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By Chris Sugden
August 17, 2022

For some 'public theology' is a relatively new term. Not many theological faculties or seminaries have it on their curriculum. But Stellenbosch University in Cape Town South Africa does. In his inaugural lecture, also livestreamed, on August 16 as Professor of Public Theology, Dion Forster, who is on the board of the Langham Partnership, offered a definition of his discipline and role.

For him, 'Christianity is a public religion in the sense of conveys its message to a wider public, taking an interest in the well-being not only of its members but also of those who are not part of a church or congregation', quoting Rudolf von Sinner who also argues that 'Christianity and theology are public, strongly present in everyday life and the media....not private, not secret.' For Jurgen Moltmann 'Christian theology is public theology for it is the theology of the kingdom of God. As such it must engage with the political, cultural, educational, economic and ecological spheres of life, not just with the private and ecclesial spheres.'

Justice and decency

Christians confess that God who created the world is good, that what God has created is good and is intended for good. This political claim has consequences for faith and public life. Therefore, for persons being formed in the image of Christ, the task is not to make the world good or better, but to express goodness in the world, what is the fitting, proper and decent thing to do when encountering evil and blatant lies that give false narratives about our world. The evils we face are not only evidenced in the indecent behaviour and beliefs of individuals, but are sustained by indecent economic and political systems and religious institutions. Such decency goes beyond justice. Because God is just, we are to be just in our human affairs as God is zealous for justice. A decent society is one whose institutions do not humiliate people. Faith in Christ demands that 'wherever I identify the humiliating and destructive presence of evil, the decent thing to do is to confront it.'

Since what counts as justice is often disputed, the question Christian should ask is 'what would be the decent thing to do so that no person is dehumanized, abused or humiliated while such a dispute is settled?' This calls for discernment and political action when we see that others are living according to contending stories, half-truths and blatant lies about the good creation by the good God which make our ability to live in gratitude for our existence impossible.

The people who bear the virtues to sustain Christian faith are those who through small acts of tenderness and beauty sustain the kind of life that would be unintelligible without the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.


These virtues, Forster proposed, are patience, courage and imagination. Patience is not passivity. It is to retain a state of emotional calm in the face of provocation and misfortune as God does when faced with our sin. God's patience with our sin is not passivity or resignation. It is shown in the New Testament as an urgent dynamism to right what is wrong as Jesus did in ways that are neither violent nor destructive. Patience is the virtue necessary to sustain the disempowered, slaves, women, sick and children, who have disavowed violence as a way to settle disputes. For God chooses not to defeat us in our sin, but liberate and redeem us from the perpetual cycle of violence evidenced in patriarchy, poverty, racism, xenophobia and greed. This means responding to the evils of our time without perpetuating abuse, prejudice and brokenness.


Patience is closely related to courage which is the power of the will to strive for what is good and right, even in the face of opposition, in a manner that achieves a greater and lasting good. The Hebrew prophets had courage to speak divine truth to those who held political and religious power, and to declare judgement on their own people when they identified practices that were evil, indecent or deceptive. People respond with courage because they live truthfully even in the presence of lies, because they believe in a God who can be trusted. He quoted Rosemary Radford Ruether: 'This trust in God enables one to speak truthfully and act justly without regard to those worldly vested interests that have a stake in lies and injustice.'

Decent people do not lie or invest their lives in systems and institutions that perpetuate the lies of racial supremacy, economic inequality, religious bigotry and environmental injustice. So martyrs face evil by relying on patience and faith to heal and restore. The aim of Christian martyrs has been to endure in the truth in the hope their enemies will be saved. Many individuals and institutions will find it difficult to allow us to live according to the truth and may try to bribe us to compromise, manipulate us or even persecute us. In the end truth will prevail because it is true. Opting for courage acknowledges that our lives are part of a larger story, giving meaning and purpose, a true story called the gospel, a way of living so that people may hear, see and experience the good news through us.


Such action will require imaginative alternatives to current reality. Can we imagine a future different from our past? Christians do not believe our existential realities are the end of history. We have a hope for a time when all suffering and evil will end and direct our lives to that end. By schooling ourselves to the truthful story of God's good will we free ourselves from the tyranny of optimism based on our judgement of circumstances which are limited. Christian imagination, fed by the scriptures, Christian tradition and witness, is prophetic and transformative, informed by the truth of God's vision for humanity and the world.

Forster summed up his work as a public theologian as to cultivate a prophetic imagination within and through the Churches to contribute to justice, healing and transformation as the decent thing to do and who is one of the editors of African Public Theology published by Langham Publishing,

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