McMaken Responds

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This piece is a response by W. Travis McMaken to a series of replies to his book Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer.

McMaken is an Associate Professor of Religion at Lindenwood University. His previous work includes The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth.

My deepest thanks to the good folks at Theology Corner for producing this series of engagements with my work on Helmut Gollwitzer (Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer, hereafter OGLJ), and especially to the authors for devoting their time to me and Golli. It is my pleasure and honor to provide a series of responses to their reflections. Ultimately, I hope that these blog posts will convince folks to give Gollwitzer a first look (and a second, and third, and fourth, etc.). As I’ve said in other contexts, I remain firmly convinced that Golli still has much to teach those of us in the various white, North American, protestant traditions. 

Harken to Larkin

Larkin’s post endows me with perhaps the most meaningful compliment that I have ever received. As someone who is largely self-taught as a writer—although, I’ve had the incredible good fortune to be friends (as if that’s strong enough) with the best academic editor out there, and to have worked on two book projects with the second best—hearing that OGLJ is so “well written and presented” that she could give it to a high-school student is high praise, indeed. Her summary of the volume leaves little, if anything, to be desired.

It might be hard to identify where Larkin’s summary of OGLJ stops and her constructive riffing begins, but just watch for where the footnotes fall away. There’s a good paragraph and a bit more toward the very end where she modulates from my own ecclesiological reflections to provide some anthropological reflections of her own. She emphasizes that one’s being is both crucified and resurrected in the event of faith, and that this establishes a robust account of individual self-hood and responsibility. Furthermore, this selfhood and responsibility provides the foundation necessary to “resist and reject the oppressive and abusive patriarchal systems and status quo”—and I don’t think she would mind if we fleshed out her “patriarchal” with terms like imperialist, colonialist, racist, homophobic, etc.

The implied technical bridge between my ecclesiology and Larkin’s anthropology is something like David Congdon’s “soteriocentric theology of the creature as eccentric, unconscious, and unnatural” (The God Who Saves, 207).

 

Can anything good come out of Toronto?

Yes.

And not just because Dettloff’s post undertakes, in his own way, to produce a three-point apology for my conviction that Gollwitzer is worth hearing in the here and now of contemporary North America. But certainly also because of that.

As an aside, I appreciate Dettloff’s highlighting the notion of kairos, with which I began OGLJ and which I interpret in a largely Tillichian way. In fact, I still haven’t entirely forgiven my editor for convincing me to cut from the ms a long paragraph interpreting Tillich on this point.

What I appreciate most about Dettloff’s reflections, however, is how he situates Gollwitzer in such a way as to emphasize his radicality. Dettloff sharpens edges that are too easily blunted by situating Gollwitzer explicitly, even if in so brief a way, in the particulars of leftist history and politics. Whereas many might find it radical enough to speak simply of Gollwitzer’s anti-capitalism, the “Catholic communist in Toronto” accentuates Gollwitzer’s engagement with socialist movements in the global South, learning from Cone and black theology, and wrestling with the question of revolutionary violence.

I very much like Dettloff’s definition of socialism as “a necessary node in a network of struggles against intersecting oppressions,” and he is entirely correct that “reading Gollwitzer alone will not be enough to have a fully-fledged conversation about socialism in American churches” at least in part because his work is “still a product of his whiteness, maleness, and heteronormativity.” But like Dettloff, “I suspect if I would have found Gollwitzer sooner I would be further down the road than I am now in terms of socialist praxis.”

 

Massachusetts Milieu

Seriously, though: leave it to Scott to use a phrase like “Anglo-American milieu” in the third sentence of a blog post. After blogging with Scott for more than 4 years, and working with him as my right-hand man at DET (Die Evangelischen Theologen), I know what to expect, and I’ve come to greatly value his insight and feedback. He was around for most of the time that I was researching and writing OGLJ, he workshopped bits and pieces of it with me along the way, and he read and gave me feedback on the whole ms prior to publication. And amazingly enough, we met in person for the first time at AAR in Boston last Fall! For the sake of decorum, however, I will henceforth make use of his surname.  

Jackson’s reflections on OGLJ remain preoccupied with eschatology, and especially with the intersection of the eschatological and the historical, as they have been since he first read the ms. Indeed, perusing his postings at DET reveals that this particular intersection preoccupies him more broadly than just in conversation with OGLJ. Jackson is right to highlight the radical “eschatological reserve” operative in Gollwitzer’s thought, even while also suggesting that “there is a certain shape or at least a trajectory to the Christian life.” “Shape” doesn’t work for me because it carries—at least in my mind—all sorts of unpleasant baggage related to liturgico-sacramentalism in a postliberal vein (see ch. 5 in OGLJ). But “trajectories” might work better. It’s very similar to “direction and orientation” as used by Golli and Barth (see esp. OGLJ, 87).

To conclude his piece, however, Jackson transposes this line of thought into a christological key, working to integrate radical eschatological reserve with some sense of “trajectory.” He writes: “It might seem that the personal being and vocation of the Savior would form the natural loci for clarifying the connection between the transcendent God and the concrete demands of social justice. Building upon this account of Gollwitzer, might we depict Jesus is the one who embodies the kingdom of God not merely as dissolution of idolatries but also as self-giving love?” I’d like to essay an answer to this question by diverting to the topic of “revolution.” One way that I articulate the eschatological reserve that Jackson highlights is through language of “permanent revolution”—which I take from Golli, and which has other roots in Barth studies, and of course goes back as well to Trotsky and Marx (see OGLJ, 120). In the Western, liberal imaginary that many of us walk around with as a default setting, revolution is primarily a negative thing. It’s destructive. But part of breaking free of that imaginary means reevaluating our concepts of revolution. It means coming to realize that many good things have come from revolution, and could again come from it. Indeed, that for all their historical and potential horrors, their dangers and ambiguities, particular revolutions have—in fact—been instruments for the increase of justice and human flourishing.

If we think of the permanent revolution of the kingdom of God in this way, we must describe it as a permanent revolution of “self-giving love.” And for whatever it’s worth, it strikes me that this just about summarizes what the historians can tell us with any serious probability about the message preached by Josh from the village of Nazareth a couple of millenia ago.

Prodigal Podcaster

My first thought upon reading Stephen Waldron’s post was: “How is it that I haven’t yet been on the Theology and Socialism podcast?!”

My second thought upon reading Stephen Waldron’s post was: “David Tracy, George Lindbeck, George Hunsinger, and Chance the Rapper—all in one post? I’ve never seen that combination before!”

More seriously, though, I think that Waldron is spot on with his reflections on risk and honesty. With reference to risk, he writes: “People who choose involvement in both religion and politics almost inevitably make that kind of mistake sooner or later. Taking that risk, though, is one of the most Christian things that one can do.” To build on this, it seems to me that many times Christians (and professional theologians) can take the Christian life a bit too seriously, and so try to insulate themselves from risk. But I stand with Barth, who likewise stood with Zwingli, when in his reflections on discipleship he admonishes his readers: “For God’s sake do something brave” (CD 4.2, 540)! Christian life, theology, and political engagement are certainly serious things insofar as they involve the response of the believer to the event of encounter with God. But they are only ever fleeting shadows (Eccl. 1:2), all too inadequate creaturely messes no matter what we do. So get out there, sin boldly (as Luther supposedly said), and muck it up while trying to make the world reflect the true socialism of the kingdom of God even just a tiny bit more. For God’s sake, do something brave!

