“When Injustice Becomes Law – Resistance Becomes Duty”

VST welcomed Professor Martin Rumscheidt as guest speaker for our annual summer lecture series on Monday, July 3rd. Professor Rumscheidt has been part of our summer school faculty this year, teaching a course entitled “Government Oppression and Ecclesial Resistance”.

“When Injustice Becomes Law – Resistance Becomes Duty”, Theology Is Not Exempt.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I wish to begin by acknowledging that we are gathered tonight on the traditional lands of the Musqueam people. We honour the wisdom of the elders and thank the Musqueam people for their hospitality.

Let me at the outset, express my profound gratitude for the privilege of once again being on the campus of Vancouver School of Theology, to work together with participants on the responsibility to resist and how theological existence of followers of the Jew Jesus imposes and enables that responsibility. It is my third visit as an instructor here; each time my affection for this extraordinarily beautiful city deepens which is reinforced anew when I fly over and then land at the airport on my way to Whitehorse in the equally extraordinarily beautiful Yukon to visit my brother and my daughter and their families. I am happy to be back here and tonight to be in your midst. Thank you for having me.                                                            —————

Even though my address is not a sermon, I still would like to think of it as an exegesis of the prophecy of Jeremiah 29:7 “Make the welfare of the city your prominent aim, pray to the Holy One on its behalf, for your welfare is tied up with its welfare.” These words encourage the faithful to persevere in resistance, but not on principle but with principle. The form and substance of such “principle” is based in what I understand theology to be: Theology is not philosophy nor speculation. It is exposition, interpretation of the Bible. Or, theology is exegesis in the service of the Word of the God of Israel. And that alone legitimates theology to engage in resistance.                                                             —————

Earlier this year and watching the nightly PBS News Hour, my eyes caught a sign carried by a woman in a large crowd protesting against an executive order to restrict and prohibit admission of people from a number of Muslin countries, issued by the president of her country. It read: “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty!” I do not know her but she and I are “on the same page,” as we say, for she described in a way what I was planning to do this week here at Vancouver School of Theology. My initial title-proposal was a more Germanic phrase – in other words: more cumbersome – and so, as if sent by an angelic intelligence, she gave me a seven word statement that completely sums up what I had in mind. To her, I give thanks for that and also on your behalf for saving you from having to wonder what on earth my initial title was getting at.                                                            —————

I need to tell you something about myself and how I came look at and work with “theology”. Allow me to use technical terminology to assist you in understanding what my “theological existence” looks like. I prefer to speak of “theological existence” instead of “theology.” I get that term from Karl Barth who, in opposition to the politics of Hitler and National Socialism, wrote a pamphlet in 1933 against the imposition of laws of sheer injustice. It is called Theological Existence Today. He made it utterly plain that theology is true to itself only when it issues into people’s existence, that is, into their day-to-day contexts or, as we say colloquially: “doing theology.” Or perhaps like this: “Theology is not a noun, it is a verb”. Barth wrote that pamphlet in face of what was going on then in Germany, and said that he was going to do theology and nothing but theology as if nothing had happened. I concede that on the surface that is an ambiguous statement but only if you ignore the context of that period, namely that Christians and their churches were celebrating Hitler’s ascendancy as a divinely given event, a gift of God to the German people, an intervention of heaven to make Germany great again! (to borrow and reword a current slogan.) Barth’s phrase “as if nothing had happened” declared simply but provocatively that Hitler and all that was “a nothing” in the manner of Jeremiah’s assertion (10:15 and 51:18) “They are worthless, a work of delusion” (NRSV), “They are worth nothing, mere mockeries” (NEB), “They are delusion, a work of mockery” (Tanakh), “C’est du vent, un oeuvre ridicule, tout cela sera balayé” (La Bible en français courant), “Ein Nichts sind diese Gebilde, ein Werk der Gaukelei” (BigS: Those figments are nothingness, a work of tricksters) – If I could speak more languages, I would use them all to rub in Barth’s utterly perceptive judgment that what was happening was not something that calls for ecclesial blessing and theological underpinning. –  A “theological existence” was required where, as the woman’s sign puts it, “Resistance becomes duty”  becomes resisting existence.

