man; or that a rich woman suffers less than a poor man.

This is why, as LALT has developed, other challenges and themes have been incorporated such as issues of gender, race, and ethnicity, the rights of Indigenous people, etc. However, the novelty of LALT does not lie in these issues but in the struggle to defend the dignified lives of poor people and victims of unjust social relations.

There are many theological currents that reflect on the perspective of the liberation struggle. What LALT has specifically contributed to this scenario is its methodology and its starting point: the concrete lives of poor people, those who are threatened with death due to their exclusion from the market. After all, the first condition for all human beings to be able to live with dignity in their different identities is to be alive and to have their basic needs met. Furthermore, it mustn’t be forgotten that the contemporary world is governed by globalized capitalism and that this logic permeates all social relations.

Returning to the two types of outrage, there are two conflicting rationalities or ways of perceiving reality. Within the current capitalist logic, no human criterion stands above the economic rationality at the service of the ultimate goal in life: the fulfilment of ‘my’ infinite desire for wealth accumulation. From a Christian perspective, made explicit by LALT, ethical outrage against the injustice of hunger, suffering, and death of the poor – particularly in a world of so much concentrated wealth – is justified by the belief in life as the greatest gift received from God.

In this sense, ethical experience of outrage at social injustice is understood by the faith community as an experience of encountering Jesus in the presence of the poor (Matt 25:25–35). Many people throughout the world experience this ethical outrage, yet not all interpret it as a spiritual experience from a Christian perspective. Moreover, many Christian people have a hard time voicing these experiences to themselves and others because they only have access to cynical theological discourses that do not bear fruit in the form of effective action.

In this context, LALT emerges and proposes to undertake the task of bringing its theological reflections to bear on necessary questions, doubts, practices, and discernments. It is worth noting that the LALT began within a spiritual movement born out of an ethical-spiritual outrage. Therefore, Gustavo Gutiérrez states:

Since the first steps of liberation theology, the question of spirituality (the following of Jesus, precisely) has been a deep concern. Furthermore, this kind of reflection is conscious that it developed – and continues to develop – preceded by the spiritual experience of Christians committed to the liberation process. Such an experience is at the heart of the movement begun by the poor in Latin America in order to affirm their human dignity and their condition as sons and daughters of God. (Gutiérrez 1987: 13)

In other words, this spiritual movement that emerged in the 1960s in Latin America, among the poor and solidarity-driven groups, is a social expression of a fundamental theological principle of Christianity: all people, regardless of wealth, gender, race, and culture are loved by God (Gal 3:28). The problem is how to express universal love in an unequal and unjust world.

In the world of ideas it may be possible to find a way of loving all people without clashing with unjust logics and situations, without making concrete choices that seem to contradict the universal principle of ‘love all people’. In the real world, however, the contradictions are unavoidable, and for this reason LALT has assumed ‘the option for the poor’.

3 The option for the poor

Clodovis Boff, a Catholic, and George Pixley, a Protestant, in their book Option for the Poor, assert:

There is no reason to deny the assertion of the Western philosophical tradition that God’s perfection requires it to be universal. However, this affirmation requires accuracy. From the biblical accounts one learns that the concrete expression of this universal love privileged slaves in Egypt and the poor of Galilee in Palestine. God’s love for the Pharaoh is realized through his preferential love for the slaves. (Pixley 1986: 38)

At first sight, it seems that there is a logical contradiction between the universal character of God and the preference that the God Yahweh shows in the Bible for slaves and the poor. It appears that two contradictory spheres or conceptions are involved, but they are not. The real conflict is between a Western philosophical – and even theological – perspective, in which an abstract notion of God predominates, and a perception of a God that considers the corporeality of living. In the former, the affirmation of God’s universality and love does not affect and is not affected by concrete situations marked by injustices. In the latter, real human beings are considered and thus also the matter of injustice regarding the rights of all to a dignified life.

In other words, there are two conflicting visions of God: an abstract God, indifferent to the suffering of slaves and the poor, and a biblical God who, out of love for all human beings, intervenes in history to take sides in favour of the oppressed, for it is one God who created humanity with the purpose that all might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). From this perspective, in a society that is unjust and unequal the universality of God’s love can only be affirmed by siding with the ‘weak’, those who are unable to live with dignity. Only in the struggle for justice can believers experience and announce God’s love for all people.

To better understand this dialectical relationship between universal values and the concrete choices that necessarily lead to opting for a part of the whole, it is important to consider the notion of equity.

Equity is an adaptation of the general rule of fairness to specific situations, where the application of the general rule without considering the specific context could produce injustice. For example, in cases of unequal access to health care, where poor patients are unable to access treatment, the state or civil society institutions might invest more into poorer sectors. Apart from the abstract concept of the equality of all, notions of equity and inequity introduce the question of ethics, of justice. As Margaret Whitehead says:

The term ‘inequity’ has a moral and ethical dimension. It refers to differences which are unnecessary and avoidable, but in addition are considered unfair and unjust. So, in order to describe a certain situation as inequitable the cause has to be examined and judged to be unfair in the context of what is going on in the rest of society. (Whitehead 1992: 431, original emphasis)

Moreover, the ‘option for the poor’ is not merely an ethical question but also a matter of theology as such: discernment about the image of God, as well as the difference between God and idols. The God of Israel is not revealed in a godless world or an atheist world, but rather in a context where there are innumerable gods. This is the world in which Yahweh presents himself as a different and even strange deity: a God who takes a group of slaves as his people (Exod 3).

In LALT’s biblical hermeneutic, God reveals himself through liberating slaves, an act that can be described as the option for the poor and oppressed. The ‘option for the poor and oppressed’ is not a consequence of knowing God, but within that option the God of Jesus is truly known.

Hence Boff and Pixley state: ‘“I am Yahweh your God”. The very name Yahweh is to ensure that those gods unable or unwilling to save from the slavery of Egypt will not hide behind the generic title of God’ (Pixley 1986: 39). To the biblical tradition, an insensitive god who has no ethical outrage at the sufferings caused by unjust social relations is no god but merely an idol, a human creation (see section 5.3).

