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How Liberation Theology Changed My Life

Author: Michael Landon
Published: February 2011

MD 2.1

Article Type: Peer Reviewed Article

I had the wonderful opportunity to study Liberation Theology at a Catholic Seminary in São Paulo, Brazil in the 1980s. This article describes some of the profound changes in my way of interpreting the Bible and doing ministry/missions because of that experience. Topics include an introduction to early Latin American Liberation Theology, Marxism and Dependency Theory, God’s special concern for the poor, how structural sin influences church planting that targets the middle class, and contextualization.


My wife and I were blessed to be able to serve as missionaries in São Paulo, Brazil for eight years during the 1980s. Though we have been gone for twenty years now, that time in Brazil continues to be extremely influential in our lives and ministries. We began our family there, and our three children tend to see Brazil as home. Our ministry was primarily church-planting, which was extremely formative in our lives, especially in terms of turning more to the Bible and trusting traditional interpretations less, understanding the mechanics of evangelism and church organizing, and learning to emphasize the poor like God does.

While our entire ministry was formative, my time doing doctoral work in theology at a Catholic seminary was by far one of the strongest forces for personal change. I did the course work for a Doctor of Theology degree from Faculdade de Teologia Nossa Senhora da Assunção (Our Lady of the Assumption College of Theology; NSA hereafter) and began a dissertation on Liberation Theologians’ View of Capitalism and Social Sin. The classes were four hours long, and numerous students smoked during class. The courses were all taught in Portuguese but liberally sprinkled with Spanish and Latin. As far as I could tell, all of the 600 students in the seminary were ardent socialists except for me and one Seventh Day Adventist. Some students repeatedly identified President Reagan as the antichrist and the USA as the beast. Some greatly desired to join the guerillas in Central America but settled for organizing demonstrations in front of the US consulate.

I went to this school looking for intellectual challenge and growth and for opportunities to further study biblical languages and investigate this Liberation Theology that was becoming so influential. There I was taught by several prominent Liberationists (Clodovis Boff, Julio de Santa Ana, Milton Schwantes, and others), experienced the best exegetical course I have ever had, had my eyes opened to what the Bible says about poverty, and saw the underside of capitalism as it is often practiced in the world.

The purpose of this article is to share some of my experiences and areas of growth with the reader in hopes that it will provoke similar challenges and stretch one’s understanding of God, the Bible, and ministry. I will start with an introduction to early Latin American Liberation Theology and some changes that I had to make in my social and political presuppositions, and then I will proceed with areas of growth in my understanding of the Bible and changes in ministry and missiology.

Introduction to Early Latin American
Liberation Theology

This is an introduction to early Latin American Liberation Theology, since I studied this theology through the 1970s and 1980s and have not been able to continue detailed study since then. I believe early Latin American Liberation Theology1 to be the most important version, however, since it provided the sharpest challenge to traditional theology during those years.2

I believe that the shortest definition of early Latin American Liberation Theology is that it is the Bible read with Marxist presuppositions, and the LT that I experienced seemed to have the five essential elements discussed below.3

Very Real and Deep Poverty

LT was born in the poverty-stricken areas of Latin America. The poverty there is very real and oppressive. While my wife had lived in Africa for a while before our move to Brazil and affirmed that the poverty there was more widespread and deeper, Latin America certainly had its suffering. What provoked my initial interest in LT was the poverty of Christian families that I knew, who worked hard and were thrifty, but were very poor even though we lived in the wealthiest part of Brazil, with the largest middle class! Here is a striking example of poverty from the Boff brothers’ experience in other parts of Brazil:

One day, in the arid region of northeastern Brazil, one of the most famine-stricken parts of the world, I . . . met a bishop going into his house; he was shaking. “Bishop, what’s the matter?” I asked. He replied that he had just seen a terrible sight: in front of the cathedral was a woman with three small children and a baby clinging to her neck. He saw that they were fainting from hunger. The baby seemed to be dead. He said: “Give the baby some milk, woman!” “I can’t, [sir],” she answered. The bishop went on insisting that she should, and she that she could not. Finally, because of his insistence, she opened her blouse. Her breast was bleeding; the baby sucked violently at it. And sucked blood.4

Paulo Freire also affirmed that the first challenge in teaching rural Brazilian adults to read in the 1950s was to convince them that they were human!5 Many of them thought that they were simply smarter cattle.6

This extreme poverty found in Latin America was probably the main engine that drove the development of LT, especially the concept of the “preferential option for the poor.” First mentioned at Medellín and further developed at Puebla, Jorge Pixley and Clodovis Boff gave the fullest treatment in their book of that title (in the original Portuguese).7 They traced God’s special attention, concern, and action for the poor and oppressed through the Bible and then continued on with the church’s behavior for the last two millennia.8 The combined power of the biblical message on poverty and the pain I observed in Brazil made a difference in my life that I will further discuss later.

“Liberal” View of the Bible

Milton Schwantes taught the best exegetical course I had ever taken when I was at the Catholic seminary in Brazil.9 As we went through the historical books covering the monarchy of Israel, he explained the text in great detail, showing differences in various Hebrew words, giving background information and showing correlations to other texts, but then he suddenly came to a halt and said something like, “The next ten chapters were written in defense of the king, and we’re not interested in that, so we’ll now jump to chapter . . .” He was not saying that he was simply not interested in those chapters, but that they were not authoritative because they were written from the “wrong” perspective, defending the powerful.10

Alan Myatt also encountered such practices. He claimed that many Liberation Theologians assume liberal scholarship and the methods of higher criticism that deny the notion of absolute truth, citing José Míguez Bonino as a specific example.11 He also clarified that when LT claims that all theology must be evaluated from the present historical situation, it is presenting another authority, not Scripture as the sole authority.12

An essential element of early Latin American LT is a liberal view of the text—the Bible is primarily a human creation, and only parts of it are inspired or considered authoritative. Liberation Theologians that I met loved those texts of the Bible that show oppression, social conflict, and poverty (and they are there in the text!), but ignored those instructions to live at peace and submit to authorities.13

Of course, the Catholic Church has for centuries claimed that some of its traditions were as authoritative as the Bible, but one participant in a conference on LT went so far as to exclaim, “We’re writing the Newest Testament!”14


It is well known that Marxism had a very strong influence on LT. Clodovis and Leonardo Boff, in their book entitled in Portuguese “How to Do Liberation Theology,” clarify:

Liberation theology freely borrows from Marxism certain “methodological pointers” . . . such as:

  • the importance of economic factors;
  • attention to the class struggle;
  • the mystifying power of ideologies, including religious ones.15

Let me explain what I believe are the most important influences of Marxism on LT.

