Day 1: Helmut Gollwitzer and Revolutionary Violence

Welcome to Day 1 of the German Political Theology Blog Conference, brought to you by Theology Corner! For an introduction to this blog conference and an explanation of who we are, see the first post here.

It should be impossible to write about German political theology, especially in the 20th century, without reference to Helmut Gollwitzer. Sadly, however, doing so has become not only possible but even the default setting. This is in part because Gollwitzer made no widely heralded theological advances upon Barth’s dogmatics, as did Eberhard Jüngel. Gollwitzer preferred to “deploy” Barth’s dogmatics, i.e., to put its political consequences into practice. Nor did Gollwitzer live so long, and engage so globally, as has Jürgen Moltmann [1]. Perhaps most decisively, however, Gollwitzer’s politics were unabashedly leftist. Helmut Gollwitzer was a socialist, and he was unafraid to embrace the sometimes revolutionary political consequences of his encounter with the God of the gospel. Furthermore, Gollwitzer knew whereof he spoke when it came to revolutionary violence: he lived through the First World War as a child; he was associated with the National Socialist movement in his teens before rejecting it and serving on the front lines of the Confessing Church struggle in the 1930s; he was conscripted into the German military during the Second World War, where he served in a machine gun unit and then an ambulance corps, and made it through the war without firing his weapon in combat; he was a prisoner of war in Russia for five years; and he was close to the students during the Berlin student uprising of 1966–68. In what follows, I present three interpretive theses dealing with Gollwitzer’s understanding of revolution and violence [2].

Thesis 1: The question of revolution is ingredient to the gospel itself.

As Gollwitzer put it, “the Christian faith liberates us, our reason and our will, to fight for socialist world revolution” [3]. This is the exact opposite position from the majority of the Western, white theological tradition, which Gollwitzer recognizes as coopted by the values of pagan empire from the time of Constantine. However, while ostensibly and often vociferously rejecting the possibility of revolution, that tradition has nonetheless been an enthusiastic supporter of one revolution in particular, namely, the capitalist revolution. In an essay entitled “Why Black Theology?,” Gollwitzer even describes this revolution as a “revolution of the white, Christianized, Protestant peoples” that has achieved “worldwide victory” [4]. Transition to the capitalist economic foundation of modern society was drastic and violent in its overthrow of the status quo. But, Gollwitzer points out, it did not in general challenge Christianity’s place in society and so the churches accepted its legitimacy. They have not embraced the idea of socialist revolution, he suggests, because socialist criticism of religion seems to challenge their place in society.

Thesis 2: A just revolution is theoretically possible.

Although it will not carry much weight with those who are absolute pacifists, so to speak, Gollwitzer makes a compellingly commonsensical argument in support of this possibility. Admitting that it is very hard to find wars that meet the criteria of the just war tradition, he notes: “If there are few just wars, there are probably just as few just revolutions. . . . But if there are any just wars, then there are also some just revolutions” [5]. In a set of theses entitled “Socialismus und Revolution,” Gollwitzer outlines criteria for a just revolution on analogy to the criteria for just war: it must aim at overthrowing an oppressive power, it must be a truly unavoidable and inevitable last resort, it cannot produce unnecessary suffering or employ means of indiscriminate killing (e.g., terrorism is right out), it cannot be motivated by desire for revenge, it must maintain the rights of the oppressed, and the decision for revolution must be made by a community rather than an individual [6]. This last point is crucial, for it determines that just revolution must develop organically from conditions that oppress a particular community. Only such a community is in a position to make a judgment about, for instance, whether revolution is truly unavoidable and inevitable, whether it will produce unnecessary suffering, and whether it will maintain the rights of that oppressed community.

Thesis 3: Revolutionary violence, although regrettable and indicative of the deep disorder that reigns in human society, is not a unique case.

