In his book Schöne Aussichten, Prof Fulbert Steffensky writes a meditation called (literally) On the Freedom of a Guilty Plea (Von der Freiheit eines Schuldbekenntnisses). Based on the Old Testament prophet Micah 4:3, he explores the need to ‘read ourselves in’ not only to the promises of God, but also to the judgements of God. Several times he remarks that to pray – as Jesus invited us to do – “Your kingdom come” is to repent of the kingdom (‘das Reich’) we currently tolerate and perpetuate… one that does not measure up to the nature of God’s kingdom. He then says something that made me look twice in order to make sure I had read it right:
Kingdoms that do not match God’s kingdom become the Third Reich. (Die Reiche, die nicht am Reich Gottes gemessen werden, werden zum Dritten Reich.)
At first sight this seems like an extraordinary thing to say. But, then he writes: “We have experienced it!”
German theology is still heavily coloured by the experience of totalitarianism and war. Guilt still pervades the memory from which lessons are drawn, forming the backdrop to thinking about God, humanity, morality and the earth. Even where not articulated, it haunts the texts in ways that an English mind finds strange. Theology is, as Steffensky repeatedly states, shaped by experience – both individual and collective.
Whatever we might think about the particular claim regarding an easy descent into the Third Reich, the interesting point is how memory is a powerful motivator and shaper of theological perception.
I remember Denis Healey writing in his autobiography The Time of my Life (1989) about his fears for a generation of politicians that has not experienced the reality of war. Noting that he was of the remnant of that generation that fought on the beaches of Europe in the early 1940s, he suggests that politicians who have not lived with the reality of conflict will be more ready to commit (other) people to conflict. When, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once put it, “memory becomes history”, we become distanced from unromanticised reality.
It seems to me that it is all too easy to dismiss the fears of one culture on the grounds that their memory is not ours. But, perhaps those of us who cannot forget tyranny – because we have never suffered under it – need to pay attention to the expression of those who have. By looking through their eyes we might be enabled to think differently about our own values and priorities.
Conspiracy theories abound. We are told every day that the world is getting worse and tyranny is just around the corner. And although it can get irritating to constantly have to listen to such shrill warnings, it is still worth measuring the ‘kingdoms we tolerate’ against the kingdom of God (that is, as seen though the eyes of the prophets who cry out in the name of God for justice… and as seen in the person and priorities of Jesus of Nazareth). Only then can we be honest, reading ourselves into the judgement of God and not simply appropriating the promises that make us feel justified, satisfied or content.