Liberating Lutheran Theology: Freedom for Justice and Solidarity with Others in a Global Context (Fortress Press, 2011)

[1] As the title suggests, the authors of this book are engaged in an effort to liberate Lutheran theology from the onus of complicity in matters of political and economic injustice. In the first instance this is a matter of dispelling the distortions of Luther’s legacy that have from time to time led Lutheran churches around the world into quietism. The next and most important step, which is the paramount focus and purpose of the book, is to show how major themes of Luther’s theology and the contributions of others in Lutheranism can provide the basis for a strong Lutheran witness for justice in an ecumenical, globalized, and contextualized world.

[2] Part One, written by Craig L. Nessan, Academic Dean and Professor Contextual Theology at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, deals with theological voices of Latin America, North America and Europe. In the first chapter Nessan provides with an overview of Liberation theology as it developed in Latin American history. This historical perspective on liberation theology is important because, as Nessan points out, the historical experience of Latin America and liberation thought are tightly intertwined, the one constitutive of the other.

[3] Nessan begins with the colonial period of Spanish rule from 1492 to 1808 which saw the church and the forces of conquest linked in the dual purpose of converting the natives and exploiting the wealth of the land. Freedom from Spanish rule did not entirely change the situation as new forms of colonialism arose with a shift of economic dependency from Spain to other foreign economic powers. Even the concept of Third World development, emerging in the 50’s failed to meet its objectives despite the support of the United Nations, Kennedy’s “Alliance for Progress” and the advocacy of both Protestant and Catholic churches. This was a design to aid underdeveloped countries toward greater parity with developed nations. However, by the mid 60’s it was clear that the gap between rich and poor was widening as was the gap between developed and underdeveloped nations. The foreign powers took out more than they put in.

[4] The rejection of development theory and the stirrings caused by the Cuban revolution were among the forces, including notably the progressive spirit of Vatican II and a number of justice oriented encyclicals, which influenced the emergence of Latin American liberation theology. From the Protestant side the conferences of the World Council of Churches also contributed to the growing consciousness of the church’s call to seek justice.

[5] Nessan’s historical overview then takes us from the Medellin conference in 1968, through the subsequent proliferation of publications by liberation theologians, the efforts at repression that marked the seventies, the support of the 1979 Puebla conference, and the decade of the 80’s which saw the expansion of the liberationist agenda into feminist theology and ecology. However, the ‘80s also saw the intrusion of U.S. efforts to overthrow the Sandinista regime, as well as opposition to progressive movements in El Salvador and Guatemala. Added to this were the increasing opposition of the Vatican and the appointment of more conservative bishops throughout Latin America. Finally, in the ‘90s, Nessan observes, the triumph of global capitalism made previous arguments for structural change futile even though the need for justice for the poor was greater than ever. Conservative Latin American bishops continued to oppose liberation theology and the rise of Pentecostalism in Latin Americas also changed the scene.

[6] The developments of the most recent decades led some to consider liberation theology as a dead enterprise. However, it is Nessan’s judgment that, rather than declare the demise of liberation theology, the task is to appreciate its legacy and the ways in which it has altered “the entire global theological and ecclesial scene.” (33) It has become an integral part of theology in general and not merely an enclave. Even for those of us who have lived through the modern developments Nessan recounts benefit from this historical narrative. It not only provides for a better appreciation of liberation theology in Latin America but for a helpful case study in the contextual nature of theology and the church’s witness.

[7] Nessan’s next two chapters deal with liberations theology’s critique of Luther’s “two kingdoms” teaching and its reappropriation for Christian political responsibility. The primary liberationist voices in the evaluation of the two kingdoms tradition are Juan Luis Segundo and Walter Altmann. Segundo, while recognizing the liberative dimensions of this teaching in its original context, decries the dualistic interpretations of later generations of Lutherans and of the depoliticization of justification. Segundo sees the two kingdoms doctrine as establishing a strict separation of church and state. Walter Altmann argues for a dialectical relation between the two realms for which he sees support in Luther’s own, albeit premodern, dialectical approach. Such an approach precludes dualistic interpretations which would separate the gospel and politics, church and state. Nessan for his part affirms the dialectical model. He cautions us to distinguish what Luther meant in his own context from the interpretations that developed in the 19th and 20th centuries. He also reminds us that for Luther the two kingdoms teaching had to do primarily with the free course of the gospel; political implications were secondary.

