The Bible as Action Manual: Radical Reflections on Siding with the Poor.

Liberation Stories:

The focus of The Radical Bible, published in 1972, was social justice and ‘The Third World’ as it was then known, meaning the poor and powerless peoples of the earth, most of whom live in Asia, Africa and Latin America. This is not to say that justice is all the Bible is concerned with, nor that it speaks only of the powerful rich and their frequent and continued oppression of the powerless poor, nor that the Scriptural passages below provide neat formulas for dealing with specific contemporary issues. The intention of the compilers of ‘The Radical Bible’ was that God’s Word should jolt us, for “the voice of the Lord breaks down cedars” and “flashes forth flames of fire” (Ps. 29). God brings about radical transformations and rearrangements, pulling down the mighty from their thrones and exalting those those of low degree. In the following ‘poem’, Jesus reveals his ‘bias to the poor’, to borrow a phrase coined by the former Bishop of Liverpool, the late David Sheppard:

Who are the happy people?

You poor people,

you belong to God;

you who are hungry now,

you shall have food;

you who are worried now,

you shall laugh.

Who are the unhappy people?

you rich people,

you who have had a good time;

you who have plenty to eat now,

you shall be hungry;

you who are laughing now,

you shall be worried and sad.

Luke 6: 20-21, 24-25 (Alan T Dale’s paraphrase).

Many sayings of Jesus were remembered and repeated, which is probably how we end up with similar versions of the ‘Beatitudes’ in both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels. Most of them give no hint of when or where Jesus said them. By the time they were recorded in the Gospels, the original occasion had been quite forgotten. All Mark, Matthew and Luke could do with them, when they came to write their accounts, was to put them in where they seemed to fit best. Matthew arranged most of them in five groups, the ‘Sermon on the Mount’, which begins with the ‘Beatitudes’, being the most famous of these (Mt. 5: 1-48). Luke had come to the end of his account of what happened in Galilee and still had many sayings and parables to record, so he used Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and his ‘southern’ ministry as the most convenient way of getting them into his Gospel. Here is another remembered saying about ‘the poor’ in which he points to the problems of social division and segregation for poor and rich alike:

“When you have a party, don’t always invite friends, cousins, relatives, and well-to-do neighbours; they will invite you back to their party, and all of you will be just having a good time together. When you have a party, give it freely; invite poor people, cripples, lame people, blind people; they can’t invite you back. That’s the way you’ll find happiness. That’s what heaven is like.”

No one is forced to attend God’s feasts, however, as Jesus illustrated in the following story:

Once upon a time a rich man was giving a great feast, and he invited many guests.

When the feast was almost ready, he sent his slave to all who were invited: “Come along, it’s all ready”.

They all alike made excuses.

“I’ve bought some land,” said the first. “I must go out and look at it. Please excuse me.”

“I’ve bought ten animals,” said another, “and I’m going to test them. Please excuse me.”

“I’ve just got married,” said another, “I can’t come.”

The slave went back and told his master what they said. The master was angry.

“Go out into the town at once,” he told his slave. “Bring in the beggars and the cripples and the blind people and the lame people from the streets and alleyways.”

The real background and commentary on Jesus’ stories, poems and sayings is the way Jesus lived and what he did, in other words, the stories about him. Most of the stories we have about Jesus himself come from his friends. One of them was about the manager of the Tax Office in Jericho:

Jesus came along the road and looked up at Zaccheus in the tree. “Zaccheus,” he said, “you’d better be quick and get down – I must stay with you today.” From Alan T Dale’s Portrait of Jesus, based on Luke 19: 1-10.

It was not just that Jesus was a kind man that enabled him to capture the imaginations of ordinary people. He certainly was kind, but his love of men and women went much deeper than good manners and warm approaches. It sprang from his convictions about God caring for everybody, which meant that he too must care for everybody. It was in his caring for people, whoever they were and whatever their need, that Jesus made God’s care real. Nobody, for him, was left out of God’s family or out of the range of his care. The tax collector understood that the salvation Jesus brings is not a private affair. With his giving and reparation, he proved that he realised that he was once again part of the people called by God to kinship. Jesus believed that God was still making his world. It wasn’t something he made long ago and then left to itself. He was not an ‘absentee’ deity; he was still working. Jesus was reported to have said, God is at work and so I’m also at work. God cares for everybody everywhere – bad people and good people, honest people and dishonest people, taxpayers and tax collectors, rich and poor. Jesus makes it clear that for him the whole ‘universe’ is a living entity, neither meaningless nor haphazard. It is not fixed so that nothing can really happen because everything is rigidly determined. It is his Father’s world, full of untold possibilities and promise. It is God’s family in the making.

A Messianic Manifesto:

From early in his ministry, Jesus signalled his radical view of its purpose. He had no quarrel with his people’s devotion to God and their desire to live in God’s way, but he had come to think of ‘God’s Way’ very differently from the way in which they thought about it. When in a Meeting House he was to speak out plainly, there would be trouble – as this story, which Luke puts at the beginning of his account of Jesus, makes very clear. It happened, Luke tells us, in Jesus’ own village of Nazareth, one Saturday morning:

Jesus went along to the Service of Worship in the Meeting House, and the leader of the Meeting House asked him to read the Bible to the people. The reading was from the book of Isaiah, one of God’s great men of old. He stood up, opened the book and found these words

God’s Spirit is in my heart;

he has called me to my great work.

This is what I have to do –

give the Good News to the poor;

tell prisoners that they are prisoners no longer,

and blind people that they can see;

set conquered people free,

and tell everybody:

God’s Great Day has come.

He closed the book, gave it back to the leader of the Meeting House and sat down. Everybody was staring at him. “You have been listening to the words of the Bible,’ said Jesus. “Today what God said would happen has happened.” … The people in the Meeting House were very angry when they heard him talk like this. They got up and took him outside the village to the edge of the cliff to throw him over it. But Jesus walked through the village crowd and went on his way.

Luke 4: 19-30.

Jesus had effectively turned the Book of Isaiah into his own, radical manifesto for the poor. He had then followed this up with references to how widows had been allowed to starve ‘in town and village’ during the time of Elijah and lepers were left to die during Elisha’s time. In other words, he was issuing a call to action, not a call to piety. That, no doubt, was what angered his compatriots. Jesus meant business. He did not just come to talk or preach. He also came to heal, and he was soon in even more trouble with officers in charge of the Meeting Houses for doing this on Sabbath days. He intended to change human society, to awaken men and women to the truth about the world in which they were living. His own work, he believed, was to take a decisive part in God’s remaking of the world. God was actually changing the whole structure of human society through the work Jesus was doing. All he had was the conviction that God had given him this work to do and that he must use the authority that had been given to him to raise up the poor, the outcast and the helpless. In his personal epilogue to his book, Portrait of Jesus, Alan T Dale testified to the impact on his life of what Jesus did:

He made clear to me that the growing point of genuinely human society … is what we do for the fellow who is left out of the picture, whom nobody bothers with, who doesn’t seem to belong, who is ‘out of it’. There can be no genuine human society if anybody is left out; if we leave anybody out we corrupt human society and destroy it. All this threw a new light for me on what, wherever I was, I ought to be concerned with; how I ought to look at whatever job I’d got … and what I ought to press for, in every way I knew how, in the public life of the world.

