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 arc 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 value1 of the poor to God in particular.1 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 iy8o, 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/ The extent of poverty in any developing country is the result of two factors: the average level of income in the country as a whole, which may zi8

be quite low; and the gap between the rich and poor within that country. The former factor depends, broadly, upon the level of industrialisation and the relationship with richer countries; it reflects a long-term historical process, the consequence of both the colonial heritage and the style of development pursued since independence. Shorter-term economic factors such as debt repayment, export prices and macroeconomic policy can also be critical in determining average per capita income. The latter factor depends on institutional factors such as the pattern of ownership, asset yields, labour skills, unemployment, wage levels, taxation and social security provision which determine income distribution within the country. The wide differences between poverty levels in different Latin American countries, and the fact that income distribution is so much worse there than in Africa or Asia, show that this poverty is not inevitable and is largely the outcome of specific institutional structures.

The point of departure for the economics of liberation theology is thus a situation where the historical pattern of economic development and the present plight of the poor in Latin America - particularly the 'marginalisation5 of half or more of the population in insecure, unskilled and poorly paid jobs - is clearly the result of cumulative decisions over many generations by powerful elites responsible for both public administration and private enterprise,3

The economic dimension of liberation theology

In liberation theology, the anticipated economic order of Christian Utopia (that is, the Kingdom) is not just derived from a prophetic vision. This Utopia is firmly anchored in a historical reality - that of Latin America in this case - and is to be based on a 'civilisation of poverty' which is to replace the current 'civilisation of wealth',4 The ethical origins of this view are clearly biblical, but in modern times would correspond to a 'civilisation of labour5 as opposed to the present 'civilisation of capital'- Capitalist civilisation has created a modern world quite different from that of Ancient Palestine, but the productive benefits of the civilisation of wealth have been accompanied by increasing social evil.

Liberation theologians are quite clear that the Kingdom belongs to the poor (Luke 6.zo) and the rich as such have no part in it (Luke 6.24 et seq,\ Luke 16.19-31; Mark 10.2,3-5)5 because money is an idol which becomes an absolute value: we cannot serve God and Mammon (Matt. 6.24) -private property is by definition exclusive* However, Jesus does not idealise the poor, because poverty is the consequence of the sin of exclusive possession. Rather, his aim is for abundance for everyone - expressed symbolically by the banquet of the Kingdom - so that this can be possible. He teaches us to abandon the goods of this earth (Matt. 6.25-33) and invites us to share what we have with the poor (Luke 12,14 et seqJ).

In contrast, the present civilisation of wealth is seen to be based upon the private accumulation of capital by individuals and firms with the support of the capitalist state, in the search for ever greater personal wealth and corporate power, Liberation theologians recognise that this historical process has brought beneficial technical progress, but argue that these benefits have not been put at the disposal of society as a whole, and that they have been achieved at the cost of massive human and environmental destruction. To an extent, therefore, liberation theology can be seen as a positive extension of the Roman Catholic tradition 111 encyclicals such as Laborem Exercens. But it also constitutes a radical departure insofar as an idealist solution to the material problems of humanity is firmly rejected. What is needed is not just the correction of the errors of capitalism but rather its replacement by the civilisation of poverty, Jesus insisted that wealth must be replaced by poverty in order to enter the Kingdom.

In common with the long tradition of Latin American dependency theory/ libc ration theologians regard the relationship between the rich countries of the 'North' and the poor countries of the 'South5 - home to three quarters of humanity - as profoundly unjust. They regard the modern world economy as intrinsically involving increased poverty and cultural domination, arising from unequal exchange in international trade {cheap primary products from mines and farms exported to pay for expensive machinery imports) and the dominance of multinational corporations {based in the US, Europe and Japan) over investment, employment and cultural decisions in poor countries. The technical advances of the North are recognised as valuable in themselves, and a return to the pre-colonial isolation of the South is recognised to be neither possible nor desirable. This unequal relationship was explicitly criticised, of course, by Vatican II in Gaudium et Spesy underlined in Populorum Progressio and repeated subsequently in Sollicitudo Ret Socialis* Liberation theology goes beyond this critique to denounce 'prophetically' the dependency of poor on rich countries as a real obstacle to the Kingdom.

The most dramatic example of this dependency is the Latin American foreign debt situation, which reached its height in the 1980s and thus became part of theological praxis, involving national political leaders and international agencies as well as the poor themselves. Liberation theologians consider that this debt was contracted under conditions of complicity between the rich and governments, and not used to help the poor. None the less, the burden of repayment (both the taxes required to service the debt owed to banks, and the cuts in social expenditure demanded by the international financial institutions) falls almost entirely on the poor - thereby contradicting one of the basic principles of Christian faith,

'Humanist materialism' as opposed to 'economic materialism' is to be the ethical foundation of the Christian civilisation of poverty which will make the universal satisfaction of the basic needs of ordinary people and growing solidarity between them its central aims- The civilisation of poverty is thus counterposed against the civilisation of wealth not as a form of 'universal pauperisation1, but rather as a manifestation of the gospel tradition - a tradition firmly rooted in Jesus' own teaching and continued by the Christian saints, Moreover, poverty in this sense is traditionally required of institutions (particularly the Church itself) as well as of individuals. The dialectic between poverty and wealth defines our world as sinful, and can only be overcome salvifically.

According to the liberation theologians, the construction of this new civilisation is to be initiated in our own time by an economic order based on the satisfaction of 'basic needs' as a fundamental human right. If the basic needs of ordinary people are not met, then whatever the legal and political institutions there is no real respect for human dignity and world peace is endangered. Allowing for cultural differences, the nature of these basic needs does not admit of much debate in practice: the minimum requirements of nutrition, health, education, housing and employment are self-evident to the poor. The satisfaction of these basic needs is thus the necessary condition for any model of true economic development based on human dignity, and thus must be achieved as a right and not as charity ('crumbs from the rich man's table1). Once these basic needs are satisfied institutionally in the first stage of the process of liberation, humanity is free to become what it wants to be - so long as what it desires does not become a new mechanism of domination.

The theological notion of the civilisation of poverty proposes as a dynamic principle the 'dignification' of labour in explicit contrast to the accumulation of capital. The aim of work would no longer be the production of private wealth (as it is under capitalism) but rather the perfection of humanity, individually and collectively, as the basis of a new society. The Christian response to the civilisation of wealth thus cannot be to abandon the world and reject it in prophetic protest, but rather to enter this world in order to renew it and transform it - the long-run objective being the Utopia of the "new land'. Progress is made in this direction in our own time (*on earth') to the extent that one of the fundamental characteristics of the civilisation of poverty is strengthened - that is, shared solidarity in contrast to the closed and competitive individualism of the civilisation of

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