What drives history? What causes one society to be one way and another different? Max Weber thought that ideas, principally religious ideas, were the key movers of history.16 Émile Durkheim taught that collective consciousness formed societies.17 Karl Marx taught that the most important factor in the development of a society was the mode of production. Mode of production includes several factors, but the key ones are (1) who produces wealth and (2) who keeps/owns the wealth. Implicit in that distinction is oppression of the workers and growing power of the owners. In broader terms, Marx says that the economy forms the society (social rankings, religion and ideology, politics, etc.). This was the key conflict between LT and Black Theology, which claimed that racism was the fundamental issue in society.18

Marx promoted dialectical materialism—it is the material universe that is important, not God, and this universe is at war over wealth. Liberation Theologians believed in God but agreed that the world is a dialectical reality. Class conflict is the best known version of this dialectical reality and was an important part of early Latin American LT.19 For example, Frei Betto affirms, “In this perspective, the social dimension of sin can only be understood from the internal structure of the society that engenders sin in the form of oppression, division of men into antagonistic classes, submission of a poor country to a rich country, etc.”20 For this reason, LT focused on promoting the growth of socialism in Latin America, which would first deal with internal class conflict and then deal with international dependence.

While class conflict was emphasized, Lenin’s Dependency Theory was equally important to early Latin American LT. While LT vigorously denounced class conflict in terms of the rich oppressing the poor and the existence of an enclave of middle-class working-class that lived relatively well (which developed from foreign investment), it was the rich countries (like those in Europe and North America) that stole the wealth of poor countries (like those in South America and Africa) that really caused widespread poverty.21 Later, the emphasis switched from wealthy countries to multinational corporations and organizations, such as the Trilateral Commission, in order to explain “third world” poverty.22

Based on these earlier affirmations, Marx taught that ideology is always oppressive. It is the wealthy who form the ideology (and religion is just a form of ideology), and its purpose is to promote their continued wealth and power while pacifying the mass of poverty-stricken workers. It seems that this would be a problem to LT since it is, after all, a Christian belief system, but the Liberation Theologians quickly affirmed that LT was not an ideology but a utopia, which existed to unmask the prevailing ideology. This rejection of ideology was also very convenient for them, since every time I presented information that contradicted their conclusions, they claimed that my suggestions were not “scientific.” I eventually realized that according to them only Marxism was scientific or critical; all other arguments were ideologically based.23 In the same line of thinking, Marxism could not be an ideology, since it promoted the poor and criticized the rich.

Marx and LT also affirmed the necessity of praxis—an informed, critical, questioning, practical application of learning. Marx went so far as to say that learning that was not put into practice was not learning. It appeared to me that utopia and praxis were in conflict, but I needed to understand the terms in Marxism thought. Utopia is not a perfect place but a way of criticizing the status quo. I asked the students one day what would happen to LT if they did actually succeed in implanting socialism in Brazil, and they then declared that they believed they would never succeed! Their purpose was to criticize; actual change was a hoped for but somewhat unattainable goal.24

Paulo Freire’s Views on Education

Paulo Freire was a Marxist educator who developed a method for teaching Brazilian adults to read in an incredibly short time, sometimes in as few as six classes. (This was possible since Brazilian Portuguese is written exactly as it is spoken and vice versa.) Freire developed the concept that education was conscientização (conscientization). Developed from a Marxist concept of praxis, it stated that one was learning only when one was beginning to judge one’s social environment and commit to changing it. Freire thought that simply accepting information developed by others was indoctrination.25

Freire used this concept to teach adults to read by first listening to the peasants’ concerns, then showing them how those concerns appeared in print, together with additional information that was often lacking. An example was the plantation owner who said that he could not pay the seasonal workers for any more work because he did not have the money. The language teacher then showed the workers a newspaper that reported that the prices of crops had risen during last year and that the plantation owner and family had just left for a four week tour of Europe! For his contributions to society, Freire was exiled by the military coup of 1962, but he eventually returned and became Minister of Education for the state of São Paulo in the 1990s.

Freire is important to early Latin American LT because it adopted conscientization as its almost singular method of operation in society. Hennelly specifies Freire’s method as one of the “three key components of LT’s initial phase,” “later adapted for use by the church,” and puts a selection from Freire’s work as the first reading in his documentary history of LT.26 He even dates the genesis of LT to the 1950s in part on the basis of Freire’s work.27 The plan for implanting socialism in Latin America was to open CEBs (Base Ecclesial Communities) among the lower classes throughout the continent and teach them to interpret critically both the Bible text and their own social realities. In other words, the plan was to understand the dialectical nature of reality, overcome ideology, and begin praxis as they sought to change the economic system, which would then transform the entire society and culture.28

Juan Luis Segundo calls this the second type of LT, which sought to work from within the framework of the poor. He also notes that there is often a certain “involuntary contradiction between the claim of having been evangelized by the poor and taught by them, and, on the other hand, the pretension of relocating in people’s minds the true meaning of the cross and suffering.”29 Or, as one of my professors at NSA commented in class, “the people come to the wrong conclusions about the Bible unless there is a conscientized priest or nun there to guide them.”

European Theology and Philosophy

As I struggled to read LT for the first time, I worked through the new level of Portuguese language but still struggled to make sense of it. Sometimes, I read a paragraph and understood every word, but could not summarize the significance. James Baird, who did his doctorate in philosophy at Oxford University, helped me in a personal conversation to understand what was happening. If I understood him correctly, he said that American theology was very concerned with being systematic and precise, nailing down every possible conclusion, but European theology was focused on constructing a grand theory, full of nuances, sweeping implications, and future development. Being precise was often too limiting.

Juan Luis Segundo points out that earliest type of LT appealed primarily to dissenters from the Latin American middle classes, “which were integrated into a European culture.”30 All of my teachers in the Catholic Seminary, and almost every significant early Latin American Liberation Theologian, studied in Europe. If you read their material, you will see one reference after another to Jürgen Moltmann, Johannes Metz, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Rudolf Bultmann, Karl Barth, and so on.

The dialogue between José Míguez Bonino and Jürgen Moltmann is very informative. Bonino admitted that LT was dependent on Moltmann and that LT had an affinity for his work but then criticized Moltmann.31 Moltmann replied that Bonino was too European in his theology: “One gets a quite ambiguous impression as regards the Latin American theological criticism of European theology: one is first criticized intensely, and then, to one’s surprise, finds that in the end the critics confirm with their own words exactly the same thing that [one] oneself had said.”32 Moltmann continued about LT’s philosophical and political basis in Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation:

Gutiérrez presents the process of liberation in Latin America as the continuation and culmination of the European history of freedom. One gets a glimpse into this history of freedom by being enlightened about Kant and Hegel, Rousseau and Feuerbach, Marx and Freud. The “secularization process” is portrayed in detail through the work of Gogarten, Bonhoeffer, Cox, and Metz. This is all worked through independently and offers many new insights—but precisely only in the framework of Europe’s history, scarcely in the history of Latin America. Gutiérrez has written an invaluable contribution to European theology. But where is Latin America in it all?33

Based on these experiences, I concluded that if LT was born in poverty-stricken Latin America, it was conceived in Europe.