On the subject of honestly, Waldron notes: “If the Son of God was sent into the world to mingle with sinners and suffer at their hands, surely Christians who claim to talk about God can take on the risk of doing so publicly. Surely they can honestly disclose their political orientations and give up their pretenses to non-partisanship and objectivity. Surely they can tell the truth to and about their own churches as it is appropriate to do so.” I think we have to keep in mind that many professional Christians (as it were) are engaging in precisely this sort of disclosure. The problem (in my mind), is that it is primarily the sociopolitical conservatives that do so. Sociopolitical progressives do so as well, but there are many fewer of those (as far as I can tell). And this next bit is key—those in the middle tend not to do so. This might be because these leaders are themselves still befuddled by America’s original heresy (e.g., the spirituality of the church; see OGLJ, 83), or perhaps they have not yet figured out that ostensible neutrality in the context of oppression is actually support for the injustice of the status quo. Or perhaps it’s much more a matter of Realpolitik: they have people in their institutions who fall on both sides, or perhaps they find themselves in a context that is more conservative than they are, and they have children to feed, clothe, house, and educate. Love of one’s own is a hell of a drug.

Oh, I don’t have any solutions to any of this. I’m just riffing on Waldron’s piece. And I’m prepared to admit, with some of my forebears in the Pauline school, that I have a serious claim to being the chief of sinners (1 Tim 1:15) in this regard.

And so, perhaps, we all must hear—again and again—Zwingli (via Barth): For God’s sake, do something brave! 

 

I’m fresh out of playful headings. Mallory wants me to talk about christology.

Before getting into this section further, I’d like to say that I appreciate Mallory’s footnote #3: “Cf. McMaken’s helpful discussion of how Barth’s rejection of natural theology was an extension of the Reformation’s soteriology into the sphere of theological epistemology on page 55.” I wish this point was more widely appreciated, so I’m glad he highlighted it.

Jackson’s and Mallory’s posts pursue lines of inquiry that are similar in many ways. We return to the question of the relationship between the divine and the human (or creaturely), whether in terms of history and eschatology, historical Jesus and proclaimed Christ, etc. It’s the same basic question and dynamic, and—ultimately—it’s the basic question and dynamic at the heart of Christian faith. Mallory is therefore quite right to put it in fundamentally Chalcedonian terms, speaking of the “Wholly Other” (i.e., the divine) and the “Wholly Human.” How we understand the relationship between this dialectical pair will determine our theologies in decisive ways.

Now, I’m Protestant enough (well, actually, far more than merely Protestant enough) to think that conciliar decisions are only authoritative insofar as they provide explanatory power. The standard Protestant line is that they have to help us interpret (“explain”) scripture, but in dialectical theology we are much more concerned about adequately attesting (“explaining”) the event of faith. Does Chalcedon help us do that? Not if we get caught up in the conceptual world that Chalcedon assumes. But if we focus on the judgment Chalcedon makes, as opposed to the concepts it uses to express that judgment, we might get further.

I’ve tried to articulate this at some length in my essay, “Definitive, Defective or Deft? Reassessing Barth's Doctrine of Baptism in Church Dogmatics IV/4” (see esp. pp. 98–107), which in turn builds on the discussion in my book, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth (see esp. pp. 240–50). In short, I use the language of paradoxical identity to recast the judgments of Chalcedon in a dialectical theological key indexed to the event of faith. The payoff is to radicalize the relationship between the divine and the (creaturely, historical) by saying that one encounters the divine precisely as the human (creaturely, historical). They are identical; but only paradoxically so, and only in the event of faith.

This builds the “eschatological reserve” that Jackson talked about into the heart of christology. Even for someone like Barth, with his actualization of Chalcedonian categories (see esp. the excellent study by Darren Sumner, Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of God), Jesus’s divinity is not a characteristic but an occurrence: it is not only that God becomes human once and metaphysically for all, but God actually becomes human again and again, in each moment. And, critically, the only way that we ever have any inkling that this is the case is through the event of faith—it is not an objectified condition that is somehow generally accessible.

So at the end of the day, we have to say that dialectical theology affirms the inseparability (identity!) of Jesus’s humanity from the event of faith, and vice versa. However, we only affirm that inseparability because of the event, and that inseparability only exists in the event. Jesus’s humanity and God’s Thou-objectivity are paradoxically identical, and the paradox is such that it only resolves in the event itself (see my other essay, “Actualism, Dualism, and Onto-Relations: Interrogating Torrance’s Criticism of Barth’s Doctrine of Baptism,” esp. 23n75).

There, I think I’ve cited enough stuff to keep folks busy for a while. My work here is done.

Wait, sorry, I spoke too soon. Very briefly: affirming God’s nonobjectifiability describes the God encountered in the event of faith. I find entirely unmoving abstract concerns about whether or not something “limits” God. Daniel Pedersen’s discussion of necessity vis-à-vis God is excellent in this regard (see The Eternal Covenant: Schleiermacher on God and Natural Science, esp. chs. 5 & 6).

 

Finally (i.e., in conclusion)!

My response has grown far too long already, so I won’t belabor this point. I want to thank once again these lovely people who have taken the time to write about my book, and I hope that this at least somewhat lighthearted response adequately serves to carry on the conversations with Golli (and me) that they have begun. But most importantly, I want to thank them—and you, gentle readers—for taking an interest in Gollwitzer. I hope that interest will continue to grow. And I’m always happy to provide advice on how to get to know his work better.

“Wholly Other” and “Wholly Human”? On Helmut Gollwitzer and Theopolitical Imagination

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This piece is part of a series of responses to the book Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer by W. Travis McMaken. We will be posting five responses to the book as part of this series. Our fifth contribution is from Mitchell Mallary.

Mitchell Mallary is a doctoral student at the University of St Andrews-Logos Institute.

Without sacrificing academic rigor, W. Travis McMaken has accomplished an admirable feat: providing a clear and accessible account of Helmut Gollwitzer’s life, theology, and politics for the broader North American context. The timeliness of this volume cannot be understated. To borrow Gollwitzer’s own words, “these times of great distress”[1] demand nothing short of the disruptive and unsettling word of grace that crucifies, rather than baptizes, the status quo. If placed in the right hands, Our God Loves Justice will have the capacity to serve as a prophetic witness to the eschatological vision that this word of grace demands: “the true socialism of the kingdom of God.”[2]

In lieu of a summary, this will be a critical (but nevertheless appreciative) response of sorts to the vision of Gollwitzer’s political theology, which, if interrogated further, would almost certainly have implications for his theological politics as well. To this task we now turn.

Swimming within the broad currents of dialectical theology—somewhere, according to McMaken, between Barth and Bultmann—Gollwitzer endeavors to draw upon the key insight of dialectical theology and explore its theopolitical consequences: the “nonobjectifiability” of God.

Here we find ourselves in pleasant company. Attempts to objectify God—by which I mean attempts to think of God as one “generally-accessible” entity amongst others that may and must be known according to the “generally agreed upon” lines of reasoning that are supposedly “readily-available” to all—lead us along the idolatrous path of natural theology.

Statements about God that derive from “general truths”—be they the “necessary truths of reason” or the “contingent truths of history”—are not, theologically speaking, statements about the God revealed in hiddenness in Jesus Christ. They amount to nothing more than projectionism on the one hand, or the humanization of God on the other. In the former, “God” becomes either the opposite of the creature through negation (e.g., immutable, impassible, eternal), the greatest creature through perfection (e.g., omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent), or the first creature through causation (e.g., the “Prime Mover”). This god of philosophy—and that is not an uncharitable characterization—could not be further from the one nailed to a cross.

In the latter, however, “God” becomes reducible to and straightforwardly identified with historical phenomena in the past. And while this approach sounds much more pious and veers much closer to the theological vision of the biblical witnesses, the straightforward identification of God with Jesus of Nazareth collapses divinity into humanity in such a way that could, if one were working within the Christological confines of patristic orthodoxy, rightly be labeled as either Monophysite, Ebionite, or methodologically Arian. The “quest for the historical Jesus,” and whatever results it is able to produce given the nature of the available evidence, will not stumble across “revelation” or the Christian God through historical inquiry alone. To echo Barth, if the creature is saved by grace alone, apart from the works of the law, then so too must the creature come to knowledge of God by grace alone, apart from the works of reason or the results of history.[3]

What then is the alternative? Gollwitzer appeals to the “Wholly Otherness” of God as the antidote to all attempts to objectify God on the basis of “general truths.”⁠ This has a destabilizing effect on all theology, for God and God’s revelation are now incapable of becoming a creaturely possession that can be concretized and universalized into a system.

