Good afternoon, and welcome to Drew University for the 87th edition of this lecture series we today know as Tipple-Vosburgh. This gathering has a long and distinguished history of bringing to our campus prominent and groundbreaking theologians, philosophers, artists, pastors, and public intellectuals to deepen our understanding of what it means to be people of faith and purpose, as well as to challenge our complacency and blind spots. I hope this year is no different.
One of the great joys of this annual gathering is the opportunity to welcome back alumni and friends of the Theological School, the founding institution of this university, and so to those alumni among us I say “Welcome home. Welcome back to The Forest, what we hope is a spiritual and intellectual cradle and oasis for you even to this day.” And to our supporters and friends, I also say welcome and thank you. Your ongoing support and generosity sustains our work and mission, and we cannot continue to thrive without your care and provision. Thank you.
Throughout the next three days we will also be welcoming some guests who are exploring whether Drew Theological School is the place for them to receive the vocational preparation necessary to live out their calling. For those of you who have come as part of our “Open Doors” event, I especially welcome you and hope that you will find opportunities to engage with our brilliant faculty, our students and alumni during your visit, so that you can learn more about why this is such an intellectually and spiritually dynamic community of learning. Thank you, also, for trusting us to help you discern your call and sacred purpose in the world. It’s something we take seriously and seek to honor.
One distinction to this year’s Tipple-Vosburgh lectures is that today we publicly launch the Social Justice Leadership Project, an initiative in public theology that has been generously funded by the Henry Luce Foundation. We’re grateful to the foundation to their support and trust in our ability to advance the good work we have envisioned for this project.
I’m often asked what it is that we mean by public theology. After all, isn’t all theology public? Isn’t all theology meant to have transformative impact on communities and the planet in ways that cause our shared life to reflect sacred purpose and intention? Isn’t private theology oxymoronic? I want to try to answer those questions with two claims.
First, I first turn to the work of New Testament scholar the late Walter Wink, who said, “It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is fully human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness — which is to say, we are capable of becoming human.
So first, the work of public theology is to help us grow into the fullness of our humanity, a humanity that is not fully realizable until all share in its fullness. As Plato claims in his allegory of the cave, so long as people are still in the cave, not free, not fully aware of their freedom, not fully aware of their full humanity, our work is not done.
We do not accomplish this work of public theology by forcing a Christian agenda into public debates and conversations. It’s not about promoting the interests of the Church onto an increasingly secular society. It’s not about protests and resistance to what we don’t like (although protest and resistance are often tools used in the performance of public theology). Rather, I want to frame our understanding of this public theology initiative as our willingness and commitment to draw from the wisdom and resources and insights and values of the Christian tradition in order to offer it for the common good of all people, in order to promote the promise of full humanity for all. Our Social Justice Leadership Project is our contribution to the great public discourses of our day, our commitment to help people debate, reflect, and engage the issues that most impact our shared life and to do so in ways that promote maturity, freedom, and mutual respect even in difference. It is our hope to be able to resource and equip leaders who are seeking to mobilize people and lead efforts that promote just and peaceful communities. The Social Justice Leadership Project is about the performance of gospel values in the public square, not in order to claim or reclaim Christian territory in that public square, but in order to leverage and promote the compassion and mercy and radical inclusion and non-violence that is at the heart of the gospel message and at the heart of what it means to be fully human. As I read scripture, those values are inescapable, and thus we intend to find significant ways to relentlessly offer these as strategies that can heal our deeply divided nation and world.
Secondly, I strongly believe that in spite of our checkered and complicated Christian past, our tradition is also and primarily a deep well of resources for those who wish to make or remake the world in ways that foster and promote an ethic of love. I’m not a very sentimental person, although I feel things very deeply, and so I’m often reticent to deploy the term love because of the way its demands are often sentimentalized and stripped of transformative power. But as Cornel West has reminded us, “Justice is what Love looks like in public.” As a seminary, particularly a progressive and inclusive seminary, love is the very telos of our intellectual and vocational enterprise. But love cuts us to the quick with the precision of the most excellent surgeon, excising all that keeps us from growing into that which God intends. Love is a two-edged sword, both our highest calling and our judge or critic, holding us accountable to one another and to a higher standard. Love is the work and the goal of social justice, if by love we mean to express the very character and nature of the God we proclaim.