Changes in My Socio-Economic Views

I learned that Marxism and LT had a lot of valid criticisms of capitalism as a theory and capitalism as it was practiced throughout the world but few valid solutions.

Ideas I Accepted from LT, with Revision

Challenged by Dependency Theory, I attempted to research if it was true that Europe and the US took unfair advantage of its colonies in an earlier age and of so-called “Third World Countries” today. The debate is the definition of “unfair.” After research, in my own untrained way, I agree that it is true.34 Europe and North America bought huge quantities of raw resources at very low prices from poorer countries to process them and sell them back to the poorer countries at much higher prices. It appeared to me, though, that beginning about 1982, Brazil began to practice that same kind of economic dominance and abuse of other countries in Latin America. Of course, today the global economy is changing things even more, and some propose that Europe and the US are losing their privileged positions in the global economy.35

As I conducted research above, I discovered other concepts of how to improve the economic life of Latin America and Africa, principally what is called modernism or developmentalism (desenrollamento). This concept is that societies modernize by passing through certain phases, and in this case the “Third World” was simply earlier in the process—there was nothing unfair about it.36 And in many ways the capitalism that I saw in Latin America was the capitalism practiced in the US in the late 1800s and early 1900s before unions and government regulation began to curb the excesses. At the same time, I agree with LT that this definition of economic development was often used as an excuse for continuing abusive practices. Ronald Chilcote and Joel Edelstein provide a good history, comparison, and evaluation of both dependency and development models.37

Challenged by LT, I began to perceive greater differences between capitalism as practiced in the world and economic principles taught in the Bible. While anyone can easily see forms of private property and the market in the Old and New Testaments, the meanings of those terms may be very different now. Justo González clarifies that capitalism as we know it has been heavily influenced by practices of the Roman Empire.38 In very terse terms, I would express the differences thus:

Capitalism Biblical Stewardship
Private property–to use and abuse Stewardship and sharing (koinonia)39
Market controls economy God’s sovereignty40
Competition causes increase Faithful work / God’s blessing41

When the Bible teaches God’s will for us economically, it includes the notions of hard work and production, but also the Sabbath Year, Year of Jubilee, and true koinōnia, which is the sharing of life and physical necessities. On one hand, perhaps many developmentalists too readily accepted that capitalism was God’s economy,42 and on the other, early Latin American LT, it appears, too readily equated biblical teaching with socialism. I think both lacked critical evaluation.

I liked Paulo Freire’s view of education, but detached the necessity of class conflict from its formulation. In other words, I agreed that one is not learning unless one can better evaluate and change one’s own situation. For example, one does not really learn Systematic Theology unless one learns how to evaluate the work of others, do it oneself, and let the new knowledge make a difference in how one lives.

Ideas I Rejected

Dependency Theory itself is flawed. I asked a fellow student at the Catholic seminary who was also finishing a masters in Economics for the best introductions to Dependency Theory. He suggested two books by Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who was in exile at the time but later became president of Brazil. The most remarkable example of the flaw in Dependency Theory is an endnote I found in one of his books: “Between a rigor that would lead to paralysis and a flexibility which would deliver positive results, we decided on the second alternative.”43 In other words, given the choice between saying only what the economic data supported and developing a theory that would deliver the results he wanted, he chose the second!

The Marxist maxim that the economy determines the society certainly has some validity, but it ignores the power of other influences, and LT has gradually begun accepting that. The earliest push to change was the encounter with Black Theology, but it was also influenced by the fall of the USSR and other socialist economies. The prevailing thought today is systems theory—that the multiple interdependent forces of economics, religion, ideology, and history all influence each other. But I would suggest that we Christians must include God in the mix:44

Although it is obvious that the mode of production does have a strong influence on the formation of the society, Marx’s position is so extreme that it is simplistic and lacks a holistic view of man. That the Bible does talk a great deal about economics is surely a sign of its importance and influence over humans, but the Bible would see human life as God-centered. It is God who created the universe (Genesis 1). It is God who owns the earth and all its wealth (Leviticus 25:23). The God depicted in the Bible is one who is alive and active in human affairs.45

How Liberation Theology Influenced My Understanding of the Bible

Working in Brazil had profound influence on my understanding of the Bible, both in the questions I confronted in church planting and the challenges I had from LT. I will cover the three most important areas where I grew in understanding the Bible (poverty, structural sin, and “real” people), followed by an exegesis of Amos 2 that illustrates those areas.


Once I stopped reading “spiritually poor” whenever the biblical text said “poor,” I realized that poverty pervaded the text. For example:

  1. I thought that the fundamental event of the Old Testament was God’s covenant with Abraham, but the biblical texts that retell the Old Testament story seem to give greater emphasis to the exodus and settlement in Canaan.46 For the Jews, the fundamental event of the Old Testament seemed to be God’s saving them from oppression (economic and civil) and giving them their own land (in an agricultural economy, land is the source of economic survival and wealth). Along with that land, God’s law provided numerous safeguards against the oppression and poverty of his people in this new society.47
  2. The Historical Books of Ruth and Nehemiah cannot be understood properly outside the context of deep poverty. The book of Judges’ repetition of backsliding, suffering, and salvation necessarily includes poverty as a part of the suffering.
  3. The Wisdom literature presents both sides of poverty—poverty caused by one’s own foolishness48 and that caused by oppression,49 as well as the deep pain that comes from suffering (the Psalms).
  4. The prophets railed against the idolatry of the Israelites, but also against the economic oppression of one another.50 (See the exegesis of Amos 2 below.)
  5. While all the Gospels mention poor people during Jesus’ ministry, Luke emphasizes Jesus’ interest in and compassion on the poor through the Magnificat (Luke 1), the inauguration of his ministry (Luke 4), the blessings and woes of the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6), and repeated references to social outsiders: the poor (at least 16 times), the sick (at least 17 times), and women (at least 11 times).
  6. The early church practiced a level of financial sharing that we just do not get. Part of our difficulty in understanding the text is that the poor people of American society usually still eat well, and in fact are often overweight! Another part of our difficulty is a fear of communism. But the fact remains that the Old and New Testaments for the most part reflect societies that were based on agriculture, with huge proportions of poor farmers, sharecroppers, and seasonal laborers that were in real danger of going hungry in a bad year.
  7. When I read Rev 21–22 or Rev 7:15–17, which describe heaven, I often focus on no more pain and no more death, which is great news. Yet, I think that in most of the world for most of human history, people would have rejoiced over free housing, food that grows year-round, and no more darkness, all things I take for granted. The point is that even now, when I read the biblical text, I miss a lot because I just have not suffered much.

