I was going to post more on Stalin’s pipe and his preferred tobacco, but this evening I had one of those great experiences you have from time to time. It was the Garage Blackboard Lectures, held in an old garage somewhere in Melbourne, on a freezing evening that you get in these parts. If you in the Melbourne, or even in the southern hemisphere, get yourself to one of these events. It will change your life, or at least give you hope for pretty much everything. Anyway, later in the evening we got to talking about – among other things – Christian communism. So I mentioned Dick Boer’s Delivery from Slavery: Attempting a Biblical Theology in the Service of Liberation. Translated from German, it is about to appear in English in the Historical Materialism book series (with Brill and Haymarket). I happen to be writing the foreword for the book, so here is a prepublication version:
For better or worse, we will be Communists, letting ourselves be led forth from Christianity into an extraordinarily questionable movement, one which barely even still exists at the moment, but which might recur at any time (Dick Boer).
Dick Boer may properly be described as a theologian of the revolution, or rather, as a biblical theologian of the revolution. This title was first bestowed by Ernst Bloch on Thomas Müntzer, the theologico-political leader of the Peasant Revolution in the German states of the sixteenth century. I make this point, since some readers of earlier volumes of the Historical Materialism Books Series may be surprised to see an overtly theological, even biblical, work appear in the series. What has historical materialism to do with theology? Is theology not an esoteric practice, speaking of what does not exist? Is not religion the response to an alienated condition, so that our attention should instead be focused on those real, social and economic conditions?
By now, it should not be necessary to argue for the importance of theology for historical materialism, but let me outline some basic facts before introducing this work by Dick Boer. First, theology is as much concerned with this world as any world beyond our sensory experience. As Dick Boer puts it, Christianity, like communism, is ‘the practical recognition that this new world cannot be found in castles in the air, but can be found in the old world as the active hope for the “kairos”’. In other words, theology is both secular and anti-secular – understanding ‘secular’ (from saeculum) as belonging to this world and this age. Theology’s traditional concerns with anthropology, the human condition, society, politics and history should make it clear that it has much to do with this human world. At the same time, it gives voice to dissatisfaction with the status quo: injustice persists, oppression continues, economic exploitation is still very much of our daily lives. So theology seeks a better world, one of justice, freedom and economic equality. Often that world is assumed to belong in a heaven, to which we go upon death. But that misses the resolutely theological focus on a renewed socio-economic formation here on this world.
Second, theology is often torn politically between reaction and revolution. The very same system that easily supports tyrants and empires (Constantine was the first) also provides the means and inspiration for overthrowing such despots and their régimes. The most detailed exposition of the revolutionary side of Christianity remains Karl Kautsky’s under-studied Forerunners of Modern Socialism. Kautsky explores in impressive breadth the tradition of revolutionary Christianity, through from the earliest Christians to his own day. After Kautsky, perhaps the most well-known recent expressions of this much longer tradition Latin American, black, feminist and queer liberation theologies, which arose in the 1960s and 1970s. Dick Boer clearly belongs to this revolutionary tradition, with its long and inspiring pedigree.
Third, Boer is not merely a fellow-traveller with the socialist Left, a political theologian who is also a member of the communist party. He does not restrict himself to urging a politics of alliance, but rather argues that in the biblical theological tradition we may find one of the key influences and inspirations for the Left. In other words, revolutionary Christianity is actually the core of the biblical tradition. Thus, the ease with which the church and its ideologies have fallen in line with tyrannical régimes is a betrayal of that core. Boer challenges the assumption that theology and its institutions are by default reactionary and that resistance must come from the edges. Instead, he seeks to seize the centre and argue that it comprises the revolutionary truth of theology.
With these three principles in mind, let us explore how Dick Boer goes about his task. Early in the book he writes:
The purpose of the present biblical theology is to follow the canon and to follow it as regula fidei (‘the rule of faith’), as a guideline for what we can believe with respect to the story, when necessary – and it is often necessary – contradicting the factual course of history. This biblical theology follows the canon and hence proceeds from the Torah, in the sequence of the canon, which is also a hierarchy, the constitution, which founds the existence of the Liberator-God’s people. The ‘story’ (re)told by this biblical theology is that of the project ‘Israel’, which is conceived in the Torah, and the real Israel, called to execute this project
One’s initial impression is that such an approach is extraordinarily conventional (theologically speaking): the Bible in its canonical order is a guideline, the rule of faith – so one must follow its dominant narrative, which has been constructed by the framers of the canon. But now Boer gives this conventional approach a distinct twist, for the canonical biblical message is one of liberation, led by a liberator-God! The last sentence indicates the basic structure of Boer’s argument, which begins by tracing the plan of the ‘project’ called ‘Israel’, which subsequently must be enacted by the real or actually existing Israel. That the latter will make many mistakes and fail many times is to be expected, but the echo of ‘real’ or ‘actually existing socialism’ should not be missed. Marx and Engels and those who followed them may have provided the basics of the revolutionary communist project, but it fell to the socialist countries of eastern Europe and then the proper East to find the path that no-one had trodden before to actual, real socialism.
