Annunciation and Denunciation: Doing “Public Theology” in Authoritarian Times

Hippopotamus defends territory from elephant, Chobe River, Botswana - Aug 2013

Ever feel like this?

I do.  I can identify with that hippo. Some days I am so angry about what is happening in our country, and indeed, in our world, that all I can do is yell. And when that happens, I cannot write.

Public Theology means writing passionately, but not angrily. I always tell students and those who attend my Public Theology workshops, that you need to honor the anger, but then channel the passion it generates into your writing.

As theologian and ethicist Beverly Harrison wrote in “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love,” “Anger is not the opposite of love. It is better understood as a feeling-signal that all is not well in our relation to other persons or groups or to the world around us. Anger is a mode of connectedness to others and it is always a vivid form of caring. To put the point another way: anger is – and it always is – a sign of some resistance in ourselves to the moral quality of the social relations in which we are immersed. … We must never lose touch with the fact that all serious human moral activity, especially action for social change, takes its bearings from the rising power of human anger. Such anger is a signal that change is called for, that transformation in relation is required.”

I have learned so much from Bev, but this insight is among the most important.

Transformation in relation is required.

To that end, I try, in doing Public Theology, to build a relationship with the reader. If you just blast out your own anger, you take away the space your reader needs in order to enter in to what you write. And that does not transform.

Yet, there is so much that is broken, warped, distorted, and downright cruel in our times that “denunciation” is required. But then, I try to announce the “good news” that this moral catastrophe is not the last word in the quality of our human relationships.

I have listed the readings for my Public Theology class below, but they are not the core of the class. The core of the class is the students’ relationships with one another and with me and with the teaching assistant so that we can, as another wonderful feminist theologian, Nelle Morton, said, “hear each other into speech.”

Just sharing reading and topics will not give you sense of this class. Instead, here are a few writing tips that I also share with the class, that can improve your writing so that you can be heard. Below are some topics I use in the lectures:

First, to write effectively in the public square you need a compelling title and an edgy visual. For example: 


In that Huffington Post column, the juxtaposition of “Jesus” and “bathroom” has a jarring quality, and the graphic “All Gender Restroom” does the rest. The theological theme is Christology, of course, as today transgender folks who have no place to go to the bathroom are Jesus, who had “no place to lay his head.”


Here are some things Public Theology is NOT:

  • A sermon
  • An essay
  • A “series of reflections”
  • An article
  • A poem
  • A story
  • A meditation

Public Theology IS: 

  • NOT about you, it’s about your readers, so know your readers. Who are they?
  • About one clear topic that is stated, related to a current media hook, and is well supported.
  • Visual: great banner, pictures, video, Tweets
  • Rewritten over and over and over, and short
  • Has a theological frame such as:
    • Who is the human being? This is sinful because…. Salvation means this, and not that…..
  • Public Theology is not theological if you just use a bunch of biblical quotations.
  • Announce the good news. Uplift your readers. Create an empathetic connection.

Some other tips:

  • Do not bury your lead
  • Do not bury your lead
  • Do not bury your lead
  • Write a draft, cut the last paragraph and paste it at the beginning.
  • Rewrite to support that first paragraph.
  • AT MOST people read the headline and the first paragraph.

The reading list for the class is not extensive.

Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.

This is an older piece, but identifying white privilege as a severe problem is crucial.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy 

This book contains crucial insights into racism, but the role it plays in this class is to demonstrate beautifully clear writing done with passion.

Susan Thistlethwaite, #OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power

Because, at the end of the day, money is the root of all evil, so follow the money.

Susan Thistlethwaite, Women’s Bodies as Battlefield: Christian Theology and the Global War on Women

Heteropatriarchy structures so much of what is happening in our time.

Chris Hedges, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.

Today’s radical right Christian agenda is fascism.

And there you have it.


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