After the police shooting of Michael Brown in October of 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, Cornel West and other clergy organized an interfaith service to protest Brown’s murder. Yet young protestors in attendance rejected what they interpreted as theological platitudes offered from the stage, wrote Leah Gunning Francis. Allegedly, a seminarian asked the platform speakers to change their chant from “Show us what democracy looks like” to “Show us what theology looks like”—in effect, asking the ministers to publicly weave the structure of their faith into their activism. Don’t tell us, write about it, or preach it. Show us your theology.
This chant could apply to the many situations of oppression and abuse the church is witness to today. From the recent deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery to the ever-growing #MeToo movement, socially situated abuse and trauma continue to stump evangelical religious leaders reaching for a theological response. Many evangelical Christians are ill-equipped to respond to racism, abuse, and trauma with much more than time-worn words. And a recent Barna study showed that most pastors feel only “somewhat” equipped to help congregants with any kind of significant trauma.
Can we show each other, or even simply articulate to each other, what our theology looks like? Our shared stories—of trauma or otherwise—and what we do with them, can offer our listeners a path back to God.
In June 2019, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission released the Caring Well Report, detailing decades of sexual abuse within the SBC. I wrote the report’s introduction, which described my story of abuse by my youth minister and pastor, my criticism of the SBC’s entrenched problem of sexual abuse, and my call for change. On the eve of the denomination’s annual meeting, I told my story to a large audience for the first time—unwittingly moving my theology out of my private life and forming me into a public theologian. For years, overwhelming shame had buried my understanding of my theology, yet God had cultivated it.
When I was given an opportunity to speak directly to the church culture that silenced me, I unearthed a deeply held personal theology of trauma—that my relationship with God rests upon his grace alone, and that he redemptively rescues and restores me from suffering I’ve experienced by the abuse of power.
Not just for professionals
Public theology is a purposeful effort to place our faith in the public square and make room for others to join us. One of the best ways to do this is through our own stories of faith. Acting as a public theologian means I intentionally let my theology inform my personal experiences to engage publicly in social issues. My faith is no longer exclusively an internal dialogue with God, but rather a public conversation between myself, God, and society—informed and infused by my experiences. Moreover, I don’t express my public theology simply by sharing my testimony. I also advocate for the vulnerable based on both my good and bad experiences in the church. By sharing the story of my suffering through the framework of my theology, I can help others to regain their view of God, which may have been eclipsed by their own pain.
In a 2009 article for the International Journal of Public Theology, David J. Neville calls Isaiah and Jeremiah’s public insistence on justice the moral equivalent of “holy ground.” Neville goes on to say that we can measure the value of public theology by “the extent to which its voice challenges and unsettles entrenched structures that make injustice systemic and thereby endemic.” God’s action to free the Israelite slaves from Egypt, he writes, established a social sense of justice for those most likely to be ignored, disadvantaged, poor, and most vulnerable, and pairs this with the frequent extensions of love by Jesus to the same segments of society.
Jesus, standing under trial, held a public theology that enabled him to reject a defense about his actions. Prior to his arrest, some of his last words to his disciples established that God honors those who care for the socially vulnerable (Mt. 25:34-40). But Jesus didn’t just give a testimony. His entire life was an intentional public witness to his purpose. The martyr Stephen, vulnerable himself, unveiled a public theology in a point-by-point recitation of Jewish rebellion against God before leveling the same charge at the Sanhedrin, who subsequently stoned him to death. The prophet Nathan confronted King David without hesitation, speaking freely on the authority of the Lord. Scripture is full of examples of people who point people back to God through their stories.
We are all public theologians
Civil rights pioneer Ruby Sales told me that holding a public theology adds authority when we share our stories publicly to improve the common good. What matters is how we tell those stories, she said. Do we speak from vengeance or self-righteousness or hope for retribution? Or, do we tell our stories out of righteous indignation, hoping for change and holding out the possibility that the church can change?
We are all public theologians, Sales said. Even without academic credentials in theology, all Christians develop a theological framework based on our experiences and faith. We have an obligation to break down barriers to stand on common ground, finding each other and God through the knowledge of our common histories. We perform public theology, as Katie Day and Sebastian Kim write in Companion to Public Theology. We exercise it by affirming that all creatures reflect the imago Dei of the Creator and then treating each other that way. The key is that we do this publicly with the intent of improving the common good. We often do this best from the perspective of suffering.
