The rapid changes in the nature of the global presence of the Christian faith is reshaping the practice of a public theology. There is a wave of new voices, sites, and fresh issues breaking. Some of the former established patterns of a western-derived public theology do not always address these situations directly: sometimes they are found wanting while the implications of the decline of the church in liberal democracies are liable to recast the agenda of a public theology. It is also the case that the energy and vitality of the public presence of religion and its theology in the Global South invites more than solidarity. There are new intersections for a public theology in differently conceived public spheres and through the agency of gender, generation and ethnicity.
The case for a distinctive feminist rendering of a public theology leads Ruth Wivell to consider such through the lens of trauma and the ‘living on’ experience of post-trauma. She does so via a reading of the haemorrhaging woman in Mark’s gospel. The organizing question is not the conventional one for a Christology – ‘who do you say that I am?’ It becomes instead ‘who touched me?’. Wivell presents a decentred Christology. Rather than a reliance on words touch and body become the effective conduit for self-knowledge. The Jesus of this text lacks cognition and is devoid of the power commonly associated with ‘the ultimate saviour figure’. For a public theology in this incident he becomes the exemplar of a ‘therapeutic witness’. What is required of a public theology is the capacity for a deep ‘listening to the personal and social lives of the disenfranchised’ and ‘the disempowered other’. Wivell concludes her argument with a warning: ‘For many public theologians who are used to speaking and being heard, the shift to witness – with its lack of power and cognitive understanding – will indeed be a challenge’.
One of the striking features of some contemporary public theologies is the extraordinary pressure being brought to bear on what were thought to be stable democracies. Samoa is a case point. For most of its history it has been deemed to be a beacon of stability as it wove together indigenous cultural practices, the Christian faith and democratic ideals. That reputation was brought into question with the constitutional crisis that ensued following the general election of 2021: on the night of the initial count the two leading parties were tied. This result was unprecedented: how to proceed was far from clear and made more difficult by the Prime Minister’s refusal to step down. Sam Amosa describes the political and legal intricacies that ensued as he poses the question as to what might be the role of a public theology. It is a most relevant question inasmuch as Samoa is overwhelmingly Christian and, indeed, the preamble to its Constitution declares the nation to be founded on a confession of the triune God and Christian principles. The dilemma that Amosa needs to negotiate is the historic reserve, the silence of the churches on matters of public concern. In this incident the Roman Catholic Archbishop condemned the Prime Minister and initiated a cultural practice of ifoga, seeking forgiveness. Amosa argues that the Archbishop’s action were essentially pastorally and culturally based and not really indicative of a public theology. This discipline is still in its infancy in Samoa and Amosa is one of handful of theologians (and sociologists) seeking to nurture its presence and role. The constitutional crisis demonstrated the need for such.
The problematic way in which constitutional claims to being a Christian nation runs risks to a public theological concern for the good is replicated in Zambia. Chammah Kaunda describes the way in which ‘elitist preachers and politicians’ exploited the 1991 Declaration in favour of that confession and how the Bible was subsequently put to use to justify exclusivist policies. Rather than being a liberative text the ‘masses’ become bound to a state-based hermeneutic that compromises their freedom and dignity. Kaunda has in mind the policies that were especially associated with the now defunct office of the Ministry of National Guidance and Religious Affairs. Under Rev. Godridah Sumaili this Ministry pursued an expression of a Pentecostal theology that targeted homosexuality – along with wizardry, satanism and secularism. The way in which Sumaili interpreted the politics of the Bible as a covenant between God and the people enabled her to seek to define who was Zambian and who was not. The irony was one of a self-declared Christian nation becoming ‘uncaring’.
Kaunda argued that Sumaili’s practice was to convert the Bible into ‘a political tool of symbolic violence’. In response he proposes a people’s Pentecostal public theology. Its function in Zambian life is multivalent and capable of being a redemptive resource for many within the ‘concrete struggles of Zambian citizens’. Rather than being subject to political control the Bible can become a means of God’s disclosure in the lives of the people. Its prophetic and revolutionary capabilities are always waiting to be realized.
