Helmut Gollwitzer and the Dialectic of Utopia: A Review of "Our God Loves Justice"

McMaken, W. Travis. Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017. ISBN: 978-1-4514-8274-4. Paperback. 240 pages.

It would be fair to say that the rise of Donald Trump, the Alt-Right, and a distinctly reactionary evangelical rhetoric gave newfound credence to the presence and validity of socialist thought in the United States. Whether it was the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, growing anti-capitalist sentiment among Millennials, grassroots movements such as Occupy Wall Street, BlackLivesMatter, or Fight For $15, or a combination of all the above and more, the current socio-political moment displays clear preference for a socialist critique of our neoliberal order. However, that the Left is currently enjoying a steady resurgence in the face of an explicitly capitalist milieu does not answer the critical question for Christians in the United States: how should Christians respond to this socio-political moment?

The rhetoric of right-wing, evangelical intelligentsia suggests the answer to this question is to unfailingly support Donald Trump and the GOP platform; capitalism is God-ordained, the free-market must be truly free for human flourishing, and "big" government is bad. Or, so the argument goes. Regardless, the domination of Christian discourse in favor of neoliberal capitalism by right-wing evangelical intelligentsia ignores the prospect of a political theology predicated upon deference to the oppressed, rather than the (false) idealism of abstract liberty for the solitary "individual." If liberty or freedom is to be realized, it must be tangible for those who are currently enslaved, oppressed, and marginalized by the societal order in which they live. In other words, if there is such a thing as a Christian political theology, it must actualize the justice of God, which prefers the poor and oppressed. As capitalism by nature thrives upon inequality and exploitation of the working class, to suggest that capitalism is congruent with Christianity is to blaspheme God. 

For Christians interested in a political theology which subverts the established order as such, author and professor W. Travis McMaken suggests we look to the Protestant dialectical theologian and activist Helmut Gollwitzer. In Our God Loves Justice, McMaken introduces us to Gollwitzer's life and thought, demonstrating that a Christian critique of capitalism exists, and is necessary if the struggle for justice, liberation, and peace is to be realized. 

Readers will find the book well-written and extensively documented, yet the wealth of information never becomes overbearing. McMaken deftly summarizes the expansive work of Gollwitzer and his contemporaries, and the first half of the book is an engaging narrative of Gollwitzer's academic work and relationship to Karl Barth, the Confessing Church, and other academic contemporaries. It is clear from the onset that Gollwitzer sought to not merely theorize but, more importantly, actualize a distinctly socialist critique of capitalism based upon the nature of God. This, perhaps, is Gollwitzer's greatest achievement insofar as political theory is concerned. While many on the Left often unilaterally reject the metaphysical assumptions of religious thought—a topic McMaken discusses as well—Gollwitzer recognized that the insights of dialectical theology provide a framework in which God's relationship to the world demands a particular relationship between humankind and their respective milieu. Readers will be grateful for a clear discussion of dialectical theology, and Gollwitzer's theological foundations are crucial for understanding his political theology.

However, the section in which McMaken details Gollwitzer's understanding of utopia and the kingdom of God is worth mentioning here, as a common point of contention between the Christian Right and Left is whether socialism is intrinsically marred by its utopian streak. Could socialism ever actually be realized? According to McMaken, Gollwitzer suggested a "three-fold distinction between absolute utopia, relative utopia, and social-revolutionary programs" (119). The crux of this distinction is Gollwitzer's belief that the kingdom of God is eschatological, not historical. In other words, the kingdom of God is an event which ruptures the current moment by virtue of it being an act of the divine. It is transcendent, not to be confused with materialist utopian visions, and not to be contained to one particular historical moment. In this sense, "absolute utopia is a matter of Christian hope." Absolute utopia—the eschatological arrival of God's transcendent presence and reign—gives the impetus for relative utopia, which is an approximate realization of an "earthly-historical future" for humankind. The key here is that relative utopia is never settled, but always analogous to absolute utopia by virtue of its eschatological undercurrent. Within the limits of creatureliness, we are called to struggle for relative utopia, understanding that absolute utopia is not ours to produce. Finally, the mechanism for achieving relative utopia are social-revolutionary programs, which McMaken describes as a "political strategy" used to limit and eradicate oppression, whether they be parties, revolutionary movements, programs, etc. 

Relating this three-fold distinction to our present moment, the task for Christians is to desire what Gollwitzer describes as "true socialism" (absolute utopia, the kingdom of God, et. al.) knowing that all we will achieve by our own merit is "socialism" in the fight for justice and liberation. McMaken summarizes Gollwitzer's socialism as "a mode of speech that supplies an intermediate determinacy between abstract talk of 'utopia,' and the detailed material considerations of both the Christian description of the kingdom of God and the particular parties and policy proposals under consideration in particular contexts" (120). Christians should be socialists because the absolute utopia of the kingdom of God is best realized in the relative utopia of socialism, carried out through contextual social-revolutionary programs.

In an age of increasingly reactionary political movements and the expansion of neoliberal capitalism, Christians are called to answer as the oppressed cry out for justice. The question is not whether Christians can be political, but whether the unyielding demand for political engagement serves or subverts the established capitalist order. In this vein, Helmut Gollwitzer represents a unique and timely contribution to the Christian understanding of political theology, and W. Travis McMaken's introduction to Gollwitzer is an excellent resource for those fighting against injustice. 

Our God loves justice, and so should we.