In a sermon several weeks ago, one of my trustees narrated an encounter with a group of little children with whom she was working. One of the children produced a bag of crackers and proceeded munching. After realizing that he entertained no plan to share with the other children, she requested an explanation. At first, he ignored her. Then, sensing a teachable moment, she engaged him biblically. “Remember Jesus and the little boy who shared his loaves and fish?” she inquired. “Lots of people were able to eat. Jesus came to teach us to share and be kind to others.” The little boy’s response was decisive: “No, he didn’t. He came for our salvation.”
Rightly, she wondered aloud with her congregation whether we Christian adults were not so different from that little boy. She expressed concern that we readily take to heart biblical verses about individual, spiritual salvation, but all too often exhibit squeamishness when preachers and teachers veer treacherously into conversation about social and political justice. After all, is not worship held in a sanctuary — commonly defined as a place of refuge — for just this reason?
Throughout my 23 years of teaching New Testament studies, I have pressed students to refrain from separating the spiritual and the socio-political. Jesus’ ministry, particularly as constructed in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, presses the agenda that one’s vertical (spiritual) relationship with God is inextricably linked to one’s horizontal (socio-political) relationship with others. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul finds it difficult to separate the intimate fellowship with Christ in the Eucharist meal from the socio-economic standing of the Christ believers participating in that meal. The wealthy who eat in disregard of the poor eat to the destruction of the community’s spiritual and social fabric.
Throughout the New Testament, building as it does so intentionally upon the prophetic foundations of the Old, one’s spiritual relationship with the triune God is linked to and expressed in one’s socio-political relationship with those who make up the human community. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus makes this point intensely clear when he initiates his ministry by touching lepers (1:40-45), cavorting with tax collectors and sinners (2:13-17), engaging and touching unclean women (5:21-43; 7:24-30), trespassing communal standards like the Sabbath (2:23-3:6) and the korban (7:1-23), overstepping ethnic boundaries by establishing intimate faith relationships with Gentiles (7:24-8:10) and challenging the authority of the priestly and scribal infrastructure (2:1-12). To be sure, Jesus’ mission is one of readying human beings for the in-breaking of God’s apocalyptic reign. Just as surely, he readies them by reorienting their social and political relationships with each other even as he repositions their standing with God. Repentance is getting right with God. But if Jesus’ own life and ministry is to be our guiding behavioral example, being right with God is also about righting relationships with and among God’s people.
At their best, schools of theological study (free standing seminaries and university-based divinity schools) emphasize this critical connectivity. The students who leave our classrooms and supervised ministry sites become the church leaders whose sermons and educational efforts shape how congregants view the spiritual, the socio-political and the relationship between them. It is important to applaud the efforts of administrations that encourage and faculties that teach the vital intersection between the vertical and horizontal components of our faith.
Recently, I witnessed and celebrated this connectivity on a broad scale as leaders of American theological institutions demonstrated a social and political awareness borne of deep spiritual insight. In responding to a socio-political concern they modeled for their students the deep relationship between standing with God and standing beside God’s people.
A flurry of dangerous, ethically indefensible and allegedly criminal behavior by some police officers against unarmed African-American men ignited protests across the United States. The flurry of agonizing events, which need not be repeated here, set in motion a “Black Lives Matter” campaign that has stirred social, political and spiritual sensitivities throughout the institutions of theological education. At my own Union Presbyterian Seminary, where students were moved to participate in a Washington, D.C. justice march to express publicly their concern – and my wife and I were moved to join them – our seminary chaplain and I shared the historical context of our seminary community that had involved itself, collectively and through the actions of individual students, in activities of the Civil Rights Movement. We wanted them to know that their actions, spiritually grounded, were no outlier; they were part of a tradition of students, staff and faculty who had recognized the vital connection between studying the faith and living the faith in acts of and for social justice.
