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.