David B Hunsicker

Ecclesia en Exodus Blog

Thoughts on Christianity and the Church after Christendom.

Book of the Week: Our God Loves Justice by W. Travis McMaken

Fortress, 2017

Fortress, 2017

Book 14: Our God Loves Justice by W. Travis McMaken

Genre: Theology

I was awful about blogging last month. I could make excuses—the end of the semester, preaching a sermon, oh ... and baseball season started. But the reality is, I was just lazy. I kept up on my reading, but neglected the writing. But it's May and all of that is over now. Just like the Cubs, I spent April in mediocrity but I'm gonna come into May on a winning streak. 

This week's book is by an author I met a number of years ago at a conference at Princeton. In Our God Loves Justice, Travis McMaken introduces us to one of the twentieth century's greatest political theologians, Helmut Gollwitzer. Gollwitzer was an active member of the Confessing Church movement during the Third Reich, preaching in Martin Niemoller's stead after his arrest. He was subsequently banned from speaking, conscripted into the German military, and became a POW in Soviet Russia for a number of years after the war. When he was released, he returned to West Germany and became Karl Barth's theological protege and heir. He played an active role in the development of democratic socialism in West Germany. There is a long history of Christianity and democratic socialism working together in German politics. Today, that includes the coalition government that is lead by Angela Merkel, who's father was a Lutheran pastor and theologian.

For Gollwitzer, these political impulses overlap with basic Christian convictions about who God is and how God's people act in the world. Initially, based on his experience in Soviet Russia, Gollwitzer was very critical of socialism; however, as he returned to West Germany and came to terms with the impact that capitalism had on society, he became convinced that Christianity's greatest struggle was not with totalitarian forms of socialism but with the more subtle totalitarianism that results from capitalism.

Gollwitzer's work remains mostly in German. Those works that were published in English in the 1960s and 1970s enjoyed limited printings before disappearing from the English theological scene almost as soon as they arrived. McMaken's greatest contribution, then, is to introduce Gollwitzer to the English-speaking theological world and, more importantly, the American Church—which, McMaken rightly notes, is desperate for resources that can help us to come to terms with the effects of capitalism on our political life.


A Brief Disclaimer:

I am going to spend a lot more time and space summarizing McMaken's book than I normally do. In these "Book of the Week" posts, I try to focus less on content and more on my impressions. I am giving a lot more space to content here because I suspect my readers will probably never read Gollwitzer or McMaken and I want them to have as much familiarity with the subject matter as possible. If you have read Gollwitzer or McMaken—or if you are short on time—you might want to scroll to the end, where I register my initial thoughts about the work and the ideas discussed here.


Gollwitzer's Theology

McMaken summarizes Gollwitzer's theology with three related theses:

  1. God is nonobjectifiable.
  2. All theology is contextual.
  3. All theology is political.


The Nonobjectifiability of God

The nonobjectifiability of God has its origins in the dialectical theology movement of the early 20th century. It was most famously associated with Barth's Romans commentary, where he spoke of the "wholly other God" and the "infinite qualitative distinction" between God and humanity. For Gollwitzer, Barth is certainly influential on this point; but Bultmann is also (and, in the background for all of them is the dialogical personalism of Martin Buber). Barth's rejection of natural theology and "the domestication of transcendence" (to borrow a line from William Placher) certainly inform Gollwitzer's theology. But Gollwitzer also learns something of the same lesson from Bultmann in a way that probably would have surprised Barth. McMaken argues that Bultmann's demythologization is a similar theological move. Demythologization relativizes all human culture, distinguishing God from human, gospel from inculturation. This is not to say, however, that theological claims are able to be purely extracted from their cultural context. And this is McMaken's second thesis.


All Theology is Contextual

For Gollwitzer, all theology is contextual because this "wholly other" God always encounters us in an event of faith. Theology will always be reflections on these encounters; however, no single reflection is sufficient for all times and places. Gollwitzer's own theology moves along the lines of liberation theology, albeit with a greater sense of liberation theology's debt to Barth to the extent that his theological ethics frees human agency to act in service to neighbor. In particular, Gollwitzer engages with American Black Theology and the European Student movements with his work. Some worry that this means that the church "takes sides" in political matters. To this, Gollwitzer argues that the church has always taken sides; when it has not engaged in political issues, it has de facto endorsed the status quo. This brings us, finally, to McMaken's third point.