The political ramifications, McMaken notes, are numerous. If God is incapable of being objectified, then so too must God’s will no longer be objectified by identifying it with any concrete human culture. Neither nature, history, culture, nor the state, in other words, can lay claim to be the manifestation of God and God’s will. For those with eyes to see, the relevance of this insight is as important today as it was in 1930s Germany.

Our encounter with this nonobjectifiable God is, for Gollwitzer, the basis upon which our theological politics must be shaped. Put simply, yet poignantly, “the wholly other God wants a wholly other society.”[4] The hegemonic forces of history—the imperial and economic powers that dominate and oppress the “crucifiable” and marginalized members of society—must be named, exposed, and, if necessary, revolutionarily overthrown in the name of God’s distributive justice. Our present economics must, in other words, reject the social Darwinism of capitalism and instead approximate as closely as possible to the “absolute socialism” of the eschatological kingdom of God.[5] I take all of this to be, in light of the gospel, self-authenticating truths. So far, so good.

The question I would like to pose to Gollwitzer—via McMaken—is whether or not the nonobjectifiable God has the capacity to self-objectify apart from our encounter with God in the event of faith. Put differently, does dialectical theology leave room for the later Barth’s Christology wherein the “Wholly Other” God has become “Wholly Human”? While recognizing the dead-end of historical Jesus scholarship for the purposes of theology, does the actual lived-existence of Jesus of Nazareth, as testified to in the biblical witnesses and the proclamation of the church, have a decisive and determinative function within the “Thou-objectivity” of God? Does the domain of dialectical theology extend wide enough to permit discourse about the self-objectification of God through what is commonly identified as the incarnation?

For all of my sympathies with the broader tradition of dialectical theology—including its theological epistemology, its rejection of natural theology, and its emphasis on the inseparability of God’s being from God’s act—I sometimes get the sense (likely based upon my ignorance) that a system has been constructed around the nonobjectifiability of God that sets limits upon the God who loves in freedom by precluding the possibility of divine self-objectification in the first-century Jew from Nazareth. In other words, granting the notion that dialectical theology’s “concept of God’s otherness [derives] not from a presupposed ontology but from a presupposed soteriology,”[6] is it nevertheless possible that the nonobjectifiability principle can itself begin to function as an instance of natural theology that rejects the “objective reality” of divine self-disclosure (viz. Jesus of Nazareth) in favor of the “subjective reality” (viz. the event of faith)?

Again, this likely comes from a place of (Barthian?) ignorance, rather than from genuine understanding. Be that as it may, it is at least worth mentioning at this point how common it is that, as soon as we begin the necessary task of articulating the theological politics that derive from our encounter with the God who saves, we end up appealing to the life, teachings, and death of a figure who actually lived in the past. And though we may of course exemplify the necessary caution of not identifying the “form” (the humanity of Jesus) in and through which revelation occurs with the “content” of revelation itself, avoiding an epistemological manifestation of Nestorianism (if that is something that one would want to avoid) would require that we say, at the same time, that revelation itself is indeed inseparable from the form in and through which it occurs.

Humanity, one might therefore reasonably conclude—and Jesus’ humanity to be specific—may be decisive and determinative for the “Thou-objectivity” of God. If that is indeed the case, what theopolitical implications would arise from the fact that the God we encounter in the event of faith is none other than the God who was in Jesus, the Jewish messiah, reconciling the world to Godself? Politically speaking, what nuances—if any—would be entailed in our attempt to approximate toward the “absolute socialism” of the eschatological kingdom of God with this Christological vision in mind that are not demanded by Gollwitzer’s own political theology? Or, perhaps, does Gollwitzer’s theological politics already presuppose that God has indeed self-objectified in Christ, even if his political theology does not make that explicit? Or, finally, have I misunderstood the nature of Gollwitzer’s dialectical theology vis-à-vis Christology entirely?

Whatever the case may be—and I’m sure I’ve unknowingly entered into the Princeton “Barth Wars” in the course of this response—I would like to end this brief discussion by summoning the readers of this online symposium (and privileged readers in the West in particular) to pick up a copy of this profoundly relevant book. It is not an overstatement to suggest that the life, theology, and politics of Helmut Gollwitzer are desperately needed in “these times of great distress.” McMaken has done the church and the broader English-speaking world a great service in bringing both visibility and accessibility to Gollwitzer’s work. And for that, we must be deeply appreciative.

[1] Quoted on page 36.

[2] Quoted on page 50.

[3] Cf. McMaken’s helpful discussion of how Barth’s rejection of natural theology was an extension of the Reformation’s soteriology into the sphere of theological epistemology on page 55.

[4] Quoted on 93.

[5] Quoted on 121.

[6] David Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing, 327.

Doing Theology in Public

Doing Theology in Public

Rather than coddling his hearers in a November 16, 1938 sermon in Berlin, he told them what they needed to hear in the days following the barbarity of the Kristallnacht pogroms: “God is disgusted at the very sight of you.” We might say that Gollwitzer was doing theology “in and for the church,” but he certainly had a unique approach to doing so.

Helmut Gollwitzer, Marxism, and the Transcendence of God

This piece is part of a series of responses to the book Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer by W. Travis McMaken. We will be posting five responses to the book as part of this series. Our third contribution is from J. Scott Jackson.

J. Scott Jackson is an independent scholar and theologian who lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. He blogs at DET (http://derevth.blogspot.com).

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What is the kingdom of God and how might it relate to struggles for social, economic, and political justice today? The life and thought of Helmut Gollwitzer, the 20th century German pastor and academic theologian, offer fertile ground for exploring these questions. Unfortunately, Gollwitzer’s work is woefully neglected today in the Anglo-American milieu, despite his proximity to such pivotal thinkers as Barth and Buber and his immersion in such key theology and political ethics as the debate between socialism and capitalism, the rise of liberation theologies, and the antinuclear movement.  W. Travis McMaken’s masterful study of Gollwitzer’s life and thought -- Our God Loves Justice -- covers much ground in beginning to remedy this neglect. In addition to situating the German thinker in his own contexts, McMaken draws Gollwitzer into conversation with such recent progressive movements as the rise of U.S. politicians who claim the mantle of democratic socialism as well as such anarchic stirrings as the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements. From his work in the 1930s with the German church resistance to his solidarity with student protests in the 1960s, the Gollwitzer that this book portrays cuts an impressive and sympathetic figure for those (like me) who seek to integrate traditional theology and liberating praxis. In this post I focus more on the “theology proper” side of that equation, never forgetting McMaken’s admonition: Even the most abstract theological claims are ever contextually embedded, and thus inherently political.

From his initiation in Münster as Barth’s student (later, assistant) to his retirement in Berlin in 1975,  Gollwitzer remained an eschatological theologian, whose life and work embodied the already/not-yet character of faith and discipleship. On first blush, the not-yet pole of this dialectic might seem to predominate. This makes since in light of his intellectual biography and the existential and socio-political crises that forged it from the rise of National Socialism on into the Cold War. Gollwitzer’s theology meshes with a life-perspective that acknowledges dislocation and painful change as the rule of life rather than the exception. Thus, he affirms the radical transcendence of the God who remains totaliter aliter even in revelation and salvation, who encounters the human believer in the darkness of faith, who bids disciples to embrace a future riddled with uncertainties. He spurns any static theological ontology -- the God of Israel and Jesus Christ can never becomes a common feature of nature or experience to be taken for granted, or rendered controllable by objectifying concepts. Yet Gollwitzer, if I may put it this way, never takes dialectical theology itself undialectically; naked transcendence is not the whole story, and this fact bespeaks his debt to Martin Luther -- as mediated, especially through Barth and somewhat secondarily (as McMaken develops especially in his footnotes) Bultmann. To draw upon on Barthian terminology here, God is free only and always in God’s love toward God’s creatures. This One becomes real to us in the shattering density of an I-Thou encounter (Gollwitzer draws upon Buber on this point.) But, crucially, he takes a step all too often neglected in academic theology: He makes the leap to praxis. He engages -- better, perhaps, he plunders Marxist categories to unmask the exploitation of surplus value of labor that drives the technocratic and dehumanizing force of  capitalism. He respects and engages James H. Cone’s black power theology before that becomes a cool thing for white Christian intellectuals to do. He joins in solidarity with student protests. In sum, he shows how a right apprehension of the uncontrollable God issues in a transgressive, revolutionary praxis in pursuit of justice, peace, and equality for all.

