Christian ethicist and realist Reinhold Niebuhr unfortunately did not live long enough to have the chance to engage the various liberationist voices from the Southern Hemisphere.  Niebuhr espoused a social view of the world known as Christian realism, which according to Ronald Stone’s definition is “descriptive of socially engaged, reformist Christians who are economically left of the center of the Democratic Party.”[i]  To the extent that Niebuhr appears to be reacting in his writing to a particular political program sponsored by the church, the preceding Social Gospel movement at the turn of the twentieth century must be taken into consideration.  In spite of the harsh words he sometimes reserves for the trends of that period, Niebuhr himself supported a certain kind of socialism.  He was also critical of the Vietnam War, though poor health prevented him from being especially active and outspoken about this

Liberation theology, on the other hand, arose as movement during a period of disappointment after premature optimism in Latin America regarding development and progress – just at the end of Niebuhr’s life.  The historical context surrounding the rise of liberation thought was arguably one characterized predominately by politico-economic despair and destitution.  The chief distinctive of liberation theology is its material social analysis that led to the formulation of a doctrine known as “God’s preferential option for the poor.”[ii]  That is, theology itself was said to begin at the level of praxis rather than theory, and must first take into account the horizon and interests of the disinherited.  For the purposes of this paper, I have selected the early work of Leonardo Boff to be representative of liberation theology.[iii]

At a superficial level, liberation theology has been dismissed as merely a “soft utopianism” (Alves), while Christian realism has been seen been written off as simply an ideology of the establishment (Sanders).[iv]  Sometimes the two systems of thought clash, while in other instances they reinforce each other.[v]  Both function in some respects as Christian public theologies or Christian social philosophies.[vi]  What I hope to show is that Christian realism and liberation theology are not necessarily mutually exclusive, though antagonism between them has persisted.  Secondly, I will provide a brief reflection on both and attempt to point toward a third option.

Raimundo Barreto has contended that there is sufficient evidence to suspect that Niebuhr would have been more sympathetic to liberation theology than many of his followers have been.[vii]  Barreto argues that liberation theology can be seen as a kind of Christian realism despite the clear differences.  Both schools are concerned about social justice and maintain a structural understanding of the nature of sin.  And rather than beginning with abstract speculation or timeless philosophical principles, they also have in common a strong pragmatism and serious reading of reality as their starting point.[viii]

The primarily differences between liberation theology and Christian realism according to Barreto are the following: 1) the socio-historical situations in which they speak, 2) their views toward power, and 3) their expectations about the possibilities for human beings in history (i.e., their anthropological and eschatological perspectives).[ix] A synthesis might not be possible, but dialogue and alliance is desirable.  Such is the purpose of the comparison to follow.


Niebuhr criticizes “orthodox” churches for “compounding dogmatisms from another day” and liberal churches for hiding “their light under the bushel of the culture and modernity.”[x]  For Niebuhr, Christian morality can be neither mere clothing of natural philosophy nor “outmoded authoritarian moral codes.”[xi] Niebuhr’s Christian realism is captured by the notion that the “ideal of love is real in the will and nature of God”, even though there is no time or place in history where the ideal has been realized in its pure form.[xii]  Niebuhr opposes the tendency of churches toward institutional preservation, which often happens by means of literally interpreted myths and bad science.  By the same token, he is suspicious of uncritical cultural assimilation and accommodation.  Niebuhr is confident that the Kingdom of God cannot come about by political means.  As Niebuhr sees it, “both liberalism and Marxism are secularized and naturalized versions of the Hebrew prophetic movement and the Christian religion.”[xiii]  He is convinced that utopianism inevitably leads to disillusionment.[xiv]  Niebuhr calls for a moral life between the dialectical tension of the ideal and the real, of optimism and pessimism.  The church must not deviate from prophetic religion by falling into sacramental complacency on the one hand or mystic otherworldliness on the other.[xv]

Niebuhr understands the ethic of Jesus to be the ideal of love.  Essentially he says that it consists in loving our enemies, abandoning self-love, embracing self-sacrificing service, and unconditional forgiving.  Such an ethic opposes natural morality and the general flow of societal behavior.  As such, Niebuhr concludes that “[i]t is, therefore, impossible to construct a socio-moral policy from the religio-moral insight of Jesus.”[xvi] A Christian social ethic must take seriously the nature of sin and the destructiveness of egoism.  In sum, Niebuhr submits that the peace of the ‘city of God’ can use and transmute the lesser and insecure peace of the ‘city of the world’, but this can only be done if the two are not confused.

