Liberation Theology and Globalization – Part 4

Continued from here or go to Table of Contents.


The dominant U.S. theology of entitlement seems to conflict with not only liberation theologies, but most theologies that include political and social action as essential tenets. Such European notables in political theology as Jurgen Moltmann, Johannes Baptist Metz, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were joined by Reinhold Niebuhr and John Howard Yoder of the U.S. In his 1972 book The Politics of Jesus, Yoder detailed the biblical evidence which justified his belief, “Jesus is, according to the biblical witness, a model of radical political action …”[1] Disturbed by theological thought that separated Jesus from the political sphere, he attempted to prove that faithful Christian disciples should adopt Jesus’ political approach.

Niebuhr, a Christian realist, would not have agreed with Yoder on many issues, but did also understood Jesus as a figure espousing political involvement and a Christian social ethic. Both Niebuhr and Yoder, as with so many others, articulated that salvation and the Reign of God have significance not just in the next life, but in the here and now.[2] Politically active Christianity, then, is not a foreign concept for the U.S. church.

Activity in political and social struggles is largely limited, however, to members of the polar ends of the religious spectrum. Besides the numbing effect of comfort and security discussed earlier, mainline preachers’ preoccupation with salvation as “everlasting life” in a distant Kingdom of Heaven may be at fault. Interestingly, this next-worldly utopian focus was a primary tool in keeping subjugated populations under control. The argument went that acquiescence or resignation to suffering in this world would be rewarded in the next. [3]  That same argument seems to be working quite effectively on the U.S. population today. The “personal relationship with Jesus” component of conservative theology has become the “personal salvation” motif of the mainline church, luring congregations into a deep, self-centered sleep that blinds them to the realities around them.

Generally, both liberation and political theologians understand the coming Reign differently. The Reign exists in two planes – the vertical orientation of divine filiation, and the horizontal of reconciliation between humans – with both equally important. According to Jon Sobrino, “the mere verbal proclamation of God without action to achieve [God’s] reign is not enough, and orthopraxis must take priority over orthodoxy.”[4] The Reign is relational, active and salvific in this world, not just the next. This particular message of liberation theology may be its most salable point to the silent majority of the U.S. Equating the conditions of the average U.S. resident to those of the “2/3 World” may be considered grotesque, but what is needed is being able to construct some corollary between the particular contexts of each. In the face of deteriorating, but still widespread, comfort and security, as well as possession of a ‘personal God’, the dominant cultures’ populations need to recognize their own risks from globalization. “There, but for the grace of God, go I”, may take on new meaning as “First World” populations risk succumbing to the effects of globalized business.

A likely prognosis for globalization is that people will increasingly be viewed as resources – labor will become more and more a commodity to be used for the benefit of the economically powerful as TNCs recognize less need to be loyal to particular populations. With the availability of a global supply of cheap labor to fill the decreasing number of job openings required to generate profits, the populations of the dominant nations run the risk of seeing an erosion of income and welfare. Between the years 1999 and 2004 the average U.S. family income decreased 8.8% and all segments of the U.S. population, except the top 15%, experienced increased poverty and/or decreased earnings.[5] Along with the income trend is the reduction of benefits of many U.S. workers, a pattern that is, as yet, difficult to quantify. The reliance of U.S. companies on U.S. labor is significantly decreasing. While various sources, such as Bureau of Labor Statistics and Business Week, are citing growth in both high and low paying jobs, they also report that the high paying jobs require considerable re-education as they are in areas like healthcare and computer industries.[6] The segment seeing the most significant decline is medium and high-medium paying positions, with many workers formerly in this category accepting lower paying jobs or experiencing long-term unemployment.[7] The benefits of economic power for the populations of the dominant nations may be in decline along with their understandings of identity and security – in short, long-term they may be facing dehumanization from globalization.

While fear of marginalization and decreased living standards may not be the most noble of reasons to begin to equate with the world’s poor, they are, none-the-less, reasons. The parable of sheep and goats in Matthew 25, does seem to indicate that caring for the poor, sick, etc. is, after all, in our own best interests. The U.S. mainline church, the entity that ideologically may be best suited to proclaim an anti-cultural liberating gospel to this nation, is instead lining itself up for hospice or, worse yet, for full compliance with the dominant culture. In so doing, it is abdicating its duty to God and the Gospel to proclaim freedom to the prisoner, comfort to the poor, sight for the blind and care for the widows, orphans and oppressed populations. Simultaneous with the church’s loss of integrity, it is also losing members at an alarming rate, largely because it fails to help many parishioners find a true identity and meaning in their lives. Seminarians studying U.S. church growth programs in response to the institutional church’s decline in relevancy and importance concluded:

The church’s adoption of business ethics and behavior could not be timed more poorly.  Those in their mid-forties and fifties are most likely to be entrenched in business-life, familiar with all of the practices and philosophies that have given rise to major decreases in labor loyalty and general attitudes about the morality of business behavior.  They are already facing the contradictions present between consumerism and living a life of meaning, and are finding the same situations reflected in church life.  Rather than finding a worshipping institution that reflects a better view of the world, people seem to be finding one that simply reflects the world back to them.  If the church is simply an “Enron in robes,” no wonder people reject it as a place to experience transformation![8]