The growing points of my world were to be where people were ignored, forgotten or in need – people in prison for the sake of conscience, people who were the victims of starvation and the injustices of a world divided up into the ‘haves’ and ‘the have-nots’. It came home to me that what Jesus was talking about was not just about ‘being kind’ and ‘generous’, but about how a world can ever be a world in any worthwhile sense of that word. … To talk about the world as ‘God’s Family’ is not to dream of some distant future – it is to acknowledge the truth about the world where, here and now, I have got to live. We can have a world in no other way.

The Radical Response Required:

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The cover of the book originally published in German as Bibel Provakativ (Stuttgart, 1969) edited by Hellmut Haug & Jürgen Rump.

For centuries, it was taken for granted that the only Christian theology ever possible was that written in the context of Christendom around the Mediterranean and on both sides of the North Atlantic. It was also assumed that this theology made in the West (primarily in England, Scotland, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France and the United States) was truly universal and should therefore be transplanted (often with no adaptations) to the non-Western world. All that was necessary was for theologians of that world to merely repeat and, at best, to imitate the theology imported from the West. From the mid-1960s, the weakness of this position became clear. A number of thinkers in the ‘Third World’, especially in Latin America, had pointed to the failure of Western churchmen, and theologians in universities and seminaries, to cope with the growing problems of population growth, poverty, social injustice, racial segregation and discrimination, institutionalised violence and economic dependence. This critique was voiced mainly by Roman Catholics to begin with, in what became known as ‘liberation theology’, but also by some evangelical thinkers, especially Baptists and Methodists. In their Radical Bible (1972), John Eagleson and Philip Scharper included a number of quotations from world leaders alongside key quotations from the Bible concerning the treatment of ‘the poor’:

Deliverance from oppression (Exodus 3: 7-10):

From Pierre Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, in CERES (UN Food and Agricultural Organisation Review), September-October 1968:

Never before in history has the disparity between the rich and the poor, the comfortable and the starving, been so extreme; never before have mass communications so vividly informed the sufferers of the extent of their misery; never before have the privileged societies possessed weapons so powerful that their employment in the defense of privilege would destroy the haves and the have-nots indiscriminately. We are faced with an overwhelming challenge.

The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council opens in the St Peter’s Rome in 1962. The Pope presided over this vast gathering of Rman Catholic clergy.

Also at this time, a Letter of the Peoples of the Third World, signed by 18 Third World Catholic Bishops, was published in Between Honesty and Hope:

No, it is not God’s will that a few rich people enjoy the goods of this world and exploit the poor. No, it is not God’s will that some people remain poor and abject forever. No, religion is not the opiate of the people; it is a force that exalts the lowly and casts down the proud, that feeds the hungry and sends the sated away empty.

Called to Brotherhood (Leviticus 19: 9-11; 13-15):

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to the very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the sojourner. … you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbour. …

Revised Standard Version.

In the light of the New Testament, we understand that God’s people of the Old Testament were a model: Israel was not chosen from all the other peoples for its own sake, but for the salvation of the world. Being chosen means receiving, and expecting, one’s life solely from God. It is not meant for the individual, but for the community – for the individual only as a member of the community. The right to life which God bestows on his people is meant for all without distinction.

African boys play football among the poor dwellings of a township in south-west Transvaal. Many independent churches sprng up in Southern Africa in the 1960s and ’70s.

Ears that don’t hear (Proverbs 21: 13):

He who closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself cry out and not be heard.


Albert van den Heuvel, Director of the Youth Department of the World Council of Churches, wrote a parable of his own in Risk, nos 1-2:

There was once a man who had a rich property. He gave it to his children to care for. Because the father loved his children, he left on a long journey and gave them real freedom to organise his property their own way. Now part of that property was cultivated and another part was not. The sons who lived on the richer part built fences to defend their section from the others who lived on the wild parts. They led a good life themselves, and once in a while threw some food over the fence so that the children on the other side at least knew good life could be. Then the children on the other side of the fence sent a delegation to their brothers and said,

” Teach us how to cultivate our soil, and while we learn, share your riches with us so that we do not die.” But their brothers said, “Go away: there is not enough for all of us. Learn to till the soil yourselves.” The others said, “We will do that, but we have no tools to till the soil. Help us with your tools.” But their brothers responded, “We cannot do that because we need all we have if we want to keep up our standard of living. We’ll give you a few tools, and with them, you can make your own.” The others said, “In order to make tools we need money. Buy what we have reaped on our land and we shall buy our own tools from you.” Their brothers replied, “But we don’t need products. If you sell them to us our economy will be disrupted.” The others said, “But then what shall we do; our wives and our children are dying.” Their brothers, “It will take time.”

The others, seeing that their brothers did not really want to help them, stormed the fence, broke it down, took the food they needed and killed all the brothers who resisted them. Then the owner of the property returned and was both angry and sad. To the surprise of the children who had lived behind their fences, he put the others in charge of the whole property and forgave them their violence.

Breaking through the vicious circle (Leviticus 25: 8-10):

And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family.

Revised Standard Version

Behind the law concerning the jubilee year lies the conviction that God has bestowed the land and its riches on all the people. Each family had received a just portion in the partitioning of the land. But the original equality did not prevent in time the rise of inequality due to debt or reverses. The jubilee year was meant to re-establish equality of opportunity and to make a new beginning possible for all. It doesn’t matter whether this law was actually enforced. It follows logically, as a demand, from the call to brotherhood. Today, we have to think not only of the poor of our own nation but also of the poor of other nations. The vicious circle must be broken. It can be depicted in various ways:

  • Low output causes low income causes little demand and small savings causes few investments causes low output;
  • Undernourishment causes ill health causes insufficient energy to work causes little income causes undernourishment;
  • Deficient training causes joblessness causes no funds for tuition causes deficient training.

This complex multi-causality of underdevelopment can be summarised in the often-used phrase ‘vicious circles.’ It is not just the lack of capital, backward ways, population problems or even political problems, which weighs upon the poorer nations. As the economic historian, Robert L Heilbroner wrote in The Great Ascent,

It is a combination of all of these, each aggravating the other. The troubles of underdevelopment feed upon themselves; one cannot easily attack one of the shackles of underdevelopment without contending with them all.

Disastrous free trade (Leviticus 25: 35-38):

And if your brother becomes poor, and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall maintain him; as a stranger and a sojourner, he shall live with you. … You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit.

From A History of Christianity (see sources below).