Dick Boer’s bid, then, is that the core message of the Bible is liberation. Most of his attention is focused on the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), for as a Christian theologian he must face – in textual form – the persistent question of the relation between Jews and Christians. The long relationship between the two has been fraught with difficulties, polemic and sheer barbarism. But it is also none of profound common ground, worshipping the same God whom Christians came to know belatedly, and presenting a path to liberation that Boer seeks to trace in those scriptures. So it should be no surprise that he focuses on the most significant section of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah or first five books – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Here Boer finds an outline for a liberated Israel, in which ‘Israel’ is not an ethnic identity but a name for a liberated community. I would add that detailed historical and archaeological research has persuasively proposed that Israel was by no means an identifiable ethnic unit when it first appeared on the scene of ancient Southwest Asia (the ancient Near East, as it used to called) in the first millennium BCE. Instead, it was a profound mix of peoples from different ethnic groups. So it was the theological-political project that brought them together.
However, in the Torah we are not with any real Israel, for the Torah presents not an actual society, but the outlines of one to come. It is a liberated society in waiting, before the revolution, if I may put it that way. One needs at least some idea, usually a combination of careful planning and inspiring political myths, so as to tap into the need for both the ‘cold’ and ‘warm’ streams of any liberation movement. The head and the heart, scientific planning and deep-felt hope – these are the two necessary sides of preparing for the revolution. In developing these two dimensions, the text tells us of creation (‘and it was good’), offers guidelines and laws for a liberated community, and presents in some detail how one deals with threats to the project.
For me, the more interesting time comes after the revolution, after the gaining of power when one needs to put into action one’s hopes and plans. Before turning to this part of Boer’s argument, I need to raise a problem with the approach that he takes: if one opts for the canonical and arguably main stream of the biblical material, how do we deal with its negative aspects? These include the story of the conquest of a land and dispossession of its inhabitants, the establishment of kingship, the often arbitrary and absolutist role that God plays in the text, and the idea of ‘total war’ or the ‘ban’ (the complete destruction of every living creature among the enemy).
Not every text can fit into Boer’s reading. Indeed, he insists that an interpreter should not attempt to smooth over contradictions posed by troublesome texts. So let me take the final two items I listed above, namely, the questions of God and of total war. As for God, is this figure all too often not a despot writ large, full of power that is wielded arbitrarily and jealously? Yes, says Boer, but this is not the figure of liberation, for that one has the name that is not really a name, ‘I am’ (YHWH):
This is why this name is also superordinate to the term ‘God’. For ‘God’ … is a title, an office, a function. It signifies a highest Being, the beginning and end of all wisdom, elevated above all critical doubt. As such, ‘God’ says nothing – except that his power knows no boundaries: he is capable of everything, knows everything, sees everything, is everywhere and always – omnipotent, omniscient, all-seeing, omnipresent, eternal. In general, ‘God’ is the absolutisation and hence the sanctioning of the earthly power that condemns the majority of people to servitude. As such, ‘God’ can have a number of faces again – but as it turns out, it is always the face of a bog-standard ruler.
