Post-Colonial Theory and Latin American Liberation Theology

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In the discourse of Post-Colonial Theory production and consumption signify a dialectical arena in which the investigation of the convoluted processes of cultural production and consumption take place. Nothing less than meaning and value are at stake. Marx and Engels clearly saw this early on. Speaking to the bourgeoisie,

“The selfish misconception that induces you to transform into eternal laws of nature and of reason, the social forms springing from your present mode of production and form of property—historical relations that rise and disappear in the progress of production—this misconception you share with every ruling class that has proceeded you.” [1]

While those within bourgeois society protested the communist desire to destroy the social relations that they saw as “eternal laws of nature and of reason”, the irony, according to Marx and Engels, is that it is exactly the bourgeois epoch that made this possible. The need for constantly reinventing the means of production has caused all social relations to be reinvented as well. Along with the commodification of all things, including the reification of humanity, capitalism has shown that there are no fixed cultural meanings but rather that in its path, “all that is solid melts into thin air” [2]. Put differently, all cultural meaning and value is subsumed to the demands of the market and its dictates.

Taking up Marx along with Nietzsche, Freud and Heidegger as well as the insights of structuralism the multifarious field of post-structuralism has arrived at many of the same conclusions. The early work of the French philosopher and sociologist Michael Foucault discloses that it is most often those with power who determine what counts as knowledge, i.e. what is or is not meaningful and/or valuable. Jacques Derrida’s work has also done much in suggesting that the meanings conveyed through different semiotic fields are not metaphysically or ontologically founded, nor are they necessary.

In the present day power and the production of meaning are almost always wedded to those on the receiving end of economic flow. Taking up this insight and following a Marxist, post-structuralist, postmodern trajectory—in the recognition that cultural meaning and value are contingent, often produced through power—Post-colonial Theory seeks to unearth the discursive relations that construct these important aspects of culture [3]. Some examples of this would be Edward Said’s work on Orientalism as well as Homi Bahbha’s work–which makes use of many of the same post-stucturalist tools that Said does in order to argue, against Said, that the differance present in the colonial discourse itself offers opportunities for resistance and subversion [4]. As literature and writing are often the means through which cultural meaning, value and knowledge are constructed the arena of production and consumption is especially concerned with examining literature. Yet, as with little else in the present world this is not an isolated area of study.

In Philip G. Altbach’s essay, “Literary Colonialism: Books in the Third World”, it becomes evident that to examine literature one must consider many other factors. In this essay Altbach examines the economic and political modalities and relations that make literature production and consumption possible in the “third world” [5]. Writing in protest can be another avenue of investigation and even resistance. In questioning Fredrick Jameson’s statement that “all third world texts are necessarily… to be read as… national allegories”, Aijaz Ahmad reveals and resists an attempt to fix meaning [6]. Ahmad’s resistance is especially important as Jameson’s authority, and thus ability to produce knowledge, comes from his powerful position as a prominent Marxist scholar and cultural theorist in the “first world” academy.


In 1971 the Latin American Catholic theologian Gustavo Gutierrez published his seminal work Teologia de la Liberacion. This work and the movement that it both represented and progressed, Liberation Theology, constitute a prime example of the processes involved in production and consumption. Not only was the movement part of a larger resistance towards the unjust economic policies being enforced from the first world—a process that many have perceived as a new form of colonialism—but it was also a movement that sought to define the meaning and role of a religion’s sacred text and tradition for a certain community, namely the poor of Latin America. In the movement of Latin American Liberation Theology the question over who was able to produce meaning and value was addressed head on. Fortunately Latin America had developed a rather sophisticated printing press by this time and thus texts such as Guiterrez’s could be printed locally [7].

However, the most pressing question, that of who was able to produce theological meaning and a hermeneutics of ecclesial value, were still at stake. Many Latin American theologians advocated for the use of Marxist critical analysis as a helpful tool in social examination and theological reasoning. In light of this and other routes of meticulous analysis they found that the social and economic disparities that abounded were due to structural injustices brought about by the expansion of capital and its imperial promoters. Included in this was the idea of development [8].

Those on the other side of the imperial divide, those benefiting from the economic and political relations, could not have disagreed more. The American Christian economist, Gary North, suggested that Third-world poverty was due to, “moral perversity, a long history of demonism, and outright paganism.” [9] David Chilton of the Institute for Christian Economics believed that poverty is how “God controls heathen cultures.” [10]

Possibly the most well known among these is the American Catholic theologian Michael Novak who dedicated much of his work to refuting Liberation Theology. According to Novak corporate capitalism “mirrors God’s presence” on earth. [11] Ironically, for all its pronouncements, Novak’s “theology of the corporation” was not built on the examination of economic and political relations, but rather on the ideological presumption that Latin America’s lack of modernization was due to indigenous cultural factors that erected roadblocks to capitalist development [12].

Through all of these engagements theologians in the West, specifically in America, were attempting to challenge the notion that the indigenous in Latin American had the ability and right to (1) discern the socio-politico-economic factors subjugating them and (2) speak prophetically against these forces using the rich Christian theological tradition. As has so often characterized the West, those in opposition to Liberation Theology were skeptical of anything that came into being outside of and challenged their limited, ethnocentric paradigm and all too willing to put their theology to work buttressing imperial projects.