The land of my birth, of my ancestry, its culture, history, and standards of personal and social behaviour, is Germany. My father’s ancestry is be traced back to the reign of Charlemagne in the 9th century of the common era; the Emperor had given manumission to peasants among whom were my ancestors. My mother’s goes back to the Baltic Sea privateer Klaus Störtebecker in the 14th century c.e. I was born in 1935; Hitler was at the height of his popularity. Three weeks after my birth the infamous Nuremberg Laws were promulgated and swiftly acted upon. Father was employed by the huge industrial conglomerate I.G. Farben, with the Krupp Works essential providers of for and in the war Hitler had been planning even before he became chancellor. I.G. Farben is known also for its largest factory installation in Auschwitz-Monowitz. Without going into further details of father’s work, I think of myself as a perpetrator’s child. I knew no one Jewish; after all my country was judenrein. It was not until my family was moved by father’s employer to Montréal in 1952 and I began studies at McGill University that I had contact with Jews. As a result I came to recognize how full of deceit and ideological perversion the anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism was that I had learned in my previous 17 years, both by osmosis and by teaching at school and church. It took many years before I was ready to face that legacy and began to question how that twinned perversion had shaped my values, my sense of direction in life, my faith and theology, in other words: my theological existence. If it had not been for a number of Jewish women and men, who invited me into relationships of friendship and trust, I would not have been able to face the legacy that is shaped by the knowledge of the Holocaust. They enabled me to face the inability to mourn that marked my parents and, for too many years after the war that Hitler’s Germany had forced on the world, on my native land and on the church. Those Jews, among whom I wish to name the late Elie Wiesel (of blessed memory), and increasingly close friends and colleagues in Germany who are on the journey I share with them, have, like good Rabbis, taught me to look for openings to building new relationships with the people which my country sought to eradicate as well as the faith in the God of Israel.

If I may use a technical term from my discipline: by means of a narrative like that I identify my hermeneutics, the way I look at life, at my theological existence, as my being one who is called to love the Holy One with all my heart, my soul, my mind and my neighbour who is like me. (This, by the way, is how Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig translate the “greatest of all commandments and the second which is like the first” in their remarkable 1920’s translation of the Tanakh into German.)

So, when I speak to you about “injustice” and “resistance” I do so as someone for whom Auschwitz is an compelling theological event. The Shoah is a reality that impinges on what theology does in a manner that philosopher Emil Fackenheim (of blessed memory) phrased as ” in face of the commanding voice of Auschwitz.” Another way to put this is to say – rephrasing Karl Barth a little bit: I will do theology because Auschwitz happened.

In the course which I offer this week here at the School, entitled: Governmental Oppression and Ecclesial Resistance, I work with three contexts that I consider theological factors. They are realities people on three continents have had to face and still do now which I believe impact theological existence to day in the form of that “commanding voice.” The first are the crimes against humanity of the Hitler regime; the second the misanthropy of South Africa’s Apartheid regime; and the third the Cultural Genocide against First Nations peoples. In all three of these the churches supplied faith-based, theological justification and, therefore, political support to the politics of the governments that had launched those programs. – A peculiar form of the “separation of church and politics! – But in all three cases the churches also were places where resistance was offered – or, at least in case of the first two. What I call “resistance” in the third – as I will address it later – came later on this continent, at least as I see it so far. I look at what those forms of resistance look like, what resource they drew on for offering resistance as a matter of faithfulness, and what theological existence may look like today as a result of that witness.                                                       ——————-

I will call on four of the many people whose witness guides me: Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christiaan Frederik Beyers Naudé, (all of blessed memory), and Ray Aldred (how should I say this: of blessed presence?)

