Theology in Overalls: Why it Matters

Pelham Lessing

I was asked by Dr Crofford to consider writing a short essay on a practical theological theme or to write up a book review as a way to introduce me to the readership of his blog: Theology in Overallswhere theology meets everyday life – by being what he calls a guest voice. Instead of thinking about a practical issue to write about or to decide on which of the books I am currently reading would make for a nice book review, I became absorbed by the name and description of the blog-page. So instead of writing a book review or on a practical issue I want to write about Why Theology in Overalls Matters and apply it to one particular sphere.

This got me thinking about the current issue of overalls being discussed in South Africa’s parliament, theology and its practical implications. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) is a leftist political party in South Africa. One of the aims and objectives of the party is “to create conditions for total political and economic emancipation, prosperity, and equitable distribution of wealth of the nation.” The EFF are currently embroiled in an argument with government and or parliament on wearing red boiler suits and overalls to parliamentary sessions.

According to the EFF their dress code is a symbol signifying their disassociation and dissatisfaction with the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC) who the former claim are not living up to the Freedom Charter[1]. The African National Congress (ANC) has accused the EFF of not respecting the dress code of institutions and a failure to understand decorum, which according to the EFF is relying on colonial imagery. The EFF in turn says that their dress code is used as a symbol of the plight of the poor and working class. For the EFF politics must be practical and speak to life-based (rooted in life) issues. As I read articles and listened to reports on the radio regarding the overall debate, my mind started to focus once more on the practice orientated nature of the gospel.

Browning (1993 in Smith 2013:25) says that theology or the work of the church is practical from the beginning. Theology and the work of the church are considered in many ways to be abstract. It is not usually thought of as practical (Stephens 1995:1). The church is called and should be motivated to solve real-life problems or answer practical questions. The metaphor used on this blog Theology in Overalls: where theology meets everyday life captures the concept of practice orientated ministry beautifully.

The Bible records the words of Jesus “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor” (Luke 4:18a, NIV). In this statement, Jesus’ desire is to reach out to those the world tends to forget or mistreat. It seems the EFF got this verse right at least in theory – putting on red overalls as a sign of showing solidarity with the poor. But what does theology in overalls mean for the church? In one sense it proposes the church uses bottom up strategies in community development work as an outgrowth of their faith.

With unemployment in South Africa reportedly above 25 percent, perhaps the time has come for the church to set in motion more aggressively employment training bases (one way of putting on our overalls) to practically demonstrate the gospel by teaching employability and job readiness skills. This will require local churches to firstly engage in resource mobilisation in terms of infrastructure and human personnel, then to train job candidates in three essential categories of skills: basic academic skills, thinking skills and personal qualities. Lastly, the church must then become a tool or instrument to help the potential employee find work. This in my view will validate the claim that theology can be performed in overalls as we rid ourselves of Evangelical Gnosticism where we separate the spiritual from the practical realities of life. If the church gets it right, we will make a huge contribution to the much desired enabling environment – spiritually, evangelically if you will and otherwise.

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[1] The Freedom Charter was the statement of core principles of the South African Congress Alliance, which consisted of the African National Congress and its allies the South African Indian Congress, the South African Congress of Democrats, and the Coloured People’s Congress. It is characterized by its opening demand; The People Shall Govern!

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Pelham Lessing completed his Bachelor of Arts in Bible and Theology education and holds professional qualifications as a teacher and counsellor and is registered with the relevant professional and accredited bodies.

He currently serves as a full time lecturer at the South African Theological Seminary (SATS) and as adjunct faculty in the Development Studies Department at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) where he lectures at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Pelham also serves as lead pastor of Crossover Community Church of the Nazarene in Turffontein, Johannesburg.

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