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Issues Facing Missions Today: 57. Misunderstanding Righteousness: Liberation Theology and the Commands of God


One often hears the claim that Jesus was on the side of the marginalized.  This notion stands at the heart of liberation theology, with its various emphases on liberation of the poor, women, ethnic minorities, colonized societies, and now the extension of the liberation agenda to gender issues.  ‘Righteousness’ is in Jesus’ vocabulary, as is the socio-political phrase ‘kingdom of God.’  But simply stating that Jesus was on the side of the marginalized or poor can be and often is actually a twisting of his message for purposes that Jesus frankly opposed.

The Effectiveness of a Liberation Theology

After fifty or more years of liberation theology in its many forms, one might wonder if this is a discussion still to rehearse.  Doesn’t theology ‘move on,’ getting cast in different moulds from decade to decade?  The fact is that liberation theology was presented simply enough to be a highly effective tool to challenge various injustices in the world, such as the unbearable inequities of the poor in South America or the racist policies of Apartheid in South Africa.  Also, the theological capsule that ‘God is on the side of the poor’ became a panacea for any number of social maladies.

Jesus and the Liberation Mantra

And, despite the attempt by some to prop this theology up with Marxist ideology, Biblical narratives seemed easily available to provide Scriptural authority for liberation activities.  So, for example, was Jesus not on the side of the poor?  Was he on the side of the marginalized?  Can Jesus’ message be applied to present-day, socio-political agendas of the broadly conceived ideology of ‘liberation’?

Evidence for this interpretation of Jesus’ life seems readily available.  Was he not born in a stable to young parents of humble means?  Did he not choose fishermen from Galilee for disciples over promising students of teachers in Jerusalem?  Did he not accept tax collectors and prostitutes over the Pharisees?  Did he not accuse the Pharisees of being lovers of money (Luke 16.14)?  Did he not tell the rich ruler to sell everything, give to the poor, and follow him, adding that ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God’ (Luke 18.18-25)?

The Potency of Half-Truths

So developed, a liberation interpretation of Jesus’ message seems quite potent for theology.  Yet there is a problem: it is a half-truth.  The theological potency of liberation theology lies in the fact that it is not blatantly wrong in certain things it claims or certain interpretations of Scripture that it provides--though there are many weaknesses.  Nor is this some new discovery: Christianity is full of powerful stories of persons of wealth who sold their treasures to give to the poor, such as Saint Nicholas or Saint Francis.  We equally have stories from history of amazingly wicked persons who grasped power and wealth, put their detractors to death, and yet occupied seats of religious authority, such as Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503).

But liberation theology is a half-truth.  Jesus did not ally himself on the side of despised tax collectors because they were despised in society or on the side of prostitutes because their sexual ethic was despised by the righteous.  The tax collectors and prostitutes were affirmed because they were, as we read in Luke 15, the lost who needed to be found (parables: The Lost Coin and the Lost Sheep) and prodigals who needed to return to the Father (parable: The Prodigal Son).  The Pharisees and scribes were not opposed because they were privileged and powerful but because they were shutting the doors to sinners.  The message of ‘righteousness’ was not fully explained in terms of justice but needed to be explained further in terms of forgiveness and mercy.  The wealthy were not wicked simply because they were wealthy and powerful but because they gained their wealth and power through injustice.  They exploited the poor.  And they shut out sinners rather than sought their salvation.  Also, they were in spiritual danger because their affections for things of this world replaced a desire for God.  None of this, though, made the poor righteous simply for being poor or marginalized.  As Paul says, ‘Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1.15)—whether rich or poor, male or female, Jew or Gentile.

The Flexibility of Vague-Value Ethics

Jesus’ message cannot be cast in terms of changing the understanding of righteousness from its thick description in the Old Testament to some libertine version of it.  It cannot be described in terms of vague values, such as liberation or love, instead of the very concrete rules, norms, and acts of righteousness in the Old Testament.  And it cannot be expressed in terms of a ‘freedom to’ ethic without also being expressed in terms of a ‘freedom from’ ethic—freedom from sin and unrighteousness and unholiness.  Moreover, ‘freedom to’ is not a license for self-expression of sinful people but a freedom to live in obedience to God once the shackles of sin as a power have been removed through the power of the cross and Jesus resurrection life.