All theology is Political

Gollwitzer's theology, self-aware of its already contextual and political nature, intentionally seeks to overcome a number of trends common to western Protestant Theology. Chief among them, McMaken claims, is the church's tendency to flee from political action to spiritualism or pietism. To the contrary, Gollwitzer understands Christians to hold a great deal of political responsibility, both as a community and as individuals. This is not to say that Christians should operate with a well-planned political program; instead, it merely means that Christians should exercise deliberation and political action in accordance with some basic theological principles that reflect Christian convictions. First, Christians ought to remember that their God is a God of peace. Wherever possible, Christians ought to promote peace and despise war. Second, "our God loves justice" (to echo the title of the book). Christians ought to work for the promotion of justice. Importantly, this means determining a baseline for "justice" in accordance with God's Word—the liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ. Third, the Christian God is a God of mercy. This means that Christians need to pursue politics that promote asking for and giving forgiveness to each other.


Christian Political Action

After extrapolating Gollwitzer's theology along these three lines, McMaken then demonstrates how these theological claims inform Gollwitzer's political leanings. In particular, we see how these impulses lead Gollwitzer to criticize capitalism and advocate for revolution.


The Problem with Capitalism

Gollwitzer became increasingly uncomfortable with the effects that capitalism had on democracy. He believed that the two could not truly coexist because democracy would always be undercut by money. In short, those with money would always find themselves exercising greater influence at the expense of those on the margins. To this end, Gollwitzer would eventually suggest that (a) socialism is the true economic companion of democracy, and (b) Christians must be socialists, i.e. they must be against the types of class and authority structures that capitalism creates.

McMaken sees the power of Gollwitzer's critique of capitalism in western Christianity especially. He focuses on the themes of charity, privilege, and the kingdom of God in order to demonstrate how capitalism has particularly plagued North American Christianity.



In the Christian tradition, charity "depends on an individual of means deciding to part with a portion of those means to alleviate the misery of the poor" (107). The limit to charity is that it does not address the social conditions that place so many people in such great need; it merely alleviates the worst and most emergent effects of the structural problems that produce poverty in the first place. By not calling capitalism into question, McMaken argues, traditional forms of Christian charity actually endorse capitalism (remember: all theology is political). Even worse, the effects of capitalism are so wide-reaching that charity simply cannot keep up with the need created. In this regard, the real motivation behind charity tends to be either (a) a pressure valve that allows those who benefit from capitalism to release their contentious misgivings about their fortune, or (b) a means to reinforce the dependency that the needy have on the privileged class.



All societies struggle with privileged classes of individuals—aristocracies. The virtue of capitalism—we are told—is that privilege is transferred from blood lines to ingenuity and hard work. And yet, this new aristocracy maintains itself at the expense of the labor of the many. Owning the idea, the technology, the machines, etc. means that all surplus income generated from production goes back into the pocket of the wealthy while the working class is largely interchangeable, and always on the verge of abject poverty and the need for charity.

Gollwitzer worries that capitalism undermines distributive justice exactly to the extent that the manner in which wealth is distributed is unjust: the laborers receive less than their labor should be worth and the owners receive more than their means of production are worth. This is the means by which we end up with the gap between the 1% and the 99%, to use the language of Occupy Wall Street and Bernie Sanders. 

The radical egalitarian bent to Gollwitzer's work comes from his determination that all theology is political and his subsequent application of that determination to the doctrine of justification. In Luther's doctrine of justification, all Christians stand equally before the cross in need of salvation, and salvation is given equally without any regard to merit. Privilege is utterly obliterated. 

Where Christians do find themselves privileged today, the task before them is (1) to acknowledge that their privilege is not the result of divine providence, for all are equal before the cross, (2) to think practically about the ways they can use their privilege specifically to benefit those without privilege, and (3) to think principally about ways to bring about an end to the systems that placed them in a position of privilege in the first place. 

