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.