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Plea for a Critical Christianity

"For me, a critical Christianity is a Christianity orientede forwards. Adaptations to existing conditions and a mere status quo are questioned. A principle of hope persists in critical Christianity. Dreams of a better world are dreamt here."Kurt Luthi is an Austriantheologian
Plea for a Critical Christianity

By Kurt Luthi

[This article originally published in: kritisches Christentum 1/2001 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, www.reformiertestadtkirche.at/te... /plaedoyer_fuer_ein_kritisches_ chri.htm. Kurt Luthi is an emeritus evangelical professor of systematic theology at the University of Vienna.]

For me, a critical Christianity is a Christianity oriented "forwards". Adaptations to existing conditions and a mere "status quo" are questioned. A "principle of hope" persists in critical Christianity. Dreams of a better world are dreamt here. The view "forwards" is connected with the view "downwards" in the sense of central biblical declarations. Let me quote Karl Barth: "The Christian community is a witness that the Son of man came to seek and save the lost. This means that the Christian community also looks downwards in the political realm - free from all false impartiality. There are the blacks and those threatened by their social and economic position. There are the poor who must be especially supported. The civil community is made responsible for them. The Christian community stands necessarily in political engagement and struggle for social justice" ("Christian community and Civil Community", p.26f). This view "downwards" means concrete partisanship for the socially weak and endangered (Barth was also not afraid of party membership).

1. The Exodus principle as a Beginning

The Exodus principle, my starting point, is "Israel's original confession". This principle has its locus or "Sitz im Leben" in the first testament. A group of nomadic shepherds leave their customary pasture and seek a new pasture, setting out for the unknown. The primary meanings of this principle, departure, being underway, wandering or migration and settling down are given up in favor of a promise and a hope. The great biblical symbolic story on the Exodus principle is the story of the "exodus from Egypt", wandering in the wilderness and occupation of the promised land.

Departure and promise involve the experience of the Exodus God. This God himself is not settled. For him there is no firm temple as a residence. This God has no priesthood which is prohibited as image-making or control over the deity. The sign of God's presence is the mobile tabernacle. A social accent is unmistakable in the story. A people leave a slave-owning society (Egypt). The Exodus God hears the anguish of the oppressed. With the exodus, the "status quo" (= the fleshpots of Egypt) is abandoned. With the experience of the exodus God, the knowledge of God's covenant with his people arises.

The promise of the faithfulness of this God to his people occurs and the claim of the people by God in the Torah. Later there are new interpretations of the exodus principle. Broad vistas appear with eschatological thinking: the reign of God is beginning or before us. In a hope accentuating the future, eschatological thinking is marked by "shalom" conditions (offer of peace, wholeness and salvation).

2. The social-critical proclamations

The first testament contains a vast number of social-critical proclamations through the message of the prophets. A socio-historical exegesis presses today.

Prophetic criticism is criticism of riches. Riches means here accumulation of money, goods and land. These goods are in the hands of a few. The labor of the poor belongs to the rich. The prophetic word also takes sides for the poor. This prophetic word rejects coldness and indifference towards the poor and the deprivation of rights of orphans and widows. Then there are the theological themes: the broken rights of the poor can be sued for before God and represent an appeal to God. Justice and righteousness become fundamental prophetic demands. Only the fulfillment of these demands creates wholesome existence, the community envisioned by God.

Community rests on the balance between rich and poor. The first testament encourages institutions which are foreign to us today, for example the prohibition of interest for compatriots as protection of the poor. There was the command to leave fields fallow at regular intervals so that the yield would benefit the poor and the animals. There is the remission of debts; slaves could become free under certain conditions. There is the liberation- and jubilee year. Regaining possession of what was lost is possible.

3. Jesuan beginnings

I speak of "Jesuan beginnings" and consider the "historical-critical method" on the Jesus question. The traditio-historical question "how it was" is secondary with Jesus. The question what Jesus meant to his "disciples" is central here.

As a thesis for discussion, the exodus principle appears in the gospels with the theme "itinerant charismatic". Jesus as a "wandering charismatic" stands in the exodus tradition and renews it. Gerd Theissen's definition is helpful (cf. G. Theissen, Sociology of the Jesus Movement. On the Genesis of Early Christianity, 1977). Jesus did not primarily found local communities but called into being a movement of vagabond charismatics. This movement was accompanied by sympathizing men and women who gave the necessities of life to the Jesus movement. "These groups of sympathizers remained organizationally in the framework of Judaism." No firm institutional forms of life arose. Features of wandering charismatics were mobility, homelessness, poverty and lack of a family. Sociologically, these groups belonged to the land, not to an urban culture or temple. Theologically, they were characterized by faithfulness to the Torah while on the other hand open to radical interpretations of the law (example: the Sermon on the Mount).

Finally, an apocalyptic mood prevailed in these groups. For the Jesus movement, God's reign was near. Socio-critically, wealth criticism and temple criticism joined demands for renouncing power. Attitudes of an "anomia" are striking (along with actions, cf. Jesus' cleansing of the temple). In any case, Jesus' solidarity with the poor, the outsiders of society, was essential for the Jesus movement.