Shortly after that march, following a regular gathering of African-American presidents and deans of theological schools, a letter endorsed by those deans and presidents made its way into public circulation. Almost immediately, the presidents of each of the Presbyterian (U.S.A.) seminaries wrote and signed a letter of support. Letters affirming the support of numerous representatives of other denominational schools followed. Some school websites proclaimed support for the concerns addressed in the initial letter and pledged further conversation and justice-oriented activity based on that conversation. One school, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, dedicated a complete issue of its primary seminary publication to the topic “Race in the United States.” In each case, theological educators, indeed leaders of theological education, were commending the tie that binds the zeal for spiritual relationship with the quest for social and political justice. These laudable actions modeled just one way that theological institutions can and should lead the way in proclaiming and, through their actions, exhibiting the link between the vertical and the horizontal that Jesus’ ministry so powerfully illuminated.
Curriculum and context at Union
The most important way that theological schools can foster this connectivity is by expressing it through the very structure and work of their most vital resource: the curriculum. At Union Presbyterian Seminary, we emphasize this connectivity in two ways: through the work of the faculty who shape the curriculum and directly through the work of the curriculum itself.
Specific courses have a particular interest in expressing either biblically or theologically the importance of social justice emphases. Frances Taylor Gench teaches a course, “The Bible From the Underside,” focusing on how issues relevant to minority and oppressed communities shape such communities’ understanding of God’s movement in their lives and world. Katie Geneva Cannon and Carol Schweitzer teach a course, “Race-ing Justice and Engendering Power,” grappling with feminist and womanist models for doing effective ministry. John Carroll presents a course on “New Testament and Contemporary Ethical Challenges,” exploring the interaction of NT texts with the public sphere, politics and economic justice, with special attention to concerns as sexuality, marriage and family. In a world producing an epidemic of food deserts, Dawn DeVries teaches on the politics of food. These and other courses like them are supplemented by the teaching endeavors of faculty outside the classroom. Rodney Sadler, one of the leading voices behind the Moral Monday movement organized to respond prophetically to actions of the North Carolina State Legislature, hosts a weekly conversation on blog talk radio titled “The Politics of Faith.” A collection of other faculty members organized a series of lunchtime conversations with students, staff and colleagues on contemporary social, economic and political issues and their relevance for people and matters of faith. At the urging of faculty and administration, the seminary become the only non-congregational community to join an advocacy group of churches and synagogues organized as Richmonders Involved to Strengthen Our Communities (RISC) to press local government officials on issues like affordable housing, accessible health care, and stronger public schools.
Such individual faculty pedagogical interest prompted a curricular-wide interest in the intersection between faith and society. With encouragement from the board of trustees, the faculty has instituted a “Church In The World” section of the curriculum. This new section brings three new required elective areas to the program of every Union student. Each student must now complete either a specific course or a directed program of supervised ministry in the following three areas: community engagement, interfaith study and evangelism. As the living context leans ever more dramatically in our country and world in a metropolitan direction, it is incumbent upon theological schools to ensure that students are able to engage productively the opportunities and pressures that come with doing ministry in a multicultural, multifaith, urban socio-political world. Indeed, this new curricular thrust is very much in sync with the intentions that prompted leaders of Union Seminary to move the school from rural Farmville to urban Richmond in the late 1890s. An increasingly urban church whose members are involved in every manner of social, economic and political life requires a leadership as conversant with matters of the body politic as it is with matters of spirituality and individual salvation.
Though I have confined my examples to Union Presbyterian Seminary because I know it best, I am convinced that a perusal of the catalogs of each of the PC(USA) seminaries would include similar curricular and extracurricular examples that illustrate the importance of connecting spiritual inquiry with socio-political study. Because humans are social and political beings, matters of faith are also necessarily matters of politics. We do well when we not only press that point in the ministry of the church, but when we use that point to sharpen the skills of the women and men whom we equip to become the next generation of the church’s servant leadership.
Brian K. Blount is president and professor of New Testament at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.