208: THE CAUSES OF POVERTY according to Clodovis Boff

“A warm welcome to Zingcreed, the totally unique Christian/Atheist blog where I think aloud about religion and the world. You are free to ‘eavesdrop’ on my musings, and I hope you get as much out of reading them as I do out of writing them!” Peter Turner, M.A., M.Sc.

Clodovis and Leonardo Boff are two Brazilian brothers, both of them professors of theology, who between them have done much to define and clarify the world of Liberation Theology. I find Clodovis’s analysis of the root causes of oppression, and thus of poverty, to be a useful tool for understanding society in the West as well as in the Global South. I thus commend it to your attention.

Anyone who has dipped into the Greek Scriptures (the so-called ‘New’ Testament) will have noticed Jesus’ preoccupation with the poor, especially the destitute in his corner of the Mediterranean. Latin American theologians like the Boffs use the social sciences to get to grips with this issue. The Catholic church talks of an “Option to the Poor”, but as the theologian  José Porfirio Miranda rightly protests it should be called an “Obligation to the Poor”.

According to Boff, there are three main alternative explanations for the fact of socioeconomic poverty:

(1) The empiricist explanation (don’t panic at the word ’empiricist’ – I had to look it up too. It’s just academic jargon, don’t let it put you off!)

  • Sees poverty as a vice, brought about by the fecklessness, ignorance or malice  of the poor themselves.
  • Fails to take into account the structural and societal dimensions (there may be no jobs available, the person may be physically/mentally handicapped).
  • Solution: charity, the poor are mere objects of pity.

(2) The functionalist explanation (I’ve no idea what ‘functionalist’ means either – I’m just paraphrasing what I read in a book. The point is – you don’t actually need  to know; the rest of it makes perfect sense without this word!)

  • Sees poverty as backwardness, it’s not just the individual who is backward in this view, it’s the whole country he or she lives in…
  • Solution: foreign investment will spur the backward country’s economy and eventually poverty will be eliminated. The poor are passive objects of governmental top-down reform.
  • But this ignores class conflict. Poverty is not a passing phase, it is the product of economic, political and social structures where the rich are getting richer all the time at the expense of the poor! So, let’s check out……

(3) The dialectical explanation

  • Poverty = oppression, pure and simple.
  • It’s the inevitable by-product of an economic system that either exploits or excludes the great majority of people from the production process.  (Yes, Boff does mean capitalism).
  • Conflict of interests is built into the system and people are never going to be happy until it’s all just a fading memory.
  • As the poor, the plebs, the proles,  emerge on the barricades as the agents of change in society their battle cries ring out and a genuinely alternative non-oppressive system may dawn. Liberation? The Kingdom of God!? Communism?!

As a Christian, Clodovis Boff goes for option (3). How about you? His brother Leonardo has reservations: “proposed revolutionary approaches seem to be too utopian and not viable politically. Revolutionary transformations within the existing system would seem to offer us a way to arrive gradually at a more just and equitable system.” That’s still a vote for option (3) though! (emphasis added)

These two Catholics (Clodovis is a priest) were strongly influenced by André  Gundar Frank’s “Dependency theory of Development”. As that’s something I know quite a lot about, I’ll write another Zingcreed Post on it soon.

The Boff brothers write about making personal contact with the poor “if one is to acquire new theological sensitivity”(!) . I happen to know Petrôpolis in Brazil, where Leonardo works. It’s a beautiful old middle class town with little visible poverty. It has wide tree-lined avenues and plenty of luxury boutiques (and traffic jams). It could be anywhere in southern Europe except that it has humming birds and the coffee is better. Don’t expect to find favelas (slums) there!
Writing from their ivory towers buzzing with humming birds and reeking of ‘Santos’ coffee beans, the Boffs  indicate that “different forms and levels of contact can be taken up, depending on the inclinations and circumstances of persons interested.”

  • 1st level – sporadic visits and meetings e.g. pastoral work at weekends or acting as advisor to communities or popular movements. In other words what in England is disparagingly called “slumming”.
  • 2nd level – alternating periods of scholarly work (Research, teaching, writing) with periods of practical work (pastoral or theological) in a particular church.
  • 3rd level – live permanently with the people, living and working alongside them. (Option for those who have failed in academia?! P.T.)

Well, that should solve the problem of world poverty then! (Not!)

Related Zingcreed Posts:
Jesus and wealthy people
Prophets attack profits
Liberation theology, dead or alive?
No way José! (José Porfirio Miranda)
Structural ‘sin’
London’s homeless speak #1: Alan (follow links to others)
559: Just helping is not enough
Red Christian Documents #39: Voluntary Poverty (Gustavo Gutierrez, Peru, 1971)
US muzzles anti-poverty campaigners
Crimes of the bourgeoisie #4: Resources go to the rich

Boff, C. & L. “Introducing Liberation Theology” Orbis (1986)
Petrella, I. “The future of Liberation Theology” SCM (2006) p.27, 76


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