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

Love: The Foundation of Hope (Part 4)

Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope: The Church in the WorldWe’ve made it to the final video segment of “Love: The Foundation of Hope.” Again, I’ve been publishing these videos from the 1986 Trinity Institute Conference (digitized from VHS) with permission of Trinity Church. Previous segments have been: 1) Jürgen Moltmann: A Theology of Hope; 2) Theology of Hope: Critiques and Questions; and 3) Theology of Hope: The Feminist Response. This final video, Theology of Hope: The Church in the World, explores the implications of Moltmann’s thought for political theology and features conversations with Jürgen Moltmann, Douglas Meeks, and Jose Miguez-Bonino. Below the embedded video you’ll find notes from the discussion guide included in the pamphlet that came with the VHS. Enjoy! Continue reading

Jürgen Moltmann shares about his friendship with Kelly Gissendaner

Jurgen Moltmann, Kelly Gissendaner and Dr. Jenny McBride (at Gissendaner's graduation from a prison theology program)

Jürgen Moltmann, Kelly Gissendaner and Dr. Jenny McBride (at Gissendaner’s graduation from a prison theology program)

I’ve shared a bit before about Jürgen Moltmann’s relationship to death row inmate (and fellow theologian!) Kelly Gissendaner (which received national attention via a story in the New York Times, and later other news outlets). On Monday, June 22, at the 2015 Karl Barth Conference, Jürgen Moltmann participated in a panel discussion with Eric Gregory and Dan Migliore. At the end of this conversation (prompted by Migliore), he shared a prepared statement telling the heartfelt story of how he came into friendship with Kelly Gissendaner. This portion begins at about 1:52:13 in the video embedded below. I’ve also typed up a transcript of his words for easy access, which you’ll find below the video. In the final paragraph he expresses a profound disgust for the retributive justice of the American prison system, offering a concise summary of his critique of the death penalty. Moltmann has long been firm in his opposition to the death penalty (see here and here), seeing this opposition as an expression of “protest hope“.

Panel Discussion with Moltmann, Migliore, and Gregory at the Karl Barth Conference

Transcript of Moltmann’s Comments on Gissendaner and the Death Penalty

I learned to know Kelly Gissendaner by chance or providence (which is very much the same). In 2005, I gave a lecture in Charlottesville and met Jenny McBride in Charles Marsh Bonhoeffer House. She had written an excellent dissertation on Bonhoeffer and was asking what to do after years of academic life. My advice was go to Atlanta to the Open Door Community and work with the jobless and homeless people and with prison chaplaincy. After a year she was engaged with a theology studies program in prison, and taught Bonhoeffer and Moltmann in a woman’s prison. And there she met Kelly Gissiendaner who was for the murder of her husband since many years on death row. And Kelly wrote a paper on Bonhoeffer which Jenny sent to me. It was astonishingly good. And then Kelly asked if she could write letters to me. And so a theological correspondence emerged. Up to now there are at least 30 letters and cards on theological and personal questions. But not of confessions of her side. I denied that. The prison chaplain heard her confessions, and I admired Kelly’s strengths of faith under the burden of a stone on her shoulders with the guilt of murdering her husband. My desire was to build her up as a theologian in prison, to be a pastoral caretaker for her fellow prisoners. She was developed from a bitter and self-centered human being into a mentor and mother figure in the women’s prison when I met her (“Momma Kelly”, as the younger prisoners called her).

In October 2011 I was invited to speak at the graduation ceremony at the Arrendale women’s prison for her class. I saw an American prison for the first time from the inside – no inhumane signs, no human signs either. Kelly gave a speech and her tears of what theology meant to her. And a Muslim girl who attended the biblical classes spoke of how much the biblical stories meant to her. And I gave a speech on the church behind barbed wire, because I remembered my own 3 years as a prisoner of war behind barbed wires, the temptation to give oneself up, to become bitter and cynical, and the consolation to find christ behind barbed wire. Afterwards Jenny and I had an hour to talk to Kelly privately in a room without handles. She had a real hunger for theology, and I had to send all of my books in English to her for examination. She wrote a spiritual book for her fellow prisoners on the journey of hope in faith.

And then in December last year, she received the date of her execution, February 25, 2015 at 7PM. I wrote some words of consolation and as a sign of solidarity sent a hankercheif with the words, “When the tears are coming, take my hankercheif”. She answered the hankerchief you sent was the most heartfelt thing that I have gotten in my 18 years that I have been locked up. And then came February 2015, and the board of parole and pardon denied clemency, because the family of the husband demanded retribution or revenge. I was deeply disappointed, also of God, because I had prayed daily for her life. I wrote a letter to prepare her spiritually for death by execution. And when the time came on Febuary 25, I lit a candlight and thought of Kelly. But the first surprise came next morning. There was an overnight snowstorm in Georgia and they couldn’t transport the prisoner to the men’s prison in Jackson where they had the facilities for execution. The time of execution was shifted to Monday March 1 at 7PM. I lit a candle again, and prayed for her. And the second surprise came next morning, because the execution drug had spoiled they switched the execution to indeterminate time. She wrote to me: “God is so good, so good.” And I blamed myself for not trusting God more. His providence can be so tricky and clever. But she was 3 hours before her execution twice, had her last meal, and was prepared, and now is still healthy in her mind and full of trust in her heart. I hope that next time clemency is granted and she can follow her calling to take spiritual and personal care of the inmates of the prison, and of the prisoners and the wardens.

The result: I am disgusted at the inhumanity of the American prison system. It is pure punishment, not educational justice. I am unconditionally against death penalty after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ for all the sinners. We cannot condemn sinners to death. And a democracy is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. And the people are told “thou shall not kill.” The government of the people shall not kill. Only dictatorships today use the death penalty. And people can change. There is always for everybody hope to change. And we must not nail a person down to the crime once committed. We condemn the sins but we love the sinners. So we must separate the person from the deed, and give the person a new chance.

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

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

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 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

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

James Cone on Moltmann and the “Hope Theologians”

James Cone (Image Source: Wikipedia)

It also became clear to me between 1975 and 1980 that I personally could not authentically frame a “theology in context” and a “theology in movement” (liberation theology, black theology, feminist theology), for I am not living in the Third World, am not oppressed, and am not a woman. In those years, I tried as best I could to let the voices of silenced men and women be heard in the world too – the world in which I myself live. I initiated translations and provided them with commendatory prefaces. I wrote essays supporting liberation theology and feminist theology, African theology and Korean Minjung theology. But all this did not blind me to the fact that my life and my context are not theirs.
Jürgen MoltmannThe Trinity and the Kingdom, p. vii.

Before reading Moltmann, I was almost completely unfamiliar with liberation theology, aside from an outside reference here or there (generally not in a favorable light!). I found that Moltmann would write frequently on themes of liberation, sometimes in direct conversation with liberation theologians (some of whom he calls “friends”). Though Moltmann himself could not be a liberation theologian (as he explains in the quote above), he has devoted a considerable amount of energy into making sure that the cry of the oppressed for God found in liberation theologies be heard by a broader audience.

So, based on Moltmann’s commendations, I decided to check out a book by a black liberation theologian – God of the Oppressed, by James Cone.

Continue reading