Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Book Review: The Politics of Discipleship & Discipleship in Politics

polofdiscipleship.jpgOne of my birthday presents was this book:  Willard M. Swartley, ed., The Politics of Discipleship and Discipleship in Politics: Jürgen Moltmann in Dialogue with Mennonite Scholars.   The bulk of this fascinating work is a series of lectures given by the German Reformed theologian Moltmann in the early 1980s at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries (now fully united to form one integrated Seminary) in Elkhart, Indiana, USA and at the Canadian Mennonite Bible College in Winnepeg (now the Canadian Mennonite University and part of the Winnipeg Centre for Ministry Studies on the campus of the University of Winnipeg), together with the responses of Mennonite scholars at the time.  The book also includes Moltmann’s “response to the responses” (which is more contemporary) and his recent essay, “Peacemaking and Dragonslaying in Christianity.” 

The bulk of this book was presented at the height of the Cold War with Moltmann a strong part of the German public’s resistance to the NATO short and medium-range nuclear missiles forced by Reagan onto German soil and the intense nuclear brinkmanship of the US/USSR stand-off.  To a lesser extent, the context of Latin American struggles for liberation, and the various liberation theologies (some nonviolent, some allowing for revolutionary violence) which supported those struggles, is also evident in the background of these lectures.  This represents probably the most sustained engagement of a mainstream theologian in the heritage of the Magisterial Reformation with the heirs of that stream of the Radical Reformation known as the “Anabaptists” since the 16th C. Even the engagement of Karl Barth with Anabaptists in the 1950s was not this thorough.  Nor was the encounter between Moltmann and Mennonite scholars limited to this one series of lectures: Moltmann wrote the Foreward to the German edition of John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus ( Die Politik Jesu–der Weg des Kreuzes [Maxdorf: Agape Verlag, 1981]); Tom Finger, one of the Mennonite theologians in this work, clearly shows the interaction of Moltmann with his Anabaptist heritage in his two-volume Christian Theology: An Eschatological Approach; J. H. Yoder contributed to two different Festschriften for Moltmann; Dialogue with Anabaptists continues in volumes of Moltmann’s work written later, especially in The Way of Jesus Christ, etc.

So, this is a collection of soundings from ongoing dialogues between two important theological traditions, especially as they impact the way discipleship and political action interact. Misunderstandings are corrected: Moltmann forcibly makes the point that his “political theology” project is not meant to politicize the church, but to help the inevitable political actions of Christians be more authentically Christian; comparisons are made between the Lutheran Two-Kingdom theology and the Two-Kingdom theology of a major strand of Anabaptist-Mennonite views.  The tendency of some Mennonites to neglect deep theological reflection and skip straight to biblically-informed ethics is criticized, but so is the tendency of much of the Reformed tradition to concentrate on theology and make discipleship seem like an afterthought.

Some things remain unclear when one is finished reading this wonderful book: At the time of writing his “Response to the Responses,” Moltmann makes clear that he is a “near pacifist,” but not consistent pacifist. He relates his experience of having grown up in a fairly secular German family, of being drafted into Hitler’s army out of university studies and being sent to the Belgian front where he surrendered to the first British soldier he saw, and of spending several years in a British POW camp before being re-patriated–during which time several people shared the gospel with him and he converted to active faith in Christ. Moltmann strongly enunciates two promises he made to himself and God upon repatriation: that he would never again participate in any war or give support to any war, and that, if confronted with a Hitler-type tyrant, he would risk everything to stop him, including by violence (the Bonhoeffer dilemma). Is that still where Moltmann is today? That is unclear. In The Way of Jesus Christ, Moltmann has deep and profound reflections on the normativity for Christians of nonviolence and active peacemaking, but seems to draw a distinction between “force” and “violence.” (The distinction is in the German, too, not just in translation. I checked–and not just trusting to my poor German, but checking with friends who are native German speakers.) I, a self-declared pacifist, also make such a distinction, but it is not clear if our distinctions are along the same lines.  What is clear is that Moltmann has rejected Just War Theory as inadequate for Christian discipleship (even if it remains useful as a basis for dialogue with secular politicians)–and that he rejects Christendom, regretting that, after WWII, the Confessing Church did not become a “Free Church,” but accepted once more privileges from the state.

I recommend this book highly–and not just for Mennonites or those influenced by Moltmann–but for all who care deeply about the issues of discipleship, politics and their interaction. It is not just a window on a set of conversations from the past, but a stimulus to further conversations now.


May 10, 2007 - Posted by | anabaptists, books, discipleship, nonviolence, theology

1 Comment

  1. Great review, Michael, on one of those Moltmann books that gets left by the wayside (but which are always rewarding to read.) I told the members of jurgenmoltmann.com about it today, so hopefully you’ll get a good number of hits.

    Comment by Thom | May 11, 2007

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