The Yahweh of Exodus, unlike the gods of the dominant systems of the past and the present, takes the side of the oppressed. From this theological principle one can conclude that God’s impartiality makes him love preferentially the ‘orphan, the widow, the foreigner [similar to those termed ‘illegal immigrants’ in the present day] and the poor’ (Zech 7:10), as well as all other people subjugated in unjust social relations. This is why Gutiérrez states: ‘Ultimately, the option for the poor is a theocentric option, a life centred on God’ (2008: 126).

Elza Tames, in turn, associates this option for the poor with the theology of justification by faith. She states, from her study on the letter to the Romans, that ‘the study of justification as an affirmation of life must have as its face the poor, not only their economic oppression, but also their dignity as human beings, denied by insignificance, skin colour or sex’ (Támez 1991: 49).

4 Socioanalytical mediation and social sciences

When one begins to deal with the causes of injustice and the possible paths of liberation, one departs from the field of experiences, practical struggles, and options and arrives at theoretical-theological reflections. It is a field that requires a mediation and a means (concepts, theories, and logics) that allow perception of what an immediate vision of reality or of an action does not offer. If the reality or the object to be understood could be grasped immediately, without mediation, there would be no need to have created sciences or theories. It has always been this way, even in the field of theology.

The very notion of theology emerged as a need to better understand and explain, for one’s own faith community and for others, what the Christian faith is. In this process, the theological community felt the need to use philosophy as an instrument of its reflection. For example, Augustine of Hippo dialogued with neo-Platonic philosophy, and Thomas Aquinas with Aristotelian thought.

In this tradition LALT perceived that, in order to reflect the experience of Christian faith within liberation struggles, the best way was to dialogue with social sciences. The reason for using primarily social sciences is that the object of reflection is the experience of faith within real, historical life and therefore should no longer be studied sub specie aeterni (from an eternal perspective).

It does not mean that LALT has abandoned dialogue with philosophy, since the use of social sciences in the development of theology presupposes and also requires critical philosophical reflections. The novelty of LALT is not in using or not using philosophy, but rather the importance placed on the notion of concrete human suffering, history, society, and historical-social transformations. Ivone Gebara, for example, states:

It is because so many women, especially the very poorest, are so despised that they end up despising themselves as human beings which makes it necessary, looking at their lives, to re-theologize and re-philosophize the problem of evil and salvation. (Gebara 2000: 240)

In this dialogue and reflection on liberation practices, LALT has called this first moment a socioanalytical mediation, the second moment a hermeneutic mediation, and the third a practical mediation. It is what many popularly call the ‘see-judge-act’ method, though the third moment is not action in itself but discernment and planning of such actions. (The influence of LALT and the ‘see-judge-act’ method in Christian theological reflection as a whole is further discussed in section 1.2 of Theological Reflection.)

4.1 Dependency theory, Marxism, and the social sciences

The most controversial issue in LALT’s theme of socioanalytic mediation was whether or not to use Marxism. During the 1960s and seventies, there were two fundamental currents of social sciences: the functionalist and the dialectic. The former focused on problems in the functioning of the social system and how to improve the existing order while tackling the disorder of the system, whereas the latter focused on the injustice of the existing order by proposing a disruption and the creation of a new order.

This dialectical path, chosen by LALT, was not only based on ‘scientific’ questions – in the sense of modern sciences with the perception of ethical neutrality – but also on the option for the poor. As brothers Leonardo and Clodovis Boff wrote in their well-known book, How to Do Liberation Theology: ‘Socio-analytical mediation looks into the world of the oppressed. It seeks to understand why the oppressed is oppressed’ (1985: 40).

In concrete terms, the social theory used in the emergence of LALT was the ‘dependency theory’. This theory criticized developmentalism, which asserted that the best way for poor countries to overcome poverty was to follow the paths of the wealthier developed countries. Also, the topic of development and the overcoming of poverty was already present among Christian churches. For instance, Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical Populorum Progressio (1967), placed development of peoples – particularly the poor who struggle to overcome hunger and misery – as a task of the church’s mission. For a short period the topic of development theology was discussed in Latin America, but it was quickly replaced by the proposal of liberation theology which took up the critique made by dependency theory.

Three main ideas of dependency theory mark liberation theology. First, the economic and social problems of Latin America must be understood within the global and dialectical process of the development of world capitalism. Second, the dynamic of contemporary capitalism is one of exploitation by rich and central countries of the peripheral ones. Third, the economic and social development of Latin America is unviable within capitalism, and the only solution would be liberation from dependency. To oppose the dependency relation, the theologians of the period coined the expression ‘liberation theology’.

In short, liberation theology’s idea of ‘liberation’ was conceived in opposition to the dependency of the peripheral countries that were subordinated to the interests of the central capitalist countries. Over time, the concrete notion of liberation from economic-political relations of dependency and oppression was broadened to a more abstract notion of liberation from all forms of oppression and domination.

Regarding dependency theory, not all involved were Marxists, but most worked from a dialectical and Marxist perspective. Thus, LALT was and still is criticized as a Marxist theology, considered dangerous and atheistic in many places – even if the notion of an atheistic theology is contradictory.

The answer to this reproach was to distinguish between the two aspects of Marxism as a theory: the scientific aspect of the theory – historical materialism – enables understanding of the process of capitalist exploitation, and is useful for a theology that battles hunger and poverty. The atheistic philosophical aspect – dialectical materialism – is denied by LALT. As Gutiérrez stated, ‘the contributions of Marxist analysis must be placed and criticized within the horizon of social sciences’ (1984: 8). One cannot speak seriously about poverty in Latin America without appealing to descriptions and interpretations of Marxist analysis and – enlightened by faith – assuming the challenges and possibilities it presents to the evangelizing task of the church. Thus, Gutiérrez concludes: ‘It is a matter of resorting to social analysis as a function of knowledge about a given situation and not for studying matters considered strictly theological’ (1984: 6).

