Liberation Theology and Globalization (Part 1)

Economic theology, or the place where economics and theology collide, is a favorite topic of mine. It is sometimes cumbersome, as it is an odd mix of subjects. This is an essay from 2005 that seems like it fits the times in so many ways. I may edit it as time permits, but offer it up for your thoughts.


One of the primary characteristics of liberation theology is contextuality – the manner in which each specifically incorporates or combats the traditions, experiences, myths, histories and, of course, resulting worldviews of the populations for whom it is developed. Without the specificity of each theology to its beneficiaries, it would remain as foreign as the colonial or imperial theology whose cultural impact it is generally seeking to mitigate. The point of liberation theology is not simply to provide a theological framework within which each population could find its own liberating thought and belief, although undoubtedly a critical first step, but also to free them from the rampant marginalization, oppression and poverty under which they continue to live. Being held captive by dominant powers is considered to be contrary to the will of God[1], and liberation theology is gaining regional importance and social significance in fighting the oppression suffered in the “2/3 World”, especially in naming economic globalization as an ongoing means of domination. Meanwhile, mainline churches in Europe and the U.S., long-term proponents of the theologies accused of being colonial and imperial, are facing continued decline in social relevance. So far, the solution to this deterioration has widely been to further adopt the practices, ethics and motivations of dominant, secular cultures, which includes, at least, tacit support for globalization. This essay seeks to examine possible mutual benefits in broadening the dialogue between mainline Christianity and liberation theologies, and is aimed at encouraging “First World” church participation in that dialogue.

The continued impoverishment of populations in the global economy is a contemporary, ongoing phenomenon that, while being continuous with and having roots in historical events, results primarily from the contemporary desires of dominant cultures. Since the global economy is operated by, and for the benefit of, “First World” nations, is it necessary that a universal, or “globalized”, liberation theology dialogue with members of the dominant cultures in sufficient numbers that their cultures’ appetites for advantage can be assuaged, and does this dialogue present any benefits for the mainline churches that are floundering in the northern hemisphere? This question centers on the possibility that there exists a cause-effect relationship between the appetites of dominant cultures and subjugation. Substantial discussion of economics, and the theology of the dominant culture that drives globalization, will be necessary to qualify the question. This essay assumes the reader will have at least some basic understanding of the historical aspects of colonial and imperial periods as well as the proliferation of economic globalization in the post-Soviet period. It is necessary, however, to understand the arguments presented in the context of the author’s social location – that of a white, largely European, educated, male who has his feet planted firmly, although uncomfortably, within the dominant U.S. culture.

While considered by many economists to be ambivalent with regard to its effects on the “2/3 World”, liberation theologians and many ethicists consider economic globalization’s effects to be detrimental. James Childs eloquently sums up the thoughts of many when he describes the problem with globalization to be its expectation that economy will generate global community, rather than directing attention to building a global community that can then shape a global economy.[2] While specifically about Africa, Leon Spencer’s remarks can be widely applied to U.S. policy towards the “2/3 World” generally, when he said:

“The real problem is American [sic] insistence that African nations apply an economic perspective that within the U.S. is characterized by a striking absence of discussion about the common good.”[3]

A focus on the common good, or ethical dialogue, presupposes at least as high a level of importance, if not greater, be given to the benefits of society and people than to profits. With regard to economy, this is a primary focus of virtually all liberation theologies – economic justice. Economy, and economic justice, is understood differently, however, in most “2/3 World” contexts, and this frames a significant part of the potential dialogue. Ujamaa, an African concept of community and politics, is not unique to that context and describes a common concept of most liberation theologies:

Ujamaa … was supposed to be the third way between capitalism and socialism, viz., a communal way of life based on the traditional African understanding of communality within the framework of the extended family. The extended family was still more extended to cover the whole nation.[4]

Economy, then, takes on a broader meaning. It is still a system of transactions, like the Western concept, but transactions are understood to mean more than those involving currency, commodities and materials and actually encompass all transactions and exchanges between peoples, communities and nations – social as well as material. Globalization, in reducing the significance of virtually all things to that of commodity, excludes social transactions, negates community and seeks integrated anonymity, as opposed to differentiated identities, for people and populations.  

It is a given that the world’s dominant cultures are largely defined by economic supremacy. Of the world’s top hundred economies in 1999, the last year readily available online for analysis, 51% are non-governmental transnational corporations (TNCs). Imagine 51 companies – each with economic systems bigger than those of three-quarters of the world’s nations. Combined, the top 200 TNCs made up 27.5% of the world’s economic activity (GNP) while employing only 0.78% of the world’s workforce.[5] Despite Charles Wilson’s declaration as CEO of General Motors that “what is good for General Motors is good for the country”[6], GM and a host of other TNCs fail even the most rudimentary test of good citizenship, payment of taxes. In the 1998 tax year, 44 of the US based top 200 TNCs paid well less than the normal 35% rate of tax on profits, and seven – GM, Texaco, Chevron, PepsiCo, Enron, Worldcom and McKesson – paid less than zero after receiving tax rebates.[7] This is significant because, next to employment, taxes are the most basic way in which companies participate in the social infrastructure. TNCs, as dominant cultures, thus have a history of minimizing both employment and financial support of society in relation to earnings.

