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:

The Protestant consciousness of sin is innocuous and distresses no one in its indiscriminate universality, for it identifies sin, not theoretically but de facto, with a universal human fate comparable perhaps to smallpox, against which we are protected by vaccination. […] Severed from a psychosocial background, freed from the compulsion to make confession, purged of suicidal fantasies, man experiences a global but diffuse feeling which religiously and politically is more like powerlessness than sin in the strict sense of the word, meaning something inseparable from freedom. Neither social criticism nor self-criticism, not to mention criticism of the church, can be developed out of this unworldly concept of sin that concerns only God and the individual soul.” (89-90)

If sin is not something that is about me alone but also about my relationship to others, liberation cannot come to me alone apart from the liberation of all. Forgiveness cannot be something that I believe myself to possess in isolation; it must be continually extended to all. Only then does it cease to be unworldly and irrelevant to political liberation. Soelle drives home her point with a powerful illustration from The Brothers Karamazov:

Liberation is possible only as the liberation of all. In The Brothers Kramazov Dostoevsky tells a story that moves the theme of forgiveness toward this “political” context, in the broad sense of the term.

It’s like this. Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell God; “she once pulled up an onion in her garden,” said he, ” and gave it to a beggar woman.” And God answered: “You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.” The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her; “Come,” said he, “catch hold and I’ll pull you out .” And he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. “I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.” As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away.

This story speaks of an anxiety that destroys life. The woman lives without relation to other persons. Only at one single trifling point has her life been open for others. Life for her is what she possesses privately and individually. “It’s my onion, not yours.” Having is for her the most important category. In having, men set themselves apart; in having they ground their privileges. Even the possible forgiveness of sins is for the woman a privilege that she must grab hold of and defend with all her might. She attempts to come to terms with the God “from above.” But even the proffered deliverance does not change the course of her life, which consists of having, being afraid, securing herself, grabbing hold, beating others. That we move from having to trampling is perfectly consistent; thereby our concentration on the one goal, on redemption, is lost. The old woman “forgets” to look at the angel and to let him pull her out; she turns in the opposite direction and concentrates on the privilege, on her anxious and aggressive attempts to retain it. Thus she herself breaks the onion, because she grabs hold of it and tramples the others. Her will is divided; she wants forgiveness, but because she wants it only for herself she destroys it, as is characteristic of evil.

Everything that we grab hold of and cling to means death. Life destroys itself wherever it is based on having, on privileges over against those who have nothing. Because we grab hold of it, it perishes. There can be no forgiveness for one individual only. Whenever it is sought in the immediate experience of God – behind the backs of other men and without the laborious detour through the world – it destroys itself: the onion breaks.

Dostoevsky’s story arises out of an existential thinking, and it does not immediately raise political impulses and questions. But it does point out very clearly the necessary bridge from existentialist to political interpretation. As long as life continues to be grounded and secured in the privilege of having, it destroys itself. Life is life only when everyone belongs to it with equal right and with equal share. To speak in images: The more that others hang onto the old woman, the more unbreakable the tender little onion becomes. If grabbing hold means death, then sharing and communication mean life. No one can save himself alone and no one is forgiven alone, if forgiveness is taken seriously in the sense of being born anew. (102-104)

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