In Gutiérrez’s argument, a distinction clearly appears between the analysis of social reality – the field of socioanalytical mediation – and Marxist analysis, as well as the field of hermeneutic mediation that would address issues considered more strictly theological. This introduces the second step within LALT’s method, hermeneutic mediation, which shall be discussed later on.

The fundamental problem in LALT’s use of Marxism in liberation theology was not atheism, for if atheism were the central issue then other modern theologies would also not be able to use any modern theory or science that presupposed methodological or philosophical atheism. The (non-explicit) issue in critiques of LALT was the struggle against capitalism and the spirit of rebellion against the dominant social order.

This response, offered by most of the major liberation theologians on the use of Marxism, was nonetheless accepted. From the 1980s onwards, most LALT discussions presupposed the option for the poor and the use of social analysis more generally. This was partly because dependency theory itself was losing strength in Latin America and, at the same time, important transformations were taking place in worldwide capitalism with the emergence of neoliberalism and globalization.

It is also worth highlighting the importance of the LALT’s dialogue with the Catholic Church’s social teaching in the 1970s and the first part of the 1980s. For example, the document Laborem Exercens was very important for LALT, in which Pope John Paul II states:

In view of this situation we must first of all recall a principle that has always been taught by the Church: the principle of the priority of labour over capital. This principle directly concerns the process of production: in this process labour is always a primary efficient cause, while capital, the whole collection of means of production, remains a mere instrument or instrumental cause. This principle is an evident truth that emerges from the whole of man’s historical experience. (Pope John Paul II. 1981: note 12, original emphasis)

As stated above, this was the most well-known and dominant way of socioanalytical mediation in LALT. However there was another way of addressing poverty, capitalism, Marxism, and the relationship between theology and economics.

4.2 A theological critique of the economy

Enrique Dussel, philosopher, historian, and theologian, affirms in his study of the history of theology in Latin America that, during a meeting of social scientists and theologians in 1978 in the Departamento Ecuménico de Investigaciones in San Jose (Costa Rica), a new and powerful wave of liberation theology emerged:

Franz Hinkelammert’s work, Las armas ideológicas de la muerte: el discernimiento de los fetiches (The Ideological Weapons of Death: the Discernment of Fetishes), sets a new chapter in the history of Liberation Theology. This great lay economist develops a powerful, critical, economical, and theological discourse. (Dussel 1981: 431–432)

The most striking thing about Dussel’s statement is less that there was a second beginning of LALT – which is not a thesis well known by many who study LALT worldwide – and more that this novelty comes from an economist who elaborates a theological critique of the economy. Hinkelammert proposes a theologico-economic method that unveils the economico-ideological process that generates and justifies the death of the poor, that is, the process of fetishization in the capitalist economy. Based on Marx’s reflections about commodity fetishism – ‘abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties’ (Marx 1990: 163) – of money and capital in the capitalist economy, Hinkelammert says: ‘The object of fetishism theory is the visibility of what is invisible and refers to the concepts of collectives in the social sciences’ (Hinkelammert 1982: 7).

In other words, this theory intends to bring into visibility the categories, or the categorical framework, by which people interpret what is called reality, and define which goals are possible or impossible for human action. For example, a certain system of property cannot exist and function as ‘natural’ if it does not ensure in the human mind a theoretic categorical framework that causes the reality corresponding to such a system of property to be perceived as the only possible and humanly acceptable reality.

Hence the theory of fetishism, Hinkelammert claims, is not so much devoted to the analysis of specific institutions but to the study of the conditions of possibilities regarding the freedom, life, and death of the human being within the social division of labour.

This topic of ‘possibilities of life and death’ is the core of LALT, the life and death of the poor, and the raison d’être of using socioanalytic mediation in LALT. The difference between the best-known strand of LALT – presented in section 4.1 – and this one is the use of the theory of fetishism which seeks to highlight the invisible social process that defines who can lead a good life and who will die before their time, i.e. the poor.

Importantly, the fact that Hinkelammert – and others who follow this direction, such as Assmann – uses Marx’s theory of fetishism does not mean that this LALT strand is Marxist, for they also use other non-Marxist theories such as Max Weber’s theory of the ‘Spirit of Capitalism’. In a way, this LALT strand articulates Marx’s fetish theory with Weber’s ‘Spirit of Capitalism’ and also notion of the ‘war between gods’ in the theological critique of the capitalist economy.

Weber attempted to discern the fundamental values of different cultures, understood metaphorically as the conflicts between different ‘gods’, even in modern times:

Just as the Greek would bring a sacrifice at one time to Aphrodite and at another to Apollo, and above all, to the gods of his own city, people do likewise today. Only now the gods have been deprived of the magical and mythical, but inwardly true qualities that gave them such vivid immediacy. These gods and their struggles are ruled over by fate, and certainly not by ‘science.’ We cannot go beyond understanding what the divine means for this or that system or within this or that system. (Weber 2005: 23, original emphasis)

The notion of gods and the ancient or modern demands for sacrifices, as well as the sense of sacredness, are present and necessary in any social system, for without these categories no social system can elaborate legitimacy and demand the loyalty of its people when facing boundary situations. For example, this appears in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of the 1789 French revolution, where it states: ‘property is an inviolable and sacred right’ (Article 17). This shows that the modern world does not deny the concept of sacredness, only the traditional or medieval conception of it.

Thus, this LALT strand takes a different interpretation of the modern sciences from what is done by most LALT theologians and also by social scientists. Inspired by Marx and Weber, they propose a distinct articulation between theology and economics, as well as of socioanalytical mediation and hermeneutics within the LALT method.

This becomes clear in A Idolatria do Mercado (The Idolatry of the Market) by Assmann and Hinkelammert (1989), a classic work of LALT’s theological critique of the economy. In the book, intended to show the intertwining of economics and theology as well as the struggle in favour of real and concrete human life, Assmann proposes the following hypothesis: ‘in economic theories and economic processes there is a strange metamorphosis of the gods and a fierce struggle between the gods’ (Assmann 1989: 11). This implies the need to analyse the ‘theological discourses’ within economic theories and practices, that is, the endogenous theologies in economics.

