Development and Liberation

(Sept. 14, 2011)

Back in the 1960s, there was a kind of fervour to extend what had been learned from the post-war reconstruction of Europe to the so-called Third World. The United Nations declared successive “Decades of Development.”

Churches were part of the movement. In 1967, Pope Paul VI issued his development encyclical, Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples) with its famous affirmation: “Development is the new name for peace.” He rejected unequivocally the basic precepts of capitalism, including unrestricted private property, the profit motive, and reliance on free trade in a world economy. He emphasized the right of poorer nations to the aid of wealthier nations.

Protestant and Orthodox churches met in Geneva in 1966 for a World Conference on Church and Society. They identified the close relationship between peace and justice: threats to peace do not arise only from military power, but also from hunger, oppression and injustice.

Even as governments, churches and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) embraced development programs, it was already clear that there were divergent views of what was intended by “development.”

Development as an ideology

Leaders in the global South saw that their nations’ poverty was a consequence of the wealth of other nations. People from India to Mexico questioned the so-called “green revolution,” seeing that it damaged small farmers and the ecology. In Latin America, there were warnings about desarrollismo—development as an ideology that only furthered the interests of traditional elites. We do well to remember that the landmark book by Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation,* is a critique of what was wrong with development in Latin America in the 1960s.

In the face of “aseptic” development policies that gave “a false picture of a tragic and conflictual reality,” Gutiérrez insisted that development find its true place in “the more universal, profound, and radical perspective of liberation.”

Soldiers watch over water distribution near Bogotá (2007)

For him, theological reflection begins with the real context of people’s lives—the poverty experienced in the lives of most Latin Americans. Liberation expressed “the aspirations or oppressed peoples and social classes, emphasizing the conflictual aspect of the economic, social and political processes which puts them at odds with wealthy nations and oppressive classes.” The biblical paradigm is the Hebrew story of escape from slavery in Egypt (told in Exodus).

For Gutiérrez, as for liberation and other contextual theologians who have followed, liberation is both political and religious, or both historical and salvific. Our practice of liberation from oppression is also the practice of salvation: liberation and the growth of the Reign of God “are directed toward complete communion of [humanity] with God and of men [and women] among themselves.”

* Bibliography – Gutiérrez, Gustavo (1973). A Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis. (Ch. 2 and 9). Originally published in 1971 as Teología de la liberación, Perspectivas, by CEP, Lima.

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