When the question of revolutionary violence arises, it is often treated as though one must choose between a violence-free situation on one hand and, on the other hand, a revolutionary situation where blood flows unchecked in the streets. This is a false choice, however. The status quo under imperial capitalism was built and is maintained by staggering amounts of violence. And those of us who live in Western societies benefit from that violence, to greater or lesser extents. We are ineluctably and inextricably entangled in systems of violence. Even the most benign and apparently beneficent example of authority upholding the status quo, such as a police officer giving a ticket to enforce speed limits in a school zone, functions because of the threat of violence: resist that authority and you will end up in jail, or worse. The actual choice, then, is between a situation where violence maintains an unjust status quo, and a revolutionary situation where violence challenges and attempts to overthrow that unjust status quo. Furthermore, the question of whether there will be revolutionary violence ultimately rests with the powers-that-be rather than with the revolutionary powers-that-would-be. Everything comes down to whether the guardians of the status quo choose to use violence to maintain their existing privilege against demands for revolution. If they do so, then revolutionary violence may perhaps become necessary. As Gollwitzer says, “if force is to be used, then it can sooner be justified where it is applied to shattering unjust oppressive force than to maintaining it” [7]. Under such conditions, revolutionary violence ultimately serves love of neighbor. 

None of this is to suggest that violence is unequivocally good under certain conditions. Even when talking about the possibility of a just revolution, Gollwitzer never envisions a revolution that is sin-free, as it were. He knows that we tread here on paths far from the good, the true, and the beautiful. But such is the character of human life under the condition of sin that sometimes violence, albeit inherently destructive and dehumanizing, is the necessary choice of the oppressed in resisting their oppressors. So I conclude with Gollwitzer: “violence brutalizes, even though the oppressed cannot avoid it in their struggle. Limiting violence to a last resort and humanizing the methods of violence as much as possible are in the interest of the revolutionary movement, not only for reasons of expedience, but for retention of the humane freedom-loving character of the movement itself” [8].



[1] Moltmann does provide a tribute to Gollwitzer, however: see Jürgen Moltmann, A Broad Place: An Autobiography, Margaret Kohl, trans. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 245–49.
[2] For much more on Gollwitzer’s remarkable biography, as well as an introduction to his theology and politics, see W. Travis McMaken, Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017). For his biography, see especially pp. 19–50; for more on Gollwitzer and revolution, see especially pp. 131–45.
[3] Helmut Gollwitzer, “Auf dem Linken pfad geschmeichelt?” Müssen Christen Sozialisten sein? Zwischen Glaube und Politik, Wolfgang Teichert, ed. (Hamburg: Lutherisches Verlagshaus, 1976), 36–37.
[4] Helmut Gollwitzer, “Why Black Theology?,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 31, no. 1 (1975): 42. For those interested in Gollwitzer’s engagement with Marxism, see W. Travis McMaken, “The Blame Lies with the Christians: Helmut Gollwitzer’s Engagement with Marxist Criticism of Religion,” The Other Journal 22 (2013): 13–20 (
[5] Helmut Gollwitzer, The Rich Christians and Poor Lazarus, David Cairns, trans. (New York: Macmillan, 1970), 62.
[6] Helmut Gollwitzer, “Sozialismus und Revolution,” Umkehr und Revolution: Aufsätze zu christlichem Glauben und Marxismus, band 1, Christian Keller, ed. Ausgewahlte Werke (Munchen: Chr. Kaiser, 1988), 168.
[7] Gollwitzer, Rich Christians, 61.
[8] Gollwitzer, “Why Black Theology?,” 57–58.

McMaken is Associate Professor of Religion, Chair of Interdisciplinary Studies, and Assistant Dean of Multidisciplinary Humanities in the School of Humanities at Lindenwood University's St. Charles, MO campus. His writing engages primarily with 20th century theology (esp. Protestant theology, with specialization in Karl Barth, Helmut Gollwitzer, and T. F. Torrance) while working constructively on the subjects of sacramentology, ecclesiology, and political theology.

Want to be notified when each new post in this blog conference goes live? Fill out this form:

Name *