In this process, Assmann points to five levels of analysis. The first is that of the simple ‘observation of the metamorphosis of gods, that is, of the variation of “images” concerning divinities, which penetrate economic theories and policies’ (1989: 12).

The second is the discerning level of the ‘struggle of the opposing gods’: ‘There have always been gods in conflict with each other, because the conceptions that human beings, supported by their theological imaginations, have about their life in history are in conflict with each other’ (1989: 12).

The third level discusses the evaluative aspects of the practical consequences of the variety of gods and their specific utilities. The fourth refers to the possible functions of the various gods: ‘one begins to give concrete names to these functions, calling some harmful and others not so harmful or even favourable to a certain historical project […] it is at this level that the theological discourse on idolatry appears’ (1989: 13).

The concept of ‘idolatry’ refers not only to a philosophical or theologically mistaken view of God but fundamentally to the question of justice and oppression. As Assmann states: ‘Idols are the gods of oppression’ (1989: 11). That is, idolatry is the process of manipulating sacred symbols to fascinate and frighten human beings into accepting unjust and oppressive relationships and supporting dominant and oppressive powers. A fundamental characteristic of idolatry is the relentless demand for sacrifices.

The fourth level of analysis of the theological discourse within economics neither presupposes nor demands an affirmation of faith. That is, the first four levels occur within social sciences, in the field of socioanalytical mediation. The fifth refers to the search for coherence in relation to Christianity: it is the practical and theological task of ‘discerning the idols of oppression and the search for the liberating God’ (Assmann 1989: 13) within history and also within Christianity, marked by internal conflicts and ambiguities.

In the transition from the fourth level to the fifth, there is a ‘nebulous zone’ where the two steps of the LALT method – socioanalytical mediation and hermeneutic mediation – are not well defined. In a perspective of modern sciences, there should be a clear distinction between the analysis of social reality and what is the object of hermeneutics. But, in the perspective presented in this section, there is a different view of the modern sciences and the modern capitalist world.

5 Hermeneutical mediation, capitalism as religion, and idolatry

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it was argued that capitalism had ‘won’ and humans were living at what Francis Fukuyama (1989) termed ‘the end of history’. In this context, LALT was seen as something from the past. Many affirm that LALT has made an important contribution to awakening the Christian churches to God’s option for the poor, together with the relationship between mission of the church and social problems. However, this was seen as part of the past, since these theological contributions had already been incorporated into the various theologies and would no longer have anything new to offer.

However, the first generation of LALT’s main theologians always affirmed that the novelty of LALT is not in its contents but in its method. Segundo, for instance, stated: ‘liberation is less a matter of content than of method, which is used to do theology regarding our reality’ (1978: 11).

From this perspective, hermeneutical mediation does not refer to the biblical and theological contents that one uses to ‘judge’ the social situation but to the process of interpreting reality. In other words, the main object of interpretation is not a set of texts but the historical reality itself in which relations of oppression and liberation struggles occur. Naturally, to interpret this reality it is also necessary to reinterpret the biblical texts and the Christian theological tradition. However, this should be done regarding the interpretation of the reality, and also the struggles and hopes of the people who suffer. In this same sense, Milton Schwantes says:

A certain biblical specificity lies in its insistence on tomorrow. The Bible promotes the future. It is a book for militating for the future. It would be a kind of primer for hope. It promotes a real agitation so that we don’t lose sight of the horizons of history. (Schwantes 1989: 17)

Jon Sobrino, the Latin American liberation theologian who has done the most work on Christology, asks whether there is still something metaparadigmatic about Christology. He replies: ‘The answer is a convinced “yes”, and its central content is the relationship between “Jesus and the poor”, between “Jesus and the victims”’ (Sobrino 2000: 17). In response to the criticism of LALT for its insistence on the theme of the poor and the victims of unjust and oppressive relationships, Sobrino says:

When we keep victims at the centre of theology, we don’t want to be obsolete, obstinate or unrepentant masochists. We want to be honest with reality and responsible in the face of it. And we want to be Christians who present good news: God and his Christ are present in our world, and not just anywhere, but where they said they would be: in the poor and the victims of this world. In this way, we think, we can do theology and Christology as intellectus amoris – the praxis of liberating the victims – and as intellectus gratie, starting from the grace that has been given to us in them. (Sobrino 2000: 19)

It is important to emphasize that LALT is not and cannot be reduced to a critical social analysis because, as a Christian theology, it assumes historical reality and criticizes unjust social relations and structures but at the same time discerns where the Spirit of God is present and announces good news to the world, especially to those who suffer.

In brief, the task of interpreting reality in a liberating theological perspective presupposes socioanalytical mediation but differs from the task of the social sciences. These sciences cannot and should not deal with the fifth level of analysis, the explicitly theological level of coherence between the Christian faith and the search for the liberating God in the struggles against the idols of oppression, as presented above.

5.1 Capitalism as religion and theological hermeneutics

In his text on biblical hermeneutics within LALT, Gilberto Gorgulho says: ‘hermeneutics is decoding the symbols, rites and language as expressions of social relations, whether of domination and exploitation or of life in egalitarian freedom and solidarity’ (1990: 175). And, citing Hinkelammert’s book, The Ideological Weapons of Death (1982), he states:

Theology has the task of discerning between ‘fetish’ and ‘Spirit’. In this way, a theological act is an act of discernment or spiritual appropriation both of the text and of praxis in order to penetrate more deeply both into the mechanisms of death and domination as well as into the power of resurrection and of the full life of the people of God in the world. Hermeneutics is a discernment of the ideological weapons of death and a search for the strength of the Spirit of life (1 John 4). (Gorgulho 1990: 181)

To consider the task of theology as one of discernment, as hermeneutics of the forces of death and the forces of the Spirit of life, is very different from other conceptions of theologies, even those that in the name of ‘liberation’ reduce their role to hermeneutics of biblical and theological texts. This discerning of forces of history that kill the poor and those that allow a dignified life for all is an endless task, because history continues and will always continue in its ambiguity and internal conflicts.

