A New Liberation Theology?

A New Liberation Theology?

            Coming out of Brazil is a new liberation theology that is not revolutionary, utopian or even socialistic in the older senses. Its new prophet is Korean-Brazilian theologian Jung Mo Sung. He teaches at both a Methodist and a Catholic university in Sao Paulo. Although he writes in Portugese, some of his books are now being translated into English. One I am reading is Desire, Market and Religion in the Reclaiming Liberation Theology series published by SCM Press (2007). Sung is said to be associated intellectually with the DEI school of social analysis centered in Costa Rica.

            Here is a quote from Desire, Market and Religion. The difference from traditional liberation theology should be obvious (to those familiar with it):

To affirm the existence of the excluded, the fundamental dignity of them all, and to hear their clamour and to witness—with the visible presence of the Church in the midst of the poor in concrete struggles on their behalf—that God is among them, is the best way of denying the absolutizing of the market, of unveiling concretely and practically its limits. However, to deny the idolatry of the market and to show its limits is not to deny the market in an absolute way—that would be reverse idolatry. What we need is an adjustment of the market in line with the objective of a dignified and enjoyable life for all human beings. And, for that, the option for the poor, with all that it means, continues to be a privileged way for Church and Christians in their mission of witnessing their faith in the God who wishes “that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10.10)

            This is not your father’s liberation theology—or the liberation theology demonized by many of our fathers. And yet, Sung pulls no punches in his critique of the neoliberal ideology that is driven by Social Darwinism and results in “necessary sacrifices”—the subhuman existences of many for the sakes of the affluence of some.

            A while back I reviewed The Economy of Desire by Lutheran theologian Daniel M. Bell, Jr. (not to be confused with Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell who died in 2011). Sung’s critique of neoliberal capitalism, the ideological totalizing of the free market in economics, parallels Bell’s and vice versa. The basic argument of both is that contemporary world capitalism (not to be confused with private property and entrepreneurship in general) idolizes the free market and demonizes government interference (e.g., regulation via anti-monopoly laws and redistribution of wealth via taxes on profit, income and inheritance, etc.). This capitalism, which might better be called “corporatism” governmentalizes the free market by making governments its servants. No better example can be given than that provided by Bell. According to him, federal law in the U.S. now makes it illegal for a publicly held business to enact any policy that cannot be justified fiscally for the enhancement of profits. In other words, altruism is criminal.

            I think of this “governmentalizing” of the free market every time I see the caveat at the beginning of a rented DVD. It says that video piracy is not a victimless crime because it harms the economy. I think to myself (and have probably said out loud much to my wife’s chagrin) “How many actions by corporate boards and CEOs harm the economy and are yet legally protected by our government?” Derivatives, anyone? Bell’s point is that protecting the leviathan of the free market system is becoming to be the chief concern of many governments—certainly over individual freedom (in many cases).

            But the “new” in the new liberation theology is that Sung and certain other new generation liberation theologians do not demonize capitalism or advocate for socialism. Sung and others suggest mixed economies, ad hoc economies, not driven by ideology but by concern for the common good including the marginalized and excluded. This is what our own 20th century alterations to free market, laissez-faire capitalism aimed at, but they are being quickly dismantled by the priests of neoliberalism.

            What is the church’s role in present economics according to Sung and others like him? He says “Our spirituality must not only unmask the neoliberal ideology that cements the prevailing excluding system, but also must contribute to the formulation of new guidelines for the creation of new institutions and techniques.” (p. 98) And he continues by forbidding any idolizing of “human and historical possibilities”—including ones developed by liberationists.

            A while back I mentioned a good new book by my former student Joao Chaves—Evangelicals and Liberation Revisited (Wipf & Stock, 2013). Joao is the person who put me on to Jung Mo Sung. People who criticize and attack liberation theology as “communistic,” “Marxist,” “violent” and “heretical” need to read Joao and Sung and catch up with changes happening in Latin American liberation theology. That’s not to say I agree with their accusations and charges against the older liberation theology, but Sung and other new generation liberationists make clearer their freedom from such critiques.

            This is a pragmatic liberation theology willing to accept the reality of market-driven economics. What it is not willing to accept is the reality of poverty excused by neoliberals as “necessary sacrifice.”

            This is a major change in liberation theology. In the past, all liberation theologians were revolutionary in the sense of calling for radical change—transfer of power (not necessarily violence). That is to say, they would not be satisfied with reform in the system; they wanted revolution away from the current system to something else entirely. This raises the question: Is this still “liberation theology?” Or is it a Latin American form of “social gospel?” In any case, it is something observers of liberation theology need to be aware of.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/russ.slater Russ Slater

    Hi. I don’t know if I follow this new line of thot…. Is the new neo-liberation theology similar in policy to that here in America of doing everything in business and government as is necessary for the social “good” (however “good” is defined)? But with the drastic new exception that in its newest form of LT (liberation theology) the poor are sacrificed for the greater corporate good as a way of achieving economic freedom for all unempowered, unprivileged classes? Whereas in the US/Canada, we would rather not sacrifice our poor but sacrifice our affluent classes through regulation by establishing new social objectives that may affect our impoverished by adjusting society’s reach into education, social agency, insurance admission, medical help, safety/security, etc? In effect empowering the poor through recognizing their plight and establishing “inter-relational community blocs of self-empowerment? As versus, the Latin Americanized version of giving up and not doing anything?
    Hence, in Latin America the poor, rather than being lifted-up out of their plight, are being asked to be content in their cycle of impoverishment knowing that at some later date future generations of their impoverished social classes may be liberated to relatively higher social standards of living? In effect, if this is so than it seems that the new LT is a form of rescinded realism that has collapsed upon itself and has given up on being able to effectively help those distressed lower classes. Whether because of the immenseness of the problem, or the general lack of antipathy in believing anything can be done that is lasting and productive. What say you? Thanks.

    • Roger Olson

      I’m quite sure no liberation theologian, new or old, would admit wanting to “sacrifice” the poor in any way, shape or form. However, some of the older, more radical liberationists might see the new, more pragmatic approach, as that. I’d love to listen in to a discussion between, say, Gutierrez and Sung to see how it would go.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Your DVD illustration may be more relevant to the bigger points of you post than it appears at first glance. Pirated DVD’s and CD’s are as common as corn in the southlands. The vast majority of those who purchase them could not possibly pay full price (unless they stop eating) so there is no chance of a “sale” in the sense meant by those who fear the economic impact. Their point, at least as it involves millions of very poor folk, is a straw man.

    It’s great to hear that liberation theology seems to be getting a face lift and perhaps a new life. Over the next decades, the majority world will likely make huge gains in influence and a solid Christian theology will be an essential ingredient if anything even resembling a peaceful challenge to the more gross forms of neo-liberal excesses is to be mounted.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Roger,

    I believe that Sung’s approach is an improvement over yesterday’s Liberationists. However, when you pose the question to Sung about the Church’s proposed role in economics, it is better focused about the Church’s role in government (as in “how to direct.the economics of a people”).
    I am heartened by his trepidation in calling for violent revolution, but saddened that his approach is heavy on government coercion and light on individual freedom.
    Tim

  • tony springer

    Thanks Roger for the alert to the new ideas on liberation theology. Neoliberalism is a good academic term in connecting it to its classical forerunner, but runs into trouble in our common culture because many conservative movements have adopted it as its major economic theory. I do not think that many Republicans would want any form of the word “liberal” connected to it. Not good for branding purposes. :)

    • Roger Olson

      True. The technical language gets very tricky. Technically, philosophically, “neo-liberalism” (or just “neoliberalism”) is conservative by most people’s standards and language usage.


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