Structural Sin

I was surprised that Portuguese Bibles continually had “justice” in verses where my English Bibles had “righteousness.” I researched to prove the Portuguese versions wrong and found that both the Hebrew and Greek words included elements of both personal and social rightness. My English versions had distorted the translation in one direction, while the Portuguese versions had distorted it in the other. Studying at the Catholic seminary, I was introduced to a similar difficulty—that of identifying personal sin versus social or structural sin. The LT concept was originally called “social sin” but changed to “structural sin” in the 1980s to identify the social structures as the carriers of sin, not just the society. Let me explain it and then give its strengths and weaknesses.51


Structural sin in LT is based on Marx and Durkheim’s view that the society determines the individual.52 Stated simply, structural sin is an evil that is exterior to the individual, is passed from generation to generation through the social structures, and imposes its will on the individual.

We say, before anything else, that independent of any consciousness, unjust structures or oppressors are objectively an evil. For this reason, they are “sin” in the material, structural sense. These unjust structures are to the society what lust is to the individual: they carry and even drag one to evil.53

In this perspective, the social dimension of sin can only be understood from the internal structure of the society that engenders sin in the form of oppression, division of men into antagonistic classes, submission of a poor country to a rich country, etc. . . . This oppression does not come from evil desires of someone or a group of men. It comes from the structures themselves that assure the way this society produces and distributes material goods necessary to human life. This mode of production determines among the men who are part of this society ways of relating that are necessary and independent of their will.54


Biblically, they have some support. North American Evangelicals also developed similar concepts based on the biblical uses of “the world,” “the powers,” and “the elements.”55 My own experiences also supported the concept.

Growing up in the US, I tended to blame poverty on the poor themselves—they were lazy or had too many kids, didn’t work hard or take education seriously, and so forth. My presuppositions were challenged by José Luiz and Maria José, a Christian couple in the church we planted. José Luiz worked very hard for long hours, and his family was very poor. As I began to understand the structural nature of social problems, reality was shocking! Others have had similar experiences:

He screamed at the top of his voice, “Saandeee!!! Ssaaanndeee!” All of Nairobi West shopping center stopped and turned to watch the drama as the policemen and women beat and dragged the street boys away to custody.

As I watched through a church window I flushed hot with anger. We have been trying fruitlessly for over two years to get a bar out of our property where all manner of illegality takes place, including open prostitution and drug deals—never once helped by the police. So they spend their energy beating up on little street boys—whose worst crime is stealing bread from the rich. Bitter gall was rising up underneath my tongue.

But there was something else about the scene. The name the street boy was desperately shouting was David Sande’s, one of our ministers to the street children. They were calling for the man of God to intercede for them.56

Another missionary tells of swimming onto a beach covered with the blood of lepers who were being slaughtered by natives under the watchful eye of the police.57 And Robert Linthicum was shocked to discover that it was the New York City police who were beating a young man weekly to force his sister to prostitution.58 Unfortunately, these experiences are not that rare once you get out of the North American suburb.59

When I returned to the US, lost my support, and had to begin a new career hampered by a large debt, I began to see structural injustices in my own country. It is the working poor of the US who pay the highest prices (when you measure by price per quantity) and pay the highest taxes in the country (when you include all taxes and measure by percentage of income).60 I had to admit that slavery in the past was not just a personal choice for some but was built into the economic and political systems of my country. While abortion is a choice for a woman, there is an industry and media dedicated to promoting it, an educational system used to encourage it, and a political party sworn to defend it.

And influence from our society even reaches into the church. During my ministry in Brazil, I fielded so many questions about why we do what we do at church, I had to admit that Christianity in general, and even Churches of Christ, had been highly influenced by our social situation.61


The weakness I found in the concept of structural sin was that its proponents appeared to be as one-sided in its application as I had been in my application of personal sin. Marxism taught that it was the economy that formed the society, and a corollary was that the person was determined by the economic situation. Liberation Theologians used phrases such as “imprisoned in sin,”62 “a type of external power [that] dominates . . . us,”63 and “the I is always inhabited by others.”64 Although they recognized the dialectical relationship between personal or structural sin,65 they also denigrated volunteerism such as charity as inhibiting advancement in the real battle, which was their “noble struggle for justice.”66 As Gutiérrez explained it, fighting sin seems to be primarily social: “In the context of class struggle today, to love one’s enemies presupposes recognizing and accepting that one has class enemies and that it is necessary to combat them.”67

While anyone who has studied cultural anthropology or has adapted to a very different culture cannot deny that we are all culturally formed or culturally embedded, the Bible does not affirm that an individual is a helpless pawn in the struggle against sin.68 The key is to see both the personal and structural natures of sin and resist it on both levels.

“Real” People and the Bible

Amid the work of interpreting the Bible for those who questioned my traditional answers and answering questions I had never imagined before, unconsciously using concepts that I had learned from cultural anthropology to understand both Brazilians and the peoples of the Old and New Testaments, reading Gerd Theissen’s two books,69 and hearing a Marxist interpretation of the Old Testament monarchy in class with Milton Schwantes, I realized that the people portrayed in the Bible were real people. They often felt and acted like people around me, and, even more frequently, they seemed to have much in common with tribal or peasant societies in Africa or Latin America.

Many readers will likely say, “Of course, they were real people!” I used to say that, but I always saw them as “flat” characters that simply performed certain actions. I have learned to look for “round” characters that have fears, expectations, social pressures, gender roles, family concerns, and dreams.70 To be honest, as I interpret the Bible now, I often ask myself, “How would I feel in that situation,” “Who could be pressuring me in that situation,” or “What would my alternatives be?” I now understand that just as some concepts of cultural anthropology, sociology, and psychology can be helpful to understand people today, some of those same concepts can help me understand what was happening in the biblical text. The text is always the authority as inspired Word, but these social and behavioral sciences can illuminate the drama, interpersonal tensions, fears, and dreams of biblical characters.71

Related to this discovery of real people in the Bible were the educational concepts of Paulo Freire and the second type of LT, encouraging the poor to interpret the Bible for themselves.72 With all the fervor of the newly minted MA, I believed the story I heard in graduate school about the professor who said that most discussion classes about the Bible in church were a sharing of ignorance. It is embarrassing to say this now, but after reading Freire, I hesitantly began asking the congregation to make their suggestions about the meaning and application of the text. I made two discoveries: (1) writing down their comments on a marking board was a great way to show appreciation for their ideas, focus the discussion, and make connections between apparently independent concepts, and (2) they were better at making good applications of the text than I was.73

Case Study: Exegesis of Amos 2:6–16

Let me illustrate how these new ideas from LT work in my life and Bible study.

The Context of Amos

There are ample commentaries on Amos that describe the social context of this text, but one short quote is sufficient:

The prophet whose work lies at the core of the book attacked the patriotic and pious conservative reaction that had gained currency among the upper classes during the prosperous reign of Jeroboam II. The greedy upper classes, with governmental and juridical connivance, were systematically expropriating the land of commoners so that they could heap up wealth and display it gaudily in a lavish “conspicuous consumption” economy. Hatred of other nations, military swaggering, and religious rhetoric were generously employed to persuade people to accept their miserable lot because it was, after all, “the best of all possible societies.”