Of the top 100 non-financial TNCs in 2003, 85 were based in Europe or North America. France, Germany and the United Kingdom are the most dominant European countries, with 15, 14 and 11 TNCs respectively. Switzerland, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy also serve as the base for another 13 TNCs. The United States, the most aggressive proponent of globalization, tops the list with 25, along with 57 of the second tier of 100 TNCs.[8] Controlling the movement of currency of the worldwide economy are the top 50 financial TNCs. Not surprisingly, this list looks very much like the non-financial list with Europe and the U.S. being home bases to 41 of the top 50. Again at the very top is the U.S. with 10. In both non-financial and financial listings, Japan is also well represented with 9 and 6 respectively.[9]

It is difficult to miss the relationship that exists between the countries that have the most significant number of TNCs and those that have been most involved in colonialism and imperialism – they are generally one and the same. Europeans have a long history of colonial activity – transplanting populations onto foreign soil – and this activity accelerated in the fifteenth century. Imperialism, best described as “the policy of extending a nation’s authority by territorial acquisition or by the establishment of economic and political hegemony over other nations”[10], has also been a longstanding practice of Europe and Japan. These activities are accepted traits that are considered integral to each country’s history, even if the population finds them somewhat embarrassing.

The bulk of the U.S. population, being of European descent, has shared histories with its countries of origin; histories that significantly affects its worldview and sense of identity. European colonialism was largely legitimated, and European population and culture theologically declared superior, with the 1493 edict of Pope Alexander VI regarding the Americas:

“Among all the works offered to the divine Majesty & most desired by our hearts, without doubt the most preferable is the exaltation of the Catholic faith & Christian religion which…seek the salvation of souls, the dismantling of barbarian nations & the subjugation of the same to our faith.”[11]

Of course, within this charter was also given the rights and privileges to own, and do commerce with, the resources and populations of the conquered indigenous nations in the name of, and for the enrichment of, the monarchy of Spain and the Holy See. Spain, however, was not the only Christian nation and certainly not the last to take literally this edict of divine right to supremacy. As the Papal Bull points out, dismantling nations or communities was critical. While the military accomplished this by breaking up communities, the clergy assaulted community by breaking down traditional indigenous theology and ritual. The U.S., not to be overlooked, not only invaded and colonized areas we now call states – Texas, Arizona, California, Hawaii and Alaska to name but a few – but also has engaged in imperial actions in lands possessed by native Americans, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and many South Pacific islands, many times aided and abetted by missionary involvement. The theological imperative to dominate is still alive and well. In the U.S.’s most recent war, the President has claimed a divine right to assert its power and protect its interests against the “Evil Empire”.[12]

To Be Continued here or return to Table of Contents


[1] Leonardo Boff & Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004), pp 7-9.

[2] James M. Childs Jr., Greed – Economics and Ethics in Conflict, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), p.85.

[3] Leon F. Spencer, “An Open Letter to the 105th U.S. Congress”, August 25, 1998, Washington Office on Africa website, <http://www.woaafrica.org/ol105congress.htm&gt;, accessed 9/15/2003.

[4] Mika Vähäkangas, “African Approaches to the Trinity”, African Theology Today Vol I, Emmanuel Katongole – editor, (Scranton, NJ: Univ of Scranton Press, 2002, pp. 72-73.

[5] Sarah Anderson and John Cavanagh, “Top 200: The Rise of Corporate Global Power”, Institute for Global Policies website, <http://www.ips-dc.org/reports/top200text.htm&gt;, accessed 12/03/2005.

[6] E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Joseph F. Kett, and James Trefil, Editors, The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. (Wilmington, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002)

[7] ibid, Anderson and Cavanagh.

[8] United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, “The World’s Top 100 Non-Financial TNCs, ranked by foreihn assets, 2003, 29/09/05”, UNCTAD – United Nations Conference on Trade and Development website, <http://www.unctad.org/sections/ dite_dir/docs/wir2005top100_en.pdf>, accessed 12/03/2005.

[9] United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, “The Top 50 Financial TNCS, ranked by assets, 2003, 29/09/05”, UNCTAD – United Nations Conference on Trade and Development website, <http://www.unctad.org/sections/dite_dir/docs/ wir2005top50_totalassets_en.pdf>, accessed 12/03/2005.

[10] The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. 

[11] Pope Alexander VI, The Bull Inter Caetera, May 4, 1493, “Resources for Indigenous Cultures around the World”, Native Web homepage, <http://www.nativeweb.org/pages/legal/indig-inter-caetera.html&gt;, accessed 12/5/02.

[12] Rupert Cornwall, “Bush: God told me to invade Iraq”, The Independent Online, http://news.independent.co.uk/world/americas/ article317805.ece, accessed 12/02/2005.


2 Responses to “Liberation Theology and Globalization (Part 1)”

  1. 1 Mark
    October 18, 2009 at 10:44 PM

    Thank you so much for the article. I am teaching theology here in our country and it is really helpful to read your ideas on globalization.

  2. 2 Seref Og
    August 2, 2014 at 5:41 AM

    Evil empire… hummm… conragulations for the excellent work Andy… though I love the article I still have to make a comment on the fact that; yes, all religions offer something meaningfull to their followers, but none accepts each others existence or opinion.. to the comfort of living in a prejudice… in my opinion, they can be meaningful and taken serious only when they understand and unify their good deeds… only then they excel to a divine level… otherwise man continues to live within his cell no matter in which religion he believes.

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... or, preaching from both ends


That's too bad - I'm so sorry. Oh, well, just try to make the best of it. What you'll find here is a variety of essays and ramblings to do with things theological, social, whimsical and, sometimes, all three. I don't write to get famous - trust me, I've been told how futile that would be - but to express myself. I love to communicate and browbeat - ummm, I mean dialogue - about the things I find intriguing. Since you're here, and the door's locked, why don't you stay a while. There's a page bar under the header with links to information about us - I mean me. Don't forget to tell me what you think - in a nice way, I mean.

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