McMaken’s section on Gollwitzer’s eschatology (see pp. 115-120) is concise -- all to brief, in my view; it left me with questions, to which I return below. But for its brevity, this section is not inconsequential but rather crystalizes the overall argument of the book, showing how Gollwitzer bridges theological claims and practical commitments. The set-up for this part of his argument is Gollwitzer’s critical and constructive engagement with Marxist theory. (McMaken has told me he presents Marx as a Protestant theologian to his students at Lindenwood University; now I think I understand a little better what he means by that.) At the tail end of the eschatology section is an apologia, controversial in his day as in ours, for democratic socialism as the normative shape for authentic discipleship in the socio-political sphere. But just what is socialism anyway? No need to dig out your Heilbrunner text from Economics 101. Gollwitzer’s definition is fairly broad but straightforward, and McMaken lays it out: “a socialist is someone who ‘maintains that a better society than the current one is possible and necessary’” (p. 105). Such a statement, on the first pass, might strike one as both a bit hoary and wistful but, as the rest of the book makes clear, Gollwitzer is anything but vague about what it means in practice -- that is to say, the true Christian is never satisfied that any program, any law, any polity has sufficiently captured or realized human progress; the true believer, driven by God’s insatiable love for justice, remains sharply critical of the powers that be and profoundly hopeful, even in those desperate wee hours of the morning when the garden-variety bourgeois “progressive” succumbs to a morass of self-pitying and self-flagellating cynicism.

Perhaps more than some of Marx’s “orthodox” and doctrinaire followers, Gollwitzer apparently took seriously the master’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach -- that authentic philosophy aims to change the world -- retooling its wisdom in a Protestant theological key -- Eschatological theology is not naked theory: It is a fighting doctrine. Moreover, as a corrective to any reductively social constructivist rendering of human life in community, he reiterates the claim, found throughout the Synoptic Gospels that true religion is a matter of the heart. The socialist path he envisions entails a life-long metanoia, a process of conversion in which believers renounce all privilege and pretence and embrace solidarity with the oppressed. Unlike a truncated vision of charity, good intentions are not enough; the concomitant gesture is to work tirelessly to dismantle the systemic structures that created such the disparities of privilege and want in the first place. “[D]emocratic socialism,” McMaken explains, “embodies in concrete social structures the gospel’s priorities of justice and peace aimed at love -- in this case, a concrete political love” (pp. 115-116).

A theological question arises: How does this concrete socialism program relate to the transcendent kingdom of God? The first movement is decisively negative, disruptive, and deconstructive: Perception of the kingdom mobilizes liberation and justice movements by standing against not only existing structures of domination and inequality but also against all ideologized programs that would seek to remedy this imbalance without challenging the underlying logic of oppression. McMaken revisits Gollwtizer’s (sometimes surprising) critique of Marxist utopianism. The dialectical theologian affirms and uses the categories of economic analysis, so useful for pinpointing the ills of capitalism and technocracy, while rejecting anything that smacks of a totalizing worldview or an oppressive ideology, as he experienced it in Soviet Marxism. He partakes in the trend of some Cold War-era theological ethicists (i.e., Reinhold Niebuhr) to characterize Eastern-style statist Marxism as pseudo-theology, religious fanaticism of the worst and most deadly sort. Marx and Engels famously built upon Ludwig Feuerbach’s depiction of religion as a projection of unrealized human aspirations onto the canvas of a transcendent Other; Gollwitzer, it would seem, turns this Feuerbachian critique of religion back upon certain interpretations of Marxism themselves. The key problem is a truncated vision of the end of human life: “Marxism’s hope for the future is a hope without the transcendent” (p. 117). McMaken writes:

Marxism as a substitute-religion can be a powerful source of meaning, especially for those who are alive enough in their suffering, or to the suffering of their neighbors, to see its source in capitalist structures that have been and are legitimized by religious--and specifically, Christian -- institutions. But when compared with true Christianity, rather than with this counterfeit Christianity, Marxism as a substitute religion possesses a serious handicap: Christian hope is “much more radical and all embracing” (pp. 116-117).

In place of the God who love who loves justice and acts decisively to bring it about, the Marxist true believer is left with the cold comfort of a “secularized eschatology.” What is the consequence?

Human beings are left alone in their revolutionary struggle for liberation, and the only validation of meaning left to them is the progress of their struggle. But progress cannot bear this burden; the utopian dawn recedes doggedly into the future, the horizon darkens, and a resigned nihilism descends (p. 117).

Assessing these criticisms would take me too far afield. Suffice it to stress that Gollwitzer was deeply engaged with Marxist theory from his years in a Russian camp onward; as he would eventually recant his embrace of reformist capitalism, as McMaken shows, Gollwitzer would make more and more use of Marxist categories, but always with some critical reserve.

The thinness of Marxist accounts is especially apparent in a truncated anthropology that shortchanges individual dignity and agency; human beings become mere means to a greater social end. McMaken writes: “The solution to this quandary, then, is to understand humanity as directed outside of itself by way of a transcendence that disrupts the earthly-historical horizon” (p. 118). Given the eschatological character of God’s being in revelation, all human distinctions and programs, root and branch, are relativized and set aside. In turn, the divine revelation that dissolves all human idolatries gives them a new, positive basis.  “God’s Thou-objectivity remains always nonobjectifiable so that history is opened to a surplus of meaning, and creaturely life is imbued with a surplus of value as an end in itself” (ibid.)

This dialectical perspective, though, raises the question of how a transcendent God can be said to relate meaningfully to human history. Can the Wholly Other God seen in the mirror darkly truly mobilize efforts toward progressive social change? Why wouldn’t the proper response to such a God rather take the form of a detached and quietistic mysticism? If all cats are gray in an electoral process, how do we discern which ones win our votes? I think one way forward might be to retrieve a Pauline emphasis on a space for the new creation that is opened up by the transvaluation of all values that is the gospel. There might be no program, method, or party that can infallibly resolve the quandaries of life, but there is a certain shape or at least a trajectory to the Christian life. The Kingdom life, in dissolving all idolatries and reified systems, serves as “the form of life that God wills for God’s creatures” (ibid).

A properly eschatological reserve helps prevent the reduction of the kingdom to any finite vision of human flourishing. Gollwitzer offers a helpful typology. First, “absolute utopia” names the Christian hope in the transcendent kingdom. This utopia is “true socialism,” God’s ultimate vision for the shape of life on earth; it can never be fully realized in practice nor through human agency. Second, “relative utopia” pertains to an ideal vision of society that informs worldly practice; this form of socialism forms a finite analogue to absolute utopia. The third sort of utopia consists in a “social revolutionary program” -- the specific, strategic, and communally negotiated process of discerning the best proposals for promoting justice and human flourishing.