One of the Documents of Vatican II is Pope Paul VI’s ‘Encyclical Letter’, This is Progress (1968), in which he wrote:

The efforts being made to help the needy countries to develop are being undone when trade between these countries and the rich is unbalanced. All foreign aid is met with justified suspicion when one hand takes away what the other hand has given. The nations that are industrialised export mostly manufactured goods. Emerging nations normally sell food, fibres and other raw materials. The trouble now is this: the market price of manufactured goods keeps going up. The market price of food and raw materials goes up and down, quite wildly. A sudden fall in prices can wipe out all the gains made by a developing nation. A country that must export to pay for what it needs can be crippled in this way. Here is one reason then why the poor stay poor yet see the rich grow richer.

Free trade is not enough to regulate world markets. Free trade can work quite well between two equal partners. Free trade between unequal states can be disastrous.

Robbing the poor (Proverbs 22: 22):

Do not rob the poor, because he is poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate.


Barbara Ward, a British economist at the Catholic Bishops’ Synod in Rome in October 1971, remarked that:

We have seen the developed world’s financial leaders discuss the future of the whole régime of international trade with barely a mention of the two-thirds of humanity in developing lands who depend on it for any hope of further advance.

Justice for the afflicted (Psalm 82: 3-4):

Give justice to the weak and fatherless;

maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute;

Rescue the weak and the needy;

deliver them from the hand of the wicked.


Once every four years the politicians change without solving the problem of hunger that has its headquarters in the ‘favela’ (slum quarter) and its branch offices in the workers’ homes. …

I found a sweet potato and a carrot in the garbage. When I got back to the favela my boys were gnawing on a piece of hard bread. I thought, “for them to eat this bread, they need electric teeth.”

Child of the Dark (1962), the Diary of Carolina de Jesus, a Brazilian slum dweller.
Speaking truth to power (Proverbs 31: 8-9):

Open your mouth for the dumb,

for the rights of all who are left desolate.

Open your mouth, judge righteously,

maintain the rights of the poor and needy.

Again I saw all the oppressions that are practised under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors, there was power, and there was no one to comfort them.

Ecclesiastes 4: 1-2.

In 1971, Julius K Nyerere, President of Tanzania, wrote that:

The significance of this division between rich and poor is not simply that one man has more food than he can eat, more clothes than he can wear and more houses than he can live in, while others are hungry, unclad, or homeless. The significant thing about the division between rich and poor nations is not simply that one has the resources to provide comfort for all its citizens and the other cannot provide basic services.

The reality and the depth of the problem arise because the man who is rich has power over the lives of those who are poor. And the rich nation has power over the policies of those who are not rich. And even more important is that a social and economic system, nationally and internationally, supports those divisions and constantly increases them so that the rich get ever richer and more powerful, while the poor get relatively ever poorer and less able to control their own future.

Maryknoll magazine, June 1971.
A Bible study group in Southern Thailand.

At the Fourth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Uppsala, Sweden in 1968, S. L. Palmer, from the United Church of Northern India, spoke of how:

In economic history one has to search rather diligently to find instances where the ‘haves’ of the possessing classes have willingly given up any of their privileges. The ‘have-nots’ had almost invariably to wrest their rights through agrarian movements, workers’ movements, trade-union activity and so on.

Uppsala Speaks (1968), Geneva: World Council of Churches & New York: Firiendship Press.

The World Council of Churches assumed a growing political role in the last decades of the twentieth century. This was increased by the addition of non-European members. One particular cause of tension was the special fund connected with the ‘Programme to Combat Racism’ which supported ‘freedom fighters’ and guerilla movements in Southern Africa, though without supplying arms. The emergence of the Church of Rome as a partner in ecumenical discussions, and the impact of the charismatic movement, completely transformed ecumenical relationships.

Devouring the vineyard (Isaiah 3: 13-15):

The Lord has taken his place to contend,

he stands to judge his people.

The Lord enters into judgment with the

elders and princes of his people:

“It is you who have devoured the vineyard,

the spoil of the poor is in your houses.

What do you mean by crushing my people,

by grinding the face of the poor?”

says the Lord of hosts.

Revised Standard Version

The history of foreign corporations operating in weak nations is replete with injustice; efficiency, profits and loyalty to their own country taking priority over the needs and aspirations of local people; taking too much and leaving too little; crushing local competition and gaining monopolistic power; making poor countries dependent on foreign sources for modern technology and even national defence; being instruments of their own country’s foreign policy; and creating desires that cannot be satisfied by the poor country.

Trampling upon the poor (Amos 8: 4-7):

Hear this, you who trample upon the needy,

and bring the poor of the land to an end saying,

“When will the new moon be over,

that we may sell grain?”

And the sabbath,

that we may offer wheat for sale,

that we may make the ephah small

and the shekel great,

and deal deceitfully with false balances,

that we may buy the poor for silver

and the needy for a pair of sandals,

and sell the refuse of the wheat?”

The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob;

“Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. …”

Revised Standard Version

The consecration of the first African Catholic bishop did not take place until 1939, but in the following years, a rapid multiplication of bishops, archbishops and even Cardinals occurred in the Third World. President Nyerere of Tanzania wrote in 1971 that…

just as water from the driest regions of the earth ultimately flows into the ocean where already there is plenty, so wealth flows from the poorest nations and the poorest individuals into the hands of those nations and those individuals who are already too wealthy. … the poor nation which sells its primary commodities on the world market in order to buy machines for development finds that the prices it has to pay are both determined by the forces of the free market in which it is a pygmy fighting against giants. For he that hath to him shall be given, and he who hath not that also which he hath shall be taken away from him.

Maryknoll magazine, June 1971.

Against this background, there was also an increasingly negative attitude towards foreign missionaries which was expressed by the AMECEA (Association of the Members of the Episcopal Conferences of Eastern Africa) in its 1973 meeting in Nairobi. Foreign missionaries were needed to support and to train national leaders, and their presence showed the universality of the church. But, for its part, the All-Africa Conference of Churches, which also met in Nairobi at the end of that same year, added heat to this debate by adopting the proposed ‘moratorium’ . It added: should the moratorium cause missionary agencies to crumble, the African church could have performed a service in redeeming God’s people in the Northern Hemisphere from a distorted view of the mission of the church in the world. The movement from missionary paternalism to partnership in mission was painfully slow; but by the mid-1970s it had become clear that the process was irreversible.

Those who oppress with violence (Micah 2: 1-2; 6: 9-13):

“Woe to those who devise wickedness

and work evil upon their beds!

When the morning dawns, they perform it,

because it is in the power of their hand.

They covet fields, and seize them;

and houses, and take them away;

they oppress a man and his house,

a man and his inheritance.”

“Shall I acquit the man with wicked scales

and with a bag of deceitful weights?

Your rich men are full of violence;

your inhabitants speak lies,

and their tongue is deceitful in their mouth.

