by John Tracey
I write this at a time when seven Christian activists have illegally entered the Talisman Sabre war games area with the intention of disrupting the war games. A few days ago another four did the same thing.
“The Bonhoeffer 4”
The activists have organised into small cells, such as “The Bonhoeffer 4”, the “Grana 3” and the “Jaegerstaetter 3”
I do not know how seriously the protesters are taking the mascot names of their action groups, but this reflection will explore two of them – German Lutheran, Dietrich Bonhoffer of the “Bonhoeffer 4” and Austrian Catholic conscientious objector Franz Jaegerstaetter of the “Jaegerstaetter 3”.
Both Bonhoeffer and Jaegerstaetter were executed by the Nazi regime. A superficial comparison would suggest that they were both martyred because of their Christian faith and its imperative to resist Nazism. However, I suggest that the two represent separate and contradictory paradigms of Christian faith and resistance to injustice.
Jaegerstaetter’s resisted Nazism as an individual, his was a personalised response. Jaegerstaetter rejected the relativist compromising of his fellow Christians who urged him to collaborate with the Nazis to protect his family and instead took a personal stand of refusing to join the military when conscripted and was consequently killed.
The popular myth about Bonhoeffer is that he was executed for plotting to assassinate Hitler which of itself represents a serious distance from the personalist pacifism of Jaegerstaetter. The Hitler assassination plot was just part of the story. Bonhoeffer was involved in a conspiracy to overthrow the Nazi party in conjunction with the U.S. and U.K. The conspiracy was co-ordinated through the state secret service – Abwehr, of which Bonhoeffer was a member. Abwehr had been sidelined and dissempowered by the new Gestapo under Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s German church network and his international ecumenical network was a central part of the Abwehr plot, including making links to and communicating with U.S. and U.K. government and military contacts regarding plans for a coup. It also co-ordinated the covert evacuation of Jews out of Germany which was one of Bonhoeffer’s priorities.
These two paradigms – individual protest and absolutist morality on the one hand and political organisation for change “by any means necessary” on the other – represent, what I see as, the choice that all Christians must confront in exploring the implications of Jesus’ radical resistance to empire.
Before looking at these two paradigms in terms of contemporary action, I will explore how Jesus conducted his mission.
Jesus’ mission was a strategy for nationalist liberation from Rome. Instead of militarily confronting Rome, his strategy was to love his enemy. Who were Jesus enemies? Amongst them were the gentiles (gentile means migrant) in the occupied Northern Kingdom of Samaria (Samaritans) as well as Centurions and those who collect tax for Rome. Jesus built a conspiracy with soldiers, invader populations and Jewish collaborators to turn them against their Roman masters and join the kingdom of God. Because of Jesus connection to Centurions, he and his movement would have been well aware of Rome’s wars with tribal groups in all regions of the empire and its relative weakness to control any uprisings in Israel (just as Bonhoeffers connection to U.S. and U.K. intelligence networks informed the strategy of the attempted coup).
Jesus mission began in Galilee, a hotbed of resistance to Rome. After his crucifixion this movement exploded in Jerusalem. The book of Acts tells us that thousands in Jerusalem joined the movement including members of the Jewish religious elite. Acts tell us that the all Samaritans were converted, effectively cutting of Rome’s authority in the Northern Kingdom between Galilee and Jerusalem. Thirty years after Jesus’ death the Romans were evicted from Israel. (Then the Israelites got smashed, but that is another story).
Jesus mission was not a matter of symbolic protest but of a very real re-arrangement of the forces of history by way of an organized political strategy.
“Love your enemies” was not a law of individual moral piety but a political manifestation of “by any means necessary”. “Love your enemies”, especially the gentiles, was offensive to the pious Jews of Jesus’ time, who thoroughly disapproved of collaboration with the foreign invaders in the land of Abraham.
I am sure many Christians would like to think they can catalyse social change while manifesting a pious morality, to unify notions of means and ends. I suggest that this is just an ideological notion that exists only in people’s minds as an aspiration. The historical reality is that those who try to embody piety and engage in activism for social change only manage to pronounce their moral principles but do not affect oppressive social forces in any way.
