Why Theology Matters (and Doesn't Matter) to Social Justice

..."our confession of faith leads to a deeper reflection on our language. How the church identifies global and social problems shapes its response. Not only is theological language important because it is the most accurate language to use, but it points the church in the right direction for response." - Elizabeth Geberhart, The Cross and Gendercide (IVP: 2014)


What does theology matter if it fails to inform the ways we respond to various social and global pains? What does theology matter if it fails to compel us to step outside of our institutions and into the bars and streets of our local cities? What does theology matter if it fails to train us, our children, our neighbors, our churches, and our communities in how to respond to various global atrocities and tragedies? 

I am, by disclaimer, only beginning to explore this. I don't really have a lot of answers and I am hesitant to even be assertive in my perspectives here. I am learning and, frankly, going through my own conviction here. But I think having walked the road of academic intellectualism and now walking the road of social engagement, I am beginning to see the two sides of the coin and the insufficiencies in both. Theology does not matter and it does matter. Deeply on both accounts, but only in certain kind. 

I have begun to see the simple and yet extreme danger and idolatry of speculative theology and philosophy. This goes, of course, for every other discipline out there. Speculating fails to engage, inform, and shape ones actual life style. It may form an intellectual worldview but an intellectual worldview that fails to have a practical component is no worldview at all. Didn't Jesus regularly criticize those who were separatists, professional thinkers, "scholars" of the traditions for their failure to actually let their worldview seep into their world-activity? 

But when I look at theologians like Bonhoeffer, Dorthy Day, Father Damien, Mother Theresa, MLK Jr., Oscar Romero, and most recently Pope Francis, I see individuals who hold lucid and consistent theologies but ones that trickle through their hands and into the lives of others. I see individuals for whom speculative theology isn't a reality. There is no sitting around and "thinking about how to fix the world" (my own family's favorite past time activity!) without actually doing anything about it! For Bonhoeffer, it was the very reason he didn't pursue a long term academic post but, instead, chose to live in community with his people and stand in opposition to the Nazis to his death. For Damien, his theology called him to live with the lepers in Hawaii. For MLK Jr., his theology taught him that only light can cast out darkness. For Francis, his theology has taught him to forgo the luxuries of Vatican royalty and live in the standard apartments behind the Vatican, to prefer the poor over the political establishment, and to call for change in systems and not just issues. This is theology that is not speculative but actionable! 

And the power of this is in the fact that theology goes beyond mere humanism and actually ascribes people with intrinsic-divine worth. If we look to our very own Declaration of Independence, the difference between "All men are created equal" and "All men are equal" is ten miles wide: one is informed by assumptions of inherency, purpose, and divine ascription and the other holds to a simple philosophy based on human progress, which, of course, rests on changing tides. Theology can not just motivate one into action but it can be the very foundation upon which radical change is made and this, of course, is why the vast number of social movements for justice throughout history have always had some element of transcendence and theology attached to them. 

Theology must speak of "sin" and "evil" and not just injustice because "sin" and "evil" are terms that are vertical and not simply horizontal. Theology must speak of "redemption" and "forgiveness" and not just "justice" and "human rights" because the former always has an aim to the whole community and not just one group. This is why, time and again, despite our Enlightenment efforts to "legislate" and "economize" our way out of problems, we return to speaking of the inner heart of man and the change that needs to happen in our hearts and not just our policies. Theology gets at something that mere human rights doesn't: it gets at the heart. 

BUT, theology must dictate the very worldviews and world-activity of those that claim it in order to really be theology at all. The task of theology is not simply to "understand" God but to "know" him and there is no knowing him outside of participating with him in the incarnation. Jesus was, yes, a teacher but he was not a teacher without action. He lived, like Damien, Bonhoeffer, and Theresa, with those he spoke of in his theology. He ate, laughed, and slept alongside those that he knew needed justice and, equally, with those who enacted injustice. Jesus did not have time for speculation for speculation's sake but only for the sake of accomplishing change. And neither should we. Geberhart, in referring to Luther, calls this a "theology of the cross" and notes that it "does not separate proclamation of the gospel from the prophetic and active role of working to end injustice..." (25). How much of our current theology needs to change from speculative theology to theology of the cross? In my estimation, quite a bit! 

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