Clearly influenced by Hinkelammert, Gorgulho adjectivizes the notion of Spirit with the expression ‘of life’. That is, there could be a spirit that is not of life but of death, since the noun ‘Spirit’ does not necessarily imply that all spirits are ‘holy’.

While studying the novelty of capitalism in relation to previous civilizations, examining what he calls the essence of the spirit of capitalism, Weber states:

In fact, the summum bonum of this ethic, the earning of more and more money, combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life, is above all completely devoid of any eudæmonistic, not to say hedonistic, admixture. It is thought of so purely as an end in itself, that from the point of view of the happiness of, or utility to, the single individual, it appears entirely transcendental and absolutely irrational. (Weber 2005: 18)

What Weber identifies as totally new in capitalism is its transcendent and irrational character, that is, the ‘sacred’ aspect, that is not rationally justified and is above human – i.e. ‘profane’ – meaning. To live endlessly for the sake of earning money without limits, instead of working and earning money to live, is the most radical inversion of the meaning of life in social relations. For this reason, Weber says capitalism is transcendent and irrational, only to be understood in the domain of religion.

Marx claims that the commodity fetish has a metaphysical and theological character, whereas Weber believes that the social force that gives meaning and moves capitalism into the future is its spirit. If one adds the notion of sacrifice, which Weber shows in ancient and also modern societies, one sees in capitalism a wide range of religious, theological features.

In light of this it is no wonder that Walter Benjamin, in a short 1921 text only published in 1985, states: ‘One can behold in capitalism a religion, that is to say, capitalism essentially serves to satisfy the same worries, anguish, and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion’ (2005: 259).

The thesis that capitalism is a religion, or that it should be seen as a religion, is not common among the modern social sciences which study modern society by starting from secularization theory: the division between the public sphere of the state and the market from the private sphere where religion should be. Thus, the very notion of LALT and Christianity of liberation that entered into political-economic discussions and practices in Latin America should be interpreted as a pre-modern phenomenon in regions not yet modernized – like Latin America – and undergoing its own disappearance. Yet other thinkers, whether they knew Benjamin’s thesis or not, have also interpreted capitalism as a religion.

Assmann, in his influential 1973 book Teologia desde a práxis da libertação: ensaio teológico desde a América dependente (Theology from the praxis of liberation: a theological essay from dependent America), when dealing with perverse religions that channel myths and symbols contrary to their human purpose, says: ‘the most perfect “religion” has arisen: Capitalism. In it, religious perversion is consummated, because religion itself became entirely a commodity and a consumable product’ (Assmann 1976: 192).

Löwy, a Walter Benjamin scholar, comments on the fact that several Latin American liberation theologians radically criticized capitalism as an idolatrous religion even before Benjamin’s excerpt was known and published. Löwy writes: ‘according to Hugo Assmann, it is in the implicit theology of the economic paradigm itself and in the everyday fetishistic devotional practice that the capitalist “economic religion” manifests itself’ (Löwy 2007: 190).

The thesis of capitalism as religion, already present in LALT before the publication of Benjamin’s text, was developed in dialogue with the thought of Marx, Weber, and other social scientists, but it would not be possible without a theological hermeneutic regarding the process of oppression in capitalism and the possibility of an alternative spirit. Without an alternative that transcends the limits of the dominant social and philosophical system, the critique of idolatry would not be possible.

For a majority of LALT theologians, without this critique of an idolatrous religion in the name of a spirit or God of life there would only be the choice between defending religion (without discussing whether it is oppressive or not) or defending secularization or modern atheism, with religion reduced to the private sphere (the article returns to the theme of idolatry in section 5.3).

In this sense, the relationship between socioanalytic mediation and hermeneutics is not linear. First comes the analysis of social reality, second the ‘judging’. Regardless, the very hermeneutic mediation of capitalist myths, theories, and practices leads dialectically to rethinking socioanalytic mediation and seeing social reality in a deeper and critical way. For instance, a more careful reading of Jesus’ words – ‘No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon’ (Luke 16:13; also in Matt 6:24) – can produce better understanding of the contemporary social and theological situation.

Confronted with a context of oppression against the poor due to the greed of the rich and powerful, Jesus uses the Aramaic word ‘Mammon’, which means money or wealth, to personify money as a divine being to be worshipped or served. The term ‘serve’ has a theological connotation in this quotation: one serves either God or Mammon. This is the theme of idolatry in the contemporary world.

5.2 Neoliberalism and the endogenous theology of the free market myth

In the 1960s and 1970s, when LALT emerged and developed, the most popular critical social theory used to analyse capitalism was dependency theory, which opposed developmental theory. The two groups of economists and social scientists behind these theories had one assumption in common: the myth of development, along with the promise that this development would lead to a better life for all. They differed over which path was better: the capitalist market was preferred by liberals, and socialism – once free from dependency – for Marxists and LALT.

However, from the 1980s, neoliberalism emerged on the world stage as a hegemonic force. Neoliberalism is more than a policy or economic theory – it is a project for society and civilization that is different from the liberal-modern world, with a new myth: that of the ‘Free Market’ (Sung 2018). In an interview given to the Sunday Times newspaper in 1981, Margaret Thatcher, then prime minister of the United Kingdom, summed up the project:

What’s irritated me about the whole direction of politics in the last 30 years is that it’s always been towards the collectivist society. People have forgotten about the personal society. […I]t isn’t that I set out on economic policies; it’s that I set out really to change the approach, and changing the economics is the means of changing that approach. If you change the approach you really are after the heart and soul of the nation. Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul. (Thatcher 1981, emphasis added)

Following the appearance of neoliberalism, what is at stake is no longer a struggle over which path is best for all people to have access to a dignified life. Neoliberalism resurrects the debate about whether the poor – those who do not have the money to buy in the market the necessities of life – have the right to live. However, in societies that pride themselves on being civilized and Christian this question cannot be asked directly in public, since it would be outrageous. Underlying this question is the criticism of state intervention in the market through tax-funded social programmes in favour of the poor. One of neoliberalism’s priorities is precisely to cut the richest people’s taxes and to defund social programmes.

