Not long ago in a faculty setting I heard my colleague, Professor Jan Rippentrop, boldly state that she understood herself to be a political theologian. Being excited to hear her say this I asked for a post saying more. She responded to my request in a creative fashion, using a top 5 “You might be a political theologian if…” framework. In this post, she demonstrates her Lutheran bona fides by demonstrating one of the many possible models of public church leadership. In particular, her own model is as a Lutheran political theologian who strives to give theological grounding for public church leaders to both advocate for or protest against public policy, as well as to construct substantive policy substitutions when necessary. Be it the targeting of immigrants and refugees from Muslim-majority countries, the rescinding of guidelines for the treatment of trans students in public schools, to the potential horror of 24 million people losing their health care – Christians of all stripes have been weighing in to the political situation in our country these days, and weighing in loudly. And here, Prof. Rippentrop herself gives a tutorial on the why and how of her own theological development, and how others might do the same. Read, comment, and share!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor –“We Talk. We Listen.”
- You might be a political theologian if…you understand the Bible as inherently political.
The, Bible in which one finds the story of God’s presence with God’s good creation, consistently shows God’s activity in and through the world. As will be more explicitly argued below, God’s activity in and through the world is already political. The Bible has a political premise: The Bible is about God’s life-giving relationship with creation. This is political because it is about God’s involvement in the polis. The Bible is also political in two other dimensions: in context and in content.
Biblical settings are repeatedly political contexts. The stories that occur throughout the Bible are regularly embedded within political systems that matter a great deal for one’s interpretation of a passage. Recall, for example, how extensively the political rule behind the Babylonian and Assyrian exiles affected the biblical literature produced and the Israelites articulation of God’s activity among them.
One can also view the political context of biblical literature by watching transitions within biblical prose. Transitions are frequently marked by settings that identify the political circumstances in which the story is embedded. While there are many simpler, yet equally political settings, these verses from the 3rd chapter of Luke highlight the point that the Bible embraces its political embeddedness: Luke writes,
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler* of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler* of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler* of Abilene, 2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
This passage counts on expectations regarding political settings to make its point. Luke lists out all the rulers who would’ve made sense to receive the Word; then Luke subverts the expected system (subversion of an expected political system is not a-political, but is highly political) to deliver a great reversal: instead of going to the power brokers of the day in all the happenin’ places, the Word of God came to John (“who?” is the implied rhetorical response) in the wilderness!
The Bible consistently contains overtly political content. Pilate ordered a sign to be hung above Jesus on the cross. “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews,” (John 19:19) it plainly and provocatively proclaimed that the person and actions of Jesus had political significance; the ruling leader saw Jesus as a ruling leader.
Pilate and other contemporaries understood Jesus contemporaries as a political figure because of both his connections with groups of people and his civil engagement and commentary. He tended to speak about economics (second only to the amount of time in the Bible that Jesus speaks about the Kingdom of God). For example, “We found this man subverting our nation, opposing the payment of taxes to Caesar, and calling himself the Messiah, a king.” (Luke 23:2-3) Jesus does not avoid speaking about economics, criticizing oppressive political policies, or suggesting alternate plans. Rather, Jesus confronts oppressive political systems and claims his own political power.
In my formation, I have moved from experiencing the Bible as a book I contemplated in terms of my own relationship with God to encountering God through the Bible as one who consistently acts for the sake of the world. I have come to see the Bible itself is inherently political.
- You might be a political theologian if…you understand politics as more than partisan and governmental.
Here’s Merriam Webster’s narrow definition of politics:
“the art or science of government” especially as “concerned with guiding or influencing governmental policy” or “concerned with winning and holding control.”
But that’s not the only meaning of politics. Here is a broader definition, from the same source:
“The total complex of relations between people living in society.”
Sure, the word “politics” is colloquially used most often to refer to partisan, governmental topics. However, politics signifies much more. Politics refers to the making and remaking of all relationships within society.
- You might be a political theologian if…you believe God cares about the whole world—that is, about the polis.
God is central to the making and remaking of the relational fabric of our societies. God breaks into the world accompanying creation in the midst of plight and causing hope to emerge in unprecedented ways. God draws creation into relationship with the divine. God’s concern is for the whole of creation. God cares for the polis, which means “a state of society especially when characterized by a sense of community.” (Merriam Webster) I repeatedly experience God working through societies characterized by a sense of community and accompanying creation where the sense of community has broken down.
- You might be a political theologian if…you notice that theology affects whole systems (not just individuals)
Theology affects whole systems. The communal grounding and communal effects of theology remain primary to theology’s personal effects. I affirm theology as communally grounded because God is known in the communal self-differentiation of the Trinity. I claim communal effects of theology as primary to personal effects because I notice that the trajectory of God’s action in the world, as seen in the Bible and my lived experience, advents new life for the whole world: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Jesus addressed systems during his ministry. He challenged the Temple economic system; he challenged Caesar’s economic system; he challenged the disciples to address hunger issues for whole groups.
