Revisiting Liberation Theology: Poverty, Sin, and the Making of a New Religious Paradigm

Michael Orion Powell I Spirituality & Religion I Commentary I February 21st, 2014

Periodically, in my life, I've explored religion. I am from a Western Christian background, so naturally it is Christianity that I immerse myself in cyclically.

No matter how much I have looked in to religion, however, I have almost always stepped out. There is a great deal of hesitation and fear that comes with any group of religious people - as religion almost always brings out the most judgmental nature in people.

Unfortunately, rather than place judgment on real and profound problems in the world, American Christians often waste their lives developing an array of self-inflicted moral phobias. The devout in Christian circles spend quite a bit of time worrying about things like homosexuality, sex outside of marriage, adultery, drug and alcohol use, the use of profanity, masturbating, abortion, and even the anti-Protestant nature of government-funded welfare. In the world of right-wing, American religiosity, these "sins" have been deemed the most significant we have to face.

Sex is a natural part of life. It's not to be feared. And it's not healthy when it is feared. Fueling fears of sexual impulses, especially to young people who are already awkward and unsure about such impulses, is reprehensible. In this world, sexual sin only goes as far as rape and molestation. Sex should be nobody's business if it is between consenting adults; and religious institutions are wasting a lot of time devoting their energy to such nonsense.

So, What Is Sin?

If the sexual conundrums that Christians obsess over are not really the most profound sins committed in our society, what are? Murder? Of course, murder is a sin. But let's approach this question in a more holistic sense. What is a sin that encompasses large portions of society and impacts life implicitly, more so than explicitly?


The majority of our world lives in poverty. In the book, In the Company of the Poor, a recently published, concise volume on Liberation Theology written by Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez and Dr. Paul Farmer, Gutierrez makes the case that poverty is not driven by fate or natural selection, but instead is the result of man-made structures which create and push forth poverty.

One has to believe in some form of racism or cultural hierarchy in the world to believe that such inequities have been arrived at fairly. Throughout Asia, for instance, there is widespread poverty. This is not due to a "lack of family values" or "moral excess" - reasons most often used by American Christians in their attempts to pinpoint societal problems.

You are, in fact, far more likely to hear "family" mentioned in your day-to-day interactions within places like Guam, Philippines or India. Family is very serious business there, as is respect. Many American phenomena, such as the acceptance and normalcy of single-parent households, are unheard of there. These are religious people as well - the Catholic Church has a firm grip in the Philippines.

When I lived in Guam, hustling was second-nature. People were struggling to rise out of poverty and hustled without giving much thought. It was merely a survival tactic. That sort of grinding is mostly unknown to the United States, outside of its worst ghettos.

Experiencing global poverty will enlighten an American in a way that even the worst poverty in our own country won't. While the chronic poverty of African Americans has been cemented by such horrors as slavery and Jim Crow, it is somewhat offset (though hardly alleviated) by public assistance. Global poverty, especially the large-scale poverty that exists in regions such as Southeast Asia or Latin America, will leave you questioning the very system that makes wealth or poverty exist.

Original Sin

The structures which facilitate and normalize poverty and extreme wealth are our original sin. The social order in this world is not ordered from the clouds - it is the result of human behaviors. Whether or not we are born into sin, we are certainly complicit in the sins that create such an unjust human experience, and by allowing this system to continue, unabated.

Life in Guam was a peculiarly uneventful and laid-back version of the poverty that embroils much of the world. Nothing calamitous was occurring, but the density of poverty was readily apparent. There were very wealthy districts available for soldiers, and Japanese tourists that were rife with wealth. The money was vested in strip clubs, prostitutes and bars - not in social infrastructure and societal well-being. Aside from the military, the island had almost no viable infrastructure - an extreme of the American standard set forth on the mainland.

Ironically, with proper social infrastructure, conservative Christian fears of sexual decadence would be lessened - fewer women would feel the need to sell their bodies and expose themselves to risks of assault or disease. The conservative hostility to such a society reflects a deep reactionary impulse that must be confronted.

Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, spent most of his life in Argentina, a "developing" country. His willingness to place causal issues like global poverty above corresponding issues like sexuality and abortion reflects the immense potential of liberation theology, and shows a side of religion that can actually affect meaningful change. As power dynamics continue to change in the world, more representation in organized religion could occur on the part of hundreds of billions of people who are immersed in grinding and crippling poverty.

The time for this paradigm shift is now. While Pope Francis, in his public condemnations and questions, has provided us with a glimpse of things to come, further actions made by these new leaders remain a mystery. Hopefully, they will look very different from the judgmental, arrogant gospel of yore - a gospel that has focused on trivial matters while ignoring structural poverty, the true original sin of our society.