Tonight my doorway into resistance as a duty when injustice has become law are words of Scripture: from the Torah, Deuteronomy, chapter 5, words that Moses spoke to the Israelites: Moses summoned all the Israelites and said to them: Hear O Israel, Adonai our God made a covenant with us the living, every one of us who is here today, and said: I, Adonai, am your God who brought you out of Egypt, the house of bondage: You shall have no other gods beside me. You shall not bow down to them or serve them. You shall not swear falsely by the name of Adonai your God. [In the translation of the Tanakh; the New English Bible renders the last part as follows: “You shall not make wrong use of the name of your God who will not leave unpunished who misuses the name of God’s name.”]  The second biblical assertion comes from Acts, a text Beyers Naudé selected for his sermon on the day in September 1963 when he took leave from his white South African Dutch Reformed Church (NG Kerk) congregation. He was the son of a founding members of the secret Afrikaans organization called the Afrikaaner Broederbond and a member of it himself. He had been shaken by the Sharpeville Massacre of March 21. 1960; it triggered a theological crisis in his life and, as a result, he left his church and congregation with these words: “We must obey God more than human beings!” (Acts 5:29)
A word now about how I tend to use the two key terms of my address: “Injustice” and “Resistance.”

The primary interpreters of injustice, in theological perspective, are those whom unjust laws target. (I deliberately use the term “target” to give expression to the intentionality and violence inflicted on those whom lawmakers have in their sight.) In Germany among those targeted were in particular Jews; in South Africa principally blacks; here on our continent (and in some ways still are) First Nations people. For me such targeted people have absolute priority in defining what injustice is, how it works, what it wreaks, and what is required to confront it so that relations of justice may be restored or even created for the first time.

I speak of resistance in the scope of this address in relation to theology. The best way I can tell you about how I connect those two poles is as follows: Instead of saying ‘theology of or in resistance’ I speak of ‘resisting theological existence.’ So, in the manner I put it earlier, I phrase it like this: “Resistance is not a noun, it is a verb.” It is a form of existing in life.                                                        —————-

The synod of the Confessing Church in Germany, meeting in the last days of May 1934 at the town of Barmen, approved and adopted a declaration of faith which was framed in a pattern which for me is  exemplary for how resisting theological existence structures itself. Karl Barth was the primary author of this declaration. – The Bible is listened to as the authoritative foundation. The word “authoritative” is essential here: the neo-Protestant approach to the Bible, born in the Enlightenment with its prioritizing of human reason as the ultimate arbiter also in matters of faith, ethics, and politics, was challenged; in its place, the Reformation’s recovery of what is said when we speak of “the Word” is direction-giving. – Let me show you how the Barmen Declaration does that.
The first article begins with the voice of Jesus as attested to in John’s Gospel (14:6, and 10:1and 9): “I am the Way, the Truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me. – Truly, I tell you, they who do not enter the sheepfold through the door but climb in somewhere else, are thieves and robbers. I am the door, all who enter through me will be saved.” That is followed by an imperative affirmation: “Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear, and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.” That then is followed by an imperative affirmation that, as I see it, signals resistance. “We reject the false notion that the Church could and should recognize as a source of its proclamation, beyond and besides this one Word of God, yet other events, powers, historic figures, and truths as God’s revelation.”

I won’t repeat this pattern of the other five articles, but will cite their imperative affirmations that demonstrate resisting theological existence. (2) “We reject the false notion that there could be areas of life in which we would belong not to Jesus Christ but to other lords, areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.” – (3) “We reject the false notion that the Church could have permission to hand over the form of its message and of its order to what it itself might wish or to the vicissitudes of the prevailing ideological and political convictions of the day.” – (4) “We reject the false notion that, apart from [its] ministry, the Church could, and could have permission to, give itself or allow itself to be given special leaders vested with ruling authority.” – (5) “We reject the false notion that beyond its special commission the State should and could become the sole and total order of human life and so fulfill the vocation of the Church as well. We reject the false notion that beyond its special commission The church should and could take on the nature, tasks and dignity which belong to the State and thus become itself an organ of the State.”  And finally (6) “We reject the false notion that with human vainglory the Church could place the Word and work of the God in the service of self-chosen desires, purposes and plans.”

