This is Part 2 of an article originally published by ABTS. Read Part 1 here.
On August 4th, 2020, the disintegration of the Lebanese state was phenomenally manifested in the Beirut port explosion, the most dramatic and tragic crime perpetrated in Lebanon’s history by an entire political class against its own people, the peak of a long history of impunity and intrinsic violence. Since August 4th, my own professional career has taken a bit of a turn. Though interfaith work, in which I have invested 19 years of my life, will continue to play an important role in triggering social change, my experience is that it is less potent in its ability to achieve deep political change. Most religious leaders are primarily loyal to their religious hierarchy, which is too often coopted by the political mainstream. Such leaders will not provide the sort of prophetic political leadership needed in a country like Lebanon. At this juncture of Lebanon’s history, I have therefore decided to reinvest much of my energy in political activism in the short term, and in the cathartic exploration of our long history of violence in the longer term. For me, this represents a natural extension of my journey into political theology as an expression of my public engagement.
This journey has begun inductively; my calling to public engagement motivates me to seek a biblical framework for politics rather than theological convictions leading me to activism. So, what is the meaning of public theology? Or perhaps a better question is this: Can theology be other than public? Should it be? If it is not public, then who is it serving, given that public theology should be part of the church’s mission, and that missiology is always outward looking?
I would argue that public theology is naturally a political theology, where “political” is understood as the comprehensive ordering of every-day life. In this perspective, political theology designates the political outworking of Christianity. In other words, even as we pray to the Father with Jesus, “your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” our hope for the kingdom of God and our anticipation of justice and peace shapes our political hermeneutics and our message in society and the world.
As we read the New Testament, it is not difficult to be convinced that the message of Jesus and the impact of his life, as handed down to us by early Christians, were thoroughly political. They so profoundly changed the societies of the time that they became a transitional moment for history itself, a turning point expressed as “before Christ” and “after Christ.” What remains in question is not whether the Christ calling should be viewed as political, but whether we will engage in good political theology or in bad political theology. The sort of practice that causes many today to shy away from the integration of politics and theology, therefore, is a manifestation of bad political theology rather than an argument for separation.
The cross of Christ is at the center of the gospel handed down to us. It is the greatest of political statements against human abuse of power that makes a mockery of justice and peace. Every gospel proclamation that fails to contribute actively to the advent of justice and to the increase of peace is therefore a travesty of Christ’s kerygma. In its perceived weakness, the cross is the most powerful political critique and the foundation of our hope for a politics of freedom. It is the memory of the crucified, tirelessly remembered in the eucharist and passionately represented in the church’s iconography, that inspires our political theology.
How, then, do we engage in political theology in an antireligious world? We do it like Jesus, denouncing prophetically the tyrants who coopt religion under the guise of political sectarianism. In Lebanon, for example, the claim that political sectarianism is the guarantee of Christianity’s survival will itself risk the demise of the historical Christian presence in the region. The self-givingness of the cross annihilates the self-serving abuse of political power. As idealistic men and women initially engage in politics, they often soon fall prey to the trap of political self-perpetuation. The message of the cross restores power in the service of public good, dislodging it from its inclination to self-perpetuation. It is the telos, the end goal of servant leadership.
The critical situation in which the witness of the church in the Middle East finds itself today has not gone unnoticed by theologians and thinkers in the region. Recently (September 2021), a prophetic and thought-provoking document, entitled “We Choose Abundant Life: Christians in the Middle East: Towards Renewed Theological, Social, and Political Choices,” was published by a group of Arab theologians. It is something of a political manifesto that calls on the church in the Middle East to adopt a renewed framework for public theology. It does so in a spirit of humility and confession of past failures, reaffirming the mission of the church as one of service to humanity, of perpetual institutional renewal, of restoration of witness as active presence for the renewal and salvation of our societies. It expresses this call through the poignant and radical image of adopting a “culture of life” and rejecting the “culture of death” that has so often dominated the church’s engagement with society and the religious other.
I believe that our societies today are in desperate need for a proper political theology, whose framework will motivate followers of Christ everywhere to commit to the sort of public engagement that serves the causes of justice, peace, and freedom in all realms of social and environmental politics.