According to Niebuhr, one of the critical points overlooked by Christian liberalism is the extent to which coercion exists in every economic and political system.  For Niebuhr, there is no such thing as un-coerced cooperation.  Similarly, moralistic utopianism ignores the sin and corruption of the individual.  For the modern Church and its romantic presuppositions, it seemed that the mere statement of the ideal of love was a guarantee of its ultimate realization.[xvii]  In short, Niebuhr judges that “liberal solutions of the social problem never take the permanent difference between [humanity’s] collective behavior and the moral ideals of an individual life into consideration.”[xviii]  This difference necessitates that collective behavior be monitored and enforced politically – that is, by force, whilst individuals ought to be disciplined by ethical standards because they are more likely to abide by them.[xix]  Hope in mechanisms of social control to create pure justice is always futile, but when it comes to structuring the state, Niebuhr argues that “basic justice in any society depends upon the right organization of [humanity’s] common labor, the equalization of their social power, regulation of their common interests, and adequate restraint upon the inevitable conflict of competing interests.”[xx]  Niebuhr knows that there is no objective or disinterested viewpoint, so he asserts that a system with the most checks and balances on power is the best one.[xxi]


Like Niebuhr, liberation theologians such as Boff do not believe that the church should necessarily be the prominent conduit for justice in society, though it of course has the highest obligation to contribute and set an example.  There exists a certain ecclesiological skepticism in both systems of thought.  Though the church has preached Christ as liberator, but in Boff’s estimation, the church has not generally been supportive of liberating movements for those on the periphery.  Additionally, Niebuhr and Boff together stress that every theology is socially situated.[xxii]

Whereas European and colonial theologies often look to the past to retrieve their instruction, this history, constituted by the subjugation of the poor, is rejected from the liberationist point of view.  It is instead the future that becomes the energizing force for liberation theology – a future that breaks with the sinful structures of oppression.  And if a utopia is being envisioned, it is not to be understood as a synonym for illusion or flight from the present.[xxiii]  Instead it is born from hope and serves as a model for perfecting reality and protects against stagnation.  Somewhat counter-intuitively, speaking of utopia is thought to keep the social process open and prevent ideologically absolutization. For Boff, it inspires ever-increasing transformation.[xxiv]

In Latin America, immense portions of the population have been marginalized.  Systemic evils transcend individual ones and have far greater consequences.  It is not just that collective groups must be analyzed and regulated differently from individuals, as Niebuhr suggests, but that they must be analyzed regulated first and more urgently.  This is the precise situation that Boff believes the gospel is addressing – namely, that of unjust forms of government and economy.  Hence one finds in liberation theology the central motif of Jesus’s teachings about the kingdom of God – not as some unrealizable, distant end, but as a growing, immanent condition that manifests itself in accordance with our cooperation with God to loose the chains of injustice here and now.  Boff understands this kingdom as a global, institutional and political revolution, though he is careful not to reduce it to any one dimension, be it economic, cultural, or political.[xxv]

Thus, all christology is united with ethics.  Boff cites several passages of Scripture: “He who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way which he walked” (1 John 2:6);  “It is not those who say to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ who will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the person who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 7:21-23).[xxvi]  For Boff, the historical Jesus takes precedence over the creedal Christ (though the latter is by no means excluded or eradicated): “According to the parable concerning anonymous Christians in Matt. 25:31-46, the eternal Judge will not ask people about the canons of dogma, nor whether they made any explicit reference to the mystery of Christ while they lived.  He will ask if we have done anything to help those in need.  Here all is decided.”[xxvii] The appeal for change in the prophetic tradition and the language of exodus from bondage are other key sources of biblical authority for liberation theology.  Not to participate in this process of emancipation is to directly reject Christ and disobey God.

Poverty is concretely characterized by malnutrition; a high infant mortality rate; endemic diseases; low income; unemployment; lack of social security; lack of health care, hospitals, schools, and housing facilities.  As such, it is regarded by Boff as fundamentally inhumane, offensive, and inimical to the will of God.  The roots of these problems are not first and foremost identified in individuals but in the ruling class of society, its method and establishment of governance, and a “First World” culture of consumption.  The issue is not one of aid but of justice.  Consequently, the faith of the Western world in progress, science and technology is called into question.  This elitist vision assumes that benefits will trickle down fro the top layers to those at the bottom.[xxviii]  The chasm between this group and this dominated peoples is the major obstacle to development from Boff’s point of view.  The material problem is such that some nations are dependent on others.[xxix]  As a result, a shift in power is in order – one in which more is desired than just revision or reform.  This outlook is further supported by the observation that Jesus himself challenged the existing powers and authorities of repression in his day, which in part led to his death: “The cross demonstrates the conflict-ridden nature of every process of liberation undertaken when the structure of injustice has gained the upper hand.”[xxx]  At the same time, Boff also acknowledges Jesus’s resistance to the temptation of political messianism.[xxxi]  In sum, the way of Jesus is a journey of eschatological hope that goes by way of, but is not limited to political hopes.


