Centre for Theology and Public Issues

Centre for Theology and Public Issues

Political Theology from Lampedusa

News | 12.12.2017

Political Theology from Lampedusa

Joanna Leidenhag reflects on the discussions on the futures of political theology panel at the recent Futures of Public Conference hosted by CTPI.

Discussion of the possible future of political theology, quite rightly, depends fundamentally upon who the imagined body-politic is. Who is ‘the public’ of public theology? In societies where business is global, people are migratory, religions exist in ever increasing pluralism, and communications and information is almost instantaneous – the boarders of belonging, and the question of ‘the public’ has becoming more and more nebulous.

Off the coast of Lampedusa, the Italian island off the North African coast, hundreds if not thousands of people are drowning each year in a last hope attempt to reach the relative safety of Europe. Lampedusa, what seems a fragment of Italian land and a refugee camp in an ever shifting ocean, has become our new context for public theology. Political theology from Lampedusa implies an extension of our concept of “the common good” into communications across the imagined and geographical frontiers or Europe. Political theology from Lampedusa means hearing the voice of the rising waves, and hearing stories of those who flee not only political tyranny and economic poverty, but famine, drought, and the tyranny of ecological disaster. From these panellists, the future of political theology is thinking from Lampedusa.

Prof. Oliver O’Donovan kicked the session off with a concise discussion of the idea of ‘common good’. ‘The common good’, O’Donovan argued, a conceptual proposal or imaginative vision of what communal life could become when communities have their own ends, distinguishable from that of the individual or state. To that end, this concept is helpful in revitalizing stale or overly pessimistic political imaginations. And yet, faith in ‘the common good’ as a concept produces no clear or concrete program for decision making.

The main reason that the idea of ‘the common good’ cannot be translated into policy making is that it provides no clear insight into who ‘the common’ refers to. When we speak of ‘the common good’, which of the communities and contexts to which each individual human being is born into (biological, national, international, legal, institutional, ecclesial, and voluntary) do we refer? Or more importantly, who do I not speak of, when I refer to ‘the common good’?

O’Donovan spoke of the expansive pull within the phrase, ‘the common good’. It is a phrase which is always inviting us to extend our communications and transactions outwards beyond the real or constructed frontiers of our communities and institutions. The common good has a border, which like the borders of Europe on the island of Lampedusa, is being pulled at. He argued that ‘the common good’ does not imply an abandoning of boarders, but an extension of communication and imagination across these frontiers. More concrete questions then emerge out of this concept: How can genuine communications be extended to those who cannot be wished away? What institutions are needed to established communications between settled and migrating populations? How does post-Brexit Britain achieve a common good with Europe that is more than the economic transactions of customers and vendors?

Dr. Teresa Callewert, a researcher from the Church of Sweden, took up Duncan Forrester’s notion of “the fragment”. This refers to Forrester’s idea that the public theologian is in a “peculiarly qualified position” to speak into the public sphere through fragments that find contextual resonance. That is, Forrester argued that theological insights can be understood intuitively by non-religious members of our society because of a shared post-Christian context. The Church must work within fragments, which like pieces of a stain glass window, illuminate and colour the post-Christian world.

Callewert questioned Forrester’s assumption that the context into which the public theologian speaks in fragments today is a “post-Christian” one. She argued that the increasingly pluralistic societies in which we live, and in particular the increase of Islamic people groups within Europe, means that a Christian theologians’ “fragment” may no longer find resonance. Again, the island of Lampedusa as an Italian island now hosting thousands of people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds is a microcosm of this shift. She presented this loss of the “post-Christian” context as neither a good nor bad change, but the picture that arises in my mind from her presentation is of the fragmented nature of our political context. If there is no stable shared context, and if religious pluralism has created a fragmented society, what is the political theologian to do in a way that is no longer merely a critical and deconstructive voice in the night, but is a healing and constructive voice in the day?

Callewert argued that if we are recover the voice of the political theologian in the public square, then it is by paying attention to contexts (narratives, interpretations, beliefs and practices, and theology as a context in which reasoning occurs). This contextual work requires the political theologian to listen and learn the interpretative framework of other worldviews, which are too easily deemed irrational on prejudicially racial grounds.

The political Christian theologian still has a “peculiarly qualified position”, but what we are qualified for is not speaking in fragments, but of listening in solidarity. Due to the racist forms which public discourse still takes, it is the responsibility of the political theologian to work in this way, indeed the integrity of our own Christian speech may depend upon this.

Finally, Michael Northcott’s ecological public theology placed us explicitly onto the island of Lampedusa, where ecological and political crisis come together. The ‘public’ for and to whom the political theology speak must, for Northcott, include mother earth.  To do political theology in the Anthropocene, is to recognize the human behaviour – including human speech about God – is the single most determining factor for Mother Earth; for the life and existence of all other creatures, for weather patterns and ocean levels.

Much like Callewert’s caution that the post-Christian context is no longer the given context for European public theologians, Northcott cautions that “the stable background of political theology is going”. That is, the backdrop of a stable the natural world can no longer be assumed, instead it must be brought into the foreground as a victim and agent of our political discourse. When we speak of economic and political justice, we are already speaking of ecological justice.

Dr. Joshua Ralston tied this together in his response which saw that the common thread in these papers boils down to a question: How do we engage politically and theologically with a sphere of discourse which, through globalization, migration and the Anthropocene, is extending and expanding upon anything previously conceived? How do we engage in fruitful discourse and comparative scholarship whilst upholding our own particularities? How do we do this without collapsing particularities into popularist binaries which dismiss those ‘others’ to whom our communication must extend and who we are called by the Gospel to live in solidarity with? It is these questions which we find we are faced with when we do political theology from Lampedusa.

Joanna Leidenhag is a PhD candidate at the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh and a member of the CTPI executive.