One of the great economists of the twentieth century, J. K. Galbraith, sums up this new culture: ‘Good fortune being earned or the reward of merit, there is no equitable justification for any action that impairs it – that subtracts from what is enjoyed or might be enjoyed’ (2017: 15). The neoliberal desire to change hearts can lead people to become insensitive to the suffering of the poor, resulting in the establishment of a new measure of ‘fair worthiness’, the justice of the merit defined by the free market.

Neoliberalism’s main thinker, Fredrich Hayek, explicitly criticizes the notion of social justice and inverts its logic. In his thinking, solidarity or charity is no longer seen as a virtue but as sin or vice:

[T]he gospel of ‘social justice’ aims at much more sordid sentiments: the dislike of people who are better off than oneself, or simply envy, that ‘most anti-social and evil of all passions’ as John Stuart Mill called it, that animosity towards great wealth which represents it as a ‘scandal’ that some should enjoy riches while others have basic needs unsatisfied, and camouflages under the name of justice what has nothing to do with justice. (Hayek 2013: 263)

This radical inversion of ethics and anthropology that occurs with neoliberalism can be better understood with the notion of ‘market idolatry’. For Assmann, ‘the essence of the myth of the market consists in “hypostasis”, that is, the super-personalization of the Market with attributes of autonomous agents’ (1989: 232), or even its personalization as a divine agent. This ‘free market’ myth is sort of a religion of predetermined fate, but without the rigidity of the hierarchical order peculiar to the static conceptions of pre-modern social organization, and with a vision of self-regulating dynamics.

The notion of self-regulation has two aspects: first, the market is – or is intended to be – a system that does not accept and does not need to be regulated by any other system or criteria outside itself, e.g. ethical, political, or religious. Second, the free market is seen as the organizing and driving principle of history, with the predetermined destiny of the kingdom of mercantile freedom. Yet, unlike the myth of modernity, with universal rights, this utopia is destined only for those who ‘deserve’ it, those who survive the brutal competition of the market.

The promise of realizing this utopia intrinsically requires the sacrifice of human lives, especially of the poor and the non-competitive. Converts to this new religion, fascinated and frightened, live in a devotional relationship with the market. Moreover, the gratifying experience of consuming goods desired by other people, who feel envious because they cannot buy them, becomes proof that this is the best way for their human fulfilment (Sung 2007).

Sacrifice is a key notion for understanding how neoliberal capitalism becomes more explicitly a religion. The act of sacrificing has a socioreligious logic that inverts an action that is normally seen as ‘bad’ – such as killing someone or being selfish and socially insensitive – into a ‘good’ action or attitude, because it is demanded by a divine being who in return promises a special reward. It is the critique of this sacrificial theology, found most clearly in the social economic discourse of neoliberalism in the early 1980s, that leads LALT’s main scholars to identify idolatry as one of their central theological concerns.

5.3 Idolatry and the God of life

The topic of idolatry, particularly the idolatry of money and the market, is fundamental for a theology that intends to offer a non-cynical vision of life from the perspective of liberating the poor and oppressed. It is important to stress that this is not a discussion of idols and idolatry within theology in the traditional sense – for example, on the use of images of God in Christianity – but in the theology of capitalism. As Assmann states:

Idolatry of the Market consists, therefore, in the intrinsic and endogenous theology of the paradigm itself, in its economic version; and the corresponding idolatrous acts consist of the daily devotional practice of those who carry out the demands of this paradigm […] the expressions of this idolatrous theology are to be sought first of all in the economic theories themselves. The theology of the Market economy, however, receives, especially in our days, frequent explicitly theological and religious complements. (Assmann 1989: 253–254)

In the history of LALT, idolatry has been a topic since its inception. For example, Gutiérrez, in his 1973 book Liberation Theology, states: ‘Theology as critical reflection thus fulfils a liberating function for humankind and the Christian community, preserving them from fetishism and idolatry’ (1973: 10).

José Miguez-Bonino and Rubem Alves, the two most important Protestant theologians of the first LALT generation, said that the covenant, the symbol of God’s care for human beings, could become an idol when the relations of justice among the people were broken. Further, even in Israel idolatry could become explicit ‘whether in the old worship of idols, in the religion of man or in the cult of Mammon. True faith must then express itself in prophetic iconoclasm: the denunciation and destruction of idolatrous religiosity’ (Miguez-Bonino 1976: 68).

However, it is with the publication of The Struggle of the Gods: The Idols of Oppression and the Search for the Liberating God (1982) that this topic of idolatry became central to a LALT strand that developed a theological critique of the capitalist economy. In the introduction to this book this thesis is summarized:

In Latin America today, the core problem is not atheism, the ontological question of whether or not there is a God. […] Nor does it deal with the issue of atheism, linked to secularism and the crisis of Western European modernity itself. The central problem lies in idolatry as the worship of the false gods in the system of oppression. […] The quest for the true God in this clash of gods leads us to the anti-idolatrous discernment of false gods, of the fetishes that kill and of their deadly religious weapons. The faith in the liberating God, in the God who reveals his face and mystery in the struggle of the poor over oppression, goes necessarily through negating and apostasizing the false gods. Faith becomes anti-idolatrous. (Richard 1982: 7)

In this struggle against the idols that kill, Gutiérrez recalls that ‘[i]dolatry is first and foremost a behaviour, a practice. That is why the key question will be: whom does it really serve? The God of life or an idol of death?’ (1990: 76, present author's translation). The starting point of LALT is not orthodoxy, the discernment of correct doctrine, but rather orthopraxis, the correct practice in defence of life.