[8] Nessan proposes that we reinterpret Luther’s two kingdoms thought as two distinct strategies serving God’s mission of establishing the one kingdom of God. (50-51) God’s right hand strategy uses the accusing function of the law revealing sin and leading to the gospel of divine forgiveness in Christ. The gospel sets Christians free from self-concern to pursue good works for the neighbor. The left hand strategy uses the political use of the law to create structures that promote life and justice which Christians participate in through their various stations in life. Uniting the two strategies in the mission of the one kingdom, according to Nessan, provides a framework for Christian political responsibility that overcomes the dualistic distortions of the past.

[9] Nessan concludes this first part by reiterating the enduring influence of liberation theology and its key construct of “orthopraxis.” To illustrate this claim he reviews its impress on a select number of European and North American theologians: Jürgen Moltmann, Hans Schwarz, George Kraus, Douglas John Hall, Donald Bloesch, and David Tracy. He concludes by observing that this is the only theology emerging from the third world that has had such a widespread influence in a variety of theological contexts.

[10] Part Two is written by Paul S. Chung, a U.S.-based theologian originally from Korea. Chung begins with a harsh critique of neoliberalism’s project of global capitalism in which people serve the economy and not the reverse. Neoliberalism’s “…ideology of globalization in favor of economic growth is coupled with efficiency and competition, and stands in contrast to ecological sustainability, as well as democracy and social justice.” (73)

[11] Chung pays tribute to the influence of Latin American liberation theologies, the work of Medellin and Puebla, previously mentioned, and the work of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the World Council of Churches, and the Lutheran World Federation for their commitments to a prophetic stance over against economic injustice and ecological destruction. Liberation theology has exposed neoliberalism in global capitalism as essentially a renewed form of dependency. (In dependency theory the less developed countries remain underdeveloped because they depend on the developed nations for manufactured goods and can only provide in return natural resources and labor; an unequal exchange.) Chung sees the need for a newly articulated liberation theology that can creatively address the problematic of global capitalism. He turns then to what he considers Martin Luther’s critique of early capitalism.

[12] In the first instance it is Luther’s writings against usury (Small and Great Sermon on Usury, 1519/20; Trade and Usury, 1524; Admonition to Clergy that They Preach against Usury, 1540) that give evidence of his disdain for the greedy of early capitalism and his concern for the welfare of the poor. From there Chung turns to the Large Catechism and Luther’s contrast of God versus mammon. The lust for mammon and the evidence of that in the commerce of the day represented for Luther the most common form of idolatry. In the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer Luther sees the petition for daily bread extending to everything in this world’s life and the comment on the second petition gives occasion for Luther to condemn those who oppress the poor through exploitative business practices. Withal Luther’s critique of early capitalism is grounded in the first commandment. “In Luther’s writings, theology and economics are interwoven, so that economic issues are not merely part of social ethics, but an indispensable part of theological reflection about God, a status confessionis.” (89)

[14] Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church provide an important point of contact between dimensions of the Lutheran and Reformation tradition and Asian minjung theology, especially as represented by its father, Ahn Byung-Mu (1922-1996). Minjung is a post-colonial theology focused on the oppressed common people. Min means the poor and jung the masses. It has its corollary in the New Testament Greek, ochlos, meaning the common people. Moreover, the minjung are the Exodus people delivered from slavery in Egypt. Cited here is resonance with concern for the oppressed in Bonhoeffer’s Tegel theology of a “world come of age,” a religionless society, and his theology of the cross. In Bonhoeffer’s theology of resistance, “Statis confessionis is embodied in the struggle against the Nazi regime in its persecution of the Jews.” (95) Bonhoeffer also upholds the church’s solidarity with the victims of the Shoah, the Holocaust. Rejected are those impulses of the two kingdoms distortions that permitted the church being coopted by the Third Reich. The Christian calling is “being for others” in the manner of Jesus. According to Chung, Ahn Byung-Mu contextualized and deepened Bonhoeffer’s prophetic theology in the development of his own ochlos-Christology.