So ‘God’ can easily become the mask behind which the aspiring despots of the ancient world (and ours for that matter) hide in order to carry out their well-known and ultimately petty plans. We should not every ‘God said’ as the word of the liberating divine figure of the Bible. But what about the ‘ban’, for this is a more troublesome idea? Initially Boer argues that an anti-imperialist war is necessary, waged by a weaker force and only in emergency situations. But a war waged on a weaker power, living nearby and completely opposed to a society without domination, is another story. As some texts make clear, the war to be waged in this case is one of total annihilation – of every living creature. Boer cannot accept this position. ‘This “final solution” is too terrible to be true’, he writes. ‘A different solution has to be found’. Boer suggest it may be read – metaphorically perhaps – in terms of the hope that evil will one day be abolished, or that the ‘ban’ plays a minor key in biblical stories and is challenged even there. In the end, he leaves the question open, discomfited by the idea and practice. Necessary evils remain, such as kingship and the military, for any project of liberation must live in a very imperfect world. ‘If you want peace, prepare for war’, is the realistic counsel, with all its dangers. Nonetheless, Boer might have made more of the voices of resistance to kingship and total war. He does mention King Saul’s questioning of the divine ban on Amalek, and wishes that Saul had protested more insistently. But the text also reveals that such a ban is actually ineffective – Amalek is wiped out on more than one occasion and yet they return, more numerous than ever. Further, Boer does not mention the judge Samuel’s dire warnings against a king and his rapaciousness (1 Samuel 8) or the continual voices of murmuring, protest and outright rebellion against despotism. I for one would have liked to hear a little more about these forms of resistance to the despotism that appears too easily even within a liberation project.
This last point brings me back to the question of what happens after the revolution, the ‘real Israel’ I have already mentioned. This is the time of ‘travails of the plain’, as Brecht puts it, and is the most important part of Boer’s work. The task of climbing the mountain is now past and we are on the plateau where the real task begins. Lenin and Mao too expressed similar thoughts after the revolution: winning power through a revolution is the easy part; far more difficult is the task of actual construction. It is a time of many mistakes, of steps backward, of reshaping the approach in light of changing and unexpected circumstances. So also the ‘real Israel’ makes many mistakes and certainly does not live up to the project as it was outlined in the Torah. As a result, many would argue that it ‘failed’, especially when the project came to an end. Too soon did it succumb to imperial powers of the first millennium BCE, becoming an province – Yehud – under the Persians and Greeks and Romans. But ‘failure’ is a harsh term, beloved of right-wing critics who deploy an impossible benchmark for what counts as success: perfect realisation and eternity. Anything less than eternally perfect is a failure. Of course, in their eyes this applies only to the Left (for they conveniently ignore the disaster of their own project). In reply we need to resist such a verdict, insisting that any liberating project which achieves power and which is able to begin the process of construction is a success, especially if it is able to see off the counter-revolution. It may come to an end before its time, leading to profound disappointment. But the experience is enough to foster hope and energy for yet another effort.
I write these words with a deliberate slippage between the biblical theology Boer proposes and the real problems of ‘actually existing socialism’, especially in Eastern Europe in the twentieth century. The reason I do so is that it was the experience of such socialism that inspired many aspects of Boer’s biblical theology. In 1984, he was called to East Berlin to be a minister in the Dutch Ecumenical Congregation in the DDR (Niederländische Ökumenische Gemeinde in der DDR). He was minister for eight years, until 1990, after the fall of the wall and the end of the DDR. Why did this congregation call Dick? He was at the time a professor of theology in the University of Amsterdam, but he was also a member of the communist party. In short, he is a minister of the church, a professor and communist. As for the congregation, it was a small (100 members) communion of left-wing Christians in the DDR. It was established in October of 1949, when the DDR was itself founded in response to the establishment of West Germany. At that time, the church was made up of Dutch citizens who had come to Germany as foreign workers (Fremdarbeiter) during the Second World War and who lived in what became both the East Berlin and West Berlin. After the construction of the wall in August of 1961, the part of the congregation in the new DDR grew into a community of left-wing Christians. They became deeply committed to political readings of the Bible, especially the Hebrew Bible. They also developed a liturgy that included elements one may describe as ‘secular’ or ‘non-religious’. Or rather, the liturgy saw the work of God in the world outside the walls of the church, outside what had become the acceptable zones of Christianity. For example, the hymn book contained not only the best examples of church music, but also the ‘Internationale’ and ‘Vorwärts und nicht vergessen’. All of which meant that the Dutch Ecumenical Congregation took a step further than the Federation of Evangelical Churches of the DDR, which defined itself as ‘not against and not outside but within socialism’ (nicht gegen, nicht neben, sondern im Sozialismus). By contrast, the Dutch Ecumenical Congregation saw itself as a communion of ‘Christians for socialism’. That is, they were both ‘within socialism and for the DDR’.