Much of the monopolized wealth was poured into spectacles of sacrificial and liturgical worship at splendidly refurbished sanctuaries. Amos savagely attacked the overheated religious fervor as a fraudulent and despicable “cover” or “mask” for the leaders’ gross selfishness and practical atheism.74

The Literary Structure

The text seems to have four parts: vv. 6–8, 9–11, 12 vv. 13–16. Verses 6–8 speak in third person, detailing Israel’s sins, while vv. 9–11 switch to first person—God rehearses how he had expressed his love for Israel through mighty acts. Verse 12 demonstrates the Israelites’ rejection of God. The fourth section, vv. 14–16, explains the results of such rejection.

Figure 1

Possible Structure of Amos 2:6-1175

Israel’s Sins

God’s Past Love


6 This is what the LORD says:

“For three sins of Israel,

even for four, I will not turn back [my wrath].


9I destroyed the Amorite before them,

though he was tall as the cedars

and strong as the oaks.

I destroyed his fruit above

and his roots below.


They sell the righteous for silver,

and the needy for a pair of sandals.

7 They trample on the heads of the poor

as upon the dust of the ground

and deny justice to the oppressed.

Father and son use the same girl

and so profane my holy name.


10I brought you up out of Egypt,

and I led you forty years in the desert

to give you the land of the Amorites.


8 They lie down beside every altar

on garments taken in pledge.

In the house of their god

they drink wine taken as fines.


11 I also raised up prophets from among your sons

and Nazirites from among your young men.

Is this not true, people of Israel?”

declares the LORD.

The first two sections may have a parallel structure as shown in Figure 1. Such a parallel structure, therefore, means that A and A′ are talking about God’s wrath on Israel and the Amorite, B and B′ are talking about slavery versus liberation, and C and C′ are talking about exploitative revelry versus asceticism.

Verse 12 is a summary statement contrasting the sins of Israel with God’s actions. Verses 13–16 describe God’s judgment on Israel for their sin. What is unique about these last verses is that they all apply God’s judgment to the military complex—the swift, strong, warrior, archer, soldier, and horseman! No mention is made of God’s wrath on the leaders, women and children, or cities, as in other prophetic texts, so evidently the meaning is not what is commonly asserted by many conservative interpreters—that even the strong will fall or that the strong will not be able to protect the society. The emphasis is on the military. While the coming punishment will touch all the Israelites, in this passage the emphasis is on the fall and punishment of the military.

Social, Political, and Economic Factors

There are other traces of corporate and social factors in this text:

  1. What is the significance of sandals? While many commentators conclude that this exemplifies the low value of human life at the time, the verse can also be interpreted, “They sell . . . the needy because of a pair of sandals.”76 Some claim that sandals were not used by the commoner unless he was conscripted into military service.77 Thus, the sale of people for a pair of sandals would imply a military-commerce relationship—the selling into slavery of military conscripts who could not afford sandals.
  2. “Father and son use the same girl” implies slavery and/or cult prostitution, both social structures.
  3. “Lying down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge” would imply an alignment of the dominant economic group with the religious hierarchy. While it is doubtful that this sexual encounter occurred in the temple of Jerusalem, that it occurred at all in Israel transgressed the law of Moses. Such alignment was common in non-compartmentalized societies—the temple of Jerusalem often served as treasury for political powers of the ancient Middle East (Judg 9:4; 1 Kgs 14:25–27; 15:16–19).
  4. The wording of v. 6 is repeated in Amos 8:4–6, which supports this as a commercial topic—the buying and selling of human beings, cheating, injustice, and miserly greed.


This text includes references to slavery, unlawful interest and loan structures, prostitution, and exploitive commercial transactions. It clearly implicates an alignment of the economic structures with the military powers in a social structure that was controlled by them and aided, or at least not opposed, by the religious establishment. The text also clearly expresses God’s condemnation of this exploitive alignment against the poor and weak. I have learned that life today is not much different.

How Liberation Theology Influenced My Ministry and Missiology

Because of heavy debt, I have never been able to work full-time in the usually low-paying ministry with the poor. I have volunteered for years with Habitat for Humanity and done some work in community development. My wife and I have striven to live a modest lifestyle, though usually without much temptation since that was all we could afford! I admire Howard and Jane Norton, who promised themselves when they returned from 16 years in Brazil that they would not buy into the American dream and gradually grow into “needing” more and more luxury.

As a minister, especially in Louisiana, I have received hundreds of calls to the church asking for financial help. I strive to deal with each person personally and with respect because I have heard them describe the ways they are ignored, alienated, patronized, and angered by insensitive churches. But I seldom let them manipulate me with guilt since: (1) I have seen truly poor people, and most poor in the US would be considered doing well in most of the world,78 and (2) I believe that what most needy people in the US need is a nurturing friendship, not money.79 I encourage the church to be proactive about helping people in constructive ways rather than simply reacting, and unfortunately, often reacting with guilt, frustration, and impatience. For more on this topic, see my article on the challenges of poverty to the North American church.80

I’ve come to despise the “industry of poverty”—the slum lords, pawn shops, check cashing stores, social workers, politicians, and the rest who depend on continued poverty for their livelihoods or careers.81

On a more theoretical basis, however, my missiology has changed. Since missionaries and ministers do such important work, I think we always look back with some regrets about things we wish we had done differently or better. Three areas that stand out for me are the focus of my church planting in Brazil, my understanding of the structural nature of church problems (leadership and classism), and the impact of structural sin on contextualization.

Evangelism Focus

Before we moved to Brazil, we had a typical US tendency toward the middle class and had observed the work of the São Paulo Mission Team, which focused on evangelizing middle-class Brazilians. Moreover, we were strongly encouraged to focus on the middle class by Continent of Great Cities (CGC). At that time, the only way to get a visa to Brazil was through CGC, which required that we attend a class on Brazilian culture and history. While one important motive for requiring this course for all future missionaries was the opportunity to defend military intervention in Brazil (a military regime was in control at the time), the other major concern was to emphasize the importance of focusing church planting efforts on the middle class. In 1992, CGC defended this emphasis thus:

It is indisputable that we must reach people of all classes with the Gospel. With few exceptions, however, the poor will not provide the leadership or financial resources necessary for impacting a nation. The church—and especially the first, large, downtown congregation—needs the strengths found in the middle class. . . .

That is why the Continent of Great Cities encourages building the church around a nucleus of middle-class families without neglecting the disenfranchised.