Therefore I have begun to smite you,

making you desolate because of your sins. …”

Revised Standard Version

Underdevelopment is a chronic state of structural violence. This is the reason why the adoption of a gradualist path to social improvement may entail continuing complicity with such violence. This form of violence is expressed in inhumanly high birth and death rates, degrading poverty, ignorance, and non-participation in significant decisions affecting the lives of countless people. Those people, mostly living in underdeveloped countries, pay a high price to remain underdeveloped. Just as Christians believe in the productiveness of peace in order to achieve justice, so they also believe that justice is a prerequisite for peace. The Latin American bishops in the late sixties claimed that the continent found itself faced with a situation of injustice that could be called institutionalised violence, when whole towns lacked necessities, lived in such dependence as hindered all initiative and responsibility as well as every possibility for participation in social and political life, thus violating fundamental rights. We should not be surprised, therefore, that the ‘temptation to violence’ led to the instability of southern and central America over the past half-century. The longing for a more just society caused revolutions all over the world, not all of them violent. Many Christians were, and still are, primarily concerned to uphold ‘properly constituted authority’ in maintaining law and order. But where the maintenance of order became an obstacle to the achievement of a just society, some decided to side with revolutionary action in order to overcome that obstacle and achieve that society.

Everyone … is entitled to realisation … of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensible for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 22.

Paying lip service (Amos 5: 21, 23-24):

“I hate, I despise your feasts,

and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. …

Take away from me the noise of your songs;

to the melody of your harps, I will not listen,

But let justice roll down like waters

and righteousness like an overflowing stream. …

Revised Standard Version.

Pupils from the Catholic school at Cochin, Kerala, India. From an early stage, education has formed an important part of missionary work.

The prophets of the Old Testament called for the enforcement of justice in the world. The New Testament community awaits justice from the new world that God will create. But does one who waits for such a promise to be delivered in the future have any obligation or reason to fight for the humanisation of conditions in this world, here and now? The awaited future is still to come. The majority of Christians have been able to reconcile themselves to the continuation of this imperfect world and have not seriously quarrelled with it. Is it sufficient to settle down in this world and await the solution on Judgment Day? Whoever thinks that way is turning Christian hope into a shabby ‘dummy’ and God into a makeshift excuse for his own failure. What did Paul mean when he wrote to the early Christians in Rome, I consider that all the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed for us (Rom. 8: 18). The New Testament contains dynamite – a message with a revolutionary explosive power. The new world began with Christ, in the midst of this world. We must join the world-renewing movement proceeding from Christ. The message of the Kingdom of God should activate not only our hope, but all our energies as well; we must build on the world towards the awaited future, towards the promised final condition. Yet Christians in general, and Catholics in particular, according to the Columbian revolutionary and laicised Catholic priest Camilo Torres, seemed to be…

stoic spectators of the fall of the world, the world which they abhor. They do not join the struggle. They believe that in the words “my kingdom of this world”, ‘world’ means ‘present life’ and not ‘sinful life’, as it really does. They forget the prayer of Christ to the Father: “I do not ask that you remove from the world but that you remove them from the world but that you preserve them from evil.” Often we become detached from the world but do not preserve ourselves from evil.

Revolutionary Writings (1968). New York: Friendship Press.

Prophets of Liberation:

The theology of liberation that developed in Latin America from the late 1960s was greatly influenced by Marxism, seeing salvation in terms of political and economic liberation. Its leading exponents included Gustavo Gutiérrez of Lima; Juan Luis Segundo of Montevideo; José Miguez Bonino of Buenos Aires; and José Portfirio Miranda of Mexico. In the 1950s, Latin America’s hopes for combatting widespread poverty and hunger rested on what could be achieved through economic aid. But by the mid-sixties, many came to believe that gaps between rich and poor nations could never be closed under the capitalist structures, but that China, and especially Cuba, demonstrated that Marxism held the kex to the future for Latin America. The Marxists associated the church with the capitalist power structures and with European imperialism. Many Roman Catholic priests began to share this revolutionary perspective. Camilo Torres was among them, and was assassinated in 1966. He famously declared, The Catholic who is not a revolutionary is living in mortal sin. Gutérrez argued that we must not begin with theology or with the Bible, but with our own place in the world and our own attempts to change it. The Bible becomes relevant only if and when it speaks on these ‘questions derived from the world’. Gutiérrez found a point of contact with in the biblical accounts of the exodus, which he saw as an act of liberation. For him, salvation meant to struggle against misery and exploitation, involving all men and the whole man. José Miranda believed that the Old Testament prophets and the teaching of Jesus attack the principle of private property. Western Christians have failed to see this because they have come to the Bible with capitalist presuppositions, and read it theoretically rather than with practical questions.

Similarly, the contemporary theological commission of the Council of African Churches sent out A Message to the South African People affirming that:

Our task is to work for the expression of God’s reconciliation here and now. We are not required to wait for a distant “heaven” where all the problems have been solved. What Christ has done, he has done already. We can accept his work or reject it; we can hide from it or seek to live by it. But we cannot postpone it, for it is already achieved. And we cannot destroy it, for it is the work of the eternal God.

The two leading African theologians in the sixties and seventies were J. S. Mbiti of Kampala and H. Sawyerr of Sierra Leone. The Bible itself remained a closed book to many Africans, since literacy ranged between five and fifty per cent of the population, varying from country to country. African peoples therefore maintained their strong oral tradition and a great emphasis upon practical experience in religion. Sawyerr argued that Africans should build their own bridges between the Christian Gospel and African thought-forms. African theologians generally agreed that that the urgent task at that time was to provide a theology which was both true to the Gospel and yet free from western cultural additions. They therefore stressed the reality of the African spiritual experience and rejected an undue emphasis on individualism and abstract theory. Both the Gospel and African spiritual culture celebrate the great acts of God in story and song passed down from generation to generation.

Indian theologians were also concerned to express the Christian Gospel in ways of thinking that stem from their own culture. Raymond Pannikar argued that the concepts of Hinduism should be used to expound the doctrine of Christ to Indians. Many aspects of Hindu thought, he argued, are compatible with a Christian understanding of Christ, and Christian theologians should therefore try to draw on these, rather than attacking them. His approach did not, however, represent all Indian theologians. Sabapathy Kulandran, for example, compared the Christian and Hindu concepts of divine grace and concluded that they are incompatible; Hindu grace is not really grace at all, he claimed. Many Indian Christians regarded Pannikar’s approach as compromising the purity of the Gospel. The theology of liberation pinpoints a question which still remains a live issue for the twenty-first-century Church: is the starting-point in theology our own prent-day experience of life, or should we begin with the revealed, universal truth? Many, perhaps most Christians continue to hold to the latter view. On the other side of the debate, there have been an ever-increasing number of theologians and biblical scholars from the developing world. Others believe that these positions are not mutually exclusive alternatives, since we can hold to the universal truths of the Bible, while still hearing it speak to our own ‘condition’ in time and place.

