Enough Theologising, Time for Action
News | 16.12.2017
Amy Plender offers her reflections on the Futures of Embodying Just Peace, the fourth session of the Futures of Public Theology Conference hosted by CTPI, 30th November – 1st December 2017.
“Enough theologising.” This was the call of the final session, on the Futures of Embodying Just Peace. “Enough theologising, and go out and live justice and peace.” The session opened with Aruna Gnanadason who had flown all the way from Chennai specially for this conference, and who spoke of her work with Duncan Forrester during the “Madras years” and his legacy since. She urged those present to contemplate the reality of Western churches, and their seeming inability to speak loudly and strongly on justice issues, focussing instead on maintaining congregation numbers and serving denominational interests. As a reminder of the ability theology has to both shock and bring healing, she described a statue of “Christa,” a depiction of a female Christ crucified, and of the power such a crucifix has to embody and represent the suffering and pain of women, particularly the survivors of domestic violence who congregate around this particular statue each year, in solidarity and to pray for healing.
In an age of allegations, revelations, and #MeToo, Gnanadason posed a stark critique of the way, traditionally “men haven’t allowed Christa to flourish [in solidarity with women], but they’ve kept Christ on the Cross as a substitutionary model,” and counselled practical theologians to be more aware of what is happening in the world around us, lest our theologising become irrelevant to the common good. Gnanadason closed by asking how the World Church can best reclaim voices such as Professor Forrester’s, who bring tangible change to the world around them, and how we can best emulate them in our lives and work.
This question was taken up by the next speaker, Harriet Harris, who spoke of the need to embody justice and peace in our daily lives. She spoke of the paradox of needing to get our own selves out of the way in order to “make room for Christ’s grace.” She asked what we might need to die to, both individually and collectively, to allow this grace to manifest itself – and offered some stories by way of illustration. The first was from the work of Jean and Hildegard Goss-Mayr, who invited a Polish community to meet some German Christians after the close of the Second World War. Initially, they refused, saying “every stone in Warsaw is soaked in Polish blood.” Later, they were praying the Lord’s Prayer and stumbled over “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those…” Confronted with this most familiar of prayers, one turned to the Mayrs and agreed to meet the German group saying, “humanly speaking, I can’t do it, but God will give us the strength.” This poignant story illustrated the gut-wrenching reality of embodying forgiveness and dying to oneself in pursuit of wholeness and justice.
Another story revolving around the challenge and relief of the Lord’s Prayer, was Dorothee Sölle’s story of a former Nazi officer, who, when asked why he participated in systematic book burning, collapsed on to the floor and prayed the Lord’s Prayer in grief and distress. For Harris, this story and the others she related, emphasises the truth that “we have to get down to the depths in order to receive full healing,” and that the Lord’s Prayer, flowing as it does both from and to the Divine, is a unique motif through which to explore the practical, psychological, and spiritual realities of such healing.
Jolyon Mitchell brought the discussion back to Forrester’s work by relating the story told in his essay “The Church and the Concentration Camp.” In this, Forrester muses on what the congregation of a church just outside the walls of Dachau did and thought when the camp was in operation, and what we might learn from that in our own encounters with injustice. (Thomas Schlag later pointed out that Forrester had in fact been incorrect, as the church in question is actually a Russian Orthodox place of worship, the Chapel of The Resurrection of Our Lord, and was not built until the mid 1990s, and then as a memorial to the Orthodox victims of the Nazi regime. Yet, Schlag conceded, this does not negate Forrester’s searching question.) Inspired by Forrester’s Theological Fragments, Mitchell led us through a discussion of the reality of fragmentation in various themes, including landscapes, as depicted in the war art of Otto Dix and Paul Nash; nations, in the surreal silence and isolation of the border controls in Palestine; communities, in the breakdown of equality and justice as close to home as that demonstrated by the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation; and lives, as in Käthe Kollwitz’s twin sculptures in her work Grieving Parents, where the figures on separate plinths appear to have been torn apart by their loss.
In each of these areas, Mitchell posited that the future of practical theology lies in bearing witness to such fragmentation, and, in the spirit of Ephesians 2.14, breaking down barriers where they arise between the fragments, like the chasm of grief between Kollwitz’s Parents. This might look like encouraging dialogue between faith or political viewpoints, prophetically calling out injustice where we see it, or working in an “imaginative practical theology,” as in the icon of Our Lady Who Brings Down Walls, graffitied on to the separation wall in Bethlehem. Mitchell closed with an image of hope, of a sculpture of the Tree of Hope, “a resurrection image”, where its leaves are like swallows, unconfined by barriers and free to fly.
“Enough theologising,” agreed David Clough, responding. Seeking to “intensify, rather than diffuse the challenge,” he echoed each speaker’s call towards praxis, in reverse order. In Mitchell’s narration of the church on the edge of Dachau’s borders, Clough saw a challenge for us today. Facing the radical destruction of human and non-human animal life, he asked us to imagine ourselves in the church by Dachau, and ask what we would have done. Then, to enable us to put this in practice, Clough repeated Harris’ question, in asking what we need to die to in order to collectively and individually embody peace and forgiveness. As a first step, he suggested such gatherings and conferences adopt a ‘default vegetarianism,’ and think more deeply about the ethics of animal products served at these events. Last, he reiterated Gnanadason’s call for practical theology to find more creative ways of speaking old truths, like the image of Christa, and to speak more strongly and clearly for peace. Amidst rueful laughter, Clough acknowledged that change will not, as he had once thought, come through “books and the academy,” so called those present to take it out of the academy, to the wider community, in the way we live and embody peace and justice.
Enough theologising, time for action.
Amy Plender is an alumna of the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh, and a former member of the CTPI executive. She is currently a research assistant at Theos Think Tank, www.theosthinktank.co.uk.