Pope Francis has made liberation theology popular in recent days. It’s not that it was neglected before, but now bloggers and political commentators have reason to read up on it and compare it to what the pope has to say.
It is important to note that Francis himself is not a liberation theologian nor does he staunchly prescribe to it. But he does sympathize with it. He has made visible efforts to alleviate the tense relationship between the Vatican and liberationists, and it would be silly not to assume he was influenced by this method of interpretation during his time in Argentina.
This theology (or hint thereof) espoused from the mouth of the pope is worth noticing not simply for its popularity, but because liberation theology attempts to refocus Christendom on issues of poverty. It takes into account the well known fact that money and possessions are the most frequent topics of Scripture. It understands that the law of Moses protected the poor, the prophets condemned those who oppressed the impoverished, and Jesus taught concerning the difficulties of riches (some even estimating that around 15% of what he spoke dealt with money). Clearly, it should be a priority of the faithful.
I once had a teacher that told the class that Jesus did not favor those who were poor and marginalized for their own sake but only those who were pushed aside and persecuted because their righteousness.
I can’t accept that. Too often Christ reaches out purely out of compassion. And if he didn’t, all that Scripture that deals with the poor would be deemed obsolete. It is against these tendencies that liberation theology strives.
Now concerning capitalism, a lot is going on. Particularly, many have become disenchanted with it as seen through the pope’s critiques, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the success of Senator Bernie Sanders (#FeelTheBern), and racial tension derivative of both systematic and unintentional oppression. People are beginning to point to capitalism and call for someone to be hanged.
Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with capitalism as an economic system. That simple fact has oft been forgotten. There are, even, many virtues for the system such as its efficiency which leads to unparalleled economic growth. Economists like Milton Friedman have noted that it creates more prosperity than any other system, and that it typically benefits the working class. It certainly contributes to an increase in national GDP per capita, which according to some leads to less hours worked by the younger and the older.
On the other hand, capitalism has some weaknesses. While some praise it for inspiring work ethic, as a system capitalism is susceptible to inherited wealth, and it also tends to ignore externalities (factors not directly relevant to profit, like potential pollution). It is prone to income inequality, which in turn leads to wage slavery and social division for those at the bottom. And for those at the top, there is a diminishing marginal utility of wealth (their second billion isn’t as useful as their first). Lastly it is worth mentioning that, while this is not inherently evil, capitalism has opportunity for monopoly and boom-and-bust cycles.
In regards to everything mentioned, both good and bad, there is disagreement. There is also the idea of utility, that some problems are acceptable for the greater good. But there is no doubt and no disagreement that capitalism does encourage materialism and runs on greed.
I was a part of a discussion recently where the question was raised, how much money is too much for any individual to have? Most of those involved in the discussion quickly concluded that there is no definite amount, and that rather it is a matter of the heart.
That conclusion is hard to argue. These “matters of the heart” remain elusive, and because of their vagueness, stone walls are built up around people that make rebuking invalid. No one can be called out, for who are you to judge the heart? Who are you to draw the dividing line?
We have a similar attitude regarding Scripture. Anytime the issue of riches is raised, we say the sin in question is actively cheating someone or lying to someone. That’s what we say Amos and Micah are concerned with when they rebuke those cows of Bashan. Well yes, they are in fact condemning actively cheating or lying, but they also condemn a passive lack of generosity, mercy, grace, and compassion. They know love does not exist in high towers or secured safes. When Amos and Micah look at Israel, they do not need to witness active wickedness to know that no one can serve two masters.
How Christians understand and use wealth is the most important ethical decision we can make. Outside of orthodoxy (and some may debate that), there is no clearer, practical manifestation of the Christian worldview.
Again, this is not about capitalism. Nor is it about liberation theology. This is a matter of unmistakable Christian ethics—a certain way we are designed to live and coexist. For some, this mode of living will take on political manifestations that seep into how they vote or view the economy, and I can’t disagree with that. But they must first take account of their own lives. What does amassing wealth look like? What does generosity look like? What does the forgiveness of debts look like? How did that traveling rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, live?
The answers to those questions are not as subjective as we often make them. The answers lead to an outflowing of justice, righteousness that flows like a mighty stream. It is that sort of reaction that we must seek, one shaped by the Scriptures and by compassion for those who are hurt (whether by injustice or by their own foolishness). We always seek righteousness.