With the end of the Cold War and the bi-polar ideological world, the relationship between Christianity and Marxism, or Socialism, is no longer as urgent as it appeared fifty years ago, but the conflict has created an ongoing debate about the relationship between theology and political and social action. Other theological questions also remain relevant, such as about the relationship between the claims of the Christian faith and the claims of other faiths in multi-cultural societies and the ‘shrinking’ world of mass communications. There is a distinction to be drawn between the Gospel, the ‘message’ of salvation centred on the person and work of Jesus Christ, and ‘theology’, the human discipline that seeks to understand the Gospel and its implications for practical, everyday life. If this difference is accepted on all sides, the way remains open to recognise the need for Christians to make and remake theology in their own times and places. The ‘ethnic’ theologian maintains that the the Gospel itself demands a constant endeavour to translate its central claims into a ever-widening variety of cultural contexts, in order to put Christ’s teaching into practice.

Some critics have objected that we do not need particular theologies, such as ‘Black theology’ or ‘Latin American theology’; one theology, namely biblical theology, is enough. But even among conservative theologians in the West, there are a wide variety of theologies, each claiming to be more biblical than any other. It has become widely recognised that all theology, regardless of the ethnicity or cultural background of the author, is biased in some way or other – in language, approach, values and emphasis.

A New Beginning – what, then, shall we do? (Luke 3: 2-11):

… The Word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness and he went into all the region about the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. … “Even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees; every trre that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown on the fire.” And the multitudes asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.”

A Brazilian Indian and a missionary work together to translate part of the Bible.

The Fourth Assembly of the World Council of Churches, held in Uppsala, Sweden, stated that:

The Word of God testified that Christ takes the side of the poor and oppressed. We Christians who have not always taken sides as he did, now see a world-wide struggle for economic justice. We should work to vindicate the right of the poor and oppressed to establish economic justice among the nations and within each state.

Uppsala Speaks.
Crumbs from the table (Luke 16: 19-31):

There once was a rich man who dressed in the most expensive clothes and lived in great luxury every day. There was also a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who used to be brought to the rich man’s door, hoping to eat the bits of food that fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs would come and lick his sores.

The poor man died and was carried by the angels to sit beside Abraham at the feast in heaven. The rich man died and was buried, and in Hades, where he was in great pain, he he looked up and saw Abraham, far away, with Lazarus at his side. So he called out, “Father Abraham! Take pity on me, and send Lazarus to dip his finger in some water and and cool off my tongue, because I am in great pain in this fire!” But Abraham said, “Remember, my son, that in your lifetime you were given all the good things, while Lazarus got all the bad things. But now he is enjoying himself here, while you are in pain. Besides all that, there is a deep pit lying between us, so that those who want to cross over from here to you cannot do so, nor can anyone cross over to us from where you are.”

The rich man said, “Then I beg you, father Abraham, send Lazarus to my father’s house, where I have five brothers. Let him go and warn them so that they, at least, will not come to this place of pain.” Abraham said, “Yor brothers have Moses and the prophets to warn them; your brothers should listen to what they say.” The rich man answered, “That is not enough, father Abraham! But if someone were to rise from death and go to them, then they would turn from their sins.” Bur Abraham said, “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone were to rise from death.”


Helmut Gollwitzer, a German theologian, published a commentary on this parable, The Rich Christians and Poor Lazarus in which he pointed out that although Jesus had risen from the dead, poor Lazarus, in his millions throughout the world, continued to hunger at their door. The point of the parable was not, Gollwitzer wrote, the consoling pipe-dream of heaven for poor Lazarus. Abraham’s words are addressed exclusively to the rich man. The story is not intended to console the poor with the hope of recompense beyond the grave, but to warn the rich of damnation and incite them to hear and act in this world. Yet the dominant ‘white’ nations, those with the longest and broadest Christian traditions, remain those most often identified with oppressing the poor. The majority of Christians live in the developed Northern hemisphere, profiting further from the unbalanced prosperity, and they must in conscience account for their stewardship. But the affluent societies of the world, choked with the fumes of their automobiles and dumping all manner of poisons and waste into their rivers and seas, causing an escalating climate crisis, cannot be a model for development. The objective cannot simply to make everybody richer and richer.

Painless Sacrifices & Pennies of the Poor (Mark 12: 41-44):

Yet, over the past half-century, a number of the richest countries appeared steadily less committed, less concerned and less inventive in their approaches to world development, though we are now witnessing the climate emergency beginning to change that trend. Neverthelss, it is often the smaller and poorer countries who are contributing most relative to their wealth. This may remind us of Jesus’ comment about the ‘widow’s mite’ as contrasted with the ‘painless sacrifices’ of the multitudes paying into the Temple Treasury:

And he sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him, and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.”

Hard Sayings (Matthew 6: 24; 19: 24):

“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. …”

“… Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”


We cannot simply neutralise these words by simply saying that ‘it depends on the intention’. A rich man can be spiritually free of his possessions and a poor man may be spiritually bound by envy of another’s goods. But action must be the proof of this ‘spiritual freedom’. Yet we would be ‘in error’ if we simply gave away all our riches. What is required is the willingness to carry out structural changes at home in the interest of ‘under-developed’ nations, changes that may touch our own assets. It could mean the imposition of higher taxes to support effective foreign aid or the revision of agricultural policy in favour of poorer or the opening of markets for finished products from the developing countries.

Although no informed person would question the need for such measures, the probability that they will be enacted is slight in the face of overpowering self-interests. For example, the experts tell us that a number of developing nations, dependent on the export of certain agricultural products, can be helped only if we are ready for encroachments upon our own agriculture. But they also emphasise that whoever touches this ticklish matter is in danger of committing ‘political suicide’. Christians in our twenty-first century society continue to contribute to the establishment of a climate of public opinion that will make possible the carrying out of necessary but unpopular decisions in an atmosphere in which political ‘populism’ holds sway. The economic historian, Robert L. Heilbroner, wrote of this challenge fifty years ago:

It may be that the challenge will be too great. It may be deemed political suicide to speak of problems of development in blunt terms, to force a consideration of unpleasant alternatives and moral dilemmas, to encourage governments whose political and economic structures are alien and even antipathetic to ours. It may appear impractical to urge an internationalisation of foreign aid… In other words, the actions which are open to us may be open only in theory, in the abstract, and not in hard fact.

The Great Ascent, op. cit., p. 182.

Fifty years on, it is unclear whether any significant progress has been made towards these goals. In fact, some governments have recently been renaging on their commitments both to domestic reform and international co-operation in terms of development concerns. In developing countries themselves, radical Christians like Camilo Torres wrote in the late sixties of how he realised the need for…

… a revolution that would give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, and bring about the well-being of the majorities in our country. I feel that the revolutionary struggle is a Christian and priestly struggle. Only through this, given the concrete circumstances of our country, can we fulfill the love that men should have for their neighbours.

