Environment and situation

In order to understand liberation theology fully you need to know about the environment and situation in which is occurred.  The OCR DCT AS syllabus specifies that you need to know about the different types of poverty and oppression, the link between land and wealth and ideas the relevance of Marx' concepts of alienation and exploitation.


Liberation theology is a contextual theology arising out of the specific situation in Latin America.  The history of the land and the realities of the environment in which the people existed was closely associated with their experience of poverty.

Before we look specifically at the relevance of the land and its relation to wealth we need to first briefly consider the question of poverty.  What is it and what causes it?


Types of poverty:

Poverty obviously means being poor, but it is not quite that simple.  In economic terms there is a difference between absolute poverty (lacking the basic necessities of life) and relative poverty (poor in relation to the rest of your society).  

To complicate matters further, poverty is not purely economic.  In 1995 the United Nations distinguished between two types of poverty

  • Absolute poverty: 'a condition characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to services.'
  • Overall poverty: 'lack of income and productive resources to ensure sustainable livelihoods; hunger and malnutrition; ill health; limited or lack of access to education and other basic services; increased morbidity and mortality from illness; homelessness and inadequate housing; unsafe environments and social discrimination and exclusion. It is also characterised by lack of participation in decision making and in civil, social and cultural life.' 

Although the definition of overall poverty post-dates liberation theology it is relevant for considering what is meant by 'the poor' in this context.  The poor were not only those economically lacking, but those who did not have a voice politically.  These are the 'underside of history' of which liberation theologians speak.  When liberation theology advocates a preferential option for the poor it is siding with all marginalised people.


At the bishops' conference at Medellin in 1968 the Latin American bishops set out three types of poverty.

  • Material poverty
  • Spiritual poverty
  • Poverty as commitment

Material poverty (lacking necessities) is the thing that liberation theologians were trying to end.  They argued that God created the world for everyone and therefore God does not want anyone to be poor.  Material poverty is against God's will.

Spiritual poverty is very different.  To be spiritually poor is to be open to God in a humble and unpretentious manner.  This is what is meant when the Bible upholds poverty as a praiseworthy thing.

Poverty as commitment is the deliberate poverty that the Church should embrace. If the Church is truly to minister effectively to the poor then it should do so in solidarity with them.  It should not be part of the rich elite.

Causes of poverty:

In order to address the problem of material poverty one must first understand what causes it.  There are different ways to account for poverty.

  • The empirical view sees poverty as just a fact of life.  Some people are poor because they are unfortunate.  People who view poverty in this way will see charity - short term aid - as the solution to the problem.
  • The functional view holds that poverty results from backwardness.  The solution would then be development.  People who accept that poverty is caused by backwardness favour long term aid in the form of education and technology.
  • The dialectical view of poverty is that poverty is caused by oppression. People are poor because they are oppressed and exploited and this keeps them poor.  If this is the cause of poverty then the first step of ending poverty is to end oppression. 

Liberation theologians hold a dialectical view of poverty.  This means that they think that in order to end poverty they must end the oppression and exploitation that causes it.

Types of oppression:

Just as there are different types of poverty, there are also different types of oppression.  People can be oppressed by repressive governments and regimes that create oppressive laws which limit what people can and cannot do. People can also be oppressed by the economic circumstances which limit their choices.  They can be oppressed by ideas which trap them into a certain way of existing (this links to Marx's concept of 'false consciousness').

Gustavo Gutierrez recognised these different types of oppression.  He said that people needed to be liberated in three ways:

  1. Political and Social Liberation = removing the causes of poverty and in justice.
  2. Human liberation and emancipation = restoring the dignity of the poor and freeing people from the oppression caused by their own alienation.
  3. Liberation from selfishness and sin = restoring relationships with God.  

The first of these is done by actively engaging with political and social concerns through orthopraxis and is a significant part of the work of the CEBs.

The second is achieved by showing solidarity with the poor, reminding them that they are valued in God's eyes and doing theology from their perspective.  

The final type of liberation is done by opposing sin in all its forms both personal and structural.

Oppression in Latin America:

Within Latin America in the mid-twentieth century the poor were oppressed by their economic situation.  Before the agrarian reforms many people lived as tenants on large hacienda.  They were essentially owned by the land owner who both paid their wage and sold them the produce that they bought.They were also oppressed politically.  Military rule in Argentina in the 1970s involved repression of any opposition (vocal political opponents often 'disappeared' never to be seen again).  Decades of oppression caused people to feel that their was little point in hoping for change or striving for something better.  Discrimination (both racism and sexism) contributed to alienating people from the human nature and lowering their expectations and sense of self-worth.

Liberation theology endeavored to engage with all these types of oppression to enable the poor to improve their situation and overcome alienation and exploitation.

A significant factor in many of the types of oppression faced in Latin America was the relationship between land and wealth.

Land and wealth:

There are three ways in which land was important to liberation theology.

  • The history of the struggles over land ownership from the conquistadors to the land reforms of the twentieth century.
  • The link between land ownership and exploitation.
  • The theological significance of land.

History of the land:

The history of Christianity in Latin America is a history of struggle over land. When the conquistadors arrived in Latin America they came seeking new lands. The cultures that already existed (the Incas and the Mayans) had their land stolen by the conquistadors who forced the indigenous people out to live in the poorest areas.

These indigenous people rarely fared any better after the Latin American countries gained independence from Europe.  Those who had political power and those who had land tended to be those descended from the European invaders. 

At the turn of the twentieth century the land in America was divided very unequally and in many instances the economics of the land use resembled the medieval feudal system in Europe with big land owners owning vast estates worked by the peasantry. In the years that followed, many Latin American countries underwent land reforms. The exact form these land reforms took varied from country to country.

