SON: A deeper public theology is needed

Theology, a way of seeing the world with God as an agent, has always been fundamental to American politics. This is exhibited by in “God we trust” minted on our bills, “under God” in our pledge, and “God bless America,” the benediction ending every presidential speech, the priestly president blessing citizen-congregants.Yes, the jingles are of recent origin (“under God” was added in 1954), but they are surfacing of an undercurrent going back to the words that birthed this republic, “Endowed by their Creator.” Thomas Jefferson was no Christian — a fundamental deist who made sure his scions didn’t hold foolish notion of Jesus’ divinity by cutting out miracles from the gospels — but this was a thoroughly theological statement. The Revolutionary War, you can say, was a warring of two theologies, the English monarch’s divine right to rule against God-given rights of individuals to choose their government. Manifest Destiny was an appropriation of the theology of calling, rooted in Jewish self-understanding as God’s people, for America’s exceptionalism supposedly justifying the right of expansion. Because theology is such a strong currency, it has been used often, and often abused. There are sincere implementations and insincere ones. Insincere is God language plastered onto self-serving political agenda to rouse a base, since most seek justifications in theology and not philosophy or science. If God mandated it, then it must be. Insincere theology is theology as mere tool and not as a way of seeing the world. Theology in insincere hands wreaks havoc. A sincere theology would guide the whole political process, affecting one’s interpretation of events. Lincoln practiced such theology in his second inaugural address. He looked to the theology of atonement to deal with the half a million lives lost, all of them of One Republic before he took his first oath: Fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’Theology of atonement gave him language to be honest about the tragedy, but also hopeful. Lincoln, though he never joined a church or a seminary, is one of America’s greatest theologians. His Emancipation and his dogged commitment to forgiveness for the South all had theological underpinnings. His family Bible was worn.On Sept. 1, John J. DeGioia, the Georgetown University president, apologized for his institution’s profiting from the sale of 272 slaves in 1838 saying, “In offering an apology, we will draw upon the resources of our Catholic tradition.” A theology of repentance informed their apology and policy. They practiced two fundamentals of repentance: firstly, a full admission of their sin as their core past identity; secondly, reparation to those victimized as much as possible, such as giving preferential admissions to descendants of the enslaved. Mr. DeGioia, in that speech, referred to slavery as America’s Original Sin — which progressive Christian Jim Wallis defines as the historical fact that America was founded on the enslavement of black bodies. What if the only way to deal with our “Original Sin” is a robust theology of repentance? We need leaders who are sincere theologians who can draw from the rich tradition of Church’s two centuries of wrestling through every aspect of human experience from its dizzying height to its dark depth, and give us language both honest and hopeful. But to do that, we citizens must become savvy theologians who can sniff out an insincere one. After all, our politicians will embody what is best and what is worst in us.Samuel Son is a teaching pastor in Raleigh.