For example, some may like to believe they are preventing deaths in Afghanistan and Pakistan by protesting against Talisman Sabre, however the historical and economic forces that cause the ongoing slaughter are not hindered in any real way by the protests. The opinions of the protestors have been publicised but the death count is un-interupted.
This is not to say that the Talisman Sabre protest is futile. The involvement of Simon Moyle and Jarrod McKenna in the protests has put the issue of Christian political action into the heart of the Australian evangelical protestant church, a movement until recently dominated by insipid apoliticism or right wing politics. Their involvement in the Talisman Sabre protests has a context of much agitating within the Christian movement up until now and is already being debated widely amongst mainstream Christians.
All the Protestant Churches in Australia are looking for ways to change, they are in desperate crisis and realise they must change or disappear. Only mega-churches such as Hillsong are growing. It is astounding that Simon Moyle, a Baptist minister, is tolerated in his peace work but the Victorian Baptist Church not only tolerates him but remains in constructive dialogue with him about what he does (or at least they did when I met Simon last year). It seems Simon, who is also a serious theologian, is being allowed by the institutional church to experiment with his radical vision.
Similarly with Jarrod McKenna, a charismatic new pop-evangelist – Billy Graham with dreadlocks. He is influencing the most conservative Christian churches across Australia and I believe in the U.S. too with his sermons of the radical Jesus. The conservative churches are so desperate to hear something real rather than their boring fairy stories of previous eras that they are welcoming Jarrod into their churches even if they are a bit threatened by what he says. He is alive and the churches know they desperately lack life.
I hold no hope for the Roman Church to change; it has been an agency of state, money and power since its creation by the Emperor of Rome and smells the same today. Radical Christians in or around the Roman church have always seemed to have to operate outside of the church structure, sustained by their collective culture as Roman Catholics but unable to manifest their Christian vision through the machine of the church
Ever since Dorothy Day created the Catholic worker movement it has existed as a satellite of the Roman church, tolerated because of its distance from institutional power. The Roman Church is determined not to change, as has been exemplified in the recent eviction of the congregation at St. Mary’s church in South Brisbane. The protests of the Catholic Worker movement do not seem to provide any pressure for the Roman church to change and the theological conservatism of many Catholic Workers serves to re-inforce the cultural hegemony and status quo of institutional church power. At the Talisman Sabre protests the Catholic workers have done what they always do, fulfilling expectations and being generally ignored by the Roman church with which they identify.
The Anglican Church has recognised its need to change but has frozen like a rabbit stunned in headlights. It knows it must change but hasn’t got a clue how, distracting itself on the single issue of homosexuality while neglecting to look at the basic question of what is the church trying to be. Like the Roman church, its historical allegiance to state has contained its theology to the point that it dare not seriously consider any notion of a radical Jesus in resistance to empire.
The Uniting Church has been experimenting with notions of “progressive spirituality” which as far as I can make out involves the spiritualisation of mainstream culture and has yet to seriously confront the issues of social justice as the Uniting Church of yesteryear had done. Like the Anglican Church, the Uniting Church has devolved into a network of management committees of welfare agencies and manifests in very few other ways including bums on seats on Sunday.
However, it seems to me that something is stirring in the evangelical protestant movement and Moyle and McKenna are amongst those doing the stirring. They are behaving unusually and this unusual behaviour has caused much discussion in the Christian networks that they are a part of.
But…….., and this is my challenge to the new radical evangelical movement developing in Australia,…… In terms of the Bonhoeffer/ Jaegerstaetter dichotomy I have suggested, the question is what are these churches, communities and organizations going to do as they develop a deeper understanding of the role of the church in society?
Will they, like Jaegerstaetter and the Catholic Worker movement, engage in and encourage personal acts of faith and protest as a response to injustice?
Or will they, like Bonhoeffer and third world liberation theology, mobilise the infrastructure of the church to organise political transformation of injustice in real historical terms?
I believe Bonhoeffer’s paradigm is much more akin to Jesus’ mission than that of Jaegerstaetter.