Dorothee Soelle’s Radical Theology of Sin and Liberation

Dorothee Soelle, 1981 (Image Source)

“If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14-15, NLT)

I very much enjoyed Dorothee Soelle’s short theological autobiography, Against the Wind (for a taste of it, see my previous post “A Radical Christian Creed“).   In that book she cited the early work of Johann Baptist Metz and Jürgen Moltmann along with her own Political Theology as core texts for political theology as a movement. This, of course, sent me on a bit of a rabbit trail with my reading… I shared some quotations from Metz’s contribution a while back (here, here and here), and I also recently read Soelle’s book on this topic and have been meaning to share a bit about it.

One of Soelle’s most famous statements is that “every theological statement must be a political statement as well.” This sentiment seems to be a driving force behind the social conception of sin that she articulates in her Political Theology. So we shouldn’t be surprised to find that for Soelle “the sinner is the collaborator (seemingly harmless from the point of view of the natural consciousness) of a structurally founded, usually anonymous injustice. Accordingly, for political theology sin would be collaboration and apathy.” (89) This is in striking contrast to the more popular individualistic conception of sin, which Soelle scathingly criticizes: Continue reading Dorothee Soelle’s Radical Theology of Sin and Liberation

Metz: Political theology in the church must take the form of social criticism, not political ideology.

Johann Baptist Metz

I’ve been sharing a series of posts on Theology of the World by Johann Baptist Metz, which I read over the weekend. Again, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is just 150 pages and very approachable.

Below is one last selection from this book, on what the political role of the church is in a pluralistic society. Metz’s answer to this question is that the church’s goal should never be to set up and enforce societal norms or endorse a political ideology or to establish itself as a political force; but rather the church should be about the liberating business of social critique. With the American culture war so dominated by Left-vs-Right ideology (and far too many Christians getting caught up in it), this is a timely – and radical –  message for us today. He also calls for cooperation between Christians and people of other faiths (or no faith) based on our common experience in this world of the felt “lack of freedom, justice, and peace.” Continue reading Metz: Political theology in the church must take the form of social criticism, not political ideology.

Moltmann on Johann Baptist Metz and the New Political Theology

I first heard of Johann Baptist Metz via Moltmann’s engagement with him, as they have been frequent conversation partners and have written on similar themes. There are many paralel’s between Metz and Moltmann, both in their theology and their life stories. Metz made a contribution to How I Have Changed where he shares his chilling experience as a young Germwn soldier in World War II (one not unlike Moltmann’s own story). Out of their experiences, they both became “theologians after Auchwitz” which led Moltmann to develop The Crucified God and Metz to craft his own “new political theology”, exemplified in Theology of the World and elsewhere.

Below is a selection from Moltmann’s autobiography, A Broad Place, where he described his “ecumenical friendship” with Metz (who is Catholic) and their partnership together in developing political theology, often in conversation with various liberation theologians. Continue reading Moltmann on Johann Baptist Metz and the New Political Theology

Johann Baptist Metz on Eschatology and Flight from the World

Johann Baptist Metz. Image Source
Johann Baptist Metz. Image Source

Over the last couple days I read Metz’s Theology of the World. This is a collection of essays that Metz wrote between 1961 and 1968 on themes of political theology. I shared some selections from the first essay in the book on secularism.  From start to finish this book is fantastic. Like Moltmann, Metz gets his bearings for political theology from an eschatological orientation. Future hope is not the appendix to Christianity, but its fundamental driving force: Continue reading Johann Baptist Metz on Eschatology and Flight from the World

Johann Baptist Metz on why Christian theology should embrace secularization

Johann Baptist Metz
Johann Baptist Metz

The Secularity of the world, as it has emerged in the  modern process of secularization and as we see it today in a globally heightened form, has fundamentally, though not in its individual historical forms, arisen not against Christianity but through it. It is originally a Christian event and hence testifies in our world situation to the power of the “hour of Christ” at work within history.

(Theology of the World, 19-20)

In her autobiography, Dorothee Soelle listed Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz’s Theology of the World alongside Theology of Hope (Moltmann) and her own book as something of an early trilogy in modern political theology. I’m currently reading Metz (it is excellent so far) and hope to move on to Soelle’s contribution next.