Liberation theologies, as contextual as they are, take an important stand in contrast to the “theology of entitlement” – they each hold up liberation for all people as a central precept. In contrast to the dominant theology, which is alienating of the other, abusive of the economic might it wields and elusive in regard to the essential Christian mandate to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mat 22:39)[9], liberation theologies are inclusive, more egalitarian and ring truer to the gospel of God’s love practiced and preached by Christ.[10] There is integrity in liberation theologies that the mainline churches have forgone. While mainline theology and globalization continue to elevate elite individuals and commoditize the masses, liberation theologies inculturate Christian theology, contextualize praxis and help followers to find a differentiated sense of belonging.[11] Virgilio Elizondo predicted,

“It is the Christian poor of today’s world that will bring salvation to the Christians of the rich nations or the world, who because of the material wealth of their own nations are too blind to see the truth of the gospel.”[12]

Dominant culture, of course, initially reels at the thought of learning from the “other”; after all it is dominant for a reason. But for all their supposed superiority, U.S. and European cultures alike are afraid. The population is afraid of becoming insignificant and losing privilege; the church is afraid of dwindling away to nothing or, worse yet, becoming thoroughly meaningless in a society of agnostics; business is afraid of losing its hegemony. The governments, as well as the theological Right, prey on this fear. The War on Terror is sold as protection for the interests and safety of the Western population, while it is, in reality, defending the profits of TNCs. GLBT persons and supporters of abortion are hailed as the harbingers of doom for cultural structure and morals; China, just now becoming an economic power in their own right, is already rating paranoid declarations that it will soon eclipse the U.S. economy and bring more unemployment and poverty.[13] 

Liberation theologies, precisely because they have been developed for oppressed peoples, address fear in many ways. It, at first, seems ludicrous that those who have no significance, wealth or power have something that speaks to those who are afraid of losing those benefits. But the reality is that a vast majority of the “2/3 World” population has nothing left to lose. While being contextual to particular populations, liberation theologies are devoid of conservatism, in the sense of preserving status quo – there’s just not much to preserve. Instead, they are about seeking change, reclaiming significance, finding meaning, recreating community and ushering in the Reign of God’s justice, mercy and right relationship[14] where these things have not existed or been in short supply. Liberation theology begins and ends in courage to recognize and confront the realities of the day, and to seek hope in the face of adversity. Dominant cultures are in dire need of this courage.

Return to  Table of Contents


[1] John Howard Yoder, Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972. p.2

[2] Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Faith & the Kingdoms: The Politics of Niebuhr & Yoder.” Institute for Global Engagement website,[http://www.globalengagement.org/issues/2002/03/kingdoms.htm]. Accessed 27/03/04. (St. Davids, PA: The Institute for Global Engagement).* ¶8-9.

[3] Andrew Little, Marx on Religion and its Role in Oppression, unpublished, Methodist Theological School Ohio, 2002, p.2.

[4] Jon Sobrino, Christology at the Crossroads – A Latin American View. Translated by John Drury. (London: SCM Press, 1978). p.45.

[5] See footnote 10.

[6] Peter Coy, “Another Look at Those Job Numbers”, BusinessWeek online, July 26, 2004, <http://www.businessweek.com/ magazine/content/04_30/b3893044_mz011.htm?chan=ca>, accessed 12/06/05.

[7] Kimberly Blandon, “Losing ground – High-paying jobs shrink, lower-wage ones grow in state”, originally printed Sept 8, 2004 in the Boston Globe. Available online at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, <www.massbudget.org/article. php?id=258>, accessed 12/11/05.

[8] Kerry Wood, Andrew Little, et al., Growing Beyond Numbers – The Methodist Theological School in Ohio Project for Transforming Church Growth, seminar presented at Methodist Theological School in Ohio, May 23, 2003.

[9] T Richard Snyder, Once You Were No People – The Church and the Transformation of Society.  (Bloomington, IN: Meyer-Stone Books, 1988), p. 36.

[10] Boff, p.8.

[11] D.J. Louw, “The Merging of Globalization with the Notion of an African Renaissance: A Practical Theological and Pastoral Assessment”, African Theology Today Vol I, Emmanuel Katongole – editor, (Scranton, NJ: Univ of Scranton Press, 2002, p.233.

[12] Virgilio P. Elizondo, “Forward”, in Justo L. Gonzalez’s Manana – Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), p. 14.

[13] Washington Post, “Chinese Bid for Unocal Adds Fuel to the Fire”, Washington Post online, June 26, 2005. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/06/25/AR2005062500139.html&gt;

[14] dikaio,w (dikayo), is the root of the word translated “righteousness”. It is, however, a verb meaning “to do right to another”. Righteousness, then is better understood as living in right relationship with others.

1 Response to “Liberation Theology and Globalization – Part 4”

  1. 1 wilfred
    October 18, 2011 at 5:04 AM

    Its interesting to see that the church does not recognised it role in addressing issues relating to globalisation. a review on how the church defines mission in todays context is very much needed. Our approach is very much out of context and this has lead into our lack of understanding of our role as a church and way in which we can approach and respond to the negative effects of globalization…

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