Day 5: How Shall We Hear If None Cry Out? Alfred Delp's Political Theology

Welcome to Day 5 of the German Political Theology Blog Conference, brought to you by Theology Corner! For an introduction to the conference and a list of the schedule, click here.


For the past several years, persons of faith in the United States and Europe have been challenged to faithfully respond to, counter, and protest the rise of far-right groups, “Christian” nationalism, and similar groups. One of the most popular narratives of discourse has been more popular examinations of the life and witness of the lives of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his relation to the German state under rule of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP and/or Nazis). As someone who currently lives in the United States and is a concerned citizen of the way far-right discourse and ideologies have been legitimized in recent decades (partially through the toxicity and ahistorical nature of strains of evangelical Christian “theology”), I can certainly empathize with persons who now might view our current situation as asking us to consider whether we have arrived at our own “Bonhoeffer movement.”



However, there are more voices from the time of Bonhoeffer and Niemöller that can speak to Christians and others today. In what follows, I look to the life and prison meditations of Alfred Delp, SJ, a Jesuit priest imprisoned by the NSDAP in 1944 for his involvement in the Kreisau Circle and later executed in 1945 after being sentenced by a kangaroo court headed by a notoriously anti-Catholic judge. One aspect of Delp’s work that is unique compared to that of Bonhoeffer is, as described by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, Delp’s “perfect openness, total receptivity, [being] born of complete self-surrender” as his imprisonment brought him and “us into uninhibited contact with God." [1] How can persons attempt to find the presence of God in times like these? Can God exist amid state-sanctioned violence, reinvigorated racial hostility, xenophobia and religious prejudice that masquerades as religious freedom, and climate change? Answers to these questions can be read as Delp calls Christians to heed the voice(s) coming out of the wilderness.

To understand Delp’s rationale for his meditations focusing on the calls from the wilderness, it is worth noting that he situates during the liturgical season of Advent; Christians celebrate the season of Advent as a time dedicated for preparing for the birth of Jesus Christ, but what makes Delp’s meditations unique is his insistence on remembering the entirety of the story (or more accurately, stories) leading to the birth of Jesus. For example, Delp writes that “Advent is a time for rousing. Humanity is shaken to the very depths, so that we may wake up to the truth of ourselves. The primary condition for a fruitful and rewarding Advent is renunciation, surrender.” [2] For Christians, one of our primary means of understanding Advent as the “rousing event” for our lives can be read by Mary the Mother of God’s pronunciation that God has “brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” [3] The arrival of Jesus comes at a time where Christians are reminded at the cosmic justice leveled by God against those whom have abused the poor, oppressed, and the outcast.

Delp’s context is particularly instructive; as a person imprisoned by the state for his faith and in opposition to the heresies of NSDAP ideology, he lived the reality of being suppressed and silenced by those in power. Perhaps more importantly, however, Delp is also cognizant that his readers also are living the realities of a community, landscape, and persons having been torn apart by apocalyptic levels of violence. Using the model of John the Baptist, who warns of the need for persons to heed the voice in the wilderness (cf. Lk 3.1-6; Mt 3.1-6; Mk 1.2-6), Delp says that the persons in the wilderness of this world “cry out to us, urging us to save ourselves by a change of heart before the coming of the catastrophes threatening to overwhelm us.” [4] Delp’s insistence on heeding the voice in the wilderness is derived from his concern that the world is in “need of intellectual and religious regeneration.” [5] Keeping these concerns in mind, we must now turn to Delp’s ideas of how persons can heed the voices in the wilderness in order to restore meaning to the lives of Christians.

Delp argues that Christians must heed the voices in the wilderness because “untruth is both dangerous and destructive. It has already rent our souls, destroyed our people, laid waste to our land and our cities; it has already caused another generation to bleed to death.” [6] The untruth to which Delp is primarily concerned is how the two World Wars of the twentieth century demonstrate a callous regard that human life is worthless and devoid of any existential meaning. Delp argues: “Only in God are we capable of living fully. Without God we are permanently sick.” [7] While Delp’s statement can be read as problematic in the interreligious and politically secular contexts of our contemporary time, it is important to remember that his reading of season of Advent is to shake Christians wedded to concepts of power, privilege, and wealth to their base of recognizing their sins against their oppressed, marginalized, and poor brothers and sisters and to recognize that they are dependent primarily on God for their own existence. Therefore, one who is ignorant of their reliance on God doesn’t realize that their souls (and indeed themselves) are not truly happy because of their focus on worldly and secular power.

For Christians to reorient themselves after being shaken by the voices in the wilderness, Delp argues that they “cannot attain a state of happiness without conversion, a complete reorientation of their entire existence…it can only result from the supreme freedom which God bestows as soon as we cease to hedge ourselves round with self-sufficiency, isolation and arrogance.” [8] The reorientation that Delp speaks of can only be achieved when Christians recognize that the current state of the world is in favor of human arrogance that we have all of the answers and cannot be held accountable for our actions. Therefore, when reading the importance of Delp’s meditations as political theology, the voice(s) in the wilderness (and the wilderness itself) serve as “a place of preparation, a place for gathering our strength and collecting our thoughts, for rearming ourselves, for listening expectantly for the word of command.” [9] It would be a mistake, however, to read Delp’s exhortations as calling for separation, fleeing from the world.

The theology (which I read as intrinsically political) that Delp argues for is one that is rooted in the world so that Christians recognize their complete reliance on God, as opposed to the destroyed world in which Delp and others live. Delp does not argue for simply relying on God alone, however. He argues that the time of Advent is “both a proclamation and a mission; a holy night and a night pregnant with promise.” [10] After heeding the voices in the wilderness and living in one’s own wilderness, Delp argues that the restoration of humanity must be based primarily in a minimum of human existence: “…consisting of sufficient living space, stable law and order and adequate nourishment, is indispensable.” [11]

The challenges recognized and articulated by Delp still exist in our own times; as mentioned above, questions and deliberate historical amnesia regarding racism, economic injustice, war and torture, inadequate healthcare, and ecological devastation are posed daily to American Christians. What Delp requires of us is the recognition that the season of Advent, while liturgical, exists outside of our conceptions of time and space. The breaking in of God’s justice requires reliance on God’s providence for humanity, but also requires the work of humans to prepare and work for the return of God. To do this, Delp argues that we heed the voices in the wilderness that remind us of our reliance on the dissolution of our egos and abuse of ourselves and others. If we do not heed the voices in the wilderness, humans will continue our own destructive behaviors and destroy ourselves in deference to embracing the love and promises of God. Let us pray that we do not ignore the prophetic voices and rouse from our slumber so that we can be reconciled with God.

 

notes

[1] Thomas Merton, introduction to Alfred Delp: Prison Writings, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004), XXXVIII.
[2] Ibid., 15.
[3] Lk 1.52–53
[4] Delp, Prison Writings, 17.
[5] Ibid., 8.
[6] Ibid., 23.
[7] Ibid., 27.
[8] Ibid., 33.
[9] Ibid., 48.
[10] Ibid., 50.
[11] Ibid., 88.


Nuccio is an independent researcher and writer who lives in the suburbs of Chicago. His writings address the relationship(s) between German identity and Christianity in early 20th century Germany and the life and work of Dorothy Day through ecumenical lenses. He works constructively on theologies of liberation, political theology, interreligious dialogue and work, and theologies of labor.


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