The first essay in Theology of the World is called “How Faith Sees the World: The Christian Orientation in the Secularity of the Contemporary World.” Many Christians bemoan the secularization that has long been taking over the Western world – worrying that it is an indication that Christianity has failed and is receding. But Metz sees in the incarnation of Jesus the full acceptance of the world – in all its worldliness – by God. Below are some selections from this chapter that get to the heart of his argument.  Continue reading Johann Baptist Metz on why Christian theology should embrace secularization

Existence for Others: Following Jesus Means Renouncing Our Rights

Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet, by Ford Maddox Brown. Image Source: Wikipedia

“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. […] A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
(John 13:12-17, 34-35 NIV)

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
(Matthew 20:25-28 NIV)

For most Christian traditions, today is Maundy Thursday, the day in Holy Week where we remember Jesus’ last day with his disciples before the crucifixion, especially the Last Supper. This was when, according to John’s Gospel, Jesus exemplified his character as a servant by washing his disciples feet.  I remember very vividly participating in foot-washing ceremonies at church that were meant to remind us that following in the way of Jesus means serving others. While my tradition does not do foot washing with any regularity, my experiences of this did leave a profound impression on me.

When I reflect on what this means for Christians in today’s world, I wonder whether – especially when it comes to our political advocacy – we have a tendency to apply this principle only as far as our moral comfort zone will allow (which often doesn’t extend far beyond the church door). We worry about the infringement of our rights in a world that doesn’t seem to any longer share traditional Christian values. And so we have pastors thumbing their noses at the IRS (and jeopardizing their organizations’ tax exempt status) each election cycle on “Pulpit Freedom Sunday“, and Christians backing legislation that guarantees the rights of traditionally-minded people to refuse to do business with LGBTQ folks (Indiana is the state currently taking heat for this sort of thing, but they are by no means alone).

With the culture war reaching a fever pitch (ok, it’s been there for a while), many are concerned that freedom of speech and freedom of religion may be in peril. But whose freedom? When Christians “take a stand for freedom” in our country it almost always means taking a stand for the freedom of people like us, especially for other Christians and their freedom to stand against anything in our culture believed to be wrongheaded or sinful. 

Continue reading Existence for Others: Following Jesus Means Renouncing Our Rights

“Just War” in the Nuclear Age


 When the atomic bomb was invented and dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945, it was not just the Second World War that was ended. The whole human race entered its end-time as well.” (Jürgen Moltmann, Ethics of Hope)

The PostBarthian recently shared some passages from Ethics of Hope that highlight the danger that nuclear weapons still hold in the world today. 

No human being could survive the nuclear winter that would follow a major nuclear war. It is true that, since the end of the Cold War in 1989, a major nuclear war is for the moment not very likely, but there are still giant arsenals of atomic and nitrogen bombs in the United States, Russia, China, England, France, India, Pakistan and Israel, ready for ‘the final solution’ of the question about humanity. ‘The one who shoots first dies second.’ That is humanity’s latent but always-present suicide programme. Today it has been forgotten and suppressed, pushed out of public awareness. But it hangs over humanity as a sombre fate.

During the Cold War (before concerns about the buildup of nuclear arms were pushed out of public awareness), Moltmann gave a lecture on “Discipleship of Christ in an Age of Nuclear War,” where He explored this topic in more depth.  It is published both in On Human Dignity and in The Politics of Discipleship and Discipleship in Politics –  a collection of Moltmann lectures in dialog with Anabaptist theologians, including John Howard Yoder. Its context may make us think that perhaps this lecture is too dated for us today and surely there is no need to argue such an extreme position in today’s world, with the Cold War long behind us.  But when you look at Moltmann’s two statements on this topic side by side you can see that the thrust of his message has been unchanged in 30+ years.  The goal of disarmament has still not been realized, and it still must not be forgotten!

For this post I’m going to focus on the meat of Moltmann’s argument in this direction. I plan to circle back and do a couple follow up posts based on this lecture covering 1) why the most common Christian approaches to politics tend to fall short when tested against this problem, and 2) why people living in the way of the Sermon on the Mount should think differently friend-enemy relationships and peace.  

In America at least, we tend to assume that nuclear weapons are a necessary evil that must be kept in the right hands (ours and our allies) and out of the wrong ones (Iran or anyone else who may wish us harm). But what if there are no “right” hands for this technology?  Moltmann is no principled pacifist, but he does believe that pacifism is the only just option in today’s world. He argues using the principles of Just War to demonstrate that: 1) The use of nuclear weapons is evil and sinful; 2) The same must be said of the threat of nuclear weapons; 3) The mere possession (much less development and build up) of nuclear weapons by any country cannot be justified; 4) Any conflict which is likely to escalate to the use of nuclear weapons cannot be justified. As we shall see, this leaves us with little choice other than the side of disarmament and pacifism.