In his book The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama famously declared that with the fall of the Berlin Wall the end of history had come. For Fukuyama it was not that events would cease to happen but rather that the great ideological battles had ceased in the rise of liberal-democratic capitalism. While many have critiqued this Hegelian proclamation of vast ideological, audacious and ethnocentric proportions, and Fukuyama has since revised his views, it is nevertheless partially true. At the current moment there seems to be no projects that can counter or even exist outside of the spread of Capital. Ivan Petrella, in his work The Future of Liberation Theology: An Argument and Manifesto, argues that the most substantial hurdle to be overcome by Liberation Theology is the present lack of realizable alternatives to capitalism. “In my mind,” Petrella remarks, “all the other changes need to be understood in relation to the demise of the socialist alternative. For liberation theology, the fall of the Berlin Wall represents the loss of a practical alternative to capitalism. In fact the prospect of an alternative seems to have disappeared from view.” Petrella goes on to argue that present day liberation theologian’s responses to the problems Liberation Theology faces all “…suffer from a common defect—the inability to devise concrete alternatives to the current social order.” [13]

A dream of Petrella’s is that Liberation Theology will begin to do more than offer a phenomenology of poverty and instead theorize and even construct new political, social and economic alternatives to capitalism. One aspect of this is the continued production and consumption of narratives that articulate the present inequalities and recognize both their contingency and reliance on ideology. Another dream is that Liberation Theology does not die out in light of the other world spirituality that often accompanies Pentecostal Christianity–one of, if not the fastest growing expressions of the Christian faith world wide [14]. The hope is that the Church will tell the story of Israel, Christ, the Church and salvation in a way that makes it clear that the Kingdom of God has indeed broken into our present reality in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that in light of this there are new ways to live that challenge the world’s greedy, fearful and dominating ways of structuring political, economic and social life. The Church should continue to produce and embody a meaningful, theologically rich, and practical critique of the world that the future generations of the Church can consume, embody and carry forth. This will necessarily be an immanent critique, however, this fact is not a hindrance. Rather, in light of the Incarnation, it should be seen as a continuation of the work of the God who entered, and continues to enter into our chaotic history to save us from ourselves.


[1] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, trans. Samuel Moore (New York: Penguin Classics, 2002), 221.

[2] (Marx 2002, 222)

[3] See Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, eds., The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, 2nd ed., The Postcolonial Exotic, by Graham Huggan (Newyork: Routledge, 2001).

[4] See Ashcroft, Bill., ed. 2006,

[5] See Ashcroft, Bill., ed. 2006, “Literary Colonialism: Books in the Third World”, by Philip G. Altbach, Harvard Educational Review 45 (2) (May 1975).

[6] Ashcroft, Bill., ed. 2006, “Jameson’s Rhetoric of Otherness and the ‘National Allegory’”, by Aijaz Ahmad, Social Text 17 (Fall 1987), 84.

[7] Ahmad, Aijaz 1987. See Ashcroft, Bill., ed. 2006.

[8] See Jose Miguez-Bonino, “Marxist Critical Tools: Are They Helpful in Breaking the Stranglehold of Idealistic Hermeneutics?,” in Voices from the Margins: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World, 3rd. ed., ed. R. S. Sugirtharajah (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2006), 40-48. and, Gustavo Gutierrez. A Theology of Liberation (),. and, Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006).

[9] (Grandin 2006, 148)

[10] Ibid., 149.

[11] Ibid., 147.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ivan Petrella, The Future of Liberation Theology: An Argument and Manifesto (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2004), 2.

[14] See, See, Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), and Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity: The Gospel beyond the West (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eardmans Publishing, 2003) ch. 7.


4 thoughts on “Post-Colonial Theory and Latin American Liberation Theology

  1. This is really good stuff Dan. I’m glad you brought up Petrella towards the end, as he seems like one of the few people theorizing a ‘future’ for liberation theology as such. The one big problem I see with Petrella (and others) take on the possibility for alternatives to savage capitalism is there insistence on a sort of practicality, and although I think imaging practical alternatives is important, there is a risk in underestimating the metaphysical/ontological hold that capital has on reality as such, so while using things like liturgy to re-concive our notions of economics and exchange (Cavanaugh’s recent work has been brilliant in this respect), one should equally recognize that religion has the ability to act as a ‘performative metaphysics’, in which ontology and subjectivity ‘happen’.

    I do hope, however, we see a resurgence of interest in Liberation Theology and the construction of new projects in this area, as it seems that its (sadly) died off in the past decade.

    1. Michael,
      Thanks for the encouraging words. I totally agree with you on the Cavanaugh and religions front. I think that this can be the space of resistance par excellence but only if the church recognizes that it becomes ecclesia as it is in solidarity with the ‘shit’ verses being constituted as such and then choosing to have a preferential option for the poor when it feels like it. And just so you know, which you already do I think, your work is what led me to Petrella.

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