taking the words of Jesus seriously

I have been thinking about how this incredible man, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, and those he influenced have shaped so much of my life and of all our lives here in South Africa. 

My ancestry as a white South African descendant of colonizers, slave traders, apartheid architects, and oppressors sets me up in opposition to racial and social justice from when I was young.

Attending church early on made me believe I was special, unique, and chosen, affirming what I already felt at an unconscious level through my whiteness. We were taught that our privilege in society was because we were recipients of “grace.” We were taught that Jesus died for our sins; however, we only ever spoke of personal sins—like swearing, smoking, and sex—but never systemic sins.

Our family left my birth country, Zimbabwe, in 1978 when I was seven, and we moved to Apartheid South Africa. However, I had already been absorbing how white people were superior. We had several “servants” in our home where I was “klein baas” (little boss). In South Africa, I attended all-white schools, and I recall conversations about the “terrorist” Nelson Mandela and the “heretical” Archbishop. I was taught that he preached a gospel of “liberation theology” rooted in “politics”—both bad things. 

Most of my Christian church experience has been within New Covenant Ministries International (NCMI) relating churches. I first joined a NCMI church, Capital City Church International (3CI), in 1995 in Pretoria. The gospel proclaimed there was completely void of solutions to injustices in society. At their 20th birthday celebration in 2015, of the approximately 2000 people present, it was very revealing that there were less than 50 people of color. This church did practice some generosity towards the poor, but while boasting how biblical they were, they never preached about justice implications of the gospel for the wealthy. 

A turning point came for me in 2010 when a friend in the NCMI leadership team visited our church and asked why Africa (which had the highest percentage of evangelical Christians) had the least development and transformation. He bravely continued, “What is wrong with the gospel we have been proclaiming that it has not liberated people?” 

What a provoking and important question! 

It began a quest to discover for ourselves the real gospel in all its glorious fullness. My wife and I recall reading the “red letters” of the Bible (the words of Jesus) and thinking how little of our Christianity looked like Jesus. We began seeing the heresy of our theology, with its focus on personal admission tickets to heaven, while ignoring the very real hells on earth so many were trapped in. To be fair, there were also prophets within the movement, calling us to just living, but they were mostly ignored.

READ: Jesus is Waiting at Our Border

As we read more widely, we decided to relocate our lives from the comfort of the suburbs towards places of pain and suffering. We actively simplified our lives and moved into Hillbrow, Johannesburg in 2012. However, we still attended our church in the suburbs, with every visit reminding us of the contradictions of the two worlds we were experiencing. One was rich, believing they were “saved,” living in comfort and convenience, while mostly ignoring and often contributing to the suffering of their neighbors just a few kilometers away. The other world, where we lived, sometimes felt like a war zone. Many activists in fact, talked of a war on the poor, not on poverty. We often felt a national disaster should have been called to address this humanitarian crisis. We were seeing and experiencing such horrors, and yet our church (and most of the suburban church at large) was silent.

The only talk of our life in Hillbrow was when our church celebrated us as “heroes.” We were, to them, the exception, never an example of what could be if we all took equality and dignity seriously. Never was there any preaching on redressing the unjust wealth acquired by many during apartheid or how apartheid had shaped our lives. Any conversations like that would have been silenced. The focus of the preaching was rather on “going to the nations” to take the good news out there. Our church leader was widely celebrated for raising up and releasing “hundreds of leaders to the nations,” but they were all white, male leaders. There was certainly a ceiling in the church for black people and women: you could lead worship, but eldership was off-limits. I began to see how many of the NCMI relating churches I had been a part of were sadly reinforcing theology underpinning exclusivity, white supremacy, and other forms of oppression. They just could not see it. 

We were also told that politics was not part of the church’s role, except to have “godly people in power.” “Godly people” implied those who only spoke about “giving God glory,” about “salvation of souls” (note – not of whole people – just their souls), and of heaven. Politicians who spoke of justice, especially racial justice, were seen as divisive. All kinds of racial micro-aggressions were on full display in this church.

Moving to Hillbrow changed much of this for us. Our social location changed. We were exposed to the broader church, and we began to socialize widely. We participated in conversations with leaders concerned about social and racial justice from across the denominational spectrum in the city, people who were also wrestling with how to put the gospel into action against the systems in the here and now. These new friendships and our lived experience in Hillbrow both affirmed that something was wrong with our NCMI movement’s theology and began to fuel dreams of what could be. 

In 2016, we spent a week with some Christian activists on Robben Island, all of whom seemed to be consumed with how to practice justice. We met the revolutionary Lisa Sharon Harper, whose book “The Very Good Gospel ”traced the roots of right-wing evangelicalism and its affiliation with slavery and racial oppression. This was a pivotal moment for us. We began to also read widely about the Doctrine of Discovery and the history of the church’s role in colonialism. There were so many examples of the gospel I grew up with underpinning injustice and oppression. 

Ultimately, however, it is our relationships with neighbors in Hillbrow and other marginalized communities that provided a plumb line for judging our gospel proclamation. If our gospel is not good news to these friends, it is not the gospel of Christ. 

  • Friends in prison need a gospel of liberation, not only a promise of freedom in the afterlife. 
  • Friends living on the streets need provision, not just promises of eternal mansions. 
  • Friends who are sick need quality health care, not just a promise of resurrected bodies in heaven. 
  • Friends who are undocumented or asylum seekers need protection and support, not just assurance of belonging to a spiritual family. 
  • Historically oppressed racial groups need racial justice, not color-blind statements about all of us being loved equally by God. 
  • Romantic and sexual minorities need a public affirmation rejecting that they are sinners as a result of their sexual identity or orientation, and to be assured they belong, are able to be ordained and married, and are free to participate fully as members of God’s beautiful family. 
  • Good news for women requires an end to patriarchy and toxic masculinity. 

The gospel is only good news to the poor if it is good news for all those made vulnerable. It needs to translate into dismantling oppressive systems and putting in place real, practical care and love.

Many of my friends have stories of meeting Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and of his wisdom, his kindness, his humanity, and laughter. I am grateful for their journeys with him and justice that have helped me transform my theology. It has restored my humanity. 

I am sorry for not listening earlier, Tata Tutu, but I dedicate the rest of my days to standing for inclusion, for justice, and for a full gospel proclamation that brings hope to all people not only in the future but also in the now.

Long Live the legacy of Tata Desmond Tutu.

About The Author


Nigel Branken is a South African Christian pastor and social and racial justice activist. His ancestry includes slave traders,1820 Settlers, Dutch colonizers, and the cofounder of the National Party, Martinus Steyn, whose party came to power in 1948, ushering in Apartheid. He and his wife Trish, lead Neighbours NPO (www.neighbours.org.za) where they seek to "become good friends to their neighbours and good neighbours to their friends". They believe neighborliness is at the heart of the gospel and our relational proximity to pain and suffering invites us to see the world in new ways.

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