One can appreciate the cautioning insight of Niebuhr’s realism to avoid expecting too much success in social reform, drifting into moralism, the potential dangers of utopianism, and the overly direct theologizing of politics without adequate attention to concrete reality.  At the same time, the contributions by liberation theologians of “passion for social reform, the arguments for the acceptability of revolution as a strategy for social change, and the necessity of moral critique as part of the social struggle” can easily be missed.[xxxii]  Furthermore, those like Boff and others like him (Bonino and Gutierriez for instance) treat utopia not as a fully realizable ideal but as a “hopeful social projection distinguishable from both the Kingdom of God and from the realizable program of existing political parties.”[xxxiii]  A primary liberationist critique of Christian realism would thus object to its pragmatic acceptance of the status quo and its full rejection of utopianism.[xxxiv]

No doubt Christian realism was originally Euroamerican-centric in its view of the world.[xxxv]  But Niebuhr recognized that, regardless of its intentions, the presence of the U.S. in Latin America was often regarded as exploitative.  For Niebuhr, U.S. intervention was generally a block against democratic development – though he affirms that it had made some contribution to achieving liberal democracy in Latin America.[xxxvi]  From the viewpoint of liberation theology, “Niebuhr may have overdone his critique of utopianism in the social gospel and in communism, but certainly both programs had in them grand illusions.”[xxxvii]  What is more, “Niebuhr also critiques the pretensions of laissez-faire capitalism and the utopian fantasies of contemporary American presidents.”[xxxviii]

It could be contested that liberation theology is too totalizing in its denouncement of the market system and all possibilities of reforming capitalism.[xxxix]  Similarly, some have voiced that it has been incapable of transforming base communities into active political forces.  But alternative paths have nevertheless been sought between ‘restrictive exploitative and foreign dominate capitalism’ and ‘inefficient socialism.’[xl] Stone argues that liberation theology has always been more than a theology of revolution and that is more like a form of practical theology for society.[xli]  For this reason, he deems the accusation that liberation theology is completely dependent upon Marxist analysis as wide of the mark.

In his description liberation theology, Robert McAfee Brown uses the maxim, “to know God is to do justice.” In the first place, however, liberation theology presents a theory of injustice.[xlii]  Liberation theologians defines justice as the acts of God in history which free the oppressed from institutionalized violence.[xliii]  Thus, there is really no separation between love and justice in liberation theology.  For Niebuhr on the other hand, “[t]here can be no justice without love, because true justice in the establishment of right relationships, and that cannot happen apart from love.”[xliv]  In addition, Niebuhr warns that love must strive for something purer than justice if it is to attain justice.[xlv]  While it is important to remember that Niebuhr attributed the irrelevancy of orthodox churches to their divorcing of justice and love, Niebuhr nonetheless sees love’s function as one that regulates justice; in other words, he does not apply the terms interchangeably.[xlvi]

Moreover, whereas Niebuhr is skeptical of all accumulation of power, liberation theologians want to harness power and give it back to the powerless victims.  Boff is more hopeful about the level of justice that humanity can achieve than Niebuhr.  This is largely because of desperate nature of circumstances in which so many live in Latin America.  More hope is needed to empower the masses living in misery.  So again, the biggest difference between liberation theology and Christian realism seems to be social location.[xlvii]  Their respective approaches are not necessarily incompatible but rather reflect the different circumstances in which they were written.  Christian realism does not begin from a place of the majority of humanity and their cries for justice.  Its setting, however sensitive to social grievances, is typically from the vantage point of privilege.  In view of this, perhaps one could conclude that each system is “right” for its own context and that the difference between the two is determined more by a matter of degree than kind.

Insofar as recent changes in liberation theology are requiring that its proponents enter into discussion about democracy, there might exist a collaborative future between these two groups.  The impact of world-economic structures on weak economies, however, continues to be missing from the rhetoric of Christian realism today.  The gap in terms of language about economic policies and power politics remains. [xlviii] The fact that both perspectives are “in the church” is not enough to unite the two.  So while it may have been demonstrated that Niebuhr and Boff’s are not in competition, they are not in harmony either. Therefore, another assessment is in order.

William Cavanaugh has avowed that “[t]he Christian is called not to replace one universal system with another, but to attempt to ‘realize’ the universal body of Christ in every particular exchange.”[xlix]  This observation illustrates not the competitive or harmonious relationship between liberation theology and Christian realism, but the cooperative nature of the their relationship.  They are cooperative and complimentary exactly insofar as each does indeed do this – realize the body of Christ in its own context.  As Barreto suggests, liberation theology can benefit from Niebuhr’s reflection on original sin.  Niebuhr’s interpretation of Christian ethics enables one to operate at a level of indifference to political outcomes – not indifference to political action itself.  On the other hand, Christian realism could stand to gain from some of liberation theology’s optimism.[l]  Along with this optimism, liberation theology demands what Brown has identified as the move by citizens in the dominant stratum of society to recognize one’s complicity in oppression, become “traitors” to one’s own privileged class, and broaden one’s base or worldview to include the concerns of the disenfranchised.[li] These three criterion prevent anyone with Niebuhr’s politic from ceasing to protest corruption and injustice or to strive for solidarity with the poor marginalized. With the two systems held in tension, apathy is never tolerated, yet hope for and ultimate dependence on God’s intervention is retained.

