One of the major trends in contemporary theology 30 plus years ago was the rise of liberation theology, in various forms. I suppose that makes it no longer quite so contemporary. Of all the branches of this theology, its most influential form came out of Latin and South America and involved a variety of Catholic and Protestant writers, some of whose names are still very well known-- for example Leonardo Boff (Brazil), Gustavo Guttierez (Peru), Jon Sobrino (El Salvador). This theology arose as a response to the extreme poverty of many Christians and others in these regions, and the oppressive dictatorships and regimes that kept wealth in the hands of the few, while leaving millions of residents in these countries in abject poverty. It was also a reaction, to the Roman Catholic complicity in this state of affairs, either in not opposing oppressive governmental policies and business practices, or even openly supporting them in some cases. This in turn led to martyrs in the movement, when I few brave priests, like Archbishop Romero stood up against what was happening, and were killed for their troubles.
In essence, Latin and South American liberation theology had as its major theme that God had an especial concern for the poor and oppressed, which is true enough, and that the church itself should reflect God's agenda which was understood to involve "a preferential option for the poor". But this theology was not content to simply deal in depth with what the Bible has to say about poverty and wealth. It welded such materials to a Marxist liberation schema, involving political action of various sorts, and in some cases even supported Marxist guerrillas in some countries, in their opposition to the governments of the region. Interestingly enough, some of these folks have had enough influence that one at least has come to power supporting various aspects of this ideology, and openly opposing the U.S.'s support of oppressive regimes in various countries in the region. I will let you guess which country's president I am referring to.
At the heart of this theology is not only a political or ideological reading of the Bible and what it means by liberation and salvation is inherently political and only to a lesser degree spiritual. It also entails an assumption that some sort of communistic or socialistic approach to government is more nearly in line with what the Bible says about corporate responsibilty, shared wealth, societal governance and the like.
Needless to say, the Vatican has been concerned all along about this theology, and its advocacy by various of its priests, and some in fact, like Leonardo Boff have left the priesthood (in his case in 1992) in order to continue to support this theology and its praxis. If you were to ask who was the former Pope's point man in opposing this theology in past decades, the answer would be Cardinal Ratzinger. And now of course, he is Pope Benedict, and you can read all about his coming trip to Brazil. Here is the link
That trip ought to produce some Mallox moments for some of the Catholic faithful in Brazil.
My concern at this juncture is to talk about one of the linchpin notions of this theology--- namely the idea that there is a "preferential option for the poor" in the Bible, and behind that on the part of God Almighty. In one sense this theology is the anti-prosperity Gospel and the ultimate share the wealth theology. How exactly does one reconcile what the Bible says about God showing no favoritism and being no respecter of persons (see e.g. Acts 10) with this notion of the preferential option for the poor?
Well, in some respects these two ideas cannot be reconciled. God doesn't love a person less or more based on their income bracket. For that matter, God doesn't bless anyone more or less based on their income bracket. Nor does the Bible suggest that poverty in itself is a virtue. Yes indeed God and Jesus and others show great concern for the plight of the poor, in many forms wishing to alleviate or even eliminate the problem. All this is clear enough. What is not the case is that the NT or the OT suggests that a Marxist approach to dealing with the problem is the most Christian way to attack the issues that poverty entails.
Consider for example the way the Jerusalem community came to grips with the poverty of its own widows, and the general problem of people in need as recounted in Acts 1-5. The situation was not resolved by attempting to change the government, get more government funds or the like. The situation was resolved by the Christian community taking care of their own. Both of the summaries in Acts 2 and Acts 4 speak not of a communistic ideology (as opposed to a capitalist one-- there was no communism or free market capitalism in the modern sense in Bible times), but rather of a sort of communalism.
No one was claiming any exclusive right to property, and whoever was in need was to be taken care of by the Christian community. The story of Ananias and Sapphira is very revealing. Their sin was not retaining some of the assets they had liquidated. Their sin was lying to the Holy Spirit. Notice what Peter asks Ananias-- "Didn't it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold was not the money at your disposal?" (Acts 5.4). The answer to these questions was yes. But the ideology of that community was that to whom more was given more was required, and the more they ought to give. But the matter was left in the individual's hands-- it was not settled by a tax system, nor by a community of goods system either, so far as we can tell.
Notice as well how Paul in various of his early letters (Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians) urges his Gentile converts to contribute to the fund for the saints in Jerusalem suffering from the famine and the resulting food shortage. It is assumed that the church ought to take care of its poor, whoever and where ever they are. What is not assumed is that a communist ideology or praxis was the way to solve the problem. The assumption is that one has to justify keeping such resources when there are people need, not justify giving and sharing them.
Now it needs to be said that the whole modern notion of charity is all wrong. Charity assumes "what's mine is mine, and if a choose to share it, which is optional, I am a generous and charitable person." From a Christian point of view, the earth is the Lord's and we are merely stewards of it, not owners of it. So giving is not optional, its a part of loving one's neighbor and bearing one another's burdens as Gal. 6 says. And there is an especial responsibility to "do good to the household of God". Nowhere in the NT are Christians commanded to bless themselves or their physical families first, and then others.
To the contrary, Christians are called out by Paul and others to be truly self-sacrificial. Phil. 2.3-4 says "Do nothing at all out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather in humility value others above yourself, not looking to your own interests, but rather to the interests of others." Then Paul cites the example of the totally self-sacrificial Jesus.
When one has a proper theology of generosity and stewardship then one is looking for opportunities to help others and be self-sacrificial. No one need provide a rationale. It is interesting to me, that the only time in the NT we are told about a church collection, it has to do with setting aside money on the first day of the week for the poor in Jerusalem (cf. 1 Cor. 16; 2 Cor. 8-9; Rom 15). So yes indeed, there is a great concern for the poor, and a belief that there should be no starving or poor Christians anywhere-- that if there are, it is a failure of the body of Christ to take care of their own, and do good to the household of faith.
So, what I would want to say is that Marxist liberation theology is no more a correct reading of what the Bible says about wealth and poverty than the prosperity Gospel. Both are soundly critiqued in the Bible. I don't think either Marxist liberationist theology or prosperity theology has a future in God's plans for us. I will leave you with a story.
When a twister came through Ohio where we lived some years ago, it destroyed numerous homes. The towns effected were all screaming for FEMA and federal assistance and waiting for the government to do some. The local mainline and Evangelical and Catholic churches did what little they could on the basis of their benevolence funds and agencies, but it was a drop in the bucket. The hotlines to insurance companies were on speed dial.
Meanwhile, the morning after the disaster, the Amish, who had no insurance, and accepted no government help, began to rebuild everything in the communities they lived in for FREE. They rebuilt their own houses and barns, and then they went about rebuilding their neighbors houses and barns--- free. After they were done, they asked for nothing in return, and went back to their own normal communal life. Which response more nearly approximates what we see in Acts 1-5 and elsewhere?
Think about these things.