4. From the Bible to Contemporary Liberation theologians

The exodus principle is important in the realm of liberation theology and in contemporary conversations of theologians. "Classical" liberation theology in Latin America was the reaction of the Christian faith to suffering and economically degrading conditions. An impressive model of a theology arose from the perspective of social victims. Praxis was defined with the slogan "option for the poor". Latin American liberation theology has an effective history in black theology, indigeneous theologies and feminist theology. A liberation theology "for Europe" (or for western industrial countries) raises the question of the poor differently than in Latin America.

Who is the poor, who is the victim in the western industrial world? An "expanded" or "double" concept of poverty arises here. The economically poor still exist (unemployment, so-called new poverty, degraded families- and living conditions). However there are also the psychically poor. For example, mobbing victims are first exposed to an economic pressure. They are also oppressed and strained psychically which is often manifest in bodily sickness.

The "double concept of poverty" provokes Christian social criticism. Victims of society should have a public lobby. These problems must be made known to arouse responsibility. Courage for reform proposals is also vital. Postulates from the economy and ecology include alternative banks instead of mammoth economic enterprises, energy taxes, small regional organizations and debt remission (for the 3rd world). Discussion of a "basic income for everyone" would also be sensible. Institutions and groups are judged on psycho-social factors. Where do repressions engender attitudes? Where do fears produce orientations? Where do attitudes originate from veiled pressures? Victims everywhere must be supported out of Christian responsibility.

5. A current example: the challenge by right-wing populism

I limit myself to the actual phenomenon of Haider in Austria (cf. the book by W. Otsch: Haider light. Handbook for Demagoguery, 1999 with references to the FPO party program).

The polarizing mindset: Haider argues and acts with certain mindsets and arguments which appeal to the mood and feelings of hearers. With these models, he builds skillful communicative productions. He often transforms material problems into personal problems. The polarizing distinction between friend and enemy was important for him. There was one pole as the "we" and the other pole as "the others". "We" are positively charged or stylized (with conservative values like home, family, and protection of the family, patriotism, popular culture, the FPO as the "natural partner of the Christian churches"). The "others" are the adversaries of these values, "leftist radicals" who are threats and awaken fears.

"We" becomes the "super we". The "we" are represented by a "super we" which claims and maintains authority. The "super we" embodies the hopes of the "we". The "super we" is comparable to the "guru" in charismatic communities needing a surrounding circle of the "faithful".

Seeking and finding "scapegoats" is important for argumentation and agitation. Ideal scapegoats are foreigners. Mistrust exists towards representatives of a critical culture. Foreigners are charged with taking away jobs and housing from residents by manipulating the Austrian social system and being criminals and drug-dealers. Prejudices against scapegoats cannot be dissolved rationally-critically since they are deeply rooted in the realm of irrational feelings and can function as repressions. Unsolved problems lie behind the repression according to depth psychology, as everybody knows.

In conclusion, what attitudes should oppose the current right-wing? The "dialogical principle" opposes a demagogic language. The "otherness of the other" is different than the described polarization. The "otherness of the other" represents the decisive challenge to ethically responsible conduct in the area of society. The "dialogical principle" develops rules of dialogue. A fair dialogue or compromise is offered to the other.

Dialogue stands in the sign of genuine objectivity. Readiness to "learn" and readiness for self-criticism are part of encounter with the other. A sensitive language culture is also joined with the "dialogical principle". A language of solidarity must be found from Christian impulses , a "solidarity downwards" (to marginal groups of society) against a language of resentment.

The political form of democracy always represents a task, not a controllable possession. Democracy consists not only in arithmetically counted majority decisions but in two complementary aspects. The majority decision (through elections, referendums and parliament) is one side; the human rights orientation is the other side. This first makes democracy into democracy and the constitutional state into the constitutional state.

A critical Christianity is involved in the discussion of democracy. A critical Christianity sees forms of the presbterial-synodical principle as a task or project, supports human rights positions, takes initiatives and insists that church rights and human rights correspond.

Lastly, a certain social strategy is necessary, the strategy of partial consensus. The term "critical Austria" should be considered. The "critical potential" of society should be supported against an Austria of adaptations or adjustments (and religiously of beautiful words). This critical potential mainly exists in the area of intellectuals and culture creators. Can churches find a "partial consensus" here? Today people refer to the ideal of a "civil society" as "better democracy". I see a chance against destructive elements of right-wing populism in this partial consensus.

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Why Publish This Here? 25.Feb.2004 08:08

Thomas mail@cthgathering.org

As a Christian who is involved with a spiritual community with anarchistic self-responsibility/mutual-responsibility ideals about how to function, which is also politically active in the community, I have to ask why this article is posted to Portland Indimedia? The contexts from which these remarks arise though present in some parts of the American church-going experience are not universal here. So rather than plea, we are free to do all that this article envisions and much more. In fact, from the vantage of my home community, Christ the Healer UCC, this article looks like a relic of the distant past.