Drew G. I. Hart, Ph.D., is a professor of theology at Messiah University in Pennsylvania and the author of Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism and, most recently, Who Will Be a Witness? Igniting Activism for God’s Justice, Love, and Deliverance. In addition to teaching and writing, Hart has served as a pastor in the cities of Harrisburg and Philadelphia and engaged in public theology, anti-racism workshops, and local community work.
Faithfully Magazine spoke with Hart by phone about his work as a public theologian and what it means for Christians in the United States to be a witness. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
In your bio, you are referred to as a “public theologian.” Can you speak on how you see your role as a public theologian and how important public theology is today?
If I were to nuance it even more, I would say that I see myself as a church theologian and public theologian. That is, my primary responsibility is engaging in helping the church understand its vocation, but also speaking intelligently in the public square about things that impact society, but from a Jesus-shaped perspective. I think that there’s a need to be able to both help the church that often has lost sight of its own vocation and calling of what it means to be following Jesus, but also to translate and speak intelligently about the issues that are impacting our world, our society at large, in intelligent ways that can communicate beyond the grammar or the language of the church. I do both of those things.
Some of that looks like podcasting and writing essays and articles, but it’s even more than that. In my own community, it’s being in the public square talking about issues that matter around policing, the justice system, immigration, that kind of stuff. I’ve spoken at the Capitol steps along with organizers. So I meet it in the most broadest sense, not only social media, but also in my own neighborhood in the public square.
How did you find yourself feeling that as a calling for you by God?
I was a Biblical Studies major as an undergrad and always had a pretty strong sense of calling in the most general sense to ministry and joining with what God is doing in the world. But as I began to grapple with how racism has shaped both the church and society in very significant ways, I began to wrestle with more deeper theological questions around what was going on. And so that would certainly be the origins, is me grappling with a church that doesn’t look Jesus-shaped on one hand, and a society that certainly is not reflecting what God desires for the flourishing of all people. And so my turn towards engaging both church theology and doing public theology is the result of an awareness of how white supremacy has so deeply socialized and organized our world.
Turning to your most recent book — who was the intended audience when you were first thinking about writing this book?
Even the origins of the book itself flowed out of the work I was doing with my first book, which was Trouble I’ve Seen. I was doing anti-racism work with churches across the country, a lot of it during the first wave of the Black Lives Matter movement, and was getting a lot of great reception to it. But one of the questions that I got repeatedly was, What do we do with all this? It seems like you want us to engage in racial justice, but we have no idea what that means or what it looks like. And so, at least the seed of me even wanting to write the book came out of those questions. I saw this book first and foremost for folks who at least had some awakening going on to the issues and challenges that our society faces, even if they didn’t fully understand it. So maybe where my first book was targeting the church as broadly to be willing to engage in the conversation, I probably imagine that this book would be more for churches that either already are doing the work or feel the need to step in that direction in some forms.
I was shooting for as accessible as I could…. The book is a little bit longer than I probably would have normally written for the church. But it is still very accessible. I tell a lot of personal stories and examples and analogies that make all my ideas very accessible. I’m not writing to the academy; I’m writing to the church. And it’s very practical in that sense. So I imagine that it would be good for the folks in the pews. It could be used and is being used in classrooms, but also individuals that are engaged. It has some range to where it’ll push some people in terms of folks that want to think a little bit deeper on some issues. But it is accessible enough to be used very broadly and, in fact, is being used already in churches for a book study.
The title of your book is Who Will Be a Witness? Can you speak more on how a biblical understanding of being a “witness” goes much beyond just believing the right things?
It’s very common when people use the word “witness” in mainstream Evangelicalism, it’s usually talking about witnessing to somebody else. And it talks about how can I convince them that Jesus is Lord basically, right? Or, in some cases, in more perverse ways, how do I get someone to want to accept Jesus so that they can go to heaven? But if you think about “witness,” in the more biblical sense, what we’re actually talking about is bearing witness to who God is, and to what God has done in the person of Jesus Christ, and the Kingdom of God that has been ushered into our world. So, how do we bear witness to God’s deliverance in the world? It’s a way of life that actually is embodying God’s reign here on Earth. It’s a way of life that makes visible the Jesus story in our own lives, so that our neighbors can see it and know that God is not asleep on the job, but He’s actively working through us, and bearing witness to what God desires for all of creation one day. So there’s a switch there from trying to just only think about it in terms of convincing people, that kind of evangelism, to the evangelism — of good news — in word, deed, and our whole entire way of life that is aligned with the birth, life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the reign of God that he inaugurated.
In many ways, your book tries to separate biblical Christianity from “Americanism.” Looking at the American Evangelical landscape today — why do you think there is so much pushback to this? Why do Evangelicals seemingly want to keep America and Christianity closely aligned?