It is for the reason that to speak of social justice apart from this sort of understanding of love makes little sense to me. Love requires that at times we take sides, that we align ourselves with those who are exploited, or discarded, or used, or blamed, or silenced, or ignored, in order that power in the world remain concentrated in a specific place with a specific few for a specific end. Love cannot tolerate this. This is the antithesis of love, of a gospel understanding of love, and is thus a form of violence—persistent, structural, systemic violence that is at odds with a Christian understanding of the kin-dom of God.
I’m increasingly of the mind that we need to speak more clearly about what we mean by justice and injustice. For me the language of love and violence juxtaposed is clearer, more accurate, more poignant, and more descriptive of what is. When we speak of gender-justice, for example, aren’t we really speaking about gender-inflected violence? Two brave women standing in an elevator door made this plainly clear last week as they implored Sen. Jeff Flake to consider the impact and implications of his silence or acquiescence to something that seemed a foregone conclusion. They pleaded with him to see that it was a form of horrific violence against them and others who have shared similar violations. They embodied love sufficiently enough to help him see that violence takes many forms, and that violence is perpetuated when we fail to see that. It was their love for themselves and for other victims of assault that motivated and informed their public witness.
When we speak of eco-justice, are we not really speaking about how our practices and choices wreak violence against the earth? Are not our insatiable consumerism, consumption, and excesses not acts of violence against our planet and against the creatures (human and nonhuman) that share it with us? If you have any doubt, I invite you to consider the impact of climate change on the most vulnerable of our world, especially our island nations who each year absorb the ferocity of progressively more violent storms and rising waters which claim land, and people, and resources that leave them increasingly more exposed. Climate change is largely caused by the major economies of the world, but the effects of which are borne by the already most vulnerable of the world.
I see the impact of this in my native Puerto Rico, where the effects of climate change and predatory economic practices have led to the ugly re-emergence of disaster capitalism. The irony of disaster capitalism is that colonial violence, economic violence and ecological violence has been unleashed on Puerto Ricans for generations. Now, however, in order to recover from the effects of this violence, another brilliant scheme, “disaster capitalism,” has also been unleashed. It can simply be summarized like this: in order to recover from disaster, you must depend on the very people who designed and contributed to it, and who ensured through century-long practices that you could not recover from it should it come without their assistance.” Thus, the economic and ecological violence that has defined a people for generations are now strengthened and more deeply rooted than they were before the disaster. We have no way forward other than depending on the perpetrator. Or at least that’s what the perpetrators are banking on. I have a growing confidence that the Puerto Rican people have different plans in mind.
What does just reconstruction look like in Puerto Rico? What does a just confirmation to the supreme court look like? Or, said differently, what does love look like in the face of this unrelenting violence? Our own Professor Traci West, reflecting on the persistent reality of violence against black women helps us reflect on these questions. She said,
A primary task of Christian faith communities is to provide leadership in the midst of desperate and urgent problems… The requisite Christian engagement in definite practices that uphold women’s genuine moral worth can be called “truth work.” Truth-work exemplifies an important tenet of the Christian faith that commends the appropriation of Jesus Christ as truth. This appropriation does not consist of an intellectual assent, rather it demands a specific praxis. Knowing and doing involves an interactive process of becoming empowered. It involves reaching outside of oneself to stretch and grow toward the embodiment of justice, reaching within oneself to the tap rich inner resources of courage and passion. To recognize what is truly just, Christians rely upon their ability to access power from God, their communities of accountability, and resources within themselves. They can live out this realization of truth by working to create conditions in the world that reflect it. This process of participating in the incarnation of justice requires literal engagement with distorting human realities such as violence, white supremacy, and male dominance. It means doing the work that enables the truth of human wholeness, worth and dignity to be fulfilled.” (Traci West, Wounds of the Spirit, New York: New York University Press, 1999, p. 198-199)
I can’t think of a better definition of love than that rich description. I also can’t describe the work of the Social Justice Leadership Project in any way that improves on what Professor West has articulated. This is what love and social justice look like in the world. This is the work to which we are called through the project we launch today. What does public theology look like? That’s it.
Over the next few days we’ll reflect more deeply on what this means and how it can be faithfully and forcefully lived an embodies praxis in the world. The guests we have invited to help us consider these questions will challenge us, will provoke us, they may even upset us. But I have no doubt that their central purpose is to inspire us to more fully live this work of justice and love, and to resist the violence we witness and too often participate in. It’s going to be a rich a few days, and I thank you all for your presence and your willingness to do engage in the tough work of love with us.