Revolutionary Writings, p. 163.
The Church as the Light of the World? (Matthew 5: 14-16):

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your father who is in heaven.

This text reads more like a poem, one in which Jesus’ sense of fun and his humour is apparent as well as his power of putting thoughts in very simple language. The lamp he is describing is the lamp used in a small, windowless Palestinian one-roomed house, the home of a poor family. What would the words ‘all in the house’ suggest to people who, like Jesus’s friends, had listened to his stories, heard him talk and argued with him? Suddenly, this apparently simple poem is opening up deep and far-reaching questions, the questions his stories provoked and illuminated. In the later twentieth century, many people, including many Church leaders, theologians and ordinary Christians doubted whether the Church could still be viewed as ‘the light of the World’. By the late 1960s, in many developing countries around the world, Christianity had become so identified with the ‘Western powers’ that many non-Christians, especially in Asia and Africa, regarded the Church as a ‘tool’ of Western Imperialism. A publication from 1969 by the World Council of Churces set out its imperative:

The Church cannot stand apart. Our common manhood under God involves responsible and just stewardship of the world’s resources just as much as caring for our neighbour. The vision that beckons the churches forward in the concern for development is the vision of the one human family, in which all members will have the opportunity to live truly human lives and so, as men, respond to the purposes of God.

The Crucial Years; a statement on the Second Development Decade and the Task of the Churches, by the Commission on the Churches’ Participation in Development.

Putting it even more plainly, a ‘Statement of Eighty Bolivian Catholic priests’ criticised its own Church for joining with the municipality of La Paz in constructing steeples when the problems of local underdevelopment were so serious. This would be a perfect opportunity, they asserted, to get people thinking about the illegitimacy of building churches …

with money robbed from the exploited worker. Instead of talking about the Church of the poor, we must be a poor church.

Between Honesty and Hope (1970). Documents from and about the Church in Latin America; issued at Lima by the Peruvian Bishops’ Commission for Social Action. Maryknoll, New York: Maryknoll Publications.

The churches were continually called upon to support the liberation struggle at that time, to demand social justice and relief from oppression. Those in Asia had in large measure been irrelevant to the changes which had taken places over the previous twenty-five years. They had generally disregarded socio-economic analysis and been indifferent to political and economic exploitation. They admitted that they had been on the side of the status quo, at least by their silence. They had tended to accept the values of capitalist society, fitting themselves into its framework. When Kenneth Kaunda, President of Zambia, addressed the World Council of Churches in Sweden in 1968, he argued that:

All the political goodwill and all the instruments of social and economic development at the disposal of the rich and poor countries must be combined and be harnessed with a new spirit of dedication, sacrifice, wisdom and foresight to meet our common obligation to the whole of humanity. This calls for a new and global vision of man and the human race…

The challenge is not just simply the elimination of poverty, ignorance and disease. It is first and foremost a question of building a world in which every man, woman, and child, without distinction, will have and exercise the right to live a fully human life worthy of his or her person, free from servitude, oppression, and exploitation imposed on him or her by other fellow human beings; a world in which freedom, peace and security will have practical meaning to each and every member of the human race.

Uppsala Speaks. Section Report of the Fourth Assembly of the World Council of Churches, Uppsala, 1968. Geneva: World Council of Churches & New York: Friendship Press.

Loving our neighbours today:

You must love your brothers. That is an absolute requirement of our religion. “Master, which is the greatest commandment of the Law?” … “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second resembles it: You must love your neigbour as yourself.”

Matt. 22: 36-40

In 1973, Michel Quoist, a French Catholic priest, published his book, Meet Christ and Live! Quoist was born in 1918 and was ordained a priest in 1947. For many years he worked as a pastor in Le Havre and became the Secretary General of the of the French Episcopal Committee for aid to Latin America. He was author of Prayers of Life, The Christian Response and Christ is Alive! These books sold a million and a half copies in English alone. In Meet Christ and Live, Quoist explored a number of themes, including Loving one’s brother today, based on Matt. 22: 36-40: You must Love your neighbour as yourself. He pointed out that here, Jesus was not giving advice, but talking about a commandment. The love of our brothers and sisters is an infallible test of our love of God:

Anyone who says, “I love God,” and hates his brother is a liar, since a man who does not love the brother that he can see cannot love God, whom he has never seen.

1 John 4: 20.

To love our brothers and sisters does not mean that we must love them with our emotions, or that we must be ‘sentimental’ about them, for Jesus commands us to love even our enemies (Matt 5: 44). To love our fellows means that we must wish for their true good, and we must do all that we can with them to obtain that good. This requires an effort which presupposes total self-forgetfulness, Quoist claims, quoting John’s letter again:

This has taught us love – that he gave up his life for us; and we, too, ought to give up our lives for our brothers… My children, our love is not to be just words or mere talk, but something real and active; only by this can we be certain that we are children of the truth.

1 John 3: 16-19

Quoist goes on to assert that to love our fellows does not necessarily meanto please them. Far from it. Nor does it mean that we must make a systematic effort to have them love us. On the contrary, it means that we must be capable, if necessary, of making them suffer for their own good, what – as teachers – we often referred to as ‘tough love’, in dealing with ‘difficult’ issues with pupils and students. Therefore, we must sometimes be willing to confront difficult issues or behaviour with our fellows, and not just with children among them; to ‘struggle’ with them, both individually and collectively:

It is on the basis of this concrete love, expressed in our actions, on the basis of this gift to others, even at the risk of misunderstandings and persecutions, that we will be judged.

This reminds us of how Jesus himself described the Last Judgement in Matthew’s Gospel, “I was hungry and… I was thirsty… I was a stranger… ” (Mt. 25: 35-40). I have explored the re-telling of this parable in literature in a previous article on this site. What, then, does it mean today, to feed the hungry? Does it mean to invite the old lady next door to supper, or to collect food for underdeveloped countries? Yes, it means those actions, but it also means working with every agency to which we have access; trade unions, political parties and all the innumerable social groups to which we belong. We need to work together for a decent living-wage for all, for fair prices, job opportunities, unemployment compensation, pension plans, job-training and apprenticeships. We also know that the spirit can also be hungry. To feed the hungry spirit today means to work for equal education for all, equal opportunities, decent schools and effective curricula.

To make strangers welcome means, as it always has, to open one’s home to others; but it also means above all to fight for decent housing for the poor, and for housing allowances. It means to participate in tenant organisations, to organise recreation for young people in housing developments. Visiting the sick means exactly that, but it also means campaigning for increased benefits for the sick, fighting for the improvement of medical facilities and supporting medical research. Visiting the inmates of a prison means is a work of mercy; but it is a greater work of mercy to work for a penal system which will reform and educate prisoners, and for organisations which help freed convicts; to encourage programmes of education and re-education in the cities and throughout the country; to participate in crime-prevention and job-seeking projects; to take an active interest in the formation of of specialist educators and in the organisation of their unions. It is fighting against anything which imprisons man – that is, fighting on behalf of and alongside all those who are deprived of their freedom, from individuals who are the victims of their own fears to the underprivileged who are the collective prisoners of unjust economic, social and political structures.