One might argue that this dialectical political theology is only fortuitously related to classical Christianity and its traditional doctrines and practices; I don’t think that has to be so. No mere abstract categorical imperative, the kingdom of God is, first of all, the content of the kergyma that animated primitive Christianity. McMaken writes: “It is the life of love with God and neighbor that Jesus proclaimed and embodied, which includes both a repairing of human failings and an affirmation of the value of creaturely life” (p. 118). Still, McMaken’s exposition here raises, for me, further christological questions: It might seem that the personal being and vocation of the Savior would form the natural loci for clarifying the connection between the transcendent God and the concrete demands of social justice. Building upon this account of Gollwitzer, might we depict Jesus is the one who embodies the kingdom of God not merely as dissolution of idolatries but also as self-giving love? Might we see the Son of God, enfleshed in our own common history, as the unique and unrepeatable embodiment of the transcendent Thou in our midst? Might there be resources in Gollwitzer for making this further step, whether he himself does so or not? I don’t know. At any rate, in his preface, McMaken throws down this gauntlet: If his book persuades even one person to engage Gollwitzer seriously, he efforts will have been be a success. His book as a whole makes a compelling case that at least some of us should make that effort.

[The top image was used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 License, was taken by Stiftung Haus der Geschichte , and is available at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALudwig_Binder_Haus_der_Geschichte_Studentenrevolte_1968_2001_03_0275.4240_(16900018369).jpg]

Helmut Gollwitzer: Justification and Resistance to Oppression

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This piece is part of a series of responses to the book Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer by W. Travis McMaken. We will be posting five responses to the book as part of this series. Our first contribution is from Rev. Lauren R. E. Larkin.

Rev. Lauren R. E. Larkin is a priest in The Episcopal Church and a Teaching Chaplain at an Episcopal high school. She regularly contributes to theological blogs: Key Life and LaurenRELarkin.com. She is the host of the podcast Sancta Colloquia. She tweets:@laurenrelarkin.

W. Travis McMaken’s book Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer is a superb engagement of both the life and works of Helmut Gollwitzer. From the first page to the last, McMaken takes his reader by the hand and guides her into a robust relationship and encounter with this rather unknown early 20th century German Protestant theologian—by the close of the book, Gollwitzer is a dear friend and most valuable teacher. Throughout, McMaken exposes not only his ability to achieve the high standards needed for good academic research and presentation, but also that he’s truly a teacher at heart. His ability to communicate both the details of Gollwitzer’s life and the complicated intricacies of his theological conceptions do not place a demand on the reader for her to have previous theological degrees or engagement with many of his peers. As someone who teaches religion and theology at the high-school level, I could hand this book to a student without needing to subsequently monitor the student’s engagement with the text—it’s that well written and presented. Anyone can take up and read Our God Loves Justice, and you should.

Let’s turn to the book. It is comprised of five chapters plus two appendices. McMaken initiates the conversation about Gollwitzer in chapter one by articulating the desperate need for Gollwitzer’s work for the world today, specifically in the current American political context (crisis?): “The true being of the church occurs as it responds in faithful obedience to its encounter with God’s Thou-objectivity, which necessarily includes renunciation of its privilege and political advocacy on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed.”[1] No small challenge to a church that repeatedly and historically, in America, has sided with wealth and privilege. Frankly, you’d have to be in complete denial about that fact not to agree with him by chapter’s end.

In chapter two, McMaken introduces the reader to the life of Gollwitzer. The account of Gollwitzer’s life is a moving tribute to a life well lived. Recounting Gollwitzer’s death due to falling down the stairs, McMaken explains, "that Gollwitzer survived what he did only to die in such a mundane way is perhaps the greatest possible testament not only to his strength and character, but also the grace of God that characterizes his life—grace upon grace.”[2] Gollwitzer didn’t just articulate theological concepts; he lived what he preached. The exhortation to do likewise is palpable.

In chapters three and four, the reader is introduced to Gollwitzer’s political theology and theological politics (respectively). What’s driven home for her is that the two work together, each unavoidably informing the other. Dialectical theology’s commitment is to God’s non-objectifiability and the event-encounter with God, and, as McMaken explains, theological statements arise from this event-encounter and are contextual: “particular people in particular sociohistorical locations” are making these statements.[3] Thus, in a way, chapters three and four build on the conclusion developed in chapter two. But rather than just acknowledging that Gollwitzer’s life was itself “The Way To Life,”[4] the reader is invited to bring herself to the same conclusion: there is no such thing as a theology that doesn’t impact activity, thus, her theology must (and does) inform her activity, specifically her activity in the world socially and politically.  The lie that she as a Christian can exist nonpolitically in the world is completely dismantled and put to rest (Amen!).

“Theological commitment to the true socialism of the kingdom of God and engagement with socialist analysis of capitalist social structures, which are antithetical to that kingdom, coalesce in Gollwitzer’s thought to make the fundamental point that Christians must take sides on political issues, and they must take the side of the oppressed...”[5]

To entertain any notion that her Christian existence and her social-political existence are two different things, forever to be separated, is to support and uphold oppressive systems in their activity of oppression; for the Christian, this is anathema!

Chapter five, “Church and Confession,” is where you get both the biographer and the constructive theologian; McMaken’s voice pairs with Gollwitzer’s, and together they exhort the reader to re-imagine church and Christian life. McMaken makes explicit what has been implicit in Gollwitzer’s concepts articulated thus far: a doctrine of the church. As he explains in the introductory portion to the chapter, “Gollwitzer’s doctrine of the church stands opposed to the contemporary nostalgia for Christendom that one so often finds in treatments of that doctrine.”[6] Christendom has “domesticated”[7] the church. Rarely (if ever!) can or will a domesticated church speak up against the prevailing ills of society causing rampant oppression and marginalization. This is true because the church: 1. can’t see the ills inherent in the system because it exists in an ideological echo-chamber of privilege within the system, and 2. if it spoke out against these ills, the church would be biting the hand that feeds it because it benefits from the system. Thus, the church is rendered useless: “A church that merely exists as a community in the world, held together by the same dynamics and relationships that hold together the Rotary Club or the Daughters of the American Revolution, is a church in name only.” [8] Rather, the church should be a help to the world and not complicit in sustaining systemic problems, thus also a danger. Quoting McMaken,

“What overcomes this ecclesiastical banality is encounter with the church’s resurrected Lord, with ‘the Easter story [that] broken into our world, bringing with it a power, a world-overcoming revolution, which makes everything different in our life, which forces the church into a totally different direction.’…Gollwitzer’s ecclesiology calls for a dangerous church because a church that is not dangerous is not help at all.”[9]

The “event of encounter with God’s Thou-objectivity” is the epicenter for the formation of the church.[10] It is this event-encounter that constitutes the fabric of the church and its being in the world. McMaken pulls together the three chords of God-talk explicated in the previous chapters: God’s non-objectifiability, thus theology is contextual, thus political. And he wraps those chords around the church: “…the church cannot be objectified; therefore, the church is contextual; therefore, the church is political.”[11] Thus establishing the church as “event” and that the church “…does not exist so much as it occurs.”[12] The church is event and as it is faithful to that event-encounter with God, demands that the church is free to contend with whatever society in which it finds itself located.[13] This means that the church should look different from era to era because it will provide answers that are contextually relevant to the questions being asked. And if not providing answers, then it is the church’s duty to call into question practices of systemic injustice within the society. Thus, the church is political.

"This concept of ‘the attack of God’ depicts God as the revolutionary par excellence, attacking all sinful privilege structures at the personal, interpersonal and sociopolitical levels. This is the revolutionary God whom Christians encounter in the event of faith and who calls them to a new form of life together that is caught up in ‘the attack of the kingdom of God, launched against evil, godless life, both in the life of the individual and, because it is a social life, in society.’”[14]

A discussion of the person in the event-encounter with God must accompany a discussion of the church as event. It is important to stress that Christians, in the encounter with God’s Thou-objectivity in the event of faith, are brought to death and made new by the word of God. The church is comprised of such people who participate (receptively and actively) in the activity of the church as these new selves. Fault is found with how evangelicalism and the Church typically defines this new life in Christ by over emphasizing the death to self and forgetting to place proper and equal emphasis on the new self. The imbalance creates scenarios where the Christian is thus defined by the church and its authority rather than the creative word of God. I’m not a vacuous shell roaming about as a non-self; I’m a substantial being that can stand on two feet as a result of my event-encounter with God who can act freely, reasonably, and responsibly in the world as she sees need in the world (contextually). This correction is important: for far too long Christendom and the Church (specifically in the west) have used “death to self” as a means to maintain the status-quo, the oppressive and abusive systems of the patriarchy, to keep people in a specific place and usually in terms of being controlled by the whims of the privileged (powerful, rich, elite). 

