A Synopsis of

From Wasteland to Promised land:
Liberation Theology
for a Post-Marxist World

by Robert V. Andelson and James M. Dawsey

1. Land: The Hope of the Oppressed on Every Continent

t the start of the 1990s, while the Berlin Wall and the authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe toppled, Latin American communities and clergy who were operating under the banner of liberation theology began throwing off the yoke of oppression.

The uprising of subjected peoples around the world lends immediacy to the search for genuine liberation. While many emphasize political matters, equally critical are the ethical and economic underpinnings of liberation. To ignore these will likely result in a tragic disillusionment for the people who have made the enormous sacrifices to chart new courses.

In How the Other Half Dies, Susan George wrote that "The most pressing cause of the abject poverty which millions of people in this world endure is that a mere 2.5% of landowners with more than 100 hectares control nearly three quarters of all the land in the world - with the top 0.23% controlling half." To recognize this social plague for what it is, and to avert a backlash of despair, requires a clear understanding of two great themes: the Promised Land and the Wasteland.

The Promised Land is the hope of the landless, literally, land, the gateway to opportunity. Abraham in Mesopotamia and the Israelites in bondage in Egypt so wished for their own land that they left homes and familiar surroundings and risked death to seek the distant place God had promised, a land rich in milk and honey, where a day's labor would put food on the table and allow their children to grow into adulthood. This exodus pattern has been repeated over and over, from the migrations of prehistory to the boat people of our day. For centuries, immigrants have poured into the Americas, looking for the inheritance denied to them in the Old World -- their portion of land.

But the Promised Land is not so much a geographic place as it is a hope and a vision of a just social order. Modern society has many wondrous features, but it certainly is not the Promised Land in its full glory. Indeed, we are "modern captives" who sense the Promised Land as a primitive instinct, as a deep longing, and as a cry from the depths of our captivity that the world should be different.

All of us, no less than the Hebrews in Egypt, are captives of structures imposed upon us. To enslave people, today as three thousand years ago, is to rob them of the value of their labor. Millions of working people living in severe poverty are robbed of the fruits of their labor. Through various forms of exploitation, especially the monopolization of land rights, large segments of humanity are oppressed, dehumanized, held in bondage. One factor enabling governments to legalize land theft and lend respectability to exploitative landlordism is the general silence of religious and intellectual leaders about humanity's common rights to land.

We begin to penetrate and overcome this silence when we realize that the Wasteland is wasted land, unfulfilled potential, producing no "milk and honey." Speculators in both urban and rural areas hoard land on which the hungry, the homeless, and the jobless could feed, shelter, and employ themselves. Keeping valuable lands idle causes artificial shortages that drive up rents which poor people must pay for poor land. Land hoarding deserves much of the blame for creating the Wasteland: it forces people into the "desert." There, people find the oases controlled by more land monopolists who must be paid a ransom for access to nature's life-sustaining water. And as we will see, the primary focus of Biblical economic laws was the prevention of precisely this sort of usurpation of God's gifts to all creatures.

The midbar, the biblical Wasteland, is only part desert. It has towns and pastures, but it lacks the "fullness of life." This anomaly is mirrored in the modern Wasteland, crowded with factories, skyscrapers and mansions -- along with ugly blight and squalid slums.

The point of departure of liberation theology is the recognition of the awful fact that millions lead subhuman lives. The rural landless seek refuge in cities, often becoming squatters in barrios or favelas with open sewage and no safe water supply. They may earn fifteen dollars a month if they find work at all. Children live in the streets and go to bed hungry. Illness and drought, and even complaining of their lot, may lead to premature death. And they can see the Mercedes behind the iron gates of walled mansions. (Ironically, mercedes is also a Spanish legal term denoting title to a large grant of land.) Like poor Lazarus in the parable of Jesus (Luke 16:19-31), they survive on the crumbs that fall from the rich man's table. When judgement comes to the rich man, he receives no mercy because he had shown none.