W. Travis McMaken
Fortress Press, 240 pages
Reviewed by Kenneth E. Kovacs
Thirty years ago, one of the assigned texts for Theology 101 at Princeton Seminary was “An Introduction to Protestant Theology” by Helmut Gollwitzer. It was the only text I read by him and I never learned anything more about him. It’s only now that I realize we were reading one of the most influential Protestant theologians of the 20th century. W. Travis McMaken aims to revitalize Gollwitzer’s legacy. McMaken believes that Gollwitzer’s challenging theological voice still has much to say to the church in North America, especially to white Christians in the United States who need to relinquish their privilege for the sake of the gospel.
Gollwitzer (1908-1993) began his theological studies in 1928. He earned his doctorate under Karl Barth, becoming one of Barth’s most significant students. Gollwitzer was a prophetic pastor-preacher in the Confessing Church resistance movement. He served as assistant pastor to Martin Niemöller in Berlin, before the Nazis arrested Niemöller in 1937. Gollwitzer was drafted into the German army and stationed on the eastern front, where he was captured by the Soviet forces in 1945. He remained a prisoner of war until 1949. These years afforded him the opportunity to seriously engage with Marxism in the Soviet Union. In 1950, he became professor of theology at the University of Bonn and was later appointed to the Free University of Berlin, where he was expected – as a theologian – to engage in interdisciplinary conversation and participate in the dialogue with Marxism. He was a leading public intellectual in post-war Germany, writing and preaching at the intersection of theology and politics.
Gollwitzer beautifully articulated the often-overlooked political, even radical, dimensions of dialectical theology. “The wholly other God,” he insisted, “wants a wholly other society.” This dictum served as the rationale for a continuous theological critique of everything in the church and society that stands in the way of the liberation of God’s people, of everything that hinders us from seeing “the horizon of the coming kingdom of God.” He called the church to act boldly in the face of authoritarianism. He warned the church against spiritualizing the gospel because it avoids the political. “A Church and a piety succumbs … precisely when it believes that it can be unpolitical,” which “is absolutely impossible.” All theology is political and politics is always theological. Because God loves justice, God “is established in our lives” in concrete political love. Gollwitzer forcefully judged the sins of capitalism, and made a convincing case for Christian socialism. (His important essays “Must a Christian Be a Socialist?” and “Why Am I, as a Christian, a Socialist?” are both included in the appendix.) And Gollwitzer was brutally honest about Christian complicity in colonialism and slavery. He would have much to say today about white privilege. Christians “do not become salt and light for humanity until we interpret the gospel theologically and practically that it hurts our privilege.”
“Our God Loves Justice” is a remarkable gift to the church. I’m grateful for this superb introduction to Gollwitzer, whose life and witness both inspires and challenges us in the living of these days. “The one thing that matters for the Church,” Gollwitzer insisted, “is that she should be both a danger and a help to the world.” May it be so.
Kenneth E. Kovacs is pastor at Catonsville Presbyterian Church in Maryland, and is author of “Out of the Depths: Sermons and Essays.”