Placing a healthy emphasis on the receipt of self in the social event of justification, we find that because we can stand on two feet and stand together we can also resist and reject the oppressive and abusive patriarchal systems and the status quo: for others and thus for ourselves (and for ourselves thus for others). Resistance and rejection of abusive and oppressive patriarchal systems are very Christian responses and rolling over and playing dead in the face of such systems is anything but. Christians are political.

Being disciples of Christ necessitates loss of self, but it also necessitates receipt of self (wholly dependent on God). This is how we are to be the active and participating disciples of Christ in the world, people who pick up and bear the beautiful burden of loving people in like manner of Christ: being ready to “step into the open,” being willing and ready to fight for equality and justice for all people, being a voice for those who have no voice, being people who can withstand conflict to confront and dismantle oppressive and abusive systems, faithful “…to the God encountered in the event of faith.”[15] Simply put: To be the people who have really heard the call of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.[16]

 

[1] W. Travis McMaken, Our God Loves Justice: an introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017. 16.

[2] Ibid, 48.

[3] Ibid, 95.

[4] A reference to Helmut Gollwitzer’s book of sermons, The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis. T&T Clark, 1981.

[5] Ibid, 110.

[6] Ibid, 149.

[7] Ibid, 151.

[8] Ibid, 150.

[9] Ibid, 150-1.

[10] Ibid, 155.

[11] Ibid, 156.

[12] Ibid, 158.

[13] Ibid, 160.

[14] Ibid, 162. Fn31 (Gollwitzer Protestant Theology 151 quoted in McMaken) .

[15] Ibid, 166.

[16] Ibid, 146. “Christians have, by and large, sided with the status quo, But the gospel’s call to repentant conversion—to metanoia—‘reaches into the politico-social dimension,’ and ‘as long as we shrink from revolutionizing [that dimension], we have not really heard’ the gospel’s call. That is, we have not encountered the God who loves justice, and who is consequently served through the pursuit of political love.” (Gollwitzer quoted in McMaken).

Christianity, Socialism, Party, and Orthodoxy

In a recent piece, Richard Allen responded to the manifesto of the revived organization Christians for Socialism (CfS). The return of CfS is an exciting sign of the times. I’ve signed up for their email list and may even start a local chapter.

Allen is also thrilled to see the emergence of a 21st century version of CfS. (The original CfS started in 1971 in Chile.) He is particularly favorable toward the claim that CfS is “neither church nor party.” So am I.

But, following Italian Autonomist thinking, he takes that claim in a direction that I believe will be fruitless. Allen disputes the goodness and necessity of both the political party and theological orthodoxy.

I will readily admit that all four entities in the title of this piece (Christianity, socialism, party, and orthodoxy) have been horribly misused countless times. Despite those realities, I also find that all four entities are worthy of both heartfelt belief and dedicated work.

In what follows, I argue that Christianity without orthodoxy and socialism without a party are not quite worthy of our time and energy. Neither Christianity without orthodoxy nor socialism without a party are fully able to offer people the most significant things that Christianity and socialism should respectively be able to offer: salvation and liberation.

(Of course, salvation and liberation are, as Gustavo Gutiérrez has pointed out, inseparable, though I would say they can be distinguished from one another. The material and the spiritual are like human action and divine action in that they are utterly intertwined with one another but also not the exact same thing.)

 

Not a church or a party

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Let’s start where I agree with both the CfS Manifesto and Allen’s response.

CfS absolutely should not be a church. It may seek to transform churches, but the church is a community of people who have been called out of the world who nevertheless have not left the world. It is a group of Zealots who have met Jesus, tax collectors (collaborators with imperialism!) who have met Jesus, prostitutes who have met Jesus, Canaanite women who have met Jesus, etc.

The church is church solely because of the presence of Jesus through the Holy Spirit. I believe that that can and does mean that, insofar is Jesus is truly present, people will be inclined toward human liberation. I also believe that there’s a fine line between being a prophetic voice for justice and being an insufferable asshole.

A church consisting only of one political perspective or oriented only toward the political realm won’t be the body of Christ. Salvation, as Gutiérrez says, is not only social and political. It is also personal, spiritual, and psychological. The church must not forget that it needs to offer the inner salvation that comes from God even to ideologically reactionary sinners (while taking care not to separate that inner salvation from material liberation, a difficult balance).

So CfS cannot be a church.

Nor can it be a party, though. After the history of Christian support for fascism (in Germany, Italy, Austria, France, Spain, Portugal, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, Finland, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay--to name just the greatest hits), there should be nothing more frightening than a group made up only of Christians trying to seize political power.

And yet, that’s what a party should do. Political parties exist to seize power and enact their vision of what society should be like.

But the problem isn’t simply that Christians doing politics as a group of Christians will inevitably be fascist, since they won’t always. The problem is that a Christian political party runs counter to the deepest ideals of both socialism and Christianity. I address that in the next section.

Churches certainly have much to learn from political groups about the social and political dimensions of salvation. Political groups have much to learn from churches about inner liberation. But there are good reasons that they are separate institutions.

There are also good reasons for not creating churches only filled with socialists or political parties with only Christians as members. CfS is rightly seeking to be a third kind of thing.

 

Fight for your right to join a party

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Allen takes the CfS Manifesto’s disclaimer that CfS is not a political party beyond the Manifesto itself to question the very notion of a unified party. Following Italian Autonomist thinking, he claims that “What makes a political movement viable is its almost rabid defense of difference.”

Political parties as an institutional form, Allen argues, are shaped by capitalist ideology to such an extent that they “are not capable of actualizing liberation.”

Against this, I believe that the party form is essential for material liberation at this point in history. In the context of Christian socialism, I also find that there are specifically Christian reasons to join a party or similar political organization as part of one’s work for human liberation.

Political parties are not intrinsically holy or morally pure. They are not dropped down from heaven like the New Jerusalem, fully formed and well-stocked with precious stones.

They are, however, utterly necessary in a world shaped by power. Our world is dominated by the evil powers mentioned by St. Paul, which take on modern guises such as capitalism and hunger, patriarchy and gendercide, imperialism and racism. This list could obviously be much longer.

Against these powers, we should not fight simply with the weapons of this world. Much like St. Paul, though, we (in North America, at least) don’t even have that option. The poor and oppressed of our societies couldn’t defeat the ruling powers with conventional weapons even if that was the plan.

Nevertheless, we can exercise power as we fight for human liberation. That power means solidarity, mutual aid, strikes, worker-controlled economic structures, and ideological liberation. It means the sorts of things that groups like labor unions can do. But it eventually means something like the party form.

Actual, material solidarity in our world almost inevitably requires a political party. Attempts to achieve liberation without a broad network and coherent organization will be relatively powerless in the face of the overwhelming forces imposing hierarchical structures on our societies.

Joining a party is also a helpful spiritual exercise for Christians. As the CfS Manifesto points out, Christian privilege is a reality in many societies (in most of the Americas and Europe). From the perspective of Christian doctrine, that privilege is something to give up.

Christians are, in theory at least, imitators of Jesus, who gave up his position and dwelt among those of us who were nothing like him. If a divine being can carry that out to the point of death, it is a relatively small sacrifice for Christians to submit to the practice of organizing with people from other religious or non-religious perspectives.