When we emphasize a thrust toward the middle class, we can still win many of the poor and even some of the rich.82

There is not space here to critique at length several of the positions adapted by CGC at that time, including the ability of the middle class to evangelize across class divisions; the need to first plant one large downtown congregation; and whether even the Brazilian middle class could provide the finances and leadership for a large, downtown church (given that the model itself may be more North American than was previously thought). Nonetheless, I definitely believe that it was a mistake to focus so much on middle-class evangelism. Even the article by CGC quoted above bases its argument on Randall Wittig, who was promoting a move from evangelizing the poor to evangelizing the middle class despite his admission that “a high degree of poverty encourages Protestant growth.”83

I believe that many of my generation of missionaries from Churches of Christ in Brazil failed to see in their own work the extraordinary church growth that was occurring in other faith groups because we focused on evangelizing the middle class and on planting one large, downtown church. In fact, if one looks at the areas of Brazil that have had the highest growth rate among Churches of Christ, I submit that one would find that most of the growth took place among the poor in multiple smaller congregations. If I were to return to Brazil to do church planting again, I would certainly look for ways to plant numerous small churches in a variety of social levels. Most, however, would likely be among the lower classes, and most would probably be house churches that could be self-supporting from the very beginning.84

Besides the concerns over church growth mentioned above, I believe that we largely ignored Jesus’ own model of work, where he was good news to all, but it was principally the poor who followed him. While there are sometimes valid reasons to focus one’s work, I believe it to be antithetical to the gospel for a whole generation of missionaries to Brazil to be focused on the middle class.

Leadership, Social Structures, and Structural Sin

When I began my studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, I had the opportunity to visit with missionaries to Latin America from several different denominations. I discovered that we were all struggling with the same problem in leadership—the seeming impossibility of finding leaders that would cooperate with each other!

The problem appears to be based on the patron-client relationship, which most social scientists would agree is, along with the family, the primary social structure of the continent.85 With a long history of paternalistic plantation owners, military-like bandeirantes (bands of colonists seeking gold and slaves in the interior of Brazil), paternalistic industrial magnates, political demagogues, and Catholic god-fathers, the very definition of leadership to most Brazilians implies a solitary strongman who imposes his will on others. The connection to LT is that the socio-economic structures do indeed influence church structures and that these structures may be sinful.

Reed Nelson gives an excellent introduction to how this plays out in Protestant churches,86 but Anthony Leeds is even more helpful since he describes how these patron-client relationships develop into igrejinhas, small groups of supporters led by one strongman.87 This is exactly the organizational type of many of our churches, led by o responsável (the responsible one). This is one reason why it is so difficult for us to appoint elderships comprised of multiple leaders.88 My point is that this tendency to a solitary strongman leadership may also be considered an example of structural sin.

Structural Sin and Contextualization

A final story: one of the unintended consequences of studying LT at the Catholic seminary was that it qualified me to enter a PhD program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. The first class I took through Trinity was Contextualization of Theology, taught by Harvie Conn, offered as an extension course in São Paulo. This course taught us how the never-changing gospel should be made understandable, relevant, and applicable to diverse societies.

I invited Harvie to dinner at my house so that several of my fellow missionaries could meet him. As usual, my wife served an excellent meal, and as everyone finished the main course, the women began gathering the dirty dishes to take them to the kitchen. Then Harvie stood and began to gather dirty dishes! Embarrassed, I joked, “If we (male missionaries) weren’t contextualized to the Latin culture, we would also help.” Harvie replied, “Sometimes gospel judges culture,” and then carried the dishes into the kitchen. The question is, How far can one go in contextualization if one recognizes the existence of structural sin?

On an institutional level, Penny Lernoux published a scathing report of how American multinationals abused their power in Latin America.89 I’m sure that in every case, the Americans involved would say that what they did was facilitated by nationals or was certainly no worse than what national corporations had done. It is this abuse and freedom to abuse that led the US Congress to pass a law stating that US corporations could be prosecuted under US law for actions in other countries.

While the debate on the limits of theological contextualization continue and are very important, we often forget that cultural adaptation can have economic, political, social, personal, and moral implications. While US corporations have at times gone too far in adapting to local business practices, I have also seen myself and other missionaries do questionable things on the “mission field” (language, TV and films, alcohol, dress, payment of employees) in the name of contextualization. Many of the missionaries I have talked with have decided to go with o responsável organization in churches because it is cultural. While societies vary in cultural norms and many of these issues are judgment calls, we must not let contextualization become an excuse for pushing the envelope of moral and biblical issues, because we must remember that the host culture has many elements that are also sinful.


LT forced me to acknowledge the many presuppositions that I had about poor people, capitalism, sin, ministry, the Bible, and more. I learned that I was often imposing my own culture, worldview, and social position on the biblical text. I learned that I must listen to others who are very different from me as they interpret the Bible so that I can better understand it myself while at the same time guarding against this other culture taking me to another, equally false, extreme. I learned that God has a special place in his heart for the poor and oppressed—a place in my heart that I seemed to have filled with pull-myself-up-by-my-own-bootstraps individualism. I learned, indeed, “the gospel is for all.” May God forgive me for my ignorance and presumptuousness in Bible study! May God transform me to have the mind and heart of Jesus! And may God use me as he sees fit in his mission!

Mike Landon was blessed to marry a wonderful woman and have three delightful children. God continued to bless him with opportunities to study at Oklahoma Christian University, Harding University Graduate School of Religion, Faculdade de Teologia Nossa Senhora da Assunção, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and to be a missionary in Brazil, minister in several US congregations, and teacher at a few Christian colleges. He can be contacted at


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1 Hereafter, I will refer to early Latin American Liberation Theology simply as LT, though I will occasionally use “early Latin American LT” as a reminder of the version I am representing. When I refer to later Latin American Liberation Theology or other versions, I will clarify.

2 After the fall of the USSR and because of continued influence from other areas, principally Black Theology of the US, LT became more open and less strident in the 1990s and beyond. See Alfred T. Hennelly, ed., Liberation Theology: A Documentary History (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1990) and Ignacio Ellacuría and Jon Sobrino, eds., Mysterium Liberationis: Fundamental Concepts of Liberation Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993) for introductions to early LT. For later LT, see John L. Kater, Jr., “Whatever Happened to Liberation Theology? New Directions for Theological Reflection in Latin America,” Anglican Theological Review 83, no. 4 (Fall 2001): 735–73.

3 This does not imply that others do not interpret the Bible based on presuppositions, or that Marxism is necessarily wrong in all of its assertions. While “Marxism” remains a flash word to most Americans, Marxist thought has been integrated into the very way history, economics, anthropology, and sociology are practiced throughout the world. No longer is Marxism promoted solely by foreigners and “liberal universities” in the US, but the use of some Marxist tenets is the normal practice of most academicians.

4 Leonardo Boff and Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology, trans. Paul Burns (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1987), 1–2.

5 Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (New York: Continuum, 1991), 50.

6 See also Carolina Maria de Jesus, Child of the Dark: The Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus, trans. David St. Claire (New York: Signet, 1962).

7 Second General Conference of Latin American Bishops (Medellín), “Document on the Poverty of the Church” in Hennelly, 114–19; Third General Conference of Latin American Bishops (Puebla), “Preferential Option for the Poor” in Hennelly, 253–58; Jorge V. Pixley and Clodovis Boff, The Bible, the Church, and the Poor, trans. Paul Burns (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989).

