Talisman Sabre, Jesus, Bonhoeffer, Jaegerstaetter and the evolution of the Australian Church.

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.
bonhoeffer 4
“The Bonhoeffer 4”

The activists have organised into small cells, such as “The Bonhoeffer 4”, the “Grana 3” and the “Jaegerstaetter 3”

“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.


4 responses to “Talisman Sabre, Jesus, Bonhoeffer, Jaegerstaetter and the evolution of the Australian Church.

  1. update,

    Just as I belittle the Uniting church in the above reflection, they go and do something significant.

    “Uniting Church acknowledges Aboriginality in Constitution”

    This is a significant shift in theology, but what it might mean in real terms is yet to be seen.

    However, the shift from a colonial theology to a theology that places the church into the real history of this country and God’s ongoing connection to it is also a challenge to the radical christian movement which, in my opinion, still solidly embraces a colonial theology that is blind to the spirituality and history of this land and the people of this land.

    It is important to support the Afghani and Pakistani resistace to U.S. imperialism but, I believe this international focus (Iraq,Palestine etc. as well) has distracted activists from a full appreciation of the process of invasion, genocide and colonisation in this country and the long term consequences of entrenched poverty and suffering that exist here today.

  2. Wow. Reading this again John, I think I might actually agree with you – wonder upon wonders! – except that I’d say “both-and” rather than “either-or” on the Jaegerstaetter/Bonhoeffer thing. We still need Christians who take the Lordship of Christ seriously enough not to participate in the empire’s wars.

    But I appreciate that you take Jarrod and I seriously as evangelicals, because most of our fellow evangelicals don’t, even though that is what we are and will remain.

    I do think that, like Ched Myers has said, it’s all too easy to slip into action mode instead of doing the slow, frustrating, difficult work of movement building within the church…or perhaps that work has been tried and failed, I don’t know. At the very least, there’s beginning to be a receptivity that I didn’t notice even three or four years ago. That’s encouraging.

    You might also be interested to know that the Baptist Union of Victoria’s professional standards seminar for pastoral leaders later this year is on civil disobedience! The Spirit is moving!

  3. Hello Simon,

    Don’t panic, the either/or dichotomy was the main point of the reflection so it is still safe to say that we fundamentally disagree.

    I read or heard something you said about non-violence not being passive, it is about doing rather than not doing. This is a different mode of action and spirituality to what you describe as “take the Lordship of Christ seriously enough not to participate in the empire’s wars.”

    This conscientious objection has nothing in common with the pro-active campaigns of Ghandi and MLK and it certainly has nothing to do with Bonhoeffer who directly engaged with the allied war effort to challenge Hitler.

    Personalist responses only benefit the individual ego, they are nothing more than an individual’s fulfillment of their own expectations of themselves.

    Public protest based on personalist responses, or public/political liturgy, is just self edification of the activists without challenging the beast in any social or political way.

    Matthew 6: 5″And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.”

    The power in what you and the others have done is to encourage others to take the first step, to open the door to the possibility of direct engagement with the forces of oppression.

    I believe the new testament has been bastardised by the church and reduced to stories about individual personalist responses. The New Testament, in particular the gospels, is an account of the building of an indigenous resistance movement against foreign domination. If you take Ghandi’s struggle in India as a template by which to examine the new testament, a mass non-violent resistance campaign jumps out. Ghandi and salt tax is the same as Jesus and Roman coinage. If the words of Jesus are interpreted in the context of a major social movement they all make coherent sense – the so-called contradictions dissolve, including Jesus proclamation that he had not come to bring peace to the earth but a sword, a principle too often swept under the carpet by christian pacifists.

    The kingdom of God was not in the clouds or in the minds of the disciples but it was a real law of the land, the Jubilee law. Jesus proclamation of the Jubilee in Gallilee, the hotbed of resistance, was the launch of the mass non-violent movement which eventually, after the crucifixion, took hold in Jerusalem and the whole of Israel, including conversion of the Samaritans in the Northern kingdom, and directly resulted in the expulsion of Roman authority – the time during which much of the stories of Acts occured. The Acts communities were not small cells of believers, they were the tribal organisation of the whole of Hebrew and gentile society in the land of Abraham’s covenant.

    Jesus does not call us to personalist responses but to social revolution. The spirituality of being born again and truly seeing and hearing is the basis on which social and political action are driven, not an end in itself that guarantees entry to the kingdom in the clouds. The Kingdom is on earth as it is in heaven, this is the essence of the Jubilee law.

    So, once a christian has decided that they need to be engaged in social action, the question is what kind of action?

    The models that the rich white world have to offer to date are welfare programs and symbolic protest. Neither mode empowers the poor and the victims of oppression – as Jesus and Ghandi did. The poor and oppressed are at the centre of all rhetoric about these missions but the poor themselves are not engaged with any power or voice of their own.

    Liberation theology was killed off in the Roman church by Ratzinger, but I believe that protestant evangelicals in poor communities will sooner or later embrace the wisdom of a theology born of the struggles of the poor, not the protests of the rich. The new emerging Aboriginal theology is very conservative but its basic understandings of good news for the poor aligns more with liberation theology than mainstream evangelicalism.

    “Making common cause with the poor” – the Liberation Theology of Leonardo Boff and Clodovis Boff

    The rich white peace movement has take the symbols of poor black resistance such as Ghandi, MLK and Jesus and regurgitated these symbols into the rich white culture. The secular left does the same with Che Guevara and Nelson Mandela.

    The essence of liberation theology, and of Jesus and Ghandi, is that the poor themselves must be empowered to lead and govern themselves, not made tokens of the ideologies of the rich world.

    The role of the rich person is not to be an advocate or benefactor but to sell all they have and give to the poor. How might this principle work in terms of the political and organisational power of the church? Could it be that rich white christians are called to give all their political power to the poor? If so, as I suggest, how does our political campaigning contribute to this?

    How were the Afghani and Pakistani civilians being bombed in any way empowered by the Talisman Sabre protests? Jesus was with those people, not the soldiers in Shoalwater bay.

    Then of course there is the war in this country which, it seems to me, should be the starting point for any christian looking to reconcile their life with the Jubilee principles, but that is another story. Perhaps the uniting church’s stand will provoke a lot of dicussion in this regard.


    p.s. did you see my comments here?

  4. Pingback: MLK meets Talisman Saber 09: Associated Links, Reflections, Photos, Actions « nonviolence stories

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