For Gollwitzer, the western Church has largely been a privileged class. And insofar as it had privilege, it chose, in different times and places, to ignore the plight of many (slavery, poor working conditions, totalitarian regimes, the holocaust). The God we see in Jesus is a God who did not consider privilege something to be grasped, but chose instead humility (Phil. 2). 


The Kingdom of God

Much of Gollwitzer's thinking to this point is obviously influenced by Marxist analysis. For Gollwitzer, there is an important distinction to be made between ideological marxism and the strategic use of marxist criticism. For Christians, it must always be the latter. The great dividing line between Christianity and Marxism revolves around the future orientation for both. For Christians, the great eschatological hope is the kingdom of God; for marxists, it is a godless utopia. 

The Kingdom of God is a radical (otherworldly) interruption to this world. If it is to be thought of in the language of utopia, it must be understood to be "absolute utopia." It relativizes all possible human visions of flourishing by the reality that it is God's vision for human flourishing. To this end, Gollwitzer allows that there are possible analogies between "relative utopias" (that is, human visions for a better society) and the "absolute utopia" of the Kingdom of God; nevertheless, Christians believe that, as with all analogies, there is greater dissimilarity than similarity. None of these "relative utopian" visions are on their way to becoming the Kingdom of God. Christians live in a state of "permanent revolution" to the extent that the status quo is always less than the vision for God's kingdom. Even as Christians may participate in political actions that bring about a relatively more just society, they must always be uncomfortable with the present age and long for the Kingdom.



Gollwitzer's theology leans towards pacifism. This is not ideological, but practical. Given his concerns about capitalism, he is worried that war has become a tool used by capitalist societies to maintain privilege and technological advantage and to expand empire. He is further worried that tradition concepts of Just War are rendered moot by nuclear weapons.  

Even so, he maintains the possibility that Christians might participate in the use of violence when it especially is  connected to the theme of just revolution. As previously suggested, Christians live in a state of "permanent revolution" to the extent that they are always discomforted by the status quo and always looking toward the coming Kingdom. The sad fact is that Christianity has tended to assume an apolitical posture that tends to actually be political to the extent that it serves as a de facto endorsement of the status quo. The church has been "anti-revolutionary"—which actually turns out to be revolutionary towards capitalism: "a revolution of the white, Christianized, Protestant peoples", Gollwitzer writes (133).

In keeping with Gollwitzer's thoughts about privilege, the response to Christianity's silent support for the status quo is a move towards dismantling the structures that perpetuate the status quo: a revolution. This may sometimes be "reform", or working within the established systems to effect more approximate forms of a just society; however, it may also sometimes require "revolution". Revolution is working from the outside in order to undermine current systems of power and to replace them with relatively better systems. While revolutionary violence is not preferred, it is possible, for Gollwitzer, that there is something like "Just War" tradition that might be called "Just Revolution." The criteria for such a revolution are: (a) an oppressive power that needs to be overthrown, (b) demonstration that other possible non-violent revolutionary means are not possible, (c) avoidance of indiscriminate killing and unnecessary suffering, (d) avoidance of terrorism or actions motivated by revenge, (e) maintaining the rights of the oppressed, and (f) a decision for revolution that is made by a whole community, not just an individual.


The Church

McMaken's final chapter addresses Gollwitzer's ecclesiology, demonstrating how his ecclesiology is the logical outworking of his political theology. Consistent with his theological commitment to God's non-objectifiability, Gollwitzer holds the church to be an event of encounter between the people of God and the Word of God. McMaken leverages this claim to register a complaint against cultural-linguistic accounts of the church as its own culture and against the ever-popular communion ecclesiologies of the late 20th century ecumenical movement. 

Gollwitzer's ecclesiology mirrors his theology. McMaken writes: "the church cannot be objectified; therefore, the church is contextual; therefore, the church is political" (156). First, the church cannot be objectified because to identify any one particular form of the event of God's encounter as its objective form is to domesticate it, and thus, to naturalize it into a kind of theology that allows us to have revelation on our own terms. Second, this means the church will always be contextual to the extent that it will always be gathered around the Word of God in that time and place. Finally, the church is political. For Gollwitzer, the sacraments especially are the means by which the church is gathered around one baptism and one table. Baptism and Eucharist particularly stand as reminders that the church has compromised the integrity of the sacraments by dividing itself along racial and class distinctions. 