In one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s essays in Letters and Papers from Prison, he describes the “view from below.” He claims that we see the great events of the world best from the perspective of “the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, and the reviled—in short, from the perspectives of those who suffer.” My perspective as a sexual abuse survivor looking up from below for three decades gives voice to my public theology of trauma and credentials me to advocate for other vulnerable people in the church.
Beyond a testimony
Growing up as a Southern Baptist after the Jesus People Movement in the late 1960s and the Asbury College revival in 1970, my earliest understanding of public religion came through the genre of testimonies. In The Jesus People Movement: A Story of Spiritual Revolution among the Hippies, Richard Bustraan writes about the value placed on conversion during the Jesus People years and described a common motif of drug and alcohol addictions dramatically reversed by conversions to Christ, culminating in riveting personal testimonies. Bustraan notes that more banal conversion stories were pushed aside to emphasize dramatic, hardcore testimonies of coming from horrific sin to find Jesus. The more breathtaking the story, Bustraan reports, the more credibility it carried.
In my teenage years, my Southern Baptist church regularly bused my youth group to crusades and rallies featuring men like Mike Warnke, a Christian comedian who wrote a book called The Satan Seller, detailing his conversion from Satanism and the occult. Warnke, whose legitimacy was later questioned, plied his stories with shock value, warning his audiences about the perils of satanic games and scaring us straight back inside the church. Even today, the 700 Club maintains a website for testimonies with categories like drugs, alcohol and addictions, cults, witchcraft and false religions, life after death, and miracle survival stories.
But a testimony is a snapshot, not a comprehensive public theology. Testimonies followed a predictable three-point story arc of graphic sin, radical conversion, and miraculously changed lifestyle, leading many to feel that without such a template, they had nothing to share. They preceded urgent altar calls made more potent by the inescapable fear that we might be left behind because we hadn’t all been ready. Despite my once-saved-always-saved Baptist theology, this fear-based testimony culture led me to recite the sinner’s prayer every night just in case. Repeatedly, the testimony narrative I internalized was that Christ rescues rather than restores. Much later, I would learn he does both.
Walter “Buddy” Shurden describes soul freedom as the inalienable right and responsibility of every person to deal with God—without the imposition of creed, the interference of clergy, or the intervention of civil government. My freedom to know and live in Christ, despite the trauma imposed by clergy, became the basis of my testimony, but more so, of my broader public theology.
Avoiding the overshare
Just as being a public theologian doesn’t mean simply sharing a testimony, it also doesn’t mean sharing everything. The testimony culture in which I grew up has evolved into the transparency movement we see in the social media and book industries today. The modern genre of the testimony has become an ongoing, lifelong disclosure of often excruciating details. In her book The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities, Kate Bowler describes the “industry of disclosure,” in which Christian women celebrities build their brands on the ongoing public disclosure of their imperfections, sins, and brokenness, orchestrating mass vulnerability to stir emotion, sometimes negligently so. This is testimony as complete and continuous transparency, the revealing of personal shame via public confession that inadvertently can overshadow the message of the gospel. Instead, public theology places faith on common ground and avoids centering salacious personal details as the core of social discourse.
If all Christians act as public theologians by sharing our stories in a collective history that improves the common good of the church and the world, we can challenge the systemic social problems of racism, sexual abuse, misogyny, and domestic violence with courage—hoping for change, not retribution. We make our public theology compelling by being willing to walk boldly into the public square and engaging society with our beliefs and experiences. Stories are useful, but using them to instigate public action over time creates change.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his essay “After Ten Years,” pleaded for responsible believers to publicly stand fast in the face of horrible atrocities.
Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God––the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God. Where are these responsible people?
Like Bonhoeffer, I wonder where the responsible people are who will intentionally enter the public square for God with their stories. Then I realize anew that I am one. As are you. Our theology matters, and now is the time to share it.
Susan Codone, PhD, is a professor of technical communication and director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Mercer University.