[15] The political orientation of minjung theology developed in South Korea in confrontation with social, political, cultural, and intellectual residue of Japanese colonialism. It was nurtured by Ahn’s experience of imprisonment under the South Korean military dictatorships of the ‘70s and ‘80s. “Ahn related his own experience of imprisonment to Bonhoeffer’s confession. “ God is transcendent by being present in our lives.” (101) Furthermore, Chung sees Bonhoeffer’s theology of the cross and thoughts on “religionless Christianity” as a point of contact with the compassionate Buddha of some Asian faith and culture. Thus, despite customary beliefs that Bonhoeffer’s theology lacks a basis for interreligious dialogue, Chung argues to the contrary.

[16] Chung sees the logic of the confessing church and that of minjung as in accord with one another. Therefore, he gives contextualized attention to the Barmen Declaration and the post war Darmstadt Statement. He notes with approval Duchrow’s claim that Barmen I and II provide a foundation for challenging the present global economic system. Accordingly, he asserts the need for minjung theology to “retrieve the field of global economy as a confessional issue, in favor of standing in solidarity with today’s Lazarus-minjung those who are burdened the sin of the economically powerful in the world of global empire.” (111)

[17] In his final two chapters Chung turns his attention to inculturation in a multicultural world. To a considerable degree the matter of global inculturation has already been set forth in the preceding discussion of the connections between prophetic Lutheranism and the cause of justice for the poor in general and in minjung theology specifically. Still it is necessary to explore further the obvious need in a global society to understand the inculturation of Christianity in general and the Lutheran contribution to that cause in particular. Chung’s discussion of the basic themes of Luther’s theology and the universal character of the gospel of justification are clear. Certainly that is foundational for multicultural inculturation. But how that is so in specific terms in far less clear in his account. Nonetheless, some interesting points of contact are discussed in connection with Asian religious traditions: justification and justice in dialogue with Buddhism’s compassionate praxis for others; the utopian hopes of Maitreya Buddha and Christian eschatology; the filial piety of Confucianism and the communio sanctorum of the Eucharistic and baptismal fellowship and the confession of Christ’s descent and the preaching of the gospel to the dead.

[18] Part Three is written by Ulrich Duchrow, professor of systematic theology at the University of Heidelberg who specializes in ecumenical theology and issues of theology and the economy. He sets the stage by observing that we live in a world of global capitalism and imperialism. This situation challenges the Christian community to ask what this means for theology, the church, and its members. As Lutherans we look to the Scriptures and then to the theology of the Reformation. On this basis Lutherans are open to dialogue with the worldwide ecumenical fellowship and other faiths. As we have learned from liberation theology, faith, praxis, and theology become clear only in context. He proceeds then to propose four theses.

[19] Duchrow’s first thesis is historical in nature. He argues that the linkage between capitalist interests with political, military, and imperialist forces, as well as science and technology have shaped the course for modernity over the last 500 years. In his opinion each of these forces exerts its own particular form of violence. In his commentary on this thesis he notes that at the Breton Woods conference of 1944 the USA’s refusal to accept the European model of a social market economy in favor of the dollar as the world money and trade liberalization enabled the rise of neoliberalism. In addition, the US support of dictators in less developed nations and the subsequent indebtedness of these countries through dependency on Western products led to the impoverishment of their resources and consequent civil unrest and violence. Moreover, there is in all this development also a corollary cultural and ecological development: possessive individualism and the notion that humans are the masters of nature. In this respect the Reformation had unintended consequences. While Luther rejected early capitalism, his emphasis on the justification of the individual led to an “unintentional reinforcement of bourgeois individualism.” (167)