McMaken ends the work with the suggestion that the American church is in status confessionis, that is, a time when the church must take a confessional stand if it would continue to be the church of Jesus Christ. For McMaken, that stand must be made over and against a type of cultural christianity captive to capitalism. For it to do so, it will need the critical thought of people like Gollwitzer in order to formulate its position.


Some Thoughts

In general, I think McMaken's work helpful towards his overall goal. If American Christians are going to rethink their relationship to capitalism, they will need to become familiar with some of the resources of the last generation of European Christians who engaged with Marxism, Capitalism, secularization, and the purpose of the church in 20th century Western society. I would add Jacques Ellul's name to any list of thinkers that could be included here. The problem, of course, is that Americans are allergic to socialism and immediately suspicious of European thinkers. Even the current pope has trouble convincing American catholics that his teachings are more Christian than socialist. The more we engage these thinkers, the more, perhaps, it will become possible to imagine that Christianity is more basic that capitalism or socialism. Nevertheless, we will have to come to terms with the fact that Christianity looks more like socialism in some places than it does capitalism.

Several things struck me as interesting about McMaken's introduction. First, I found it surprising how similar Gollwitzer sounded to John Howard Yoder on a number of points. Obviously, the critique of "Constantinianism" is similar, as are some of the political implications of the gospel. Perhaps this is because both draw deeply from the gospel of Luke. There will be the expected differences (absolute pacifism, church/world questions, etc), but I think it would probably be a fruitful exercise to bring them into conversation to see if each could sharpen the other in a critique of American Christianity. 

Second, I was a little confused about McMaken's critique of Lindbeck as a type of Christendom church. We are told again and again that these cultural-linguistic models produce "sectarians"; churches that withdraw from society instead of continue in the project of propping society up. Now, McMaken is suggesting this is actually a continuation of christendom. What I take him to mean is simply that the "church as an alternative culture" still locates the being of the church in the institutional structures of the church instead of in the event of encounter with the Word of God. Usually, when scholars try to level this criticism at Stanley Hauerwas, they tend to complain that his theology is "ecclesiocentric" instead of "theocentric", which is another way of saying it gives to much emphasis to human agency and not enough to divine agency.

But this is where I lose Gollwitzer (or McMaken?). For Gollwitzer, the church exists as it is gathered around the Word of God. It is "an earthly-historical community", McMaken tells us, "insofar as it is gathered together by this message" (157). But at this crucial point, McMaken appeals to Calvin's marks of the church (the Word proclaimed and the sacraments administered) as a description of what this earthly-historical church looks like. There is the event, and then there is the earthly community who gathers week after week in anticipation of the event. There is real human agency. At least for Calvin and McMaken. It is not clear to me if it is for so for Gollwitzer at this point. Yet a few pages later, we learn that the sacraments function politically in Gollwitzer's ecclesiology to critique society and the church itself (to the extent that it is captive to society). Thus, it seems that to say the church is political is to say that the church's political agency is located in its liturgy (the work of the people). And now, we are starting to sound like Hauerwas. 

Third, I am surprised by how little Christology is a part of McMaken's introduction. I have not read Gollwitzer, so I cannot say if this is original to Gollwitzer's own work or if it is unique to McMaken's reading. The nonobjectifiability of God is a central theme for a number of dialectical theologians; yet, for many, the diastasis between creator and creation is overcome in the incarnation, and this is defining claim of Christianity. Is this there for Gollwitzer? Is his commitment to dialogue with Judaism preventing him from giving this theme more space? I would be interested to learn more about this. I suspect that his early sermons on Luke—which McMaken claims were foundational—would have some influence on his thinking here. 


UPDATE (5/3/18): Travis has generously and quickly responded to my thoughts and some questions I raised here.  He has also created a reading list for anyone interested in trying to read Gollwitzer in English.