Public theology: Hold up hope amidst precariousness

I believe I’m a Christian because I’m obsessed with being salt and light in the world. I know this obsession is not of my own doing. It’s the result of a force which overpowered me and made me confess that Jesus is Lord, and declare that it is Him I must obey, not my own desires.

I believe there’s never been anyone else like Jesus. No one even comes close. His life, works and death fulfilled many predictions made about him ‘in the voice of God’ over many centuries.

The world has changed due to His followers. They have removed tyrants from power, developed and established hospitals and other services, ended widow-burning and foot-binding, established justice systems, cared for widows and orphans.

I accept His teaching that the problems in the world are primarily due to humans seeking our own interests (sin, idolatry) instead of the interests of God, that punishment awaits the self-centred, that the solutions to the world’s problems are woven into His death and resurrection.

I believe I’m a Christian because I’m perpetually disappointed in the failures of Christians including myself. I know from my own life that I often don’t do what I know I ought to do – just as the apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans (7:15-24).

When I read about wrongdoings exposed by whistle-blowers and the ensuing justice process, I feel sad that those who expose wrongdoers, hold them accountable and help their victims, are rarely Christians.

I get very frustrated when sermons and songs just talk about personal holiness: Bible reading, praying, giving, and doing charitable works.

I get the feeling most Christians think only those who “have a calling” should do the work of justice-making. I get the feeling they’re not bothered that so few Christians are engaged in such work.

That’s what makes me excited about the Lutheran World Federation’s initiative, together with two other institutions, to make available to all of us a set of resources collected under the rubric “public theology.”

Today I listened to Professor Juliana Claassens’ video in the collection. She’s a Professor of Old Testament at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. Her 19-minute lecture titled “Public theology and biblical exegesis,” greatly encouraged and inspired me. Here’s a quick summary.

The work of public theology – I take this to mean the work of every Christian – is to hold up hope in the public square, amidst the injustices and precariousness of life (Shelly Rambo).

We must be light shining in the darkness. We must be constructive visionaries engaged in meaning-making. We must be ever striving to overcome injustices, to lighten and enlighten people. Her exhortation to ‘write and right’ warmed my heart. We must work on dismantling oppressions and oppressive structures. Our theme song must be “This Little Light of Mine,” which was never far from the lips of the poor, black American civil rights campaigner Fannie Lou Hamer.

We must uncover wounds. To do this effectively, we must recognize ‘insidious traumas’ – a term coined by Maria Root/Laura Brown – caused by systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, micro-aggressiveness, abuse, dehumanization and discrimination. These are words which must be often in our speech! It’s helpful to think about ‘the crooked room’ (Melissa Harris Perry) – much of what we take as ‘normal’ is, in God’s eyes, crooked. We must challenge the architecture, the distortions of reality.

We must bind up wounds. This means getting personal, engaging with people at the individual level. This means “touching, cleaning, applying balm with the distinct purpose of healing” (Shelly Rambo). We must lament, we must sorrow with the victims of inequality, apartheid, poverty – we must associate with the marginalized, like Jesus did with lepers and with the woman who bled for twelve years. By doing so, we challenge the ongoing dehumanization and devaluation of so many in our world. We must be people who are models of compassion, justice, resistance, and resilience.

Claassens includes this quote, which I find very inspiring:

“[Prophet] Jeremiah does the life-saving work of a preacher-poet-theologian. He looks at his people’s situation, he lives among them and sees their world; he names it and reframes it by imaginatively reframing traditions they share. This interpretive work rebuilds them into a people.” (Kathleen M O’Connor)

How do I know I’m a Christian? I know because I want to be measured by the highest standards of behaviour, commitment, and speech – the standards laid out by public theologians like Juliana Claassens.

Hold up hope amidst precariousness (Juliana Claassens)

I believe I’m a Christian because I’m obsessed with being salt and light in the world. I know this obsession is not of my own doing. It’s the result of a force which overpowered me and made me confess that Jesus is Lord, and declare that it is Him I must obey, not my own desires.

I believe there’s never been anyone else like Jesus. No one even comes close. His life, works and death fulfilled many predictions made about him ‘in the voice of God’ over many centuries.

The world has changed due to His followers. They have removed tyrants from power, developed and established hospitals and other services, ended widow-burning and foot-binding, established justice systems, cared for widows and orphans.

I accept His teaching that the problems in the world are primarily due to humans seeking our own interests (sin, idolatry) instead of the interests of God, that punishment awaits the self-centred, that the solutions to the world’s problems are woven into His death and resurrection.

I believe I’m a Christian because I’m perpetually disappointed in the failures of Christians including myself. I know from my own life that I often don’t do what I know I ought to do – just as the apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans (7:15-24).

When I read about wrongdoings exposed by whistle-blowers and the ensuing justice process, I feel sad that those who expose wrongdoers, hold them accountable and help their victims, are rarely Christians.

I get very frustrated when sermons and songs just talk about personal holiness: Bible reading, praying, giving, and doing charitable works.

I get the feeling most Christians think only those who “have a calling” should do the work of justice-making. I get the feeling they’re not bothered that so few Christians are engaged in such work.

That’s what makes me excited about the Lutheran World Federation’s initiative, together with two other institutions, to make available to all of us a set of resources collected under the rubric “public theology.”

Today I listened to Professor Juliana Claassens’ video in the collection. She’s a Professor of Old Testament at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. Her 19-minute lecture titled “Public theology and biblical exegesis,” greatly encouraged and inspired me. Here’s a quick summary.

The work of public theology – I take this to mean the work of every Christian – is to hold up hope in the public square, amidst the injustices and precariousness of life (Shelly Rambo).

We must be light shining in the darkness. We must be constructive visionaries engaged in meaning-making. We must be ever striving to overcome injustices, to lighten and enlighten people. Her exhortation to ‘write and right’ warmed my heart. We must work on dismantling oppressions and oppressive structures. Our theme song must be “This Little Light of Mine,” which was never far from the lips of the poor, black American civil rights campaigner Fannie Lou Hamer.

We must uncover wounds. To do this effectively, we must recognize ‘insidious traumas’ – a term coined by Maria Root/Laura Brown – caused by systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, micro-aggressiveness, abuse, dehumanization and discrimination. These are words which must be often in our speech! It’s helpful to think about ‘the crooked room’ (Melissa Harris Perry) – much of what we take as ‘normal’ is, in God’s eyes, crooked. We must challenge the architecture, the distortions of reality.

We must bind up wounds. This means getting personal, engaging with people at the individual level. This means “touching, cleaning, applying balm with the distinct purpose of healing” (Shelly Rambo). We must lament, we must sorrow with the victims of inequality, apartheid, poverty – we must associate with the marginalized, like Jesus did with lepers and with the woman who bled for twelve years. By doing so, we challenge the ongoing dehumanization and devaluation of so many in our world. We must be people who are models of compassion, justice, resistance, and resilience.

Claassens includes this quote, which I find very inspiring:

“[Prophet] Jeremiah does the life-saving work of a preacher-poet-theologian. He looks at his people’s situation, he lives among them and sees their world; he names it and reframes it by imaginatively reframing traditions they share. This interpretive work rebuilds them into a people.” (Kathleen M O’Connor)

How do I know I’m a Christian? I know because I want to be measured by the highest standards of behaviour, commitment, and speech – the standards laid out by public theologians like Juliana Claassens.

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