Quoist suggested that, given the increasing dependance of our modern lives on these structures, it has become almost impossible to claim that we truly love our fellows unless we are willing to participate in the creation of new structures, or in the reform and transformation of existing structures so as to obtain their greatest possible good. An emphasis on ‘charity’ and ‘charitable acts’ can be misleading, because it can allow us to believe that we are charitable by nature and thereby limit our ‘activism’ as Christians. Although the word derives form the Latin word ‘caritas’, meaning ‘love’, we need to show willingness to take love seriously enough to make an effective commitment to the radical transformation of society. Otherwise, we risk falling under the judgement of God: Go away from me, with your curse upon you… for I was hungry and you never gave me food; etc… Salvation cannot simply be secured by maintaining sexual morality and following the laws of the Church. Neither can it be obtained through helping the parish priest by participating in parish activities or by being an active member of a Christian movement. These things represent a good start, but we must go further, since such activities do not dispense a man from serving his brothers in the world, for we have been placed in this world by God’s providence; and it is in this world, not the next, that Christ awaits us. That is the whole point of the parable of the Last Judgement: I tell you solemnly, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.

To choose the form that our commitment will take means to take into account both our own talents and the needs of both our brothers and sisters in Christ, and of our fellows in society, and then go out to meet our Father halfway, in the midst of that society and those structures in which we spend our lives. The choice of commitments must be a reasonable one. We cannot do everything, but we must do whatever we can; and we must do it in a spirit of faith. Of course, many non-Christians are commited to parent-teacher associations, unions and political parties, just as fully as we may be, but it is also true that Christians are required to make a ‘temporal’ commitment to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, to visit the sick and the prisoners, and these are commitments which Jesus ‘solemnly’ stated were the express condition of our salvation. The commitment of a Christian differs essentially from that of a non-Christian because of the faith which a Christian brings to bear on the end to be reached and by the means which s/he adopts to reach that end, which is Jesus himself, whom they love and serve by loving and serving their fellows. S/he declares by their actions that I love my neighbour as myself for the love of Jesus. The means therefore take on a special significance for the Christian because s/he never forgets that, beyond and through the the structures with which s/he deals, there are persons who must be liberated individually and collectively.

The Christian does not seek to manipulate or patronise these persons, but rather acts with them and alongside them, fighting out of love, not in the hope of any personal, material gain or reward for their efforts. Neither does s/he act out of any spirit of rebelliousness, resentment or hate. We need to remember that those who work alongside us at the worldly level may also truly love those they work among, and in doing so, loves God without knowing it, even though they may never have met Christ. Christians should never claim, or appear to claim, a superior calling or motivation when among non-believers, and neither should we try to claim a non-believer as one of our own, but thank God for the love shown and for His work through them. Because Christians know what is involved in the working of God’s grace, we are privileged creatures and therefore bear a dual responsibility. We choose to ‘institutionalise’ our charity by participating in the work of agencies and movements working for ‘the common good’ because Jesus Christ commands us to love our fellows and because loving them as persons very often means creating and implementing new structures at every level which will enable them to grow in justice and in love. We are obliged to go to the very end in loving our fellows, but with the hearts and minds of souls saved by grace and living in Christ.

Dying Faith or Living Light?:

After having commanded us to love one another, Jesus said:

If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home with him.

John 14: 21.

Whenever and wherever we are gathered together with our brothers and sisters in Christ, even in twos and threes, we are in ‘Church’ and Jesus is also among us, not only when we pray but also when we discuss God’s work in the world and our part in it, in the service of mankind. When we try to practice brotherly love, philos, in our lives, Jesus and the Father are in us. We know these things because Jesus has told us so himself. Speaking of the Last Judgement, Jesus told us that he had been hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, ill, in prison. He identified himself with the poor, with those who are poor in worldly goods, in health in freedom – in other words, with all those who are deprived. Quoist says that whenever he meets someone who is poor, in any sense of the word, he meets Christ. Jesus has told him so. By the same token, he says that when he sees…

a bit of love, of unity, of justice or of freedom in other people, … in events or structures, (he) knows that Jesus is there, present by his action among men. … Jesus signals to me through human events. Thus my own action is joined humbly to his.

Of course, he said, he could have misinterpreted Jesus’ signals, but there are two ways in which he could learn to read them more accurately. One is to discern, from the Gospels, what Jesus’ ways of doing things and of behaving were. The other is to search for these ways with others, as a team, in the Church. Only Jesus himself can reveal himself, but it is the role of the Church to witness to him by speaking of him. The Church must prepare the way for the Lord, and become the light on the road by which he will come. He prayed:

For you have risen, Lord,

and your Holy Spirit is at work in human history

to increase your whole Body,

to build the Kingdom of the Father,

to construct your Church.

Quoist wrote that it seldom occurred to him to think of the power that one single act of selfishness might have on humanity, a single act which would spread throughout mankind and do its work of devitalising the whole body Body of Christ, the Church. And it seldom occurred to him to think of the power of a small act of pure love, a single act, which might open the road to new blood in that Body, and which might rebuild its tissues by carrying life to the Body’s most distant members. Rarely, too, he wrote, did he remember that his human actions, while they needed to be as well-thought-out as possible, as serious and as effective as possible, they also needed to be nourished by redeeming love. To many of Quoist’s contemporaries, the ‘Body of Christ’ was in desperate need of a ‘transfusion’ of that redeeming love if it was to survive much longer.

By 1971, it was estimated that there were eleven million Christians in South Africa, nine million in Zaire, six million in Nigeria, four million in Uganda and four million in Tanzania (Other more generous estimates claimed that by 1975 the number of African Christians would total one hundred million). And yet, writing in the same year, however, the President of Tanzania, Julius K. Nyerere, was certainly a radical critic of the churches internationally:

Unless the Church, its members, and its organisations express God’s love for man by involvement and leadership in constructive protest against the present conditions of man, then it will become identified with injustice and persecution. If this happens it will die and, humanly speaking, it deserves to die because it will then serve no purpose comprehensible to modern man.