[20] Duchrow’s second thesis is as follows: “The Bible stands in direct contradiction to capitalist imperial modernity, because it rejected pre-forms of that economic model. It advocates an “economy of enough for all;” politically, the kingdom of God provides the alternative to the empires.” (167) In addition to the prophetic critique on behalf of the poor there is the story of the manna (Exodus 16), which Duchrow calls the magna charta of the biblical economy of “enough for all.” (168) Jesus prophetic confrontation with the temple, his warning that one cannot serve both God and mammon, his concern for the poor, and the sharing society of Acts 4 all stand out in the New Testament account. It is important to note here that Duchrow believes we do have intercultural and interreligious resources for a relational paradigm in theology that contrasts with the problematic of individualism.

[21] Thesis three affirms Luther’s confrontation with early capitalism and indicates a similar position for Calvin. The commentary is rich in citations from Luther’s writings that give a picture of Luther’s views often unseen by both his followers and critics. At the heart of Luther’s critique is the charging of interest, not primarily as an individual transgression, but as an embodiment of the social evils inherent in the operations of the institutions of early capitalism. For Luther the church should be the alternative community to the capitalist order.

[22]Thesis four affirms the role of ecumenical processes for the overcoming of neoliberalism and for the developing of life-giving alternatives. Duchrow provides us here with helpful selections from the statements of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the World Council of Churches, and the Lutheran World Federation. To these he adds a brief account of follow up consultations in Asia and Africa. Notable for directness is the confrontation of the countries of the North from the “All African Consultation on Poverty, Wealth, and Ecology,” which simply states that the wealth of the North was built upon the plunder of Africa’s resources. (183)

[23] After a chapter in which Duchrow discusses Gandhi and what we can learn from him as Christians confronting issues of global injustice, he concludes with a chapter based on the book Solidarisch Mensch warden. The book is the result of five interdisciplinary seminars held at the University of Heidelberg between 2003 and 2005. The seminars brought together psychologists, economists and theologians, Duchrow included. According to Duchrow the issue dealt with in the book and in the seminars is the conviction that “the majority of the world’s population has had enough of globalized neoliberal capitalism. Millions die from its excesses yearly. The earth is also dying.” (202) The complementary contributions of the different professions represented in this project sought to discern what drives the various actors in the world’s economy: the losers, the winners, and the middle class. The question is whether the elites will continue drive humanity on a suicidal course or is a conversion to life possible and how? The outline for an alternative economy concludes the chapter along with a call to the churches to join the struggle against global neoliberalism. Of interest in the middle of the chapter is Duchrow’s analysis of Luther’s Bondage of the Will, which he believes provides proof that Luther cannot be seen as a protagonist of individualistic salvation egoism.

[24] The conclusion to the book carries forward the contributions of the authors as it lifts up corollary ecumenical efforts toward alternative approaches to present forms of globalization. The two appendices add further concreteness to the issues: Appendix A is the report of the WCC consultation at Changseong, South Korea and Appendix B is the 2007 Dar es Salaam Statement, Alternative Globalization Addressing People and the Earth (AGAPE)

[25] This is a complex discussion and one that can readily invite disagreement over both facts and values. However, there can be no doubt that the yawning gap between haves and have-nots continues to be unsustainable as is also the use of the earth’s resources. The authors occasionally refer to the connection between economic disparities, poverty, and the damage to the environment. Globalization certainly raises the critical issue of ecojustice, the interwoven relationship between environmental degradation and the degradation of humans and their communities. This deserves to be front and center in the discussion of globalization.

[26] However thoughtful Christians may debate the analysis, the proposals and their feasibility, the book does further the liberation of Lutheran theology from the distortions of the past and their quietistic consequences.

James M. Childs is Joseph A. Sittler Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio.

James M. Childs

James M. Childs is Joseph A. Sittler Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio.