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).