To be sure, I myself am fed well, I face financial hardship on a limited scale, I go to interesting classes, I have caring friends who share many interests with me – all of which distinguishes my experience from that of vast swathes of humankind.
But I am also complicit in almost vertigo-inducing, interconnected layers of injustice, most of which I do not even understand. Dimly, though, I appreciate that virtually every facet of my daily life – the food I eat, the clothes I wear, the churches I attend, my education, the scholarly work I pursue, my recreations – each participate in various forms of exploitation and oppression. I continue to reap benefits from a national history that is neck-deep in blood. My excess of ease and safety is in proportion with the ease and safety taken from urban ghettoes. And lest some readers imagine my eyes now see only societal evils – our collective, collaborative, historic sins – rest assured, I am also aware of the small-scale, intimate ways that I personally deny God.
I can find encouragement only from Christians who have a similarly robust hamartiology. Lately I have been reading Helmut Gollwitzer’s Introduction to Protestant Theology: the dogmatic reflections of a 20th century German theologian and successor to Barth, who, more than his teacher, engaged overtly with “contextual theologians” and Marxist criticisms of the global economic system. He writes the following:
We are so entangled in our complicity, and so ineffectual in our resistance, that even those who see clearly are only able to go on living by frequently shutting their eyes to what they see. In our daily cares, joys, and occupations we accept the world as if it were still the same as it has always been, and yet the world is right on the edge of the abyss. We are all like the Pompeian housewife, in a drawing of the Italian caricaturist G. Novello, who on the morning before the eruption of Vesuvius insists that her maids should thoroughly dust the ornaments. Even the churches, which possess in their Bible the Apocalypse of John, and which in the face of this keep silent or else find only tired noncommittal words for it, are like this housewife in their daily church activities, as are the professional but naïve theologians. All this is happening at a level far below what the hour demands, and bears no relation to what the apocalyptic prospect of the destruction of mankind requires of us.
Even in this book it is hardly noticeable how much the situation was in my mind when, for example, I was dealing with the “life of death” or the self-destruction of sin, which the divine project of salvation opposes. Now, at the last moment, it must be clearly stated that everything that has been said about the gospel is profoundly called into question