Claiming my orientation as a political theologian has been a circuitous journey—an evolving, non-linear process. In what follows, I articulate some broad strokes of my journey in order to present one person’s undulating process that resulted in becoming a political theologian. I suspect each person’s process will be different based on that person’s experiences, influences, theological conversation partners, etc.
Gustavo Gutiérrez’s theological method captivated me. He called on lived experience. He honored and privileged the dignity and wisdom of the people of Peru. This method struck me as a contrast to other proscriptive, book-knowledge based theologies I was reading (and also value). Gutiérrez led me more generally to Liberation Theology, which offered me necessary lenses to critique top-down processes of knowledge acquisition and power distribution.
Elsa Tamez got me to internalize what I had only thought about before reading her Bible for the Oppressed. She taught me that the Bible says different things to different people; there is not a “right” way to read and understand the Bible—there are many holy ways to encounter scripture.
My understanding of myself as a feminist grew out of my engagement with liberation theology. Liberation Theology instilled in me two lenses that catalyzed my entry into feminist thought. Liberation Theology had taught me to be more aware of power structures and to yearn for the active and influential presence of voices of those who have been marginalized. Feminism required these two lenses and focused them on power structures that marginalize the voices of women. I found so much resonance with my own lived experience—including ways I was complicit in supporting these power structures and limiting my own voice. For example, I realized that I had assumed throughout my life that males who interrupted me in class understood the “right answer” better than I. I was wrong.
I needed to read more on gender theory; Judith Butler was a mind-blowing guide. Judith Butler’s ideas, especially in Undoing Gender and Gender Trouble, were significant gateways into political theology. She forever changed my lenses to see that identities are constituted by the world around them. One constructive thing this meant for me was that our active dissension regarding unjust systems also had the power to construct reality. The possibility that my work could aid in constructing realities not only for me but also for others who encountered or participated with the effort added resilience for facing systems of oppression.
Michel Foucault writes about the pervasiveness of power structures and the varieties of force these power structures level against people in order to maintain power. His biting analysis helped me look at the more subtle and psychological dissemination of power and to ask in what ways these tactics seek to control people. In The Chomsky, Foucault wrote “The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.” Institutions are an assumed part of life and can therefore seem neutral even while the policies they perpetuate are in no way neutral. Foucault insists that scholars ask how institutions are reinscribing power systems and which of those systems is doing violence to populations.
James Cone clearly communicates that indifference to liberation is at odds with Christian theology. He teaches that freedom (especially from racial oppression) is something we pray for and sing toward, but the pursuit of freedom does not stop there. Instead, those who pursue freedom must also analyze the world and actively work to change injustice in the world. He maintained a holistic approach that understood the dismantling of racism to occur both within worship and in the various publics in which we live. He wrote, “[I]n the act of worship itself, the experience of liberation becomes constituent of the community’s being…liberation is not exclusively a political event but also an eschatological happening. It is the power of God’s Spirit invading the lives of the people.” (in “Sanctificaiton and Liberation in the Black Religious Tradition, with Special Reference to Black Worship”)
These thought leaders and theologians, who are not necessarily themselves political theologians, have had a deep impact on my formation as a political theologian. These thinkers share a conviction: theology (or philosophy) affect whole systems. Political theology intentionally addresses the systems that support injustice. I have highlighted some of the steps in my journey in hopes that you will recall influential thought partners in your own formation.
- You might be a political theologian if…you know that theology and faith produce action (not only thoughts) and belong in the world (as opposed to in “ivory towers.”)
Theology and faith come into their fullness when put into action. Theology and faith have shape and substance in ways that impact the world, transforming the physical world as much as they transform thoughts and intentions. Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Justice is a shape that love (or a theology of God’s love) takes in public spheres. Justice can take many forms in public. Archbishop Dom Helder Câmara names a couple: “When I give people food, the call me a saint. When I ask why there is no food, they call me a communist.” Political theology sees itself as explicitly asking the second question as a theological question: “Why is there no food?” The questions and insights of theology and faith belong in the world and are formed in the world far more than in libraries and studies.
In my journey, I experience political theology to resonate deeply with Lutheran theology and also to chafe against much of the Lutheran-ISM with which I was raised. I welcome both the resonance and chafing because they make for a stronger and more viable theology in the long run.
I am a political theologian because I…
- understand the Bible as inherently political,
- understand politics as broader than partisan, governmental work,
- believe God cares about the whole world,
- notice that theology affects whole systems, and
- know that theology and faith produce action and belong in the world.
An ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American, Jan Rippentrop has served as pastor at Zion Lutheran Church, Iowa City, Iowa, from 2006 – 2011, and as interim pastor for two other congregations in Iowa. While a student at Wartburg Seminary, she served as assistant to the Center for Global Theologies and has done ethnographic field research in Bogota, Colombia, as well as studied in Germany and Israel/Palestine. Before becoming the Axel Jacob and Gerda Maria (Swanson) Carlson Chair in Homiletics at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, she designed and taught homiletics courses for MA, TEEM, Distributed Learning, and MDiv students at Wartburg Theological Seminary. She also taught worship at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary and served as a teaching assistant for two ecumenical and diverse homiletics courses at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Her research in homiletics and liturgical theology brings together eschatology and political theology.