Finally, Argentine theologian Gerardo Viviers has noticed that liberation theology is in a process of change and judges that both liberation theology and Christian realism have been too captured by the rational categories of the Enlightenment: “The future theologies of Latin America will be more open to myth, symbol, story, and the experiences of indigenous religious expressions.”[lii]  In this light – beyond what has already been concluded – the way forward might also involve a slightly higher degree of distancing by the church from direct trust in or reliance on political avenues for the achievement of a more just society, both for Christian realism and liberation theology. Such an attitude toward government is likely to foster a more realistic perception of the limits of our capacity to make “accurate prospective judgments about the results of enacting one political proposal rather than another, [more so] than that of those whose thinking hews to the ordinary consequentialist line.”[liii]  Further, this guards the church from getting caught up in debates about just war for instance as Niebuhr was with the Cold War.[liv]  On the other hand, it would protect Christians from becoming somewhat reductionist in the Marxist sense by seeing justice strictly in terms of economics – often to the exclusion of culture and ethnic heritage.  In both cases, however, involvement in politics remains mandated.  Ultimately, this subtle critique should probably be seen as no more than a mild 21st Century modification at best of two enduring contributions to Christian social thought in our time.

[i] Ronald H. Stone, “Christian realism and Latin American liberation theology.,” in Church’s public role (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 122.

[ii] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, Revised. (Orbis Books, 1988).

[iii] Other suitable representatives could just as well have been Gustavo Gutierrez, Juan Luis Segundo, or Jon Sobrino for instance.

[iv] Stone, “Christian realism and Latin American liberation theology.,” 112.

[v] Ibid., 109.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Raimundo Cesar Barreto, “Christian realism and Latin American liberation theology: expanding the dialogue,” Koinonia 15 (January 1, 2003): 97.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Reinhold Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, Rauschenbusch Lectures (New York: Meridian Books, 1956), 2.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid., 5.

[xiii] Ibid., 10.

[xiv] Ibid., 11.

[xv] Ibid., 19.

[xvi] Ibid., 29.

[xvii] Ibid., 108.

[xviii] Ibid., 109.

[xix] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932), 262.

[xx] Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, 111.

[xxi] Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, 268.

[xxii] Leonardo & Clodovis Boff, Salvation and Liberation: In Search of a Balance Between Faith and Politics (Orbis, 1988), 48.

[xxiii] Leonardo Boff, Jesus Christ Liberator: A Critical Christology for Our Times (Orbis Books, 1978), 45.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Ibid., 239.

[xxvi] Ibid., 157.

[xxvii] Ibid., 95.

[xxviii] Ibid., 273.

[xxix] Ibid., 276.

[xxx] Ibid., 290.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Stone, “Christian realism and Latin American liberation theology.,” 112.

[xxxiii] Ibid., 118.

[xxxiv] Ibid., 117.

[xxxv] Ibid., 115.

[xxxvi] Ibid.

[xxxvii] Ibid., 118.

[xxxviii] Ibid.

[xxxix] Barreto, “Christian realism and Latin American liberation theology: expanding the dialogue,” 103.

[xl] Stone, “Christian realism and Latin American liberation theology.,” 115.

[xli] Ibid., 120.

[xlii] Barreto, “Christian realism and Latin American liberation theology: expanding the dialogue,” 115.

[xliii] Ibid., 116.

[xliv] Ibid.

[xlv] Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, 266.

[xlvi] Barreto, “Christian realism and Latin American liberation theology: expanding the dialogue,” 116.

[xlvii] Stone, “Christian realism and Latin American liberation theology.,” 124.

[xlviii] Ibid., 118.

[xlix] William T. Cavanaugh, “Balthasar, globalization, and the problem of the one and the many,” Communio 28, no. 2 (June 1, 2001): 324.

[l] Barreto, “Christian realism and Latin American liberation theology: expanding the dialogue,” 117.

[li] Stone, “Christian realism and Latin American liberation theology.,” 122.

[lii] Ibid., 116.

[liii] Paul J. Griffiths, “The cross as the fulcrum of politics: expropriating Agamben on Paul,” in Paul, philosophy, and the theopolitical vision (Eugene, Or: Cascade, 2010), 192-3.

[liv] Ibid., 117.