When we hear people—including clergy and scholars on a regular basis—hook their own agendas to Jesus’ life and ministry by casting Jesus’ message in vague categories such as liberation, we need to realize that Jesus’ Kingdom of God message is being twisted.  One of the most popular logical fallacies in theology is to cast Biblical teaching in broad terms by speaking of vague values that can be applied in any variety of ways or even by reducing value ethics itself to just one or two vague values—such is the practice of ‘liberation’ and ‘love’ ethics.

Some Examples—thanks to Desmond Tutu

An example in the news these days comes to us through the old champion of the fight for liberation in the person of Southern Africa’s former Anglican Archbishop, Desmond Tutu.  Liberation theology proved to be a powerful theological weapon in the fight against Apartheid in South Africa.  But the flexibility of this theology allowed Churchmen to redirect it to other socio-political agendas.  Desmond Tutu was one of several powerful voices challenging Apartheid in his day.  In retirement, he continues to apply his liberation theology to post-Apartheid issues.  As George Conger recently reported, Tutu has thrown his support behind nominee Marwan Barghouthi, a Palestinian freedom fighter, for the Nobel Peace Prize.  Tutu has said, ‘Marwan is also an active advocate and defender of democracy and human rights, including women’s rights, and of pluralism, both religious and political, in a region of the world that desperately needs such advocates.’[1]  Tutu, however, has long lived in a world of vague values—one must ask deeper questions than liberation agendas allow: ‘Whose justice, whose freedom, whose hope, whose peace, whose love?’  As it turns out, according to the article, Barghouthi is imprisoned for murder of women and children, a terrorist calling for the murder of persons simply for being Jews.  Details get in the way of an ethic of vague values in the cause of socio-political agendas.

And so, too, the looming issue of the LGBT agenda for Anglicans in Southern Africa.  While still officially opposed to same-sex marriage, the Anglican Church’s long use of liberation theology in the Province to oppose Apartheid seems inexorably to be moving towards embracing this antithesis of historic Christianity.  A relentless agenda of liberation, like the trickle of water on rocks, can cut through any concern for Biblical authority or the historic Church’s teaching.  With respect to the LGBT agenda in Westernized, mainline denominations, Tutu is also in the news for his support of his ordained daughter’s ‘marriage’ to an atheist woman.  Mpho Tutu is ordained by the Episcopal Church in the USA, which has flouted the Scriptures, theology, and authority of the Church on this and other issues.  But she has had to surrender her license to minister in South Africa because the Anglican Church of Southern Africa does not accept same-sex marriage for its clergy—although the matter is under discussion.  The entire, sordid account of her divorce, same-sex marriage, and marriage to an atheist has been turned into a story of her oppression by the allegedly abusive, anti-liberation teaching of historic Christianity.[2]

In Conclusion

Jesus may well have shown up at Tutu’s non-wedding wedding celebration in Franschhoek, South Africa last month.  He often found himself in the company of sinners rather than of the righteous.  But it was not to affirm the sin of the sinners.  Rather, he was a friend of sinners because he was a physician to the sick.  He was the prophet who had arrived to call them out of the exile of their sins and to the righteousness of the Kingdom of God.  He was the Saviour who willingly went to the cross to save sinners from their sins through his sacrificial, vicarious death on their behalf.  He did not bake a cake to help sinners celebrate their sin; he shed his blood for them on the cross instead.

It was those who refused to enter this righteousness of God, to turn from their sins and live according to the commands of God, who were being excluded from the Kingdom.  In Jesus’ day, they were the scribes and Pharisees, the Sadducees, the chief priests and elders, the rulers, in other words, people who liked their version of righteousness instead of God’s, who were too comfortable in their version of righteousness to repent of their sins, and who opposed any ministry directed to sinners. 

True liberation—Biblical liberation—is a liberation from sin so that people are free to obey the commands of God.  After all, Israel’s exodus from Egypt was not simply or even foremost a story of liberation from the socio-political slavery of Egypt; it was, above all, a release of God’s people so that they could discover the God of Mt. Sinai, with his commands of righteousness, and be formed as his obedient people.  True liberation is liberation to live according to the concrete commands of God.

[1] See George Conger, ‘Tutu backs peace prize for jailed terrorist leader,’ Anglican Ink 10 June, 2016; online at: (accessed 14 June, 2016).
[2] See George Conger, ‘Tutu license lifted before, not after, her SA wedding,’ Anglican Ink (24 May, 2016); online at (accessed 14 June, 2016).