8 Medellín openly admitted and discussed the apparent contradiction of a “wealthy” church that preaches God’s preference for the poor (Hennelly, 114), but this tension applies to me as well.

9 The seminary had begun a new policy of bringing in Protestant teachers. Schwantes taught in a new masters program in Bible that first drew me to the school, though I ended up taking the doctoral program in theology.

10 Eta Linnemann deals with this view of Scripture in Historical Criticism of the Bible: Methodology or Ideology? trans. Robert W. Yarbrough (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), ch. 6, especially pp. 85–86 and 92, where she describes the use of a canon within the canon and Marxism in biblical criticism and interpretation.

11 Alan D. Myatt, “Liberation Theology and the Kingdom of God” (lecture, Evangelical Theological Society Meeting, Kansas City, MO, November 21–23, 1991), 2.

12 Ibid., 3–4, 19.

13 E.g., Rom 12:18; 14:19; 2 Cor 13:11 and Rom 13; 1 Pet 2.

14 David Regan, Igreja para a libertação: Retrato pastoral da igreja no Brasil, Fermento na massa (São Paulo, Brazil: Paulinas, 1986), 52. Translations of Portuguese texts by Michael Landon.

15 Boff and Boff, 28.

16 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons, Scribner Library Lyceum ed. (New York: Scribner, 1958), 88–92.

17 George E. G. Catlin, introduction to the translation of The Rules of Sociological Method by Émile Durkheim, ed. George E. G. Catlin, trans. Sarah A. Solovay and John H. Mueller, 8th ed. (New York: Free Press, 1938), xxx; Steven Lukes, Émile Durkheim: His Life and Work: A Historical and Critical Study (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), 151.

18 James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 20th anniversary ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1990), xvii–xviii, 23–28. See also Dwight N. Hopkins, Introducing Black Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999), 167–72 for the story of the first meetings between the two groups.

19 At NSA, I had a course taught by Julio de Santa Ana on the hermeneutics of early Latin American Liberation biblical scholars where we studied the hermeneutical methods of Jorge Pixley, Severino Croatto, Juan Luis Segundo, Rubem Alves, José Miranda, Elsa Tamez, Gilberto Gorgulho, Ana Flora Anderson, Pablo Richard, Milton Schwantes, Marcelo Barros, and Carlos Mestres. On the last day of the course, Santa Ana affirmed that although each author was different, every one of them used class conflict as part of their hermeneutical method.

20 Frei Betto, “Dimensão social do pecado,” Grande Sinal 29 no. 4 (July–August 1975): 501, emphasis added.

21 An early version is Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, trans. Cedric Belfrage (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973). See Pixley and Boff, 10–13. The bishops of Latin America clearly accepted the tenets of Dependency Theory in the final document of their second general conference (Conclusões de Medellín, 6th ed. [São Paulo: Paulinas, 1987], 26–27), but in their third conference, they warned against the uncritical use of Marxism in church pastoral work (Puebla: A evangelização no presente e no futuro da América Latina, 6th ed. [Petrópolis, Brazil: Vozes, 1985], 544).

22 Hugo Assmann, ed., A Trilateral: Nova fase do capitalismo mundial, trans. Hugo Pedro Boff, 3rd ed. (Petrópolis, Brazil: Vozes, 1986).

23 See Arthur F. McGovern, “Dependency Theory, Marxist Analysis, and Liberation Theology,” in The Future of Liberation Theology: Essays in Honor of Gustavo Gutiérrez, ed. Marc H. Ellis and Otto Maduro (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989), 280 for a similar evaluation.

24 A weakness of LT that I observed was that it focused on sweeping changes of the society that had only a tenuous link to personal change. See my article, “The Social Presuppositions of Early Liberation Theology,” Restoration Quarterly 47, no. 1 (2005): 17–28. (Unfortunately, through my error several of the footnotes in that article are not precise.)

25 Paulo Freire, Education for Critical Consciousness, ed. and trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (New York: Continuum, 1990), translated from Educação como prática da liberdade, 2nd ed. (Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1969) and Extención y comunicación (Santiago: Institute for Agricultural Reform, 1969), 149.

26 Hennelly, xviii, 2, 4–13.

27 Ibid., xix.

28 Ibid., xvii–xix; see also Otto Maduro’s last three chapters on the role of the church and priest in raising class consciousness in Religion and Social Conflicts, trans. Robert R. Barr (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1982), 136–44.

29 Juan Luis Segundo, “Two Theologies of Liberation,” in Hennelly, 360.

30 Ibid., 359–60.

31 José Míguez Bonino, Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Situation, Confrontation Books (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975), 144–50.

32 Jürgen Moltmann, “An Open Letter to José Míguez Bonino,” in Hennelly, 197. For LT’s dependence on Teilhard de Chardin, see John W. Cooper, “Teilhard, Marx, and the Worldview of Prominent Liberation Theologians,” Calvin Theological Journal 24, no. 2 (November 1989): 241–62.

33 Moltmann, 198.

34 See Michael Landon, Sweating It Out (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2006), 33–36 for more information about the specifics of how this economic abuse took place. This research referred to here formed one part of the NSA dissertation that I began but never finished. See McGovern, 277–79, for a similar evaluation.

35 Thomas L. Friedman, The World Is Flat (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).

36 For a short introduction to this concept as developed by W. W. Rostow, see Wayne G. Bragg, “Theological Reflections on Assisting the Vulnerable,” in Christian Relief and Development, ed. Edgar J. Elliston (Dallas: Word, 1989), 64–65.

37 Ronald H. Chilcote and Joel C. Edelstein, Latin America: Capitalist and Socialist Perspectives of Development and Underdevelopment, Latin American Perspectives 3 (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1986).

38 Justo González, Faith and Wealth: A History of Early Christian Ideas on the Origin, Significance, and Use of Money (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990), 15.

39 Lev 25:14–17, 23, 35–43; Deut 15:7–11; Acts 2, 4.

40 Lev 25:2–7, 18–22.

41 Prov 6:6–8; 13:11; 21:20; 22:3, 7; Deut 30:15–20.

42 Possible examples are Robert A. Sirico, co-founder of Acton Institute,; Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), among many other books and articles; and Franky Schaeffer, introduction to Is Capitalism Christian? ed. Franky Schaeffer (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1985), xvi–xviii.

43 Fernando H. Cardoso, Política e desenvolvimento em sociedades dependentes, 2nd ed. (Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1978), 210. It appears the problem he encountered was a lack of enough data to have statistically valid conclusions. See also Peter Moll, “Liberating Liberation Theology: Towards Independence from Dependency Theory,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 78 (March 1992): 29–33 and Dennis P. McCann, “Liberation and the Multinationals,” Theology Today 41, no. 1 (April 1984): 52–53.

