Theology at the Edge

For many years I have been fascinated by theology at the edge. In hospitals and care homes, ITUs and delivery suites, I have been with those experiencing some of the hardest moments which life can bring. It has long been my belief that these are the places from which theology should be written. They are the boundary moments, the liminal spaces, in which our lives are defined and transformed. Once, when I was asked to bless a suite of operating theatres due to ‘concerns’, I agreed to do it only on the basis that I met and spoke with the whole staff team. While there was spiritual significance in what I was doing for some, for others there was the recognition that these are extraordinary places in society. To do what happens in an operating theatre just a few yard away would get you arrested. These are important, sacred, and atypical spaces. Not only are lives changed on the operating table, but far beyond the hospital lives are altered by the recovery or loss of the person undergoing surgery. Blessing these kinds of places is giving expression to the seriousness of the events they contain and enable.

In his critique of empire Allan Boesak writes about ‘a theology at the edge’. Unsurprisingly, Boesak is not describing the kind of edge which I refer to above, but the place where theology is driven when we join the struggle against injustice. There is a double sense here about what it means to be at the edge. It is where theology is pushed when people ask Kingdom questions about the absence of justice in their lives and the lives of others. But it is also used in the sense that this is cutting edge theology – the sharp place in our world where theology is far more than an abstract academic discussion.

“We are speaking of a certain expression of theology, a prophetic theology, the theology that responded to the struggle in South Africa with prophetic truth and faithfulness, standing as the oppressed and with the oppressed in our struggles against oppression in colonial times and during the reign of apartheid, and now in global struggles against the devastating reach of imperial powers and their underlings everywhere”.

Boesak, A. A. (2017). Pharaohs on Both Sides of the Blood-Red Waters: Prophetic Critique on Empire: Resistance, Justice, and the Power of the Hopeful Sizwe–A Transatlantic Conversation. Wipf and Stock Publishers. Chicago.

Perhaps these two edges are not quite so far apart as they seem at first sight. The access and use of health services is also bound up with issues of justice, not least in the fact that the poor in society are more likely to access health care, and more often, than wealthier individuals. Medicine sits within the economic framework of capitalism which shapes and directs investment in new drugs and therapies. Minor conditions in the West leverage a disproportionate influence in the search for cures compared with far more serious conditions which are found most frequently in the developing world. As Nicholas Freudenburg has argued, at the very least, the various incarnations of capitalism need to be explored in order for people to understand the relationships and consequences of the economic realities which shape our lives.

In a theology at the edge Boesak issues a bold challenge to locate our understanding of God in the places – and with the people -who are on the margins. These edge places are simulataneously at the cutting edge of tough and creative transformation. How we engage and support theology that is with and for the oppressed is perhaps the next question. In the UK there is some evidence of churches responding to this kind of call, even if they are few and far between. For example, it can be seen in the work of Barrett and Harley in their title Being Interrupted. Perhaps before we can make any greater progress, we need to interrupt the smooth narratives of our theologies and allow new voices to shape the conversation about how we go forward in order to enable the Kingdom of God to break into our lives and disrupt the smooth running of oppressive structures.

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