I would imagine that the real challenge is that they don’t see themselves as keeping anything aligned. They’ve conflated it so much that they don’t recognize that their Christianity and their Americanism are two separate things. I think that’s actually the problem. There’s not an awareness that there was a time when Christianity wasn’t fused with capitalism and American patriotism and religious nationalism and all these things. So their inability to see the first century Palestinian Jew, not as a Western or American figure, but as this brown man from what we would now call the Middle East and Africa region, living under Roman occupation…. We’ve conflated, and in some ways colonized Jesus and Christianity and biblical interpretation to subsume under Americanness. I think that that is the task and that’s the problem. Until folks can even see that those two things have been fused together, it’s going to be hard to convince them that we need to pull them apart.
I love the way Willie James Jennings talks about how some have forgotten their “Gentile identity.” That is to say that we’ve been infused into somebody else’s story. And Israel’s story is fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. Now, instead, they say it’s this Western story or even American story, that people need to assimilate into to be their fullest person, which I would say then it’s heresy compared to what the scriptures are actually teaching.
You spend a whole chapter in Who Will Be A Witness reframing the story of Barabbas. Can you quickly explain the importance of getting Barabbas right, especially in light of the person and work of Jesus?
Yeah, it’s important because number one, the clues that Barabbas is an important figure is that he shows up in every single one of the Gospel narratives, which is very rare to have something or some events in every single narrative. There’s only a few things that always translate over to all the Gospels. So that’s the first clue that there’s something important that they want to see Jesus in comparison to Barabbas. That’s the first thing that’s important. But then we’ve got to ask, what exactly is it that they want to see about Barabbas? And it’s not what typically is talked about him, because he’s not talked about as the foil to Jesus’s perfect life, and he’s a sinful person and that Jesus takes his place.
That’s not what the scriptures say about him. In fact, consistently in all the Gospels, they point to his socio-political revolutionary activity. They talked about him as an insurrectionist — he participated in uprising. Or he was a bandit, which in the first century meant a revolutionary, that was a word for revolutionary. So all the Gospels are consistent about describing Barabbas in the socio-political terms that are solely focused on him participating in uprisings and insurrection.
So the question is, why is that so important for us to understand today? And what does that say about who Jesus is? The mistake that we’ve made in the past is to say, ‘Oh, well, then he wanted an earthly kingdom and Jesus wanted a spiritual kingdom.’ But of course, that goes against Jesus’ own words and teachings, right? In fact, his own central prayer that he taught us to pray is, ‘Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.’ And he preached that the kingdom was here, it was among us, it was near. It was an earthly kingdom. It has implications for the way that we lived our lives for the poor, the least, last, and lost, the vulnerable, the Samaritan women on the edges, those who were stigmatized…. It had very earthly concerns. Jesus talked about the wealth and poverty and all these things. So it can’t be that Jesus had a spiritual kingdom in mind.
So if that’s not it, then what we see is that the Gospel of Matthew gives us a really great clue to what exactly this means. And you find this in the oldest ancient manuscripts where Barabbas and Jesus are compared. It says “Jesus Barabbas and Jesus the Christ — which one do you want?” And what’s fascinating about that is the name “Jesus” itself is “Joshua” — Yeshua. The one who saves. The liberator. So the question is, “Who will be your deliverer? Is it going to be Barabbas who engages in violent insurrection? Or is it Jesus who teaches to love your enemies and to be a peacemaker?” And though he does clash with those in power in Jerusalem who are oppressing and exploiting others, he does it nonviolently. It’s disruptively, but nonviolently. So it’s actually, what kind of revolutionary do you want? Which kind of liberator? The Barabbas way or the Jesus way? I get into so much more in the chapter, but that helps give a glimpse into why and what the Gospel writers are trying to emphasize.
Can you provide some reflections and thoughts on Gen Z and the coming generations, especially as it relates to the idea of the American church taking back up its mantle as a faithful witness in the world? Are you hopeful for the future?
Am I hopeful? It’s hard to be hopeful based on looking out into what’s going on in our world today. Analyzing what’s going on today, there seems to be no evidence of this great awakening to who Jesus is and what Jesus calls us to. There doesn’t seem to be an awareness of the God of deliverance, that not only delivered the Israelites from slavery and called Israel to renounce idolatry and injustice when God sent the prophets, or Jesus who said He came to set the oppressed free. I don’t think there’s an awareness to that on a wide scale. But it’s hard to not be hopeful in a different kind of way, which, you could say, is not based on evidence, but on the logic of faith, so to speak.
I do believe God is at work. I’ve seen churches dig in deeper to their apathy, to their disregard, negligence, and racism, and all of those things. But I also have seen churches where God is clearly moving, churches that are engaging, for the very first time having hard conversations, transformative conversation, and are leaning in and are living into it in ways that they hadn’t before. Taking risks of actually trying to follow Jesus into the world. So I guess my hope comes from that which is probably less evidence-based, but more that I do believe that God is at work and that we just need to be attentive to actually join in with what God is doing. There are so many opportunities for us to do that at the grassroots level in our own communities in our own neighborhood. God has not abandoned us, I don’t believe so. But we’ve got to be attentive to God’s presence and liberating work in our world.