If we are to be considering the interests of others above our own, there are few better ways of doing that than joining a party composed mostly of people who aren’t Christians, joining with others in fighting for the liberation of everyone.

Jesus told his followers to do just that, to be salt mixed into the world for its flavoring and benefit. He talked about a kingdom of God that is like a tree that provides shelter to all. So Christians must be willing to organize with others, even in a form as imperfect and impure as the political party.

 

Toeing the churchly line

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Toward the end of his response, Allen takes an sudden turn. He asserts that “heterodoxy is more viable politically than orthodoxy.” He considers “the expansive possibility of thought” to be something that is only possible in a context of heterodoxy rather than orthodoxy.

That, I think, is mistaken. To say why, we have to define orthodoxy. As I understand it, Christian orthodoxy does not involve ethical issues. I, like most Christians, disagree with many historically-dominant ethical teachings in the Christian tradition, such as the acceptance of slavery.

Orthodoxy, as I understand it, means belief in the basic doctrines outlined in the primary creeds of the ancient church, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.

Is it politically unhelpful to believe that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate? I actually find it extremely politically relevant that the most truly holy person was unjustly arrested by the police, tortured by an occupying army, and executed at the hands of European colonizers.

I find it remarkable that this person, of all people, was considered worthy of being resurrected and seated at God’s right hand. It’s almost too perfect that a victim of imperialism and unjust policing has been appointed to judge the living and the dead.

There’s the thought that there is a communion of saints, of imitators of that resurrected person, who are also raised to life forever: Óscar Romero! Fannie Lou Hamer! Sitting at the right hand of God the almighty from which justice will come!

There’s the promise of the resurrection of the body. The body, beaten under the reign of the evil powers of this world, beaten by racism, by poverty, by patriarchy. The queer body, the black body, the Muslim body, raised and brought to the fullness of life, free from material oppression. Is that politically viable?

And the Spirit, the one who haunts our world with the spectre of life, the one poured out upon sons and daughters alike. That Spirit is fully the Lord and the giver of life. That Spirit is the one who spoke by the prophets when they raised their voices against the collectors of ivory couches, against those who crush the poor.

Is every line in the creeds reducible to a political meaning? Of course not, and no one would expect that. At some level, orthodoxy is simply a question of theological truth or falsehood. But one cannot deny that those doctrines, which lend themselves to endlessly creative thought, have shown the potential to inspire movements toward human liberation among people who believe in a God who has brought and is bringing salvation.

 

Conclusion

Is liberation possible without a party? Probably not. Is salvation available without orthodoxy? Yes, one might make enough qualifications to fill a book, but yes.

But while one could strive toward liberation outside a party, that seems unnecessary. And while one could think Christianly without orthodoxy, it appears to be at the cost of no longer speaking a deeply persuasive language.

Whatever the problems with parties and orthodoxy (especially when used in the service of claims to authority and hierarchical structures), neither are inherently opposed to human liberation. Christians who are also socialists can actually benefit greatly from deep immersion in both.

What Was a Nazi Church Service Like?

What Was a Nazi Church Service Like?

In the midst of a fierce struggle for control of the churches, the pro-Nazi “German Christian” faction preached sermons, edited Bibles, revised hymn-books, altered liturgies, and changed the church calendar. Sometimes they made drastic changes. At the same time, they inherited a form of Christianity that offered little opposition to Nazism.

What About the Good Rich People in the Bible?

In some parts of the Bible, rich people are portrayed as the worst kind of criminals. They grind vulnerable people into dust, and they are the enemies of all that is good and holy. But wait…

Surely you’ve heard there are also good rich people in the Bible. So the problem of wealth must relate to some sort of internal sin, a “problem of the heart.”

It is true that one thing that Jesus points out is that people’s hearts are often in the wrong place. They are. But the point Jesus was making by linking hatred to murder and greed to wealth wasn’t “The tangible expression of wickedness isn’t all that bad after all.”

Rather, his point was that the moral sickness runs much deeper than his listeners might have suspected. The wealthy are not off the hook just yet. Their greed only compounds an already unjust situation.

Another part of the religious defense of wealth stems from the Just World Hypothesis, the psychological desire that people have to think that the world is just and that people generally get what they deserve. That hypothesis is false, but it is also extremely attractive, especially to religious people who believe in an infinitely good and powerful God.

That false hypothesis is popularly linked to the idea that there are rich people in the Bible who, like God (or at least Spider-Man), combine great power with great responsibility. On closer examination, this improvised defense of economic inequality falls apart.

 

The Indictment

 

Before dismantling biblical defenses of the rich, though, let’s remember just how harshly biblical authors condemn accumulated personal wealth. Biblical texts that critique those who hoard wealth are found across time periods and literary genres, and they are not easy reading for millionaires and billionaires.

The Torah, a collection of five books traditionally associated with Moses and sometimes called the “Law,” envisions an Israelite society in which wealth is equally distributed among families and periodically redistributed to prevent inequality from happening. For the ancient Near Eastern context, it is a fairly radical vision of how wealth should be treated.

Land, which was the main form of wealth (along with domesticated animals), was to be held by each family in perpetuity. Any sale of land by one family to another was only a temporary purchase to be undone every 70 years during a Year of Jubilee. (As with most great ideas in the Bible, no one seems have tried this one out.)

That’s one reason why it was so appalling that King Ahab killed his neighbor Naboth to steal his vineyard (his “ancestral inheritance”). It’s also why the Israelite prophets were so angry at those who “join field to field.”

Their stone houses and pleasant vineyards are linked to their theft of wealth from those who have been made poor. There’s little more vivid in the Bible than the descriptions of the idle rich that we find in Amos: their beds of ivory (how many elephants were killed!?), their idle songs on the harp, their bowls of wine, their simultaneous lounging and revelry. The Hamptons are nothing new.

The prophet Micah even uses the metaphor of war to describe what the rich and powerful have done to their neighbors. Those driven from their houses by elites are depicted as war refugees, and even religious officials were complicit in this class warfare. Wealth is connected to violence.

Well, maybe the ancient prophets had some issues with wealth accumulation, but Jesus was a nice guy, right?

For the most part he was, but not really to rich people. It’s kind of embarrassing how rude he was to them. It started with his mother predicting that, with the arrival of Jesus, the rich would be sent away empty-handed.

And they were. In a story that made it into 3 of 4 gospels, Jesus told a rich man that he had to give up his possessions to inherit eternal life, then he delivered his classic “camel through the eye of a needle” line. That guy apparently didn’t inherit eternal life. In contrast, when the rich man Zacchaeus gave his wealth to the poor and repaid those from whom he had stolen, he became a shining example of what “salvation” looks like. Apparently, it looks a lot like economic redistribution.

As if this was not enough, in one of the few stories in the Bible about hell, a rich guy goes there for being rich. We have no idea what his religious beliefs or practices were, just that he was rich, that another man was poor, and that the rich guy went to hell. In this story, it seems that God literally afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.

That gives a concrete image to the declaration Jesus made that his followers who were poor would be blessed and those who were rich would be cursed. Jesus also told his followers not to invite rich people to dinner, and he pointed out the foolishness of accumulating wealth for yourself because you’re going to die anyhow.

OK, but surely other New Testament authors weren’t as angry at job creators as the writers of the Gospels seem to have been?

They were. 1 Timothy assures us that “those who want to be rich fall into temptation,” while James borders on making death threats against the wealthy. Not content to merely argue that “God [has] chosen the poor,” James further contends that is it “the rich who oppress you.” The gold and silver of the rich are going to... um... eat their flesh, and, by not paying their landscapers, the rich have “condemned and murdered the righteous one” and “fattened [their] hearts in a day of slaughter.” Well then.

 

#NotAllMillionaires?

 

There are a few “good” rich people who get trotted out every time the wealthy need a defender, but these cases don't stand up under a little scrutiny.

Abraham

Let’s go back to the archetypal biblical rich guy, Abraham (aka, Abram). Don’t Romans and Hebrews claim that his faith made him righteous before God?

