April 28 – Dorothy Soelle

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Dorothy Soelle, Christian thinker

“God, your Spirit renews the face of the earth.
Renew our hearts also
And give us your spirit of lucidity and courage.
For the law of the Spirit
Who makes us alive in Christ
Has set us free from the law of resignation.
Teach us how to live
With the power of the wind and of the sun
And to let other creatures live.”
~ Dorothee Soelle

Dorothee Soelle was born in Cologne, Germany, in 1929.  As a child she played no personal role in the rise and fall of the Third Reich; she was fifteen when the war ended.  But as revelations unfolded about the full extent of the Nazi crimes she was filled with an “ineradicable shame”: the shame of “belonging to this people, speaking the language of the concentration camp guards, singing the songs that were also sung in the Hitler Youth.”  Her young adulthood was spent reflecting on the great question of her generation: How could this have happened?  The hollow answer of the older generation, that “we didn’t know what was happening,” impressed on her the duty to question authority, to rebel, and to remember “the lessons of the dead.”

The moral and existential challenge of her times led Soelle to study philosophy and, later, theology.  She was one of the principal authors of the so-called “political theology” – an effort to counter the privatized and spiritualized character of “bourgeois” religion through the subversive memory of Jesus and his social message.  In light of the Holocaust she was particularly critical of a “superficial understanding of sin” largely confined to personal morality.  “Sin,” she wrote, “has to do not just with what we do, but with what we allow to happen.”  Her initial challenge was to develop a “post-Auschwitz theology,” an understanding of God who does not float above history and its trauma but who shares intimately in the suffering of the victims.  Such an understanding of God defined, in turn, a new meaning of Christian discipleship.

A true prophet, Soelle did not simply denounce the way things were, but looked forward to a “new heaven and a new earth.”  Her theology was inflected with poetry and drew on her wide reading of literature and her love of music and art.  She bore four children from a first marriage.  The experience of motherhood strengthened her hope for the future, while reminding her that pain and joy are inextricably combined in the struggle for new life.  She met her second husband, at the time a Benedictine monk, when they collaborated as organizers of a “Political Evensong” in Cologne.  Beginning in 1968, this ecumenical gathering of Christians joined to worship and reflect on scripture in light of the political challenges of the day – whether the Vietnam War, human rights, or the campaign for social justice.

It became a hugely popular event, regularly drawing up to a thousand participants.  The gatherings were controversial, however.  Their notoriety was among the factors that prevented Soelle – despite her thirty books – from ever receiving a full professorship in a German university.

Nevertheless, from 1975 to 1987 she spent six months each year as a professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York.  It was a particularly fruitful time for her, as she broadened her theological perspective in dialogue with feminism, ecological consciousness, and third-world liberation theologies.  She also continued to translate her theology into political activism – in solidarity with embattled Christians in Central and South America, in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and in particular in resisting the nuclear arms race.

The decision of NATO in 1979 to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Europe made her decide “to spend the rest of my life in the service of peace.”  She was arrested several times for civil disobedience and was tireless in challenging the churches to take action against what she saw as preparations for a new global holocaust.  In an address to the Geneva Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1983 she began, “Dear sisters and brothers, I speak to you as a woman from one of the richest countries of the earth.  A country with a bloody history that reeks of gas, a history some of us Germans have not been able to forget.”  It was this experience that impelled her to raise a cry of alarm.  Never again should a generation of Christians employ the excuse that “we didn’t know” about plans and preparations for mass murder.

In her later writings she increasingly spoke of the need to join mysticism and political commitment.  She defined mysticism not as a new vision of God, “but a different relationship with the world – one that has borrowed the eyes of God.”  Soelle died on April 17, 2003, at the age of seventy-three

Robert Ellsberg