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  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online publication date: January 2008

12 - The economics of liberation theology

from Part III - Analysis and Criticism

Summary

Introduction

Economics - in the general sense of the critical study of production, distribution and consumption of wealth in human society - is a central theme of liberation theology. Although liberation theologians do not address the technical questions that constitute modern economic theory, they are concerned with the broader issues of the way in which economic organisation relates to the historical experience of humanity in general and to the 'infinite value' of the poor to God in particular. These issues of economic organisation and social justice are similar to the agenda of European political economy until the end of the last century, and still central to debates on sustainable development strategies in poor countries. But a concern for life itself as the criterion for judging economic institutions can be considered to be a specific contribution from liberation theology. Further, this theology is probably unique in being located within the broader context of debates in poor countries on the origins of underdevelopment and the condition of poverty - mainly but not exclusively in Latin America - which themselves have a major economic dimension. In consequence, the 'economics of liberation theology' has had a considerable impact beyond church structures, ranging from grassroots social movements throughout the developing world to influential non-governmental organisations in industrialised countries.

The persistence of poverty in Latin America is morally unacceptable by any standard. In 1980, after a period of rapid income growth before the debt crisis, and at the outset of the decade in which most liberation theology has been written, 40 per cent of the population of the region were officially classified as living in poverty, and nearly half of these in extreme poverty - that is with incomes insufficient to purchase the food required to meet the United Nations' minimum nutritional standard for a healthy life.