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?
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
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 (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.
In order to address the problem of material poverty one must first understand what causes it. There are different ways to account for poverty.
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.
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:
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.
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.
There are three ways in which land was important to liberation theology.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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.