What’s “Liberation” Got To Do With It?

Benjamin Valentin

Those looking for some guiding “liberation theology” insights into the harsh economic reality of poverty and growing inequality in wealth and power in the US might be surprised to find that there really aren’t many thorough treatises on the subject, not from the standpoint of US liberationists at least.

I say “might be surprised” because liberation theology is often associated with the topic of the poor and vulnerable thanks to the writings of liberation theologians based in Latin America. But when one peruses the writings of liberation theologians based in the US, one discovers an odd and unexpected trait: US liberationists tend to skim over issues that are related to socioeconomic injustice. The reason why is simple, I believe: We US liberation theologians have tended to focus our attention on issues of cultural injustice.

Whether by design or not, in our writings we have chiefly addressed injustices that result from social patterns of cultural bias or institutionalized status hierarchies – injustices like cultural imperialism, racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, institutionalized stigma, and disrespect or negative stereotyping that prevent people from inclusion, participation, and recognition in social life. And this is a good and necessary thing. Yet our focus on matters of cultural injustice has apparently diverted our attention from issues that are related to political economy and socioeconomic injustice – injustices to do with labor exploitation, class distinctions, economic marginalization, and deprivation.1

There is a certain level of irony in this relative evasion in our theologies. All around the world and, yes, even here in the US there are signs of increased social foundering due to inequalities of economic distribution. The growing inequality of income, wealth, and power between the rich and the rest of the people; the record numbers of poor, uninsured, and underemployed Americans; the increasing numbers of homeless people; the trend of growing impoverishment in large segments of the population; and the emergence not only of a new underclass but also an increasingly vulnerable middle class that labors under the weight of wage stagnation, the rising cost of living, increasing debt, precarious employment, higher medical expenses, a negative savings rate, longer working hours to try and make ends meet, and the prospect of retirement at sharply reduced living standards: these make it self-evident that we should be giving matters of political economy higher priority in our studies, writings, sermons, and activist pursuits.2

From the Liberationist Archive

Thankfully, the archives of liberation theology do not leave us without guiding insights on these matters altogether. Many such insights are in the writings and speeches of many Latin American liberation theologians, many Asian and African liberation theologians, and even some US liberation theologians. I will mention four liberationist themes that ought to be part of our discussion in the US.

We can begin with liberation theology’s prophetic commitment to justice. As Cornel West noted in the late 1980s, liberation theologies have served as the “principal forms of Christian prophetic thought and action in our contemporary age.”3 This is no small statement. Based on the belief that God is a lover of compassion and justice, and engrained in the Hebrew Scripture’s prophetic tradition, liberation theology’s prophetic note calls on us also to be lovers of compassion and justice. As such, it appeals to us to attend to the unjust sources of human hurt and misery and join the effort of bringing about a more compassionate and just world. The possibility of change in society begins here with this basic element – a commitment to justice.

Contrary to God

A second theme is liberation theology’s willingness to name the structural failures and processes that lead to economic inequality and poverty as manifestations of social sin. Discourse on sin has not often considered the way in which sin insinuates itself into the institutional and corporate structures of life. Liberation theologies do a good job of this, however; they force us to sit up and take them seriously. As religious and moral persons, and as communities of faith, the last thing we would want is to be complicit with reprehensible patterns of life that are contrary to God’s nature and will and with patterns of life that lead to unmerited suffering.

Moreover, by naming these as sin, liberation theologians remind us that inequality and poverty are always in some way the result of decisions, choices, and patterns of actions. They don’t just happen. It’s easy but not helpful to write off inequality and poverty by saying resignedly “the poor will always be with us.” Though it’s easy, it’s not helpful to attribute inequality and poverty to individual deficiencies. When instead we understand poverty and inequality as the result of the failure of the political institutions we have created and formalized, then finally we “out” them as a form of structural offense that merits our confession and contestation rather than our acceptance and defense.

Another liberationist motif worth considering is liberation theology’s emphasis upon the link between inequality and privation or death. More than any other contemporary theological tradition, liberation theology recognizes the suffering caused by economic inequality. It recognizes that the experience of economic hardship is epitomized by significant compromises in daily life, by having to do without, and by having to endure elevated levels of stress. This “having to do without” includes privations involving basics such as food, clothing, housing, health care, transportation, and healthy entertainment. The result is often hunger, undernutrition, a host of health risks, mental illness, the stunting of people’s development, potential, and even life span. Liberation theology’s critique of inequality and poverty as death is not overdrawn. Such stunting, hunger, suffering, and doing without are the human costs of inequality and impoverishment.

Hope vs. Optimism

Finally, I commend for our consideration liberation theology’s promotion of hope. Liberation theologies willingly wrestle with unnecessary but unrelenting forms of human suffering without succumbing to cynicism or pessimism. This is a remarkable commitment to hope. Now hope is not the same as optimism. Hope doesn’t assume or expect that things will necessarily resolve ideally and certainly not easily, if at all. Hope shows up mostly as an attitude toward life that impels us to persevere in the face of greed, exploitation, privilege, and indifference, to persevere in our principled forms of activism, and to do both without becoming discouraged and doing nothing when we realize that change requires much and comes slowly and reluctantly when it does.

These four emphases found in liberation theology can contribute to our discussion of current economic problems – and offer helpful guidance with respect to our motivations, priorities, values, attitudes, and the ways in which our Christian discipleship can be expressed.

Benjamin Valentin is visiting professor of Latino/a Christianity at Yale Divinity School, where he will become associate professor at the end of the Spring 2017 term. From 2000-2016, he taught at Andover Newton Theological School. He is the author of Mapping Public Theology: Beyond Culture, Identity, and Difference (Trinity Press International, 2002) and Theological Cartographies: Mapping the Encounter with God, Humanity, and Christ (Westminster John Knox, 2015) and editor of four other volumes.


  1. For more, see my Mapping Public Theology: Beyond Culture, Identity, and Difference.
  2. For more on the growing levels of US poverty and economic inequality in America, see Mark R. Rank, One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All (Oxford, 2005), Inequality Matters: The Growing Divide in America and Its Poisonous Consequences, edited by James Lardner and David Smith (New Press, 2005), and Class Matters (Henry Holt, 2005).
  3. Cornel West, Prophetic Fragments (Eerdmans, 1988), p. 197.