Land and exploitation:

The issue of land use is closely related to the issue of exploitation.  According to a Marxist analysis of poverty, those who own the means of production and employ others as workers exploit them (remember wage labour is intrinsically exploitative).  (See Marxism notes).  The only reason why a person would choose to work for someone else and put themselves in a position to be exploited is because they do not have the option of being self-employed and working for themselves.  

  • If a person has land then they have the option to farm that land to feed themselves.  They can build their own home and live on their own land. 
  • If they do not have land then they would have to work for someone else and rent a place to live.  

Thus there is a link between land and power, and between landlessness and oppression.  Marx opposed private ownership and the question of whether land can be owned is one explored by those influenced by his ideas.

Who owns the land?

Consider how people gain land.  Generally they either buy it or inherit it.  If they buy it then they are buying it from someone who had previously bought or inherited it. If we follow the chain back in time we would see a succession of people buying land from others.  However, at some point we would get to a point where someone just claimed land.  They staked claim over something that had previously been used by everyone.  Perhaps they put a fence around it and a big 'keep out' notice. Perhaps they chased away anyone else who tried to use it.  Perhaps they stuck a flag in it and said 'I claim it for king and country'.  The point is that it is hard to see how they would have had any legitimate claim over it. That means that when eventually they sell it or die and bequeath it to someone they are passing on something that they do not have a legitimate claim to.

Arguably, all private ownership of land is the moral equivilent of receiving stolen goods.

There is a man in America called Dennis Hope.  In 1980 Dennis Hope claimed the moon and has been selling off individual plots of land on it ever since.  Can he do that?  Isn't the moon ours to share?  How is the Earth any different?

In the Latin American situation the land was divided up into large estates (hacienda) that were worked by the peasants.  In return for working on the hacienda the peasants would be allowed a small plot of land which they could cultivate for themselves. This system of agriculture allowed the landowners to get rich at the expense of the peasants. 

The origin of these hacienda dates back to the time of the Conquistadors when the kings of Spain and Portugal granted large regions of land to individual conquistadors.  With the land came the peasantry working on it.  This meant that the peasants were living on land that was not there own and owed the hacienda owner rent in the form of work.  Many of the peasants existed as subsistence farmers and did not really participate in the economics of Latin America.

When President Kennedy proposed a hemispheric Alliance for Progress to spur economic development and raise living standards in Latin America, he endorsed agrarian reform as a basic part of this effort.


The large estates which for four to five centuries have monopolized so much of Latin American agriculture were created by the Iberian conquerors, who either enslaved the Indians to work the land for them or brought in Africans to take their place. Today, the remnants of these great landed estates (latifundia) hamper the whole continent's economic, social and political development.


 In defiance of the spirit of the age, they keep a large part of the population in a state of semi-serfdom or semi-slavery. So long as the vast social chasms which they create continue to exist, democracy will be exceedingly difficult to realize.


Even relatively advanced nations are faced with the need for agrarian reform. In Brazil, large landholdings and antiquated methods of production keep an estimated 40 million of the country's 70 million people out of the market, with incomes so small that they buy virtually nothing. For the nearly 25 million peasants of northeastern Brazil, the situation is particularly acute. There the remnants of the slave system are especially marked, and the poverty is aggravated by recurring droughts which reduce even further the miserably low standard of living.

Robert J Alexander Agrarian Reform in Latin America (published in Foreign Affairs)

As the twentieth century progressed, and population increased, large numbers of peasants left the towns for the cities in the hope of a better life.  However, this lead to overcrowding in the towns and the development of large slums (favelas) on the outskirts of the towns.  Usually these slums had very poor infrastuctructure.  Many lacked effective sanitation and had open sewers running down the streets.  This, combined with poor health care provision meant that their was a high mortality rate.

Scott Mainwaring's article on Nova Iguacu charted the rapid expansion of the population from 145,649 in 1950 to 1,094,805 in the 1970s.  He said

'The expansion of the social services lagged far behind the city's growth. In 1980 only  37.7% of the municipality's population had running water.  Only 30.3% had sewers...The city had oonly 265 doctors, 27 dentists and 961 hospital beds.'

This meant that in the period 1968-72 life 39% of children died before their fourth birthday.  In addition to this there as a shortage of school places, no rubbish collection and inadequate police as well as many other problems.

The theological significance of land:

Theologically, land is significant.  Christians believe that the earth is God's (as he made it) and humans are put here as stewards of God's earth.  Consequently, any land 'owned' by people more properly belongs to God.  Liberation theologians would stress that God created the world for the use of everyone and for some to take more than their fair share of the world's riches is not in accordance with God's wishes.

The story of the Exodus is used extensively within liberation theology.  Liberation theologians identify a correspondence of terms between the story of the Exodus and the situation in Latin America.

The Exodus story:

  • The Hebrews (the ancestors of the Jews) lived in exile as slaved to the Egyptians.
  • They were exploited and abused by their Egyptian task masters.
  • God 'heard their cry' and sent Moses to lead the people out of Egypt.
  • God actively intervened to liberate the people.  He sent plagues to Egypt to force the Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go.  He parted the Red Sea to ensure the Hebrews escaped safely.
  • He led them to the 'Promised Land' a 'land of milk and honey' (i.e. full of good things) to be their homeland.

The significance of this story is that God takes sides with the oppressed, opposed injustice and intervened to liberate them.  The ultimate promise (a land of their own) reflects the idea that having land involves safety whilst landlessness equates to being vulnerable.

Further Reading:

Excellent simple overview of land reforms by country here.

1962 article on land reform published in the American political journal Foreign Affairs here.

Scott Mainwaring's article found here.