First of all, the whole point of Paul’s argument about Abraham in Romans was that Abraham didn’t do much that was especially righteous, he just demonstrated “faith,” faithful trust in God. As Hebrews points out, Abraham was significant because he believed God and left his hometown to go on a journey, then later tried to kill his own son.

But still, he ended up owning a lot of animals and slaves, so that means God blessed him with wealth, right? Oh… slaves.

Maybe he was at least a good family man, though? Except that Abraham obtained much of his wealth from the Pharaoh by giving away his own wife because he was paranoid. It all makes sense in the context of the story, though.

There’s also the part where Abraham wanted a son and used his wife’s slave to try to make that happen, which was basically just rape but maybe it was ok because she was a “slave-girl?” Then, once Abraham had a son with his own wife, he sent Hagar and her son into the wilderness to die.

Maybe Abraham wasn’t so righteous and was only blessed despite what a terrible person he was, not because he was somehow good.

Job

Well, then, what about God’s servant Job? He was wealthy before calamity struck, and God made him twice as rich afterward. Surely that’s an example of God blessing a good person with wealth.

First, we have to acknowledge the obvious fact that Job is a completely fictional character. There’s no reason to think that Job existed outside this peculiar book that is supposed give readers wisdom about life, not information about actual events. (Unless you think someone was taking verrry extensive notes on clay tablets as Job scratched his sores with broken pots and complained to his friends in between their grandstanding speeches.)

Furthermore, the point of the book is not about Job’s wealth. Instead, it’s about things like the question of suffering and the frailty of human existence. The fact that Job was wealthy is just part of telling a good story. If he had been at the median wealth level, the story of his downfall and suffering would be far less gripping.

Joseph of Arimathea

Although the Gospels don’t say much about Joseph of Arimathea, he is mentioned in all four Gospels as the one who asked for the body of Jesus and buried it in a rock tomb. One Gospel, Matthew, describes him as a rich man, while Luke describes him as “good and righteous.” Mark and Luke say that he was waiting for the kingdom of God, while John says that he was secretly a disciple of Jesus because of his fear.

There’s one simple explanation for how this guy could be both rich and good. He was good from the authors’ perspectives because he did something nice for Jesus. He was rich (according to Matthew) in order to fulfill a prophecy in Isaiah 53:9:

They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.

If Joseph of Arimathea, who provided a tomb for Jesus, was rich, then Jesus would have been buried “with the rich.” This verse from Isaiah offers a clear and unflattering parallel between the wicked and the rich, though. Being buried “with the rich,” like having a grave “with the wicked,” was an undeserved punishment for someone who had been innocent of being either wicked or rich.

 

What is to be done?

 

Politically, there is plenty that can be done about the accumulation of personal wealth, and you can figure some things out on your own, I’m sure.

On a personal level, you probably shouldn’t spit in the face of every rich person you meet, for many reasons. But the Bible says we shouldn’t treat rich people especially well either.

Most importantly, we should not assume that rich people are good. As much as those who already own virtually everything would also like to own God, that is an unacceptable form of idolatry. It involves remaking God as one who wants people to accumulate wealth at the expense of others and is happy when they do so.

Instead, we have to presume from the teachings of Jesus that the accumulation of personal wealth takes people far from the kingdom of God. Much more than people with average wealth and incomes, rich people ought to repent and save themselves from the coming wrath. Like the man who built larger and larger barns to store his growing wealth, their lives will soon be demanded of them. After all, the only person we see in hell in the Bible went there for being rich.

 

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Neighbor-Love Is a Many-Layered Thing

Jesus said that we should love our neighbors, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. As a result, it’s easy to accuse people of not loving their neighbors.

For instance, people who don’t support government action to alleviate poverty are sometimes accused of not loving their neighbors.

Conversely, people who support the role of the state in providing for their neighbors are sometimes accused of the same lack of neighbor-love. Dostoyevsky’s character Father Zosima (in The Brothers Karamazov) wittily remarked that “the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is separately, as separate individuals.”

So who is right?

Well, both and neither. The first thing to note is that loving your neighbor is difficult, and no one has it all figured out. If someone says they do, they’re probably lying.

But that cannot be taken as an excuse for giving up on some aspect of neighbor-love. Instead, we can better love our neighbors if we start by acknowledging that neighbor-love is a multi-leveled thing. There are personal, communal, and societal aspects to loving one’s neighbor. All three of these can be seen in the story that Jesus told to illustrate what it means to love one’s neighbor.

There is an obvious personal aspect to neighbor-love. The Samaritan man helped the victim of the bandits by picking him up and dressing his wounds. He tangibly acted as an individual after seeing his neighbor’s obvious need.

There is also a communal dimension of neighbor-love. Members of the victim’s own Jewish community had failed to adequately love someone who was part of their own community. But there was also an improvised community of sorts. The Samaritan man and the innkeeper together provided a communal safety net for the victim.

Finally, though, there is a societal dimension of neighbor-love. As Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out,

“On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

If we don’t transform the whole road (the whole society, even) in whatever way we are able to, we are also failing to love our neighbors.

That’s a lot of stuff. Loving your neighbors at personal, communal, and societal levels seems like too much for anyone to handle. That’s because it is.

This is where St. Paul’s metaphor of one body with many parts is especially helpful. A short while later in the same letter, he gives his well-known definition of love. It’s a really demanding vision of what love means, but the idea that each part of a larger communal and even social body can play its own role in living up to this practice of love makes it at least a possibility.

That being said, each of us is responsible to do what we can when we can. It won’t do much good to serve at a soup kitchen while advocating for cutting the budgets of agencies that fund the well-being of the very same people eating the soup.

The problem isn’t so much that failing to love your neighbor at one level or another is hypocritical (though hypocrisy isn't great). Instead, the issue is that we can undercut our own efforts to love our neighbors, which will ultimately make us what Paul called clanging cymbals. All of us can do better, but until we acknowledge that neighbor-love has personal, communal, and societal layers we won’t even know how.

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Introducing Apocalypse and Analysis

Apocalypse: from the Greek apokalupsis; meaning revelation, unveiling, uncovering

Analysis: an investigation, an examination, a breaking-up into parts

 

When we read ancient stories about the god worshiped by the early Christians, we don’t get careful reasoning about what the deity must be like. Instead, we read claims to have seen, heard, and touched a god in the form of flesh, blood, and fire. The biblical God is a living god. Something deep in the human psyche longs for this kind of unveiling of what Rudolf Otto called “the numinous,” an encounter with a mysterium tremendum et fascinans.

But if you took that kind of earthy, apocalyptic, utterly-convinced religion too literally, you’d be a delusional fanatic. Some brilliant thinkers (like Pascal and Kierkegaard) have tried to rehabilitate the irrational side of Christianity, but it’s still mostly attractive if the person practicing it isn’t a close family member or friend.

All the fire and ash and thunder needs some kind of filter to be good for human life, which is where theology comes in. Theologians look at the work of God in the world from philosophical and historical perspectives. They analyze what happened in the past, what those events say about God and the world, how that reality about God and the world can interpreted in contemporary contexts, and how to communicate those contemporary implications to people.

That might sound boring, but, if claims about the divine grounding of all of reality happen to be true, then, as Rilke put it, “You must change your life.” Theology is an act of playing with fire, and the playing is done with a knife. The dangers of that sort of thing (false messiahs, brainwashing of the ignorant, abuses of power) mean that things must be reasoned as precisely as possible. Theology is a kind of surgery done on the mind and the soul rather than the body.

Jesus might have had a clear idea of what he was asking when he said “Follow me,” but we don’t possess such clear ideas ourselves. Instead, we have to continually guard ourselves against drifting into either a sleepy way of life that changes nothing and has no relation to God or an irrational fanaticism detached from reality. Theology is the act of analyzing the unveiling that has happened so we know what to do next.

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