Whoever is not a pacifist always explains himself or herself with a kind of doctrine of just war. This doctrine does not intend to provide a justification for war – we must be clear about this – but seeks to apply the moral criteria of justice and injustice to the conduct of war. With this doctrine the moral norms of good and evil are applied to the execution of war. According to this theory, war must be conceived as a means of politics or a continuation of politics by other means. Yet we should be aware of the fact that the doctrine of just war was not developed for the justification of war but for the limitation of war because no one is allowed to participate in an unjust war. (Both the Vietnam War and the Falklands War, for example, were according to this tradition unjust wars because war was never declared.)
The decisive elements of the doctrine of just war are:

1. War must be declared by a legitimate authority; it must serve the common good of the state.
2. It must be conducted with a good intention.
3. It must be conducted with the expectation of a good outcome; the general situation after the war must be better than the situation before it.
4. All peaceful means for a resolution of the conflict must have been exhausted.
5. The means of the war may not be worse than the evil which is supposed to be overcome by it, that is, the means must stand in the right proportion to the end.
6. There must be a distinction between soldiers and citizens. The civilian population must be protected. (On Human Dignity, 119)

It is should be readily accepted that the use of nuclear weapons against enemy countries does not fall within the confines of the elements of just war as outlined above.  But what about their continued existence? Surely complete disarmament is nothing but a utopian dream that would leave the world vulnerable to annihilation at the hands of evil nations or groups who wish us harm? For Moltmann, there is no question on the ethics of this dilemma: 

There is ethically no conceivable justification of a possible destruction of humanity and of life on earth in order to protect the rights and freedom in one of the social systems in which human beings live today. A “peace” which is bought with the threat of world destruction is no peace. The peace of deterrence through mutual fear may technically be nonemployment of weapons, but it is not peace. Mutual deterrence through fear is a condition of extreme lack of peace, because it increases potential realities of violence. Even without nuclear war the stockpiling of armaments already destroys the life of human beings and the natural environment. The “military-industrial complex” spreads itself like a cancerous growth and infects all dimensions of life. Unnoticed, a total mobilization has come into being..
We call, therefore, for withdrawal from the apocalyptic threshold, a gradual nuclear disengagement as a first step and then the gradual dismantling of conventional armaments. (On Human Dignity, 122)

But this isn’t a matter of following the moral reasoning of one theologian. Moltmann leans heavily on official declarations from the Society of Protestant Theology (1981) and the Reformed Alliance in Germany (1982) which echo a declaration  of the Brethren from 1958, and concludes: 

If the use of the means of mass destruction is sin, then the possession of the means of mass destruction for the purpose of threatening and deterring the enemy can not be justified as Christian. because this threat is effective only if one is also ready to use the weapons, the threat itself is immoral and must also be viewed as sin.  
The modern military means of mass destruction have changed war so much that the real nature of war is revealed now before everryone’s eyes. We have reached the point, therefore, where we must go back and say that all war is irresponsible, is sin, and there can be no justification of it. Every martial threat and positioning which includes the possibility of escalation to universal nuclear war is irresponsible. The current concept “peace through mutual deterrence” is also irresponsible.” (On Human Dignity, 129)

Far from starting with an extreme position that absolute nonviolence is the only option for all Christians (must less the world), he argues through “just war theory” to arrive at position that pacifism should no longer be considered a fringe option in today’s world; it is the only option that takes the nuclear threat seriously, as he concludes in this lecture: “I believe that so-called pacifism is no longer an illusion or utopia. Pacifism is the only realism of life left to us in this apocalyptic situation of threatened world annihilation.” 

A Radical Christian Creed (by Dorothee Soelle)

Dorothee Soelle (1929 – 2003). Image Source.

On a bit of a whim I recently started reading Dorothee Soelle’s short autobiography, Against the Wind: Memoir of a Radical Christian (Fortress Press, 1999). And I’m glad I did.

In our culture, many people get very uncomfortable with the mixing of faith in politics (in no small part in reaction to the Christian Right in America). But for feminist theologian Dorothee Soelle, our faith  should always be political:  “Every theological statement has to be at the same time a political one.” (38) From what I’ve read of her story so far, this seems to be an apt descrition of the way that she lived and did theology. The type of politics that characterized her theology was decidedly left-of center, which she saw as having resonance with a plain reading of the Bible, especially the Hebrew prophets and the Gospels. For example, she defended her use of Marx this way: 

Later, I often became impatient when Christian believers asked me, “Are you a Marxist?” The best reply that came to mind was this counter-question: “Do you brush your teeth? I mean, now that the toothbrush has been invented?” How could you read Amos and Isaiah and not Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels? That would amount to being ungrateful to a God who sends prophets among us with the mssage that to know Yahweh means to do justice. Do we not have to make use of every analytical tool that helps us both to comprehend the sources of injustice? Should we not recognize  at the same time that the victims of injustice are the possible forces for change that breaks the yoke of oppression of both victim and perpetrator? Could we afford to ignore Marx in a time when it should be clear to every attentive observer of the misery of developing countries that capitalism is neither able nor willing to end hunger? (47-48) 

She also questioned the assumed divide between “religious” and “political” reasons for her activism, and seemed increasingly baffled by people who would make such distinctions:

When asked by a radio reporter from Arizona whether I supported the struggle of sanctuary  for political or religious reasons, I countered by asking wheher he had ever read the Bible. If yes, how  could he ask such a question? Was Jesus, in his opinion, a refugee for political or religious reasons when his parents took him to Egypt in order to save him from the death squads of King Herod? And was Jesus crucified for religious or political reasons? The more I read the Bible, the less I understood such questions. (52)

In the late 1960’s she helped lead prayer services called  “Political Evensongs” that seem to exemplify this undifferentiated blend of religion and politics: 

Our pattern was to provide political information integrated with biblical texts, a brief address, calls for action, and finally, discussion with the gathered congregation. The basic elements of all subsequent Evensongs were informatin, meditation, and action. (38)

Below is a confession of faith that she shared at one such event on October 1, 1968 in Cologne, which roused no small amount of critique (including at least one charge of heresy). i have no doubt that many in our pews would sit uneasy if this were read aloud in our church serviices. But whatever we make of it, it is certainly a great example of theological statements that are also political ones!

I believe in God
who created the world not ready made
like a thing that must forever stay what it is
who does not govern according to eternal laws
that have perpetual validity
nor according to natural orders
of poor and rich,
experts and ignoramuses,
people who dominate and people subjected.
I believe in God
who desires the counter-argument of the living
and the alteration of every condition
through our work
through our politics.

I believe in Jesus Christ
who was right when he
“as an individual who can’t do anything”
just like us
worked to alter every condition
and came to grief in so doing
Looking to him I discern 
how our intelligence is crippled,
our imagination suffocates,
and our exertion is in vain
because we do not live as he did

Every day I am afraid
that he died for nothing
because he is buried in our churches,
because we have betrayed his revolution
in our obedience to and fear
of the authorities.
I believe in Jesus Christ
who is resurrected into our life
so that we shall be free
from prejudice and presumptuousness
from fear and hate
and push his revolution onward
and toward his reign

I believe in the Spirit
who came into the world with Jesus,
in the communion of all peoples
and our responsibility for what will become of our earth:
a valley of tears, hunger, and violence
or the city of God.
I believe in the just peace
that can be created,
in the possibility of meaningful life
for all humankind,
in the future of this world of God.

More from Moltmann on Capital Punishment: To Kill a Human is to Murder God

Noah's Thanksoffering (c.1803) by Joseph Anton Koch. image source: Wikipedia
Noah’s Thanksoffering (c.1803) by Joseph Anton Koch. image source: Wikipedia
I’ve just started reading The Power of the Powerless, by Jürgen Moltmann. Like The Gospel of Liberation (which I have highly recommended here before), it is a collection of sermons, making it an extremely accessible (and I was able to get a used copy shipped to my house for just $4!). The first sermon in the book, “Surviving with Noah”, contains a pointed reflection on the prohibition against killing found in God’s covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:5-6), which I am posting here as something of an appendix to my previous post on Moltmann and the death penalty. As Moltmann reminds us here, the taking of human life is absolutely prohibited because it is always an act of destruction against the image of God. While the death penalty may possibly be justified in extreme circumstances for the protection of life, it should not be considered to be a general exception to the prohibition against killing.  Continue reading More from Moltmann on Capital Punishment: To Kill a Human is to Murder God

Jürgen Moltmann on the Death Penalty

Jürgen Moltmann was featured in a New York Times article on death row inmate Kelly Gissendaner on 2/28/2015. The featured photo from the article was taken at Gissendaner's graduation from a prison theology program in 2011.
Jürgen Moltmann was featured in a New York Times article about death row inmate Kelly Gissendaner on 2/28/2015. The photo with Moltmann from the article was taken at Gissendaner’s graduation from a prison theology program in 2011.

Yesterday The New York Times featured Jürgen Moltmann for the unlikely friendship that has been forged between he and Kelly Renee Gissendaner, a death row inmate in Georgia who is scheduled to die by lethal injection tomorrow. Gissendaner learned of Moltmann through a prison theology program, finding Theology of Hope to be especially inspiring. Since Gissendaner first wrote to Moltmann in 2010, they’ve exchanged many letters, and Moltmann made it a point to travel to Georgia in 2011 order to speak at Kelly’s graduation from the program. A friend of Kelly’s who is a member of the  Jürgen Moltmann Discussion Group on Facebook shared there that in January professor Moltmann sent Kelly one of his own hankerchiefs “for the tears.” Moltmann told the New York Times that “If the state of Georgia has no mercy, she has received already the mercy of heaven.” He is clearly hoping and praying that the state will be merciful to Kelly, as am I. If you haven’t had a chance to learn about Kelly, I encourage you to read the Times article, and watch this video about Kelly’s story. Continue reading Jürgen Moltmann on the Death Penalty