Here, as in the case of Apartheid South Africa and in that of the cultural, and very real attack upon the First Nations, the issue of the separation of church and state lurks in the background. It is clear, that faced with the interlinkage of church and state that prevailed for long centuries in the western world – a pastor and theologian in the former German Democratic Republic characterized it pretty accurately as “the centuries-long copulation of church and state” –  a very delineation of the two became necessary with the growth of democracy. But since then, that separation has been used all too often by the state for its benefit and to the detriment of the nature and mission of the church as they are depicted in the scriptures of the First and Second Testaments. In my judgment, the declarations that the various ecclesial councils in Germany and South Africa issued in response to how the governments in those two countries gladly accepted the churches’ theological underpinning of their politics, make it so very obvious that a renewed “copulation” was happening. For the politics envisaged in those declarations was an imposition of injustice phrased in the garment of laws. Attentive to the testimony of the Bible, and by their confession of faith an in their theology, people refused such interlinkage with the state and embraced the freedom for a theological existence called “the duty to resist.”
I turn to Dietrich Bonhoeffer now to highlight two aspects that are part of the practice of theology or faith-based resistance. – The first of these is this: Even before he became an active participant in the plans to assassinate Hitler, he shared Immanuel Kant’s conviction that when justice perishes human life on earth has lost its meaning. He also could have reworded is as this: when human life is rendered meaningless, injustice becomes the rule. He declared in a quasi Kantian imperative that: “Only they who cry out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants,” that is, address the Holy One in prayer. In a meditation he composed for the baptism of his godson Dietrich he wrote that we can be Christians today only in two ways through prayer and in doing justice among human beings. The strength and integrity of Christian faith, which according to Bonhoeffer is most accurately characterized as Nachfolge, as discipleship, does not reside in its self-consciousness but in its ability to be not only self-critical and repentant (about which I will speak later) but also to doing justice – which in the faith of Israel is called “hearing and doing the Torah”, like Jesus did.

The second aspect is how Bonhoeffer helped hid fellow-conspirators in dealing with the issue of taking violent action, of assassinating the murderous dictator. I don’t know whether Bonhoeffer knew the Talmud-saying: “The Holy One – blessed be His Name –  says ‘even when a criminal is killed, one of my creatures is destroyed.’ If God is burdened that much by the spilled blood of a criminal, how much more will the Holy One be burdened by the spilled blood of the innocent, the righteous?” But that verse (I don’t know the exact source) brings together the dilemma those men faced: The Torah commands us not to murder (by the way, I really like the Buber-Rosenzweig rendition of that commandment; instead of the familiar “You shall not kill” they say “Morde nicht” Murder Not!) It also commands us to “love the neighbour.” Here discipleship is caught between conflicting commandments. The resisters seeking to bring an end to Hitler’s genocidal politics eventually realized that they had no other option for ending the killing except to resort to murder, that is to break the commandment “Murder Not!” and make use of violence. The love of neighbour compelled that action; they had to destroy one of God’s creatures and burden God with spilling the blood of the criminal dictator. But the God whom they worshipped was much more burdened by the spilled blood of the children and children’s’ children of Sarah and Abraham and many others.

The reason why I refer to that particular historical situation is because of the theological foundation on which Bonhoeffer advanced his support for choosing obedience to the commandment to love the neighbour and rejecting obedience to obey the one that prohibits murder. Another reason for my addressing this particular option is that – as you will see in a moment – I want to include repentance as an essential feature of resistance. – It was very clear to Bonhoeffer that in practice almost every form of resistance incurs guilt in one way or another, be it through breaking laws of the land, offending human rights, twisting moral principles, ignoring divine laws. What Bonhoeffer understood was that the assumption that we can exist before God without guilt is baseless, but not on account of what the church speaks of as “original sin” or what Reinhold Niebuhr in his brilliant work Moral Man and Immoral Society calls “man’s inclination to injustice.” Bonhoeffer, who had been Niebuhr’s student, builds on God’s calling us into freedom to act responsibly, that is to say, our obligation to weigh what options are open to us to act in the doing of justice and then deciding by means of reason exercised in community what action is to be taken, even it that will render us guilty. And – the for me – theological breakthrough is the willing acceptance of guilt that Bonhoeffer urges us to embrace. In his retrospective on the years since Hitler’s ascension to power, entitled After Ten Years, he writes”

…free responsibility is founded in a God who calls for the free venture of faith into  responsible action and who promises forgiveness and consolation to those who on account of such action becomes guilty… I believe that God can and will let good come out of everything, even the greatest evil…I believe that even our mistakes and shortcomings are not in vain and that it is no more difficult for God to deal with them than with our supposedly  good deeds. I believe that God is no timeless fate but waits for and responds to sincere prayer and responsible actions.

A recent interpreter of Bonhoeffer, Sabine Dramm, speaks here of “the liberation to accept guilt.” This is an important concept in that it leads to an understanding of resistance that includes metanoia, the Greek term that implies turning back, turning around, turning in a different direction, a reorientation of purpose, and the subsequent commitment to seeking new justice-based relationships. 

I turn now to Beyers Naudé and, with his own words, transition to the last of the witnesses I named earlier: Ray Aldred.

I constantly ask myself, how is it possible that a community…deeply religious, claiming to be devoutly Christian, building its whole life – or claiming to build its life, and also its political structure – on the recognition of God’s sovereignty…remove forcibly three and a half million people from their land, from where they live, from where they had settled down, from where they are happy as a community, force them into arid, remote areas where the possibility of livelihood, of income, of existence is in fact so small that for all practical purposes it is a process of slow death which they are facing?…I face the agony of this, especially because I know that the people who are in control and in power doing this, these are my people…What are the basic roots, what are the deepest roots of such injustice, of such in humanity?…I do believe that it is a theological problem and not just political or social, as we are always told…I think the first reason…is that in the Afrikaaner society there is such a deep sense of loyalty to a wrong concept. Loyalty to your people, loyalty to your country, loyalty to patriotism, have in a certain sense…been converted into deeply religious values. So that any who are seen to be disloyal to their nation, to their people, are not only deemed to be traitors, but in the deeper sense of the word, they are seen as betraying God…There is a deeply grounded wrong understanding of God’s intention with us, in the understanding of salvation as salvation of individuals who will be freed from this more or less bad world which can never be changed. It’s not an understanding of the kingdom of God, it’s about the salvation of the ego in a way, so individualism is really at the heart of this religion…Whenever you disagree with this golden calf, and say: ‘No this is not the God who led us out of Egypt, this is not our God,’ then they shout you are a communist…made into a non-person…I have discovered that truth normally is revealed to us only in situations of crisis, where you are forced into the crucible, where you have to make a choice, where you’ve got to get clarity in your own mind, as to where does justice lie, where does liberation lie, where it is no longer possible to say: I remain neutral. There is no neutrality possible, or no true neutrality, in a situation of crisis. We have misunderstood the concept of reconciliation so that the church, or many parts of the church leadership, believe that you can only truly be a reconciling agent if you remain neutral, and that’s not possible…You must first of all stand on the side of truth. And then you can become a truly reconciling factor, because then you help your opponents to discover  the fact of their not understanding the truth, and the moment both parties come to discover where the truth lies, also the truth of God’s love, the truth of true commitment and community, the truth of people living together without fear, that moment that is discovered, then your true reconciliation becomes a motivating and renewing force.

As I listen to Beyers Naudé, I recognize that the most genuine aim of resistance is not to “eliminate” those resisted but to change their heart and mind. This, too, is a dimension of loving the neighbour like someone who is like you, like you as a creature of God whose blood is not to be spilled. I also recognize that Naudé came to his insights – to a deeper comprehension of theological existence – as the result of his encounters with those upon whom the regime of Apartheid was assaulting. Did you not also hear echoes of the assault on the people of Canada’s First Nations when he spoke of the creation  and enforcement of the Bantustans?

My perception of the Holocaust could arrive only through my contacts with Jews who had born the viciousness of my people’s assault on them and through their willingness to go on going with me. I would like to make use of the image of Israel’s patriarch Jacob in the story told in Genesis 32: Jacob wrestling with someone for a whole night which resulted in Jacob’s thigh being out of joint. He would limp ever after. My theological gait is a limp, figuratively speaking. There is a brokenness in wrestling with what the Shoah has wrought and how I can live a theological existence.
This is where Professor Aldred and his perspective brings help in the search for and the actual creation of right relationships. His approach includes, as I interpret him, two components of resistance I have mentioned already. The first – which I take over from Beyer Naudé – is that resistance does not seek to destroy but to change the opponent’s. The second component in his theological approach is this: Determining the reasons for resisting, deciding what actions to take, and what is to be achieved must give room to the voices of those who bear violence of injustice. They have what I call epistemological priority.

The three steps of his approach, which I clearly appreciate as a theological one, are the three tasks identified in how restorative justice advances: truth-telling, serious listening to those who bear the pain of injustice, and together with them share in planning the goal to be achieved, the road that leads to it, and who the actors are that need to act. – A neat way to picture theological existence in a context where repentance is understood as a necessary aspect of resistance!

I quote from his essay “Missions to Native Peoples: Moving from Charity to Justice” which he addresses to the churches in Canada: Telling the truth from a restorative point of view means being honest about the damage inflicted on Aboriginal peoples through missions to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people. In this instance it involves owning the sin of residential schools and the ongoing ambivalence within non-Indigenous Canada toward Indigenous identity…The legacy of the residential schools is a stark reminder that for the colonial and neo-colonial church, the end justifies the means. Under the pretense of raising well-educated, well-behaved children, Canada darted paternalistic and, even worse, racist plans to re-socialize Aboriginal children into the Canadian nation-state. But she believed it was so ordained by God.

The task of telling the truth must be accompanied by a shift from too much talking to morelistening. True listening is not just hearing the words…it involves the emotions and tries to understand the implications of the words one hears. This shift involves theological reflection of a kind that does not try to provide solutions to problems..; it attempts to understand how pain and sorrow fit in on the way to the resurrection…Listening is a key element of a Christian praxis that weeps with those who weep and rejoices in such small victories as acknowledging the dignity of all human beings…With [shifting] away from triumphalism Canadian churches acknowledge that they are broken…The restoration of justice or wholeness allows perpetrators to hear the pain that have caused. In hearing the pain there is opportunity to feel, and these feelings give strength to imagine what repentance could look like; [it allows them] to feel and then to begin to take responsibility for what has happened.

It requires that [perpetrators] work with their victims and others to find a just resolution that heals the wounds. To facilitate the shared plan the church must give up its dominant role in the partnership and move from leading to being led…It is not an empire in the making but the broken body of Jesus given for the world…The restoring of land and dignity to Indigenous people in Canada is part of the responsibility of Canadian churches. It involves confession (telling the truth), listening (taking responsibility), and repairing the damage (restitution).

This is an ongoing process according to Professor Aldred. Dr. Russell Daye, lead minister at Saint Andrew’s United Church in Halifax speaks of such a process as “political forgiveness” and describes that in relation to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. The commission made forgiveness a political possibility; it showed that victimized people became what Jesus meant his followers to be among other things, namely ambassadors for forgiveness, not waiting for the oppressors to take the first step through confession but rather initiating reconciliation. “By offering pardon to their oppressors, sometimes even before it had been asked for, they were calling out the humanity of perpetrators and apartheid oppressors. The TRC can similarly be seen as an exercise that, through its forgiveness discourse, called out the decency, the empathy, and the moral courage of all South Africans who had become embittered by apartheid and the struggle to end it.”
Anger becoming resolve, despair changing into empathy – a mark of resistance when seen theologically.                                                                                                     —————–

I conclude. – Film-maker Michael Moore is working on a new film which he calls – quasi as a sequel to his film on September 11. 2001, called: Fahrenheit 9/11, to be called Fahrenheit 11/9, the date of the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America. Soon there were heard voices that called that date and the man elected a blessing, a gift of the Spirit. I can do no other than to defy that view and to offer resistance. I take my stand on what Jeremiah exclaimed (using the French translation I had cited earlier): “C’est du vent, une oeuvre ridicule. Tout cela sera balayé, quand le Seigneur interviendra.” For I am persuaded by Jeremiah’s conviction that when Adonai – blessed be the Name – intervenes, such laughable, wind-blown assertions will prove themselves to be idolatries which are to be resisted in the name of the One affirmed in Israel’s confession: “Sh’mah Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu echad! –  Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One!”

I thank you for your kind attention.