by Trevon Gross, PhD.
On December 19, 2022, Yale Divinity School in partnership with Bishop William Barber, II, announced the launch of their Center for Public Theology and Public Policy “to create a training ground for leaders who wish to be equipped with a moral framework as a guide for their vocations and to further explore the interconnectedness of public theology and public policy through scholarly research.” On the surface, this endeavor sounds promising, however, the glaring omissions doom this effort to be another manifestation of social religion masquerading as real theology. Our divinity schools, and other training grounds for future moral leaders, should return to the “Old Time Religion”.
Written in the 1800’s and widely sung in southern churches, it celebrated a time when our faith was a continuation of the past, restored relationships, and brought real salvation— none of which public theology has proven. Why? Because morality untethered to established Judeo-Christian values found in the Bible has never worked in a free society. Yale University was founded in 1701 “wherein Youth may be instructed in the Arts & Sciences who through the blessing of Almighty God may be fitted for Publick employment both in Church & Civil State.”
So-called “public theology” evolved from liberation theology which seeks to break the hegemony represented in the Bible by viewing the text and society through the eyes of the poor. When the catholic bishops gathered in Medellín, Columbia in 1968, they railed against the power of industrialized nations over the poor. This ideology spread quickly throughout South America, South Africa and eventually made its way to seminaries and divinity schools in America. Public Theology has been at work for over 50 years and no place where it’s been implemented is better— objectively most places are worse including America’s urban areas whose churches are led by liberation theologians. None of this was the biblical theology which brought an end to slavery in America and lifted up former slaves through reconstruction, broken promises, and Jim Crow. The faith of our forebears was one rooted in the justice of God found in the Bible— the same faith that endured and overcame the lash of the whip, lynchings and disenfranchisement. “It was good for our dear fathers…It’s good enough for me.”
Public theology abandons values codified and espoused by the Bible in favor of retribution and retaliation. Jesus preach
ed agapé/love which includes forgiveness, rehabilitation, and restoration—words which have no place in public theology. Further, this new institute never explains the source of its moral authority. Who, today, has earned the right to say what is moral and what is not? No one. A Higher Authority has laid out for us the moral code built upon the Golden Rule: treat others the way you would want to be treated (Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31). Jesus also taught us to possess a universal morality towards others especially those with whom we disagree. “But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you” (Luke 6:27 ESV). Social justice detours around this important point. Christian theology teaches love to those we agree with and those we do not. “Makes me love everybody…It’s good enough for me.”
Public theology lacks a coherent soteriology because there can never be redemption. This institute will indoctrinate future “moral leaders”, fueled by an insatiable thirst to hold others guilty for some perceived intersectional slight, into an ideology which ordains them to serve as judge, jury and executioner. No one wins and everyone will lose. We see today people’s lives and careers canceled for bad behavior from previous decades. Once the offender offers a sincere apology and amends, the stench of past offenses never leaves them. The Biblical Jesus is the answer— not a Jesus excised out from the rest of the Bible and limited only to the red letter teachings. “There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12 NLT)
Frederick Douglass ignited pulpits and platforms all over this country as he challenged the church’s complacency regarding slavery and the culture for accommodating its evil. His writing, preaching and speaking called everyone to the truth of the Bible. Douglass condemned fake Christianity and promoted a Biblically-accurate expression of Christianity. He never sought to replace the Bible with a socially-modified theology and neither should we. We must embrace a hermeneutic which returns the prophetic voice to preachers to “cry aloud and spare not” against the tyrannical government and the impotent church that tolerates homelessness, poverty, violence, stolen dreams and aborted legacies. The Bible has all the answers our society seeks. “It will take you home to heaven…It’s good enough for me.”
Maybe we should go back to what worked rather than trying to reinvent failed strategies. Please, give me that Old-time religion.
Trevon Gross, PhD. is Founder/CEO of Remember My Chains, a ministry design to strengthen the bond between the incarcerated and their families.