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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

On Public Theology 50 Years After "I Have a Dream"

Today President Obama delivered a rousing speech to the nation and the world on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. This speech and the event surrounding it served as the culmination of a summer-long remembrance of the civil rights movement of the 1960s by just about every news and governmental agency in America.

Mr. Obama’s speech could not have had the nation-shaking impact of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech that was the highlight of the original March, nor was it supposed to. What was unavoidable in Mr. Obama’s speech, though, was to channel the distinctly Biblical message of the March. Here are some excerpts from the President’s speech today[1]:

And yet they chose a different path. In the face of hatred, they prayed for their tormentors. In the face of violence, they stood up and sat in with the moral force of nonviolence. Willingly, they went to jail to protest unjust laws, their cells swelling with the sound of freedom songs. A lifetime of indignities had taught them that no man can take away the dignity and grace that God grants us.
 ...people who could have given up and given in but kept on keeping on, knowing that weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning

Mr. Obama’s speech quickly departed from anything resembling Dr. King’s Scripture-infused sermon of justice and God-given dignity, moving into language about political issues and goals of his administration. This is not Mr. Obama’s fault or an error in any way; the nature of the event and the fabric of our nation demanded that he do so. In fact, Mr. Obama’s speech demonstrated the new nature of public theology in America.

“Public Theology” refers to a quintessentially American exercise in which the Church (historically represented by Protestants, but not always) speaks and acts within American society. Nelson explains two essential attributes of public theology: 
Public theology must be publicly persuasive. To be in any sense effective, its argumentation cannot be based on claims to possess specially revealed truths, nor can it be founded on scriptural proof in any sort of propositional sense or on appeals to any tradition that is exclusively Christian… Public theology remains theology, that is to say, it is founded on and advocates values derived from our religious tradition. However, it seeks to coordinate that tradition with values that an outside audience or public already shares with us, or at least are potentially acceptable to them. The church speaks out of its own tradition and theology, but seeks shared ground around shared core values. The public theologian seeks persuasively to offer a Christian world-view in the market place of options as a reasonable, possible choice, as a genuine option for the public to consider.[2]

The modern version of this theology can generally be traced to Reinhold Niebuhr in the 20th century, however since the 1950s (and especially since the Civil Rights era of the 1960s) public theology has become less about specific theologians in academic settings and more about populist movements stirred up by preachers and local church organizers.[3]

It is the Civil Rights movement that represents the changing of the guard in terms of public theology. Before the era of King and Falwell the voices academic theologians like Tillich, Niebuhr, and Rauschenbusch were the most influential in America when it came to the public presence of the Church. Niebuhr even graced the cover of TIME magazine for its 25th anniversary issue.[4]

What caused the shift? Noll and Dean point to a disconnect between the rapidly-changing culture of 1960s America and the inability of academic theologians to keep up.[5] The preachers in the pulpits were the front-line thinkers and actors in the social issues of the era regardless of which side they took on a particular issue. This intimacy with the very real human needs of the day transferred authority from those with the best academic credentials to a more populist “grass roots” form of public theology.

Dr. King’s speech in 1963 was a perfect example of how public theology functioned at the time. His use of biblical imagery, a vocabulary much more in the public’s mind then than it is today, helped him bridge the specifically Christian vision of America that he held dear and a civil message appropriate for American democracy. He did not call for the mass conversion of all Americans to Christianity; he called on America to live into the high moral obligation to which it had set itself in generations past. His message was also connected to the people hearing him. This was no academic discourse on Christian ethics; rather it was a sermon to people who shared a vocabulary of faith and a hunger for justice. Noll comments that King’s genius was that he “not only spoke of God's will for the poor (especially blacks in the North and the South), he actually succeeded in connecting with the poor.”[6]

Today America is not as it was in the era of Dr. King, nor is it the same as it was in the heyday of Falwell and Robertson. The act of public theology has developed into something new, partly as a negative response to these leaders and to the inability of academic theologians to regain the public’s attention as in generations now long past.

Public theology today is most easily associated with issues - abortion, LBGTQ rights, and immigration come to mind. When the Church speaks today it is as one voice among many in a polarizing debate that often comes down to a Supreme Court ruling. The new media and the postmodern skepticism of our culture make doing anything else nearly impossible. It is as though every congregation and every individual is a “movement” in themselves.

What is left is a micro version of the public theology carried out in the 20th century. Megachurches and church networks represent little denominations of their own, taking up causes and issues important to each one and publicly speaking on their position. Many of these are wonderful and effective in meeting social needs, but even at their best they are a far cry from the massive movements led by public theologians just a few decades ago.

We are left with preaching. Not preaching a political issue or preaching a cause but preaching. We are left with the sacred burden of prophecy, a burden that President Obama referred to today. Mr. Obama lamented that Dr. King’s words possessed “a power and prophecy unmatched in our time.”[7] He is right, but only because preachers have stopped speaking them.

We are left with preaching, and it is enough. The great movements of the 20th century were born in churches and given life in their pulpits. They were invigorated by godly men and women who did not crumble under the “heavy hand” of God’s call.[8] We are left with the honorable burden of seeking God so ravenously that we cannot help but speak up.

Russell Moore has written a wonderful article on the relationship between Dr. King’s speech and our preaching.[9] He describes the role of preaching in public theology by demonstrating that King’s words “intentionally were resonant with the cadence of the King James Bible, because he was speaking a word of judgment to a Bible Belt who knew that Bible. He wanted to confront consciences with what they said they believed…He preached to Americans Jefferson and Madison and Lincoln, and he preached to Christians Amos and Isaiah and Jesus. And when the regenerate conscience is confronted with Jesus, remember what the Shepherd of Galilee said, “My sheep hear my voice…””[10]

Our public theology must do no less than this, even if our only outlet for public theology is our preaching to small congregations across this land. Our preaching is our avenue to the public because now, more than ever, the public is everywhere in our congregations. We are now so connected and our words so quickly available that we must take great care in speaking about God and God’s ways in our world.

I am not Fosdick, Tillich, Niebuhr, Madison, Lincoln, or King. Neither are you. What we are, though, are people of God who are given an opportunity to be the presence of Christ for our communities and to help our congregations do the same. We are beyond the days of the March on Washington, but never before has the great gift of preaching been so important for our public theology.

We are left with preaching; that’s enough.

[2] Nelson, Richard D., “The Old Testament and Public Theology.” Currents in Theology and Mission 36 no 2 (April 2009), 85-94.
[3] Mark Noll suggests that the role of public theology shifted from the spheres of academia (with Niebuhr and Tillich) toward those who had the charisma to stir up great crowds. He writes, “This more recent public theology has arisen "from below," first in the civil rights movement and then in right-wing Christian politics. It developed in the South, Midwest, and West. For the civil rights movement, formal academic attention came late; the New Christian Right has never had much to do with elite academic institutions, and vice versa.” From Noll, Mark, “Forum.” Religion and American Culture 10 no 1 (Winter 2000), 1-27.
[5] Noll et al, “Forum.”
[6] Noll, “Forum.”
[8] Jeremiah 20:9.
[10] Ibid.

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