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The Power of Public Theology

With similar emotion and energy, we pledge our allegiance to the nation and confess our faith in the one true God. Whether these two loyalties collaborate or collide is a matter of utmost importance and never more so than when a nation is at war.

It is therefore a good time to remember the Barmen Confession of 1934.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
It was promulgated, not by gathered synod or official delegates, much less by patriarch or pope. On the contrary, the good work was done by ordinary ministers assembled on the banks of the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Wupper River in northwest Germany, where it converges with Belgium and the Netherlands.
 
“Theological Clarification of the Present State of the German Evangelical Churches” is the official title. Remember that in Europe “evangelical” is used differently than in these United States. It is simply a synonym for “Protestant.”
 
Clarification was needed because the Christian community was falling in line—lock, stock and barrel, so to speak—with the new nationalist regime of Adolph Hitler.
 
From our vantage point of 70 years and untold suffering it is hard to understand why Christian people would fall for the racist oratory of Hitler.
 
Their silence in the face of the demagoguery of “Nation, Race and Fuhrer” is today considered a sad chapter in the history of 20th century civilization. Few resisted Hitler and fewer still risked life or limb to halt his Third Reich.
 
Some did and thereby became legends in our time.
 
Corrie Ten Boom hid Jews beneath the wooden floor of her father’s house. Today in Jerusalem there is a tree with her name planted along “The Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles.”
 
Dietrich Bonhoeffer plotted to assassinate Hitler. He was arrested and sent to Flossenburg concentration camp, where he was hanged eight days before the camp was liberated. Today a movie about his life is playing to rave reviews around the country.
 
Martin Niemoeller left behind what may be the single most compelling witness of the world war era: “First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.”
 
Karl Barth launched a journal with the title “Theological Existence Today.”  In its pages he criticized the German Christians who advocated a synthesis of German National Socialism and the Christian gospel.
 
While others took afternoon naps during the conclave at Barmen, he wrote the text of the most important Christian document of the decade.
 
“Jesus Christ is the one word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and death.” Thus begins the first of six short articles of faith.
 
It was two things at once: a clarion call to the Christian community to repent of their fascination with a nationalist regime; and also a clear statement to the wider human community of the social and political relevance of theology.
 
Today we call it public theology.
 
It is to be distinguished from the irrational ranting of street preachers and the emotional appeals of televangelists.
 
Public theology is the hard, heady stuff of a first-rate intellect infused with a passion for the things of God and a conviction that such mental and imaginative work can not be confined to the church.
 
God for a Secular Society: The Public Relevance of Theology is the nicely-titled book by a spiritual descendent of Barth, Jurgen Moltmann.
 
He is one of many who take their platform, face the population at large, and present a version of gospel truth that interacts powerfully with the issues and events of our time.
 
Like the late James McClendon, Moltmann issues a call for such theological work to be done not only in the public square but also in the public university.
 
None surpass the eloquent work of Pope John Paul in this regard. He has taken his fearless pulpit to every corner of the globe, ignoring the clever admonition of Emily Dickinson to “tell the truth but tell it slant.”
 
Sometimes in life and death, on any continent, in any century, the truth must be told straight, and never more so than in times of war, when loyalty to God and loyalty to country are most severely tested.
Dwight Moody is a writer, preacher and theologian living in Lexington, Ky.