LALT assumes as its main task the theological discernment between the image of God-idol and the God of life. This discernment takes place in the first instance not within a dogmatic discussion but within the praxis of a liberating faith that follows the teaching of Jesus: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’ (Matt 9:13).

In studying the opposition between the God of life and the idols of death as the central axis of LALT’s hermeneutical mediation, it is necessary to clarify that there are two types of agent or institution that sow death in society: the authoritarian or dictatorial state, which kills or tortures directly, and the free market, which kills indirectly by not allowing the poor to live. It is because of the invisible characteristics of the logics of death in oppressive social systems that LALT uses socioanalytical mediation and hermeneutics, to unveil – as Sobrino says – the ‘historical reality that performs like true divinities, that claims for itself the characteristics of every divinity: ultimacy, self-justification, untouchability. These idols demand a cult, a praxis and even an orthodoxy’ (1986: 51).

In such theological discernment, an understanding of the God who opts for the poor and oppressed can be mistaken. Moved by the desire of liberation of the oppressed, one may fall into the same error as the imperial religions that use the notion of a mighty God to legitimize their projects of power and imposition, only now with a conception of a merciful God who uses his power to impose the liberation of the historically oppressed.

The God of Jesus reveals himself in a different logic: not of power, but of love. As Leonardo Boff affirms in his book Jesus Christ Liberator: A Critical Christology For Our Time (1978), Jesus of Nazareth is ‘weak in power but strong in love, who renounced the sword and violence’ (1978: 27). The logic of power demands obedience, whilst love grows in freedom. Thus, this LALT Christology has an important impact on the field of theoretical-practical mediation and the praxis of liberation.

Liberation struggles on behalf of the lives and fundamental rights of the poor and oppressed are not justifiable in terms of victories or successes. This has become an important issue in LALT history following the collapse of the socialist bloc and the hegemony of neoliberalism in capitalist globalization. The powerful justify their privileges in the name of the victors’ right and, ultimately, in the image of a powerful and sacrificial God. Whereas the option for the poor and victims of systems of oppression is justified by faith in a God who is love.

Hence Sobrino stated at the end of the 1990s, in his book Christ the Liberator: A View from the Victims, the following:

By keeping the victims at the centre of our theology, we wish to be neither obsolete, obstinate, nor impenitent masochists. We wish to be honest with reality and responsible towards it. We also want to be Christians who bring good news: God and his Christ are present in our world, and not just anywhere, but in the places they said they would be: within the poor and the victims of this world. (Sobrino 2000: 19)

For Sobrino, ‘[a]s long as there is pain, misery and injustice, history cannot be understood in its totality, except in the way of hope against hope’ (2000: 83). Such a hope is strengthened by faith in the resurrection of Jesus, the crucified one. In this sense, faith in the resurrection of Jesus, as well as the option for the poor and the victims, are theological ‘weapons’ against idolatrous sacrificial theologies.

As LALT evolved over the first twenty years of its theological reflections and historical events, it became less optimistic about the historical possibilities of liberating the poor. However, it retains its fundamental principles, being a theological reflection from the practices of liberation of the poor and the victims, because LALT believes that in Jesus is revealed the truth that God does not want sacrifices but mercy. This perspective can be synthesized using a quote from Assmann:

The essential newness of the Christian message, precisely because it tries to introduce all-inclusive fraternal love into history, consists in the central affirmation: the victims are innocent and no excuse or pretext makes their victimization justifiable. No projection of culpability or blameworthiness onto the victim is acceptable as justification for his being ‘sacrificed’. Therefore, the victim is defined as a product of unjustifiable violence. (Assmann 1991: 84–85)

6 Practical mediation, utopia, and the limits of history

As mentioned earlier, practical mediation – the third moment or aspect within LALT – is not about practice but refers to the theoretical-theological reflections of LALT in its dialectical relationship with liberation practices. It is the moment when its reflections are more provisional and less defined, as they are dealing with the fluidity and complexity of practices and challenges of concrete life. However, there are certain fundamental aspects in practical mediation that are basic and that will be presented here.

6.1 Utopia, the market, and pro-poor social aims

LALT’s main objective is to contribute to the liberation of poor and/or oppressed. As a result, LALT aims to analyse the causes of these people’s suffering and to interpret the idolatrous ethical categories and values that justify oppression, while at the same time showing the presence of the Spirit of God in the struggles of the oppressed.

This kind of theology needs to be aware of the difference between objectives that are possible and those that are not. Otherwise, strategies and effective actions cannot be well planned. Denouncing oppression is not enough; it is necessary to find concrete actions that improve people’s lives.

Some goals are not immediately possible but can be achieved in a medium or long term. Yet there are good and desirable goals that are impossible to achieve, even over the long term, because of the human condition or the limits of material reality. For instance, it is not possible to create a device without energy consumption, nor a social system without any kind of laws or hierarchy of functions within it.

At the beginning of LALT, the main goal was to display how the God of the Bible chooses the poor and oppressed, in order to analyse the causes of increased poverty but also to interpret the signs of the presence of the Spirit of God within struggles for a better life for all. These liberation struggles presuppose a utopian horizon of a world freed from oppression, one that gives meaning to concrete struggles, although it must be recognized that such horizon of full realization of the kingdom of God lacks the concrete objectives to build an alternative society.

Imagining a liberated world involves speaking about qualitative relations and the things people don’t want, but often involves little about the process of production and fair distribution of material and symbolic goods required for every person’s life. Yet without economic production, one cannot live.

Gradually, various LALT thinkers assumed the thesis that in broad and complex societies it is not possible to organize the economy without mercantile relations of purchase and exchange, that is, without the market. Therefore, Hinkelammert, Assmann, Sung, and others explicitly stated that the critique of idolatry of the market, the process of absolutizing the market in society, cannot mean an absolute critique of the market. The market is an ambiguous social system, yet necessary in a broad society.

