Can theology continue to exist after a collective experience of horrendous violence – and if yes, how? Several panels of the Political Theologies after Christendom conference which took place in March 2023 at the University of Oxford were dedicated to this question.
Conference website: https://www.bsg.ox.ac.uk/events/political-theologies-after-christendom
The conclusion was that, on the one hand, theology should not be completely abandoned in response to collective trauma since it contains unique resources for processing pain and despair. Theology can provide human beings with a language that expresses the hope of a better future, which – at least for some of us – is vital for being able to go on and continue the struggle for a better world. On the other hand, Christian churches themselves have historically all too often been perpetrators of horrendous violence. Thus, in post-conflict-scenarios, the involved churches have to undergo a close examination of the role they played in the conflict. Theological ideas that have fuelled hatred and violence need to be identified and rejected for the future, and the theological teaching need to undergo a radical transformation that takes the experiences of the victims and survivors into account.
The case studies discussed at the conference ranged from post-war Germany over the Western Balkans and South Africa to the former Soviet Union. In the latter case, a particular focus lay on the current Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the course of the conference, it became clear that theological responses to horrendous violence need to be multi-faceted, and that the old question of theodicy is often less important than the question of anthropodicy, of the justification of humankind in the face of collective inhumanity. For scholars like me, a German citizen and practicing Protestant Christian, this means that it is necessary to confront myself with the concrete question: How could it happen that my church was on the side of the perpetrators and bystanders in those horrible events? And which theological ideas have led it to the dehumanisation of others?
Christian theology has to undergo a painful process of self-examination in the face of events of horrendous violence such as the Shoah. Otherwise, it will become detached from the experiences of believers and no longer provide spiritual comfort – and this is often true for the descendants of the perpetrators of violence and of the victims and survivors likewise. In this process of self-examination, it is crucial that theologians pay close attention to the experiences of the victims and survivors of violence. Otherwise, the processing of guilt is prone to become a narcissistic endeavour. One theological thinker who has modelled such an approach to the past failures of his own church is the German Catholic post-Shoah-theologian Johann Baptist Metz. With his call for a memoria passionis, a remembrance of suffering, Metz turned the attention to the perspective of those who suffered and continue to suffer the most. In a slightly different, but related approach, his colleague Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt attempted to rewrite traditional Protestant theology in conversation with contemporary Jewish theology and philosophy. While compared to Metz’s approach, Marquardt’s work is less focused on the memory of the victims and survivors of the Shoah, he nevertheless decentres the Christian perspective and listens to the voices of those who were historically oppressed by Christianity.
However, the process of radical self-examination cannot be confined to academic theology. The case study of Germany and post-Shoah theology demonstrates that church bodies played a significant role in facilitating and communicating a change in theological attitudes towards Judaism. Both on the Catholic and on the Protestant side, the official teachings of the churches on Judaism and its relationship to Christianity have been thoroughly revised in response to the Shoah, beginning with the ‘Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions’ by the Vatican (also known as ‘Nostra Aetate’) in 1965, and, for the present, ending with the official decision of the Protestant Church in Germany to reject the proselytising of Jews in 2016. Jewish communities perceived and acknowledged those official changes in Christian doctrine and responded with their own documents, most famously the 2000 declaration ‘Dabru Emet’ and the 2015 declaration ‘To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven’. In those documents, Jewish scholars and rabbis expressed their appreciation for the churches’ changed attitude towards Judaism as well as for the shared heritage and shared goals of Judaism and Christianity. However, while ‘Dabru Emet’ and ‘To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven’ are testimonies to a progress that has been made in Jewish-Christian relations, since 2015, the international community has seen a new rise in antisemitism. Thus, there is no reason for the churches to rest on their laurels. They rather have to continue their critical self-examination and, where necessary, turn it into advocacy work.
In post-Shoah Germany, change did not only occur through ‘top down’ decisions made in church commissions, but also through grassroots work in local congregations and schools. Apart from church-funded actors such as the regional taskforces on Jewish-Christian relations in the Catholic and Protestant churches in Germany, non-profit-organisations such as the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace have done ground-breaking work in this field. Grassroots work can involve a range of activities, from study trips to Israel over memorial services on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day to secondary school projects on the Jewish history of city quarter. It can also include ‘hands on’ work such as restoring and maintaining Jewish cemeteries that would otherwise be abandoned because the descendants of the deceased had to flee or were killed in concentration camps.
What is important both for ‘top down’ and for ‘bottom up’ theological responses to the Shoah, is seeking a balance between honouring the memory of the victims and survivors of and engaging with Judaism as a living religious and cultural tradition that cannot be reduced to its history of suffering. Thus, the encounter with living Jews plays a crucial role and has to be structurally embedded in any form of post Shoah-theology. In ‘top down’ approaches, this for example implies the inclusion of Jewish advisors in church commissions working on official declarations; and in ‘bottom up’-approaches, it involves informal encounters and conversations with fellow Jewish citizens. In those encounters, Christians are pushed to double-check their stereotypes about Judaism, to question their own religious convictions from the Jewish point of view, and to learn to understand that spiteful theological doctrines can cause harm to real human beings.
While the ongoing discussion of the topic of theologies after horrendous violence at the conference was productive and inspiring, one participant pointed out that the lack of cases studies from the British context was startling. Given the institutional context, theological responses to the British empire, for instance, would certainly have deserved a panel of their own. Furthermore, the role of Britain in the so-called ‘War on Terror’ was briefly mentioned by a participant, but otherwise noticeably absent in the debate. The absence of those topics probably reflects a general lacuna in theological scholarship, which will hopefully closed in the coming decade. Within the past three years, both the Church of England and the Church of Scotland have issued official statements about their past involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, and hopefully, this is only the beginning of a broader societal and scholarly discussion of the colonial heritage of Western churches in- and outside of Britain.
Hopefully, new projects and collaborations will emerge from the questions and debates stimulated by the Political Theologies after Christendom conference. One thing that is certain is that the necessity of adequate theological responses to horrendous violence has become evident for most of the participants. We might still have different opinions on how the concrete responses to concrete historical events should look like. However, a polyphony of approaches might actually strengthen the chances of a new movement of ‘theologies after’ to become influential within and outside of academia.
Cover image concept by Dr. Tornike Metreveli, developed with the assistance of OpenAI.