Monthly Archives: January 2012

Fomenting Repentance

Image courtesy of takomabibelot at via Wikimedia Commons

Christianity has manifold resources for individuals who feel mired in sin who seek to repent and live a new life. But what about societies that are mired in sin, which as mass entities are unable to feel as individuals feel? And what about individuals within an unjust system who perpetuate it and benefit from the injustice, even though they did not create the system and by themselves are powerless to stop it? Is the language of sin and repentance effective for transforming societal sins? The works of Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, Jr. suggest to me that it is not effective to indict large groups of people for sins they may perpetuate, but did not engender.

In Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr states that

Individuals are never as immoral as the social situation in which they are involved and which they symbolize. If opposition to a system leads to personal insults of its representatives, it is always felt as an unjust accusation…An impartial teacher of morals would be compelled to insist on the principle of personal responsibility for social guilt. But it is morally and politically wise for an opponent not to do so. (p. 248-49)

To support this assertion, he points to William Lloyd Garrison, whose fierce criticism of the evil of slaveowning merely “solidified the south in support of slavery” (p. 248).

Martin Luther King, Jr, seemed to follow Niebuhr’s advice (with both men drawing also on the work of Gandhi). In “Give Us the Ballot,” he stresses that “our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man…We must respond to every [court] decision with… an appreciation of the difficult adjustments that the court orders pose for them.” Rather than calling on white moderates to lament their role in a racist system, he prays for them to have the courage to be strong leaders. The distinction is perhaps subtle, because strong leadership is the ultimate goal of repentance. The difference is that King focused on rallying to the correct way rather than criticizing the incorrect way.

The priests in Nehemiah 8 also take this strategy in orchestrating mass repentance:

“This day is holy to the Lord your God: you must not mourn or weep,” for all the people were weeping as they listened to the words of the Teaching. He further said to them, “Go, eat choice foods and drink sweet drinks…Do not be sad, for your rejoicing in the Lord is the source of your strength.”’

In Nehemiah, discovering the right way to live was not cause for contrition, but for celebration and action.

Fomenting transformation on a wide scale means calling people to their highest values, rather than excoriating their sins. Excoriating sins tends to alienate folk, and alienation does not create political will. Movements that build political will are not humble and contrite; they are strong because they are joyous. They are, in Heschel’s words, “spiritually audacious and morally grandiose.”

An expanded version of this post will be on in the near future.

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Public theology: an account of the gods or a discourse on the gods pertaining to or open to all the people?

Public theology: an account of the gods or a discourse on the gods pertaining to or open to all the people?

By Leah B.

Hello, everyone!

This past Thursday, our class ended with the question of, “How are we defining public theology?” I was curious about that, so I did some very quick research (if you find more information, please contribute!) to see if the word and tradition histories of the term could be helpful.

Word History:

Public: a mid-15th century word meaning “pertaining/open to all the people” (French public, from Latin publicus, from Old Latin poplicus from populus)

Theology: a mid-14th century word from the French theologie “philosophical treatment of Christian doctrine” from L. theologia from Gk, theologia, “an account of the gods,” from theologos, “one discoursing on the gods.”

So a very technical definition could be…

Public theology: an account of the gods or a discourse on the gods pertaining to or open to all the people.

How public theology has been traditionally used:

The phrase “public theology” is quite modern and may have been coined by UChicago’s Martin Marty. According to (a site sponsored by the ELCA), Marty was unsatisfied with the terms public religion and civil religion because public theology was “closer to experienced religious identities,” and public theology could provide a better critique and challenge to citizens’ “commitment to their specific churches, synagogues and mosques.”* I couldn’t find any primary documents of Marty claiming this, so I would regard it loosely. However, if it is accurate, it seems that public theology is less about the public and more about religious communities. The Encyclopedia of Christianity comments further that the tradition of public theology was one that “presumed that theologians, clergy and committed laity” should use their theological resources and training to address issues of faith and justice in society (done through teaching, preaching and organizing).**

Here are some of the questions that are raised for me. I would love to hear others thoughts and/or questions that emerge for them:

– What does this definition mean?

– What are the implications of defining public theology this way? Is it helpful?

– What does one do with the difference between the broad, technical definition and the more narrow traditional usage?

Just an observation…

– The technical definition with it’s “account of” and “discourse” makes me think of storytelling as a means of public theology. Agree/disagree? What stories have past public theologians told effectively? What stories are current public theologians telling? Are the storytellers the true public theologians?


** The encyclopedia of Christianity, Volume 4; Erwin Fahlbusch, Geoffrey William Bromiley

A Call to Intentional Community?

I’ve had a question that has been central in my mind since one of our first class periods. We read the autobiography of Dorothy Day, which is called The Long Lonliness. Dorothy Day was part of starting the Catholic Worker Movement, which comes out of Catholic Social Teaching. While I enjoyed and learned from conversation with my classmates about Day’s main arguments and her theology, I left class with a burning question, not fit for the classroom. This question burned even hotter when later in that week I had conversations with two friends, both of whom have lived in Catholic Worker communities.

That question is: what do we do now? What are we to do, now that we have read this autobiography? What do we think about this call? I so strongly hear a call to live in a community similar to those of which Day speaks- perhaps a Catholic Worker, or perhaps another sort of faith-based intentional community, grounded in a belief in the work of social justice. But is this realistic? Intentional communities, in my experience, are hard work. The introvert and the exhausted graduate student inside of me groan at this thought. I remember my (non-Catholic) parents telling me that before I was born, they participated in civil disobedience with a Catholic Worker community. Perhaps this is where this pull that I feel originates?

I don’t know what I do with this. I do know that I have passionate people around me who have thoughts, and I would love to hear them. I can think of many who might have enlightening thoughts or further questions. What do you do with this? What am I to do now?

Public Theologians

During the first five weeks of this class, “Theology in the Public Square,” we’re reading Martin Luther King Jr, Dorothy Day, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Abraham Joshua Heschel.  Professor Culp explained to us that she had attempted to update the syllabus to include more recent public theologians, but found none of the same caliber. ETA: At the very least, these theologians still permeate public discourse.

Is this really true? And if it is, why?

I’ve been puzzling over this for three and a half weeks now, to no avail. The most satisfying answer I have come up with is that the Religious Right has taken control of  the public discourse on religion. Their conversation revolves around individual morality as opposed to social change.

Or perhaps, the plurality of religious views in the country at this time is pushing us away from the use of religiously charged language in the public square.

I am curious to hear what others think: Why haven’t we seen a King or Day or Niebuhr or Heschel since the 1960s? Or have we? If so, who?