Inasmuch as the capitalist market tends to concentrate wealth and excludes the poor from social life, the challenge is to regulate and control these market tendencies. This means fighting concretely for social goals that safeguard the rights of the poor to live and work in dignity. Thus, this struggle takes place within the relationship between market, state, and civil society, a space in which disputes over social-ethical values that guide society take place.

6.2 The complexity of struggles and theories

The ethical outrage that began LALT’s entire process always had as its starting point the encounter with the poor. That is, poverty as a concept is not the focus, but rather the lives of people who suffer. Moreover, people are embodied, marked by colour, gender, sexuality, economic deprivation, ethnic differences, etc. The complexity of concrete people’s lives and social relations, a world marked by economic globalization and cultural and religious pluralism, also appears in the diversity of social struggles, such as those of LGBTQ+, Black, and Indigenous people, women, and, of course, the poor. This makes it much more difficult for liberation theologies to elaborate reflections all over the world.

Over time, the theological principles and methodology of LALT were applied in these various fields of struggle and, at the same time, the weakening of this theological current from the 2000s onwards could be seen. The result was a broadening of the topics discussed and a reduction in the depth of its theological productions. Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge that there are theological reflections in Latin America that deal with the issue of oppression against women or ethnic-racial domination and that, explicitly or implicitly, are not from LALT. This is a good thing, as it is through difference and dialogue, sharing the same cause and the same faith regardless of confessional differences, that LALT can contribute with reflections on the complex struggles for the liberation of the oppressed.

Consider, as an example, South Africa’s struggle for the end of apartheid. After the abolishment of the apartheid legal system, celebrated as a liberation by all who fought against it, and following the efforts for dialogue and reconciliation in South Africa, apartheid’s legacy in society’s subconscious and in people’s minds still lingers on (see also Theology in Africa).

Legal-political changes have a different timespan from cultural and psychosocial transformations. One cannot evaluate the achievements and efforts of movements, groups, or churches with a static ‘ruler’ without taking into consideration the different types of struggles and specific goals.

The demise of racism’s legal segregation does not mean the end of racism as a cultural fact in South Africa, nor in other countries of the world. However, this political-legal release opened the space for a new discussion, that of the social segregation between the rich and the poor. More recently, the issue is no longer the legal separation between whites and non-whites but a social separation between the rich – white and non-white – on one side, and the destitute who lack access to the goods required to live on the other. With globalization and the implementation of neoliberal economic policies, this socio-economic partitioning takes on other colours and demands a new form of liberation theology in South Africa and elsewhere.

The concrete struggles for liberating the poor and all groups submitted to unjust and oppressive relations can be thought of and interpreted theologically within the utopian horizon of the kingdom of God in plenitude. This horizon provides the meaning of the struggles, but is not a concrete goal or objective. Concrete struggles require goals, strategies, and necessary means. Defining which goals to achieve will decide what kind of theories and strategies are possible. If, for example, one considers the struggles of poor women’s groups in a racist society, one must articulate theories capable of dealing with the interlocking (or ‘intersectional’) problems of neoliberal capitalism, patriarchalism, and racism.

Choosing one or a set of theories does not define goals but offers possible paths. Deciding on the possible goals and strategies is a matter for the group. Such examples indicate the complexity of relations between specific concrete practices and the variety of theoretical approaches that appear within the three moments or aspects of LALT – the socioanalytic, hermeneutic, and practical mediations.

7 Conclusions

After more than fifty years, how can one summarize or define LALT? It is, above all, a theology that wishes to follow the path of Jesus and to reflect on the experience of a community moved ‘by the Spirit and guided by the announcement of the Good News: The Lord is risen. Death and injustice are not the final word in history’ (Gutiérrez 1987: 13). Therefore, its theological identity is not in some particular set of theories but in its option for the poor and victims of history, and its method.

As long as there are poor and wronged people in the world, and those who feel impelled by a spiritual experience of ethical outrage, there will be those struggling and feeling the need for appropriate theological reflections. Moreover, theologians who learn, produce, and dialogue with the LALT tradition can be helpful on this path of affirming the life and human dignity of all, especially the poor and victims. By doing so, they can testify that the kingdom of God is among believers (Luke 17:21), within a history marked by injustice and struggles for liberation.


Copyright Jung Mo Sung ORCID logo (CC BY-NC)

Where translations of quotes into English are otherwise unattributed, translation has been provided by this article’s author.


  • Further reading

    • Dussel, Enrique D. 2003. Beyond Philosophy: Ethics and History, Marxism and Liberation Theology. Edited by Eduardo Mendieta. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
    • Gutiérrez, Gustavo. 1973. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation. Edited and translated by Caridad Inda and John Eagleson. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
    • Gutiérrez, Gustavo, and Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Muller. 2015. On the Side of the Poor: The Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
    • Löwy, Michael. 1996. The War of Gods: Religion and Politics in Latin America. London: Verso.
    • Miguez, Néstor, Joerg Rieger, and Jung Mo Sung. 2009. Beyond the Spirit of Empire: Theology and Politics in a New Key. London: SCM Press.
    • Segundo, Juan Luiz. 1993. Signs of the Times: Theological Reflections. Edited by Alfred T. Hennelly. Maryknoll: Orbis Book.
    • Sobrino, Jon. 1994. The Principle of Mercy: Taking the Crucified People from the Cross. Maryknoll: Orbis Book.
    • Sung, Jung Mo. 2007. Desire, Market and Religion. London: SCM Press.
    • Támez, Elsa. 2000. When the Horizons Close: Rereading Ecclesiastes. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
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    • Assmann, Hugo. 1991. ‘The Strange Imputation of Violence to Liberation Theology (Conference on Religion and Violence, New York, Oct. 12–15 1989)’, Terrorism and Political Violence 3, no. 4: 80–99.
    • Assmann, Hugo, and Franz Hinkelammert. 1989. A idolatria do mercado: Um ensaio sobre economia e Teologia (The idolatry of the market: An essay on economics and theology). Petrópolis: Vozes.
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