All posts in “Political Theology”

Our God Loves Justice by W. Travis McMaken (a Review)

Book: Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer by W. Travis McMaken (AMAZON LINK)

Publisher: Fortress Press (PUBLISHERS LINK)

Overview: McMaken’s introduction to the political theology of Helmut Gollwitzer is overflowing with thought-provoking insights, careful explanations, and important implications. I found the book easy to read, but tremendously helpful as both an introduction to Gollwitzer but also to why a Christian can (and should) be a socialist.


W. Travis McMaken’s Our God Loves Justice has been highly anticipated by those familiar with his popular theo-blog, Die Evangelischen Theologen (DET). 1 I was very excited to have the opportunity to read and review it. I brought it with me on my vacation to Portugal this past week. The strength of the book and the depth of its insights can be illustrated by the fact that I spent a great deal of my time thinking about the book as I walked along the beautiful streets of Porto and Lisbon.

The book is divided into five chapters, with two appendixes. I’ll briefly go through each chapter to give you a taste of this excellent study.

First, McMaken reflects on reading Gollwitzer in the context of America’s political and economical climate. Here McMaken shows why it is essential to read Gollwitzer today, and particularly why he hopes to initiate a conversation about his theology. This includes reflections on America’s economic inequality (think of the 1% vs. the 99%), as well as a history of Christianity’s problematic involvement with capitalism. This chapter makes it clear that right now is a critical moment in time for America, a kairos time, a fertile moment to act. McMaken begins with a clear statement:

“Helmut Gollwitzer was a socialist. He was also a Christian. And perhaps the most surprising thing, at least for those of us deeply embedded in white American Christianity, is that Gollwitzer was a socialist precisely because he was a Christian. This book tries to make sense of that ‘precisely because’ in Gollwitzer’s life and thought.” 2

Second, McMaken works through Gollwitzer’s fascinating life. This was an especially helpful chapter for introducing Gollwitzer and grasping the shape of his life and thought. I was deeply moved at times when learning about Gollwitzer’s courage, as well as the tragedies he faced. McMaken aptly titled this chapter “Grace upon Grace.” Certainly, Gollwitzer is worth reading not merely because of the fullness of his ideas, but also the fullness of his life. His closeness with Barth was also interesting to discover, such as learning that Barth spoke at his wedding and Gollwitzer spoke at Barth’s funeral. He was also Barth’s teaching assistant for a time. McMaken quotes a telling reflection Gollwitzer wrote towards the end of his life:

“the gospel has made me to constantly be a critical and admonitory voice against the severe injustices in our contemporary society… I am particularly thankful that I was allowed to be at the service of the gospel.” 3

The third and fourth chapters make up the center of the book, with Gollwitzer’s “political theology” and “theological politics” considered (respectively). Chapter three first traces Gollwitzer’s continuance of dialectical theology, and McMaken shows his expertise on the subject with a careful discussion of Barth and Bultmann. This leads to the conclusion that all theology is contextual theology, and therefore, that all theology is political. As McMaken notes,

“It is impossible to escape the political ramifications of our God-talk, even—and perhaps especially!—when we try to speak nonpolitically. It is simply impossible to do so. Either our theology supports the status quo, or it calls that status quo into question.” 4

In the fourth chapter McMaken continues to build on Gollwitzer’s theological background. For Gollwitzer, what is at stake here is “nothing less than the core concern of the Christian gospel.” Because the gospel demands “not mere intellectual assent, but embodied faithfulness.” 5 McMaken helpfully explains Gollwitzer’s understanding of socialism as it relates to the “true socialism” of the Kingdom of God. Bringing the discussion to its important conclusion, McMaken writes:

“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. Many of those Americans today who think of themselves as Christians feel very uncomfortable when faced with this demand. As Gollwitzer correctly notes, however, taking sides ‘sounds terrifying only to him who is blind to the fact that the empirical church has actually always taken sides.’ 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.” 6

Fifth, McMaken concludes the discussion with Gollwitzer’s ecclesiology (doctrine of the church). The church is to be both a “danger and a help” to the world. This follows naturally from the conviction that as Christians we must take sides on political issues. McMaken writes,

“Instead of leaving the church to its comfortable domestication, ‘the one thing that matters for the church is that she should be both a danger and a help to the world.’ Gollwitzer’s ecclesiology calls for a dangerous church because a church that is not dangerous is no help at all.” 7

The two appendixes in themselves are worth the price of the book, since here McMaken translates two essays by Gollwitzer which were previously unavailable to English readers. The first is the 1972 essay, “Must a Christian Be a Socialist?” The second is the 1980 theses, “Why Am I, as a Christian, a Socialist? Theses.” I enjoyed reading directly from Gollwitzer, and I thought the essays concluded the book perfectly. In the second essay, the collection of theses, Gollwitzer states his definition of socialism:

“A socialist maintains that a better society than the current one is possible and necessary.” 8

Conclusion: Our God Loves Justice is a timely book, excellently written, clear, and passionate. I have no doubt that it will initiate a conversation in America today about the theological necessity for political engagement, and it offers a convincing argument for the cause of justice sought after through democratic socialism. I strongly recommend you purchase a copy of this book and read it thoughtfully. Click here to purchase a copy (Amazon).

My thanks to Fortress Press for a digital copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review, and have presented my honest reflection on this work.