44 One of the greatest blessings in my life was encountering the literature and person of Paul G. Hiebert. The article in question here is “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle,” Missiology 10, no. 1 (January 1982): 35–47, where Hiebert denounces the tendency for Western Christians to split reality into two separate and unrelated realms—physical and spiritual. His writings have been life-changing, and, in person, he was a very kind and loving man.

45 Landon, “Social Presuppositions,” 23–24.

46 Ps 136; Neh 9; Acts 7; Heb 11.

47 See Mason’s summary in Landon, Sweating It Out, 133 or in John D. Mason, “Biblical Teaching and Assisting the Poor,” in The Best in Theology, ed. J. I. Packer (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, 1988), 2:300.

48 E.g., Prov 13:3; 22:22, 26–27; 28:3.

49 E.g., Prov 6:6–11; 13:18; 21:17; 24:30–34; 28:19.

50 See the list in Landon, Sweating It Out, 137.

51 Much of what is written below is described in greater detail in my article, “Social Presuppositions.”

52 See Edward Farley, Good and Evil: Interpreting a Human Condition (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), 252–3 for an introduction to the four principal philosophical and religious ways of interpreting evil.

53 Clodovis Boff, “O pecado social,” Revista Eclesiástica Brasileira 37, no. 148 (December 1977): 693.

54 Betto, 501. See also Arthur Rich, “Imperativos objetivos de la economia y pecado estrutural,” Selecciones de Teologia 24, no. 93 (January–March 1985): 37.

55 John H. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 135–62; Richard J. Mouw, Politics and the Biblical Drama (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 89; Stephen C. Mott, Biblical Ethics and Social Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 4–10.

56 Jim Reppart, “A Cry for Help!” World Radio News 30, no. 4 (July–August 1993): 12.

57 Harvie M. Conn (lecture given during an extension course on contextualization,Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, São Paulo, Brazil, 1987).

58 Robert C. Linthicum, Empowering the Poor (Monrovia, CA: MARC, 1991), 5–6.

59 On conspiracy against the poor, see Michael Lipton, “Why Poor People Stay Poor: Urban Bias in World Development,” in The Urbanization of the Third World, ed. Josef Gugler (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 45.

60 For example, they pay the highest percentage of income into social security. Liz P. Weston, “How Social Security Cheats You to Pay the Rich,” MSN Money Central,

61 The best studies for Churches of Christ are Richard T. Hughes and C. Leonard Allen, Discovering Our Roots: The Ancestry of Churches of Christ (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1988) and Richard T. Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996). For Protestants in general, see Tony Campolo, Partly Right: Learning from the Critics of Christianity (Dallas: Word, 1985); Frank Viola and George Barna, Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2008); and David W. Bercot, Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up: A New Look at Today’s Evangelical Church in the Light of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. (Tyler, TX: Scroll, 1999).

62 Michael Sievernich, “O ‘pecado social’ e sua confissão,” Concilium 210, no. 3 (March 1987): 68.

63 C. Boff, “Pecado social,” 690.

64 Leonardo Boff, A graça libertadora no mundo, 3rd ed., Publicações CID, Teologia 12 (Petrópolis, Brazil: Vozes, 1985), 172.

65 Antonio Moser, “Mais desafios para a teologia de pecado,” Revista Eclesiástica Brasileira 40, no. 160 (December 1980): 690–91.

66 Pixley and Boff, 2, 141–42, 159–84.

67 Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation, trans. and ed. Caridad Inda and John Eagleson (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1973), 276.

68 E.g., 1 Cor 10:12–13.

69 Gerd Theissen, Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity, trans. John Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978) and The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity: Essays on Corinth, ed. and trans. John H. Schütz (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982).

70 It appears the original concept of flat and round characters was developed by E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988 [1927]), 73. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says, “Flat characters are two-dimensional in that they are relatively uncomplicated and do not change throughout the course of a work. By contrast, round characters are complex and undergo development, sometimes sufficiently to surprise the reader.” Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, “Flat and Round Characters,” accessed February 9, 2011,

71 I find these beginning texts to be especially useful: Richard Rohrbaugh, ed., The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), or John J. Pilch and Bruce J. Malina, eds., Biblical Social Values and Their Meaning: A Handbook (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993).

72 Segundo; Freire, Education.

73 The result of one such class formed the introduction to my article, “The Psalms as Mission,” Restoration Quarterly 44, no. 3 (2002): 165–75.

74 Norman K. Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 356.

75 Scripture quotations are taken from the New International Version.

76 William L. Holladay, ed., A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 262.

77 Milton Schwantes (lecture given during a course on Israelite monarchy, Faculdade de Teologia Nossa Senhora da Assunção, São Paulo, Brazil, 1987).

78 Experts recognize two levels of poverty: relative poverty and absolute poverty. Very few in the US meet the criteria for absolute poverty, though millions do in Africa and Asia. See David Gordon, “Indicators of Poverty & Hunger,”

79 Poverty is not simply a matter of material resource but of a state of mind, principally hopelessness. See Bryant Myers, “What Is Poverty Anyway?” MARC Newsletter 97, no. 1 (March 1997): 3–4 and Bryant Myers, “We Are a Cursed People,” MARC Newsletter 98, no. 1 (March 1998): 3–4 for short but excellent discussions.

80 Michael Landon, “The Challenges of Poverty to the North American Church,” Restoration Quarterly 47, no. 2 (2005): 105–15.

81 Michael Hudson, Merchants of Misery (Common Courage Press, 1996), quoted in Fred Clark, “Merchants of Misery,” Prism 5, no. 3 (March–April 1998): 38; Business Week, “Minting Money Off Poverty,” MSN Money Central,

82 Continent of Great Cities, “Latin America’s Middle Class Holds Answer,” Continent of Great Cities South America (Spring 1992): 2,

83 Randall Wittig, “Latin American Evangelicals Must Look Beyond Short Term,” World Pulse, “in a recent issue,” quoted in Continent of Great Cities, 2.

84 There are indications that Continent of Great Cities is becoming more flexible in their approach.

85 S. N. Eisenstadt and Louis Roniger, “Patron-Client Relations as a Model of Structuring Social Exchange,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 22, no. 1 (June 1980): 49 and Larissa Lomnitz, “Reciprocity of Favors in the Urban Middle Class of Chile,” in Studies in Economic Anthropology, Anthropological Studies 7 (Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association, 1971), 104.

86 Reed E. Nelson, “Organizational Homogeneity, Growth, and Conflict in Brazilian Protestantism,” Sociological Analysis 48, no. 4 (1988): 319–27.

87 Anthony Leeds, “Brazilian Careers and Social Structure: An Evolutionary Model and Case History,” American Anthropologist 66, no. 6 part 1 (December 1964): 1336. Igrejinha does not refer to a church, but to any group led by one strongman.

88 This does not imply that the US understanding of elderships is without influence from our society.

89 Penny Lernoux, Cry of the People: United States Involvement in the Rise of Fascism, Torture, and Murder and the Persecution of the Catholic Church in Latin America (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980), esp. chs. 4 and 7.

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