It is evident from the work of Kevin Muriithi Ndereba that elections and their aftermaths can become both a flashpoint for trouble as well as a spur for the necessity of a public theology. In the case of Kenya division ran along ethnic lines or ‘tribes’ – a tendency that was not assisted by the monoethnic nature of particular ecclesial denominations. It can lead to situations when religion can become a ‘factor’ in ethnic conflict. Such denominationalism is, of course, one of the legacies of colonialism. In the intervening years there has been an absence of a robust theology able to deal with this legacy despite the witness of the scriptural canon to traditions of ethnic inclusion.
Ndereba opts for a generational approach to a public theology. The lived practice of contemporary youth is reckoned to be less concerned with difference. It is at a remove from the history of tribal conflicts – and it possesses a demographic majority. It is time for youth not to be consigned to the lower levels of cultural hierarchical struggles. Through their inclusion into congregational life in a manner that no longer regards them as an ‘appendage’ or passive, youth offer the chance for ethnic reconciliation. They do so from a position on the margins of ecclesial and public life. It is a way of potential.
In this intersection of a world Christianity and a public theology China has emerged as an energetic site for this kind of work. Formerly based in Hong Kong Jason Lam explores how a number of leading scholars in China have embraced the political views of Carl Schmitt. They have done so mindful of the risks. Lam is conscious of how odd this embrace might seem to a western reader: the merit behind this turn lies in the way which Schmitt’s ideas are able to ‘legitimize one-party rule’ and offer up a way of thinking that is an alternative to forms of liberalism deemed to be inadequate and likely to help swell corruption and serious abuses of power. Schmitt’s attraction for these Chinese scholars lies in his distinction between friend and enemy and the capacity for political decisions that lie above parliamentary discussion. Lam discerns within Bonhoeffer’s theology a tendency to a state of exception in which ‘someone must make a decision beyond the law to repair the chaotic scene’. Where Lam prizes open a difference and shows the value of a public theology lies in the difference between the respective images of the sovereign: for Bonhoeffer that lies in the Christ who is not simply with us, but for us; for Schmitt the theological presence in his political theology makes too much room for the possibility of an excessive nationalism and state authoritarianism.
For Chang-Ho Lee the presenting issue is the merits and potential of the unification policies adopted by various South Korean governments over a period of time. In what ways can a theories of pacifism, just war and, in some instances, a holy war contribute to reduction of tension and/or prepare the way ahead for a resolution of one of the most difficult problems in global politics? The heavily armed Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas testify to its seemingly intractable nature. The policies of governments have swung from deterrence to engagement – and back again. The initial desire of the Rhee government ‘to march north and obliterate the Communists’ can be set over and against the Sunshine Policy and the more recent desire to engage and foster trust.
Lee is wary of how South Korean policies in the past ran the risk of misusing arguments for military force. He makes use of Erasmus to argue the case for the mutual interdependence of humanity. The underlying assumption is that the two Koreas are one nation and that nation-building should precede state-building. It is time to overcome the most visible wound of how political systems and ideology divides and relieve the burden of separated families. One of the dilemmas is the way in which past government policies have often taken advantage of security fears to win elections: it is a form of abuse. Lee assumes that a proper use of military force is to maintain security, protect innocent citizens and keep peace ‘on the condition that [the government] had exhausted all available means for resolving conflicts peacefully’. Lee is effectively arguing on behalf of a public theology that might transform the mentality of a conflict in which the moods of the Cold War continue to linger.
In recent times the theme of military chaplaincy has surfaced in a rather unexpected fashion. Its emergence represents what might be called a vocational shift for a public theology. Those exploring the role of chaplains are doing so out of personal experience as well as the focus of their professional academic career. The presenting context is one of military chaplaincies within western liberal democracies where there has been a marked decline in the institutional hold of the Christian faith. In the circumstances what then is the role of military chaplains, especially when the very nature of war has changed and military personnel are encouraged to act with moral agency? Writing out of the Netherlands Thijs Oosterhuis, Pieter Vos and Erik Olsman take for granted the plurality of worldviews and perspectives found in the military – as well as in the nations that military forces are called to serve. Through turns to Tillich, Bonhoeffer and then Volf and Croasmun they argue the case for a theological perspective being vital to the moral formation of military personnel. They do so mindful of the right to religious freedom. This altered context necessarily transforms the vocational and professional task away from seeking to represent and commend the personal inspiration of the worldview represented by the chaplain.