September 15, 2003

Calling all public theologians

Robert Franklin is Presidential Distinguished Professor of Social Ethics.

Sociologist Peter Berger has said there is a global culture emerging in the world, one largely “of Western and indeed American provenance, penetrating the rest of the world on both elite and popular levels.”

You have seen this phenomenon in your travels. And I had ample opportunity to observe it during nearly a year of sabbatical travel. From the favelas or slums of Rio de Janiero, to the bustling streets of Hanoi and Bangkok; from the crowded markets of Istanbul and Cape Town to the dusty sidewalks of Cairo and Casablanca, America is there. They watch our movies, tragically without context or reality testing. They consume CNN and Coca-Cola, and they love our tennis shoes that, by the way, are made by them, shipped to us where we slap on a value-adding label, and then sell them back to their makers.

For the most part, citizens of the world regard America as a benign or positive presence. But something is happening—and the stakes of a negative outcome to this process are exceedingly high, as we witnessed on 9/11.

Consider the unfolding of a drama of which we are all now a part: The current unpleasantries in Iraq. Recently the world witnessed a U.S.-led coalition to unseat a ruthless dictator. I suspect that most of us regard this outcome as a good consequence for the people of Iraq and the cause of human rights in the global community, despite the fact that the evidence and moral warrants for justifying this action were problematic and widely unpersuasive.

But the sharp edge of our public relations challenge lies here. One of the most distressing dimensions of much pre-war discourse was the series of anti-Islamic comments made by a few highly visible American church leaders. Some of these same leaders are associates of our president, who himself employed language that easily could be construed as suggesting that particular Islamic nations are part of an “axis of evil.”

Unwittingly or not, by invoking explicitly religious and theological rhetoric to fortify the case for military action, our political leaders presented U.S. foreign policy, fortified by American Christianity, as the morally superior alternative to Islam. This is a lethal calculation for the church as well as the nation. This comes very close to an ideological use of the gospel to support a particular and fallible analysis of world events. And the goal of achieving strategic military advantage is easily conflated with advancing American economic interests in the marketplace of nations.

Political boosterism and product placement may be legitimate tasks of the state and the market—but not the church. The church of Jesus Christ does not carry a portfolio for any partisan political organization or for McDonald’s and Microsoft. Why would it stoop so low?

As the church, we have an obligation to God and to the global community to differentiate our faith from our country’s foreign policy and market designs. And we have a moral obligation to build bridges of inter-religious understanding and dialogue here on this campus and in this city. We must not permit the Muslim world to think that secular political and business officials, who may happen to be earnest Christians, represent the vision and ethical values of the Christian churches.

Our voice must be distinct and it must be clear. Church leaders must not rely on our usual passive approach of issuing soporific resolutions and press releases. The people in Tikrit never see those. We must go on the offensive and creatively communicate our message, our witness, through every channel available from MTV to Al-Jazeera.

We can say this and still love our country, respect our president, support our troops and stand tall as American patriots in the tradition of Patrick Henry, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass.

But this is work for a particular kind of religious leader. Since the time of Reinhold Niebuhr, we have called them public theologians. They are women and men who take their faith out of the comfort of the sanctuary into the public square, of the nation and the globe. In times of stress and uncertainty, they ‘go public’—not to impose their faith upon other people, but to give voice and to embody, a radical idea: that love is the greatest force available to humanity for solving its ills. Not the weak and superficial sentimentality that passes for love in our time, but love as a force of the soul. Love as a movement of the Spirit. A radical agapic ethic that forgives enemies. Love that insists upon reconciliation. Love that marches nonviolently down public streets even while dogs are biting and fire hoses are piercing. Public theologians show before they tell the world the meanings of faith, hope, love, justice and reconciliation. As one theologian put it, preach the gospel always, use words when necessary.

Our world needs public theologians who will call the church forward to its unrealized identity. Every congregation in America should be a community of worship and prayer, to be sure, but they must grow into communities of cultural discernment, moral deliberation and courageous action. They cannot do it on their own. They need leaders. And so, you are here.

Here is a clue to what this faculty is trying to nurture in each student. Public theologians need sharp minds and pastoral hearts. But in a political milieu riven through with seemingly intractable standoffs and unresolvable conflicts, something specific is required. It is a capacity and a habit. It can be learned. It may be taught. Biblical scholar Walter Breuggemann calls it “prophetic imagination.” It is the gift to perceive possibilities in every situation where the Holy can disclose itself. When everyone around you sees fog and rain, the public theologian employs prophetic imagination to see through the darkening clouds of our present time and apprehend the glimmering opportunities ahead.

Candler School of Theology has a distinguished history of preparing generations of public theologians with prophetic imagination. We hope that you have come here to join that tradition and to take your place in the ranks of learned and prophetic Christian leaders. These are the leaders Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of in his sermon titled “Transformed Nonconformists.”

This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists. The saving of our world from pending doom will come not from the action of a conforming majority, but from the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority.

A final note from the Apocalypse, or the Book of Revelation. No wonder this book almost didn’t make it into the New Testament canon; it is a veritable forest of wild allegory and magical metaphor—mystifying, haunting, dense and elusive. Just the kind of language one might use when an oppressive power is looking over your shoulder or trying to extinguish your faith community. Oppressed folk know how to tell a story and sing a song that eludes the hermeneutical radar of the oppressor.

But this pericope offers us a gift. It is a vision of how we appear from the other end of history. It is a great gathering, a convocation of sorts, in the presence of God. Worship and music and adoration are the order of the day. But an elder interrupts the flow to ask a rhetorical question. Intrigued with a particular group of worshippers adorned in special garments, singing a special song, he asks, Who are these? They are the survivors. They are the wounded healers. They are the public theologians who never gave up the fight.

And that bunch over there is from Candler.

This essay is adapted from Franklin’s address at the Candler Convocation,
delivered Sept. 2 in Cannon Chape