The challenge for Dick Boer, as the minister and as a theologian, was to find ways to preach within the context of actually existing socialism. In the liberation and political theologies that arose in Western and Southern contexts – Latin America, North America, Europe – a key biblical narrative is the Exodus out of slavery, as is the Gospel promise of the ‘Kingdom of God’ that will provide healing, release from hunger and freedom from exploitation. In these cases, the moment of the Exodus or the new world is yet to come at a hoped-for future moment. But what does a minister do when the Exodus has, so to speak, already happened? How does one go about the difficult task of constructing the new society? To preach the Exodus in the DDR would mean to speak of liberation from slavery in the DDR. So Boer became interested in the time after liberation, after the Exodus. He discovered the importance of the ‘historical’ books (or ‘former prophets’ as the Jewish canon calls them) of the Hebrew Bible, such as Joshua, Judges, and the books of Samuel and Kings. He also re-discovered Ezra and Nehemiah, with their accounts of rebuilding a ‘Torah Republic,’ when the exile to Babylon (sixth century BCE) was over. This was the problem of the ‘travail of the plains’ which I mentioned earlier, and the experience led Dick to develop his theory of ‘actually existing’ or ‘real’ Israel.
Further, since the government of the DDR recognised the congregation as an organisation with a special relationship to the Netherlands, the church was allowed to organise seminars with Dutch speakers who entered into discussion with Marxists from the DDR. The topics of these seminars included: ‘The alliance of Communists and Christians’; ‘Faith and Atheism’; ‘Socialism and the Third World’; ‘The New Economic World-Order’; ‘Media’; and ‘Gay Theology’. The Marxists who partook in these seminars actually felt free to engage in a robust critique the official communist positions of the state – in the spirit of the tradition and theory of Marxism itself. Further, even though the government of the DDR officially forbade a ‘Christian-Marxist dialogue’, here that dialogue took place, regularly.
Since it was Boer’s task to find and invite Marxist speakers for these seminars, he also had the opportunity to meet and speak with them in private. He became friends with many of them, a friendship enhanced by their common experience of being members of communist parties. They shared their hopes for a renewal of socialism and their despair concerning the apparent impossibility, at the time, of such a renewal.
These contacts also encouraged Boer to undertake an initiative to ‘save’ the DDR in the time of the ‘Wende’ (turn). He was inspired by the Dutch peace movement’s project to ‘Stop the N-bomb’: one starts with a manifesto, which is signed by prominent figures without explicit political commitments. In the Netherlands, this action led to the largest mass-movement since the Second World War. So he proposed a similar action in the DDR: organise a manifesto, signed by well-known people from the new civic movements (Bürgerbewegungen: Neues Forum, Demokratischer Aufbruch), the Church and the party (the section working for renewal and not related to the state and the ossified party apparatus). This initiative, beginning with the manifesto For Our Country (Für unser Land) which was written by Christa Wolf and Volker Braun, became the largest mass-action in the period of the Wende in the DDR. They obtained no less than 1,167,048 signatures. Sadly, the initiative for renewal itself failed, not least because the Soviet Union was no longer able to protect the DDR from the unending efforts of the West to ‘overthrow’ communism. Yet, as Boer points out, the sheer size of the movement (one among many) shows that, contrary to much propaganda, the DDR was supported by many of its citizens until the end.
Delivery from Slavery is thus a unique work, one that was inspired by the experience of living and working – in a congregation of the church – in a socialist country. Dick is by no means the first who is a believer and a communist. Yet a biblical theology developed in the context of socialism, indeed one that wishes to affirm socialism, is an extraordinary effort. As he writes, if we wish to translate biblical theology (and not only that of Paul), then ‘Communism lends itself to the task’. My anticipation is that it will generate much debate, especially among socialists of many persuasions, for we are Boer’s preferred interlocutors.
Bloch, Ernst. 1969. Thomas Münzer als Theologe der Revolution. Vol. 2, Ernst Bloch Werkausgabe. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
Kautsky, Karl. 1897. Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation. Translated by J. L. Mulliken and E. G. Mulliken. London: Fisher and Unwin.
Kautsky, Karl. 1976 [1895-97]-a. Vorläufer des neueren Sozialismus I: Kommunistische Bewegungen im Mittelalter. Berlin: Dietz.
Kautsky, Karl. 1976 [1895-97]-b. Vorläufer des neueren Sozialismus II: Der Kommunismus in der deutschen Reformation. Berlin: Dietz.
Kautsky, Karl, and Paul Lafargue. 1977 . Vorläufer des neueren Sozialismus III: Die beiden ersten grossen Utopisten. Stuttgart: Dietz.