Maryknoll Magazine, June 1971, p.37.
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Five years later, the Church in South Africa fell into this ‘trap’. In June 1976, ten thousand students took part in a peaceful demonstration held in Soweto, the segregated township of Johannesburg, against the decision of the educational authorities to impose Afrikaans as a language of instruction in in secondary schools, including in the township. In the resulting confrontation with the police, 176 people were killed and more than 1,100 wounded, many of them children and teenagers (see appendix below). The Soweto massacre threw into relief the explosive nature of apartheid. It vividly illustrated the kind of situation that Christians faced in the last quarter of the last century. Since it took place in a country that claimed to be Christian, it illustrated the tragic possibility that an individualistic Christianity allows a social sin, racism, to co-exist with adherence to the Christian faith. In fact, this was an evil system of racial segregation, apartheid, which was underpinned by what has since been admitted as a heretical theology within the South African Dutch Reformed Church. That it was allowed to determine public policy for fifty years is also testimony to what can happen when religion is limited to private life and becomes irrelevant to issues of public morality. Other ‘segregated’ white churches in South Africa kept a strict separation of the sacred from the secular in coming to terms with the apartheid state.

The greatest challenge confronting the Church ‘international’ in the last quarter of the twentieth century was to apply Christian beliefs and values to practical living in a world plagued by poverty, social injustice, racism and oppression. In the first quarter of the twenty-first century, this continues to be its greatest challenge. To enable this, our love for our neighbour must be effective. As Camilo Torres wrote, we will not be judged only by our good intentions, but mainly by our actions in favour of Christ represented in each one of our neighbours: “I was hungry and you did not give me to eat, I was thirsty and you did not give me to drink.” Torres pointed out:

Those who hold power constitute an economic minority which dominates political, cultural and military power, and, unfortunately, also ecclesiastical power in the countries in which the Church has temporal goods. … For this reason governmental decisions are not made to benefit the majorities. In order to give them food, drink and clothing, basic decisions are necessary … It is a sociological absurdity that a group would act against its own interests. The power must be taken for the majorities’ part so that structural, economic, social and political reforms benefiting these majorities may be realised. This is called revolution, and if necessary in order to fulfill love for one’s neighbour, then it is necessary for the Christian to be revolutionary.

Revolutionary Writings, p. 65.

In Latin America, by 1968 Protestant Christians were said to number over ten million, with nearly eight million of those in Brazil. Indeed, one writer from the continent, Emilio Castro, commented that it was the only area in the world where a Christian church was growing more rapidly than the population. In contrast with the Roman Catholic church, which depended heavily upon foreign personnel and finances, the Protestant churches (especially the Pentecostals) were quickly taking root locally and developing their own leadership and economic resources.

This numerical growth of the Church outside Europe in the late twentieth century provided grounds for much optimism about the future of Christianity. The great new fact of the century was an exploding world-wide Christian movement, advancing mainly among the masses of the world outside the West, and with growing concern to make disciples among all nations. Yet, there remained a sense of pessimism about the growing number of poor in the world, and the growing gulf between rich and poor world-wide. In their Declaration of Recife of March 1970, Ralph Abernathy and Dom Helder Camara (above) jointly expressed their sadness about this gulf, but also their hope for the realisation of a better world:

We are especially concerned with the widening gap between the poor of the world and the rich – not only in material goods … but the growing gap in understanding. The indifference of the well-to-do is perhaps the the major obstacle in the world today. … But we two – Baptist pastor and Catholic Bishop, US and Brazilian citizens – are not discouraged. There is hope, and there is a great dream of a world in which there will be no more misery, no more war, no more prejudice, and all men will be free. This was the dream of Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, and of Martin Luther King, Jr. This is our dream, too.

Adiaphora – Hope for the Future:

Jürgen Moltmann of Tübingen is perhaps best known for his (1965) book, Theology of Hope, in which he argued that hope still lies ahead and that the people of God are still the ‘pilgrim people’ – at one with the poor and the oppressed. Salvation, he argued, involves a faith that is socially relevant. In the cross, Moltmann argued, Jesus identified himself with those who were abandoned, and challenged the status quo. In Religion, Revolution and the Future (New York, 1969), he reminded us that it is the goal of the Church to represent that ‘new people of God’, that the barriers which men erect between each other to assert themselves and humiliate others are demolished in the community of Christ. The true identifying feature of the Church, he argued, was not that it composed of ‘equal and like-minded’ people, but of ‘dissimilar’ people, even of former enemies. That would make it heretical to establish churches based on nationality, ethnicity or other structures and beliefs other than those found set out in the Bible. The Bible is not only a book to read; it is also represents a way of life. If we attempt to live according to the Scriptures, we must realise that we are also being called into action. As the selections above show, the perspective of our action should be global, since we know that the consequences of our inaction are also global, whether in terms of development issues, health care or climate change. Hope for the future lies with movements in the Church that are searching for a more biblical understanding of Christian mission which involves the totality of human life in all its personal, social and public aspects.

Adiaphora, as John Barton has recently (2019) pointed out, are matters of faith on which resonable people, even when properly informed by the Bible, may reasonably disagree, yet on which some decision may be needed, and so must be taken in good faith, not knowing whether it is the right decision, or even if there is a single right decision. They do not belong to what C. S. Lewis famously called ‘mere Christianity’, the essentials. Somehow, an attribution of authority to the Bible needs to leave open the way to recognising that there are adiaphora in matters of religion. Otherwise, we fall into the trap of Protestant fundamentalism on the one hand or extreme Catholicism on the other, by claiming that the whole of life can be regulated by either Scripture or Tradition, respectively. Such hard-line theories find few adherents: most conservative evangelicals are not fundamentalists, and most Catholics are not rigid traditionalists. Yet a sizeable proportion of Christians do think that, though the essence of what was taught by Paul remains authoratative, its expression was conditioned by its time and should be reconsidered. This may be described as a liberal form of Christianity, but it ascribes a good deal more centrality to the Bible than liberalism has often done. Barton argues that we must do justice to the book that has nourished generations of Christians, without either turning it into paper dictator on the one hand, or on the other being obliged to accept that it means whatever the religious authorities decree.

If the present trends continue as they have done over the past half century, it is quite possible that Christianity will will again play an important role in bringing humanity into an experience of greater freedom, as it has done in the past. The attempt to turn, or steryotype it into the religion of the West will be defeated through the recognition that the Church is universal; the attempt to reduce Christianity to an individualistic religion will be overcome through a rediscovery of biblical revelation, which is being forced upon or embraced by Christians in this age of freedom. As Barton concludes, freedom of interpretation, yet commitment to religious faith, need to go hand in hand. This seems to him possible if we accept the Bible as a crucial but not infallible document of the Christian faith.


John Barton (2019), A History of the Bible: The Book and its Faiths. London: Allen Lane (Penguin Books).

Tim Dowley (1977), The History of Christianity: A Lion Handbook. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.

John Eagleson & Philip Scharper (ed.) (1972), The Radical Bible. Maryknoll, N. Y. : Orbis Book.

Alan T Dale (1979), Portrait of Jesus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Michel Quoist (1973), Meet Christ and Live. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.

Appendix: Soweto, 1976 – A Case Study.

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A History of South Africa (1986), Selly Oak (Birmingham): Development Education Centre.

Development Education Centre.

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