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Notes:

  1. LINK
  2. Kindle Loc. 134
  3. Kindle loc. 1135, quoting from Gollwitzer, “Skizzen eines Lebens, 341; see also 341″
  4. Kindle loc. 2365
  5. Kindle loc. 2950
  6. Kindle loc. 3875
  7. Kindle loc. 4526
  8. Kindle loc. 5486

“Love our Country or Leave it”? (Moltmann)

 

I’ve been reading Moltmann recently, and just came across a quote bearing profound relevance for American politics today.

Moltmann begins: “The cross is the point at which Christian faith distinquishes itself from other religions and ideologies, from unfaith and superstition. … It should therefore become the beginning point and criterion for a Christian political theology.” 1

Moltmann quotes Adolf Schlatter, who aptly writes: “The vocation and work of Jesus consists in his destroying our idols, and the weapons with which he nullifies our false gods is his cross.” 

The Second Commandment, “You shall not make yourself a graven image…” is particularly relevant when we consider the political idols we create for ourselves. Luther wrote, “Whatever you set your heart on and depend on, that is really your god.” And this applies no less to religious idols than it does to political idols, whether these are called “America,” “Republican,” “Liberal,” or anything else. Political idols are not absent from America.

We often fail to recognizing ourselves as a “factory for idols” (Calvin), but it is an undeniable truth we must recognize. We create idols daily. And, according to Moltmann, the only destruction of all our idols, political or otherwise, is the cross of Christ. When we see the power of God in the weakness and suffering of Christ, we no longer have valid justification for a top down power structure. In other words, we no longer have ultimate justification for faith in a political power, in a country, in an ideology.

The only justified faith in the light of the cross is faith in the crucified God who takes the side of the weak, powerless, suffering, poor, and broken. In a world where success and achievement are the highest good, we, in the name of Christ, must protest against all cultural idols of power, no matter what name they bear.

If, for example, the idol of power goes by the name “America” or “nationalism,” then it becomes a Christian obligation to resist and protest against this power structure which tramples on the weak and idolizes the successful. Think of the recent controversy surrounding the NFL and their protesting athletes, taking a knee during the National Anthem. By giving a voice to the voiceless, to those who are forgotten and ignored in our success culture, these athletes stand on the side of the crucified Christ who suffered as an outcast for the cause of the outcasted.

Those angered by their protest feel their idols, and by extension, themselves, threatened. Moltmann writes with prophetic power and an eerie relevance:

“From a psychological point of view, the unfathomable anxiety of man causes him to create for himself symbols, idols, and values which then become identical with his self. Every attack against his idols therefore wounds his ‘highest values,’ and he reacts to this with deadly aggression. As long as his self depends on such idols and idolized realities, man is not free to accept the different kind of life of another along with his own life. He only accepts men who are like him. He only accepts men who value the same things and abhor the same things as he does because these men confirm him. Strangers put him in question and make him uncertain. Hence the attitude: ‘Love our country or leave it.’ This is the basis for xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and racial hatred. The liberation of man from the anxiety and the coercive force of such idols is therefore the presupposition for humanity and peace on earth.” 2

Liberation from this anxiety is only in the cross of Christ, when we recognize that this is God’s Christ suffering and dying as an outcast, as a political tool, in solidarity with the weak, poor, and helpless. The cross is the ultimate undoing of all our idols of success and power. Even if that idol is named “America,” we are obligated as Christians to protest in the name of the crucified Christ, who is triumphant in suffering and weakness, who is on the side of the poor and the outcasted.

To those of you angered by these protests, I want to ask you: Where is the cross of Christ? Do you see Christ on the side of the rich and the successful refusing to give a voice to the voiceless? Or, if you’re honest, don’t you see Christ in the eyes of those protesting in the name of the violence done to the poor and weak?

Few people groups suffer more violently and more often in our country than the African-American. By silencing their protests, be careful you are not turning a deaf ear to the suffering cry of Christ in solidarity with the weak.

May our idols of power come undone at the cross of Christ. And may we be attentive to listen to Christ’s cry of solidarity with the weak and the voiceless.

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Notes:

  1. The Experiment Hope110
  2.  Ibid., 112-3

“Beware of ‘America First'” – Jürgen Moltmann on Donald Trump’s America

I have just shared about Jürgen Moltmann’s letter to me, which you can read here in its entirety. But I wanted to highlight a moving aspect of that letter, namely, Moltmann’s response to my question about Donald Trump as the new president of the United States.

I wrote my letter in February, during the time when Trump was attempting to ban Muslim’s and block Syrian refugees from entering the country. This was (thankfully!) blocked and deemed unconstitutional after protests and political opposition arose all around the country. But my concerns regarding the current president have not ceased, and Moltmann’s response beautifully summarizes all of the reservations which I have felt regarding our current president. In my opinion, Donald Trump’s America is the antithesis of the best principles America was built on, exemplified clearly in the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, “The New Colossus”: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” But it is not only as an American that I am hesitant about Trump, but also as a Christian; I can’t help but think Trump’s America follows the path of a violent empire, which is not the way of the kingdom of God.

Professor Moltmann’s profound response is deeply moving:

“I can’t say how sad I am with your new president. This is not the America I love. And beware of ‘America first’ — the ‘first will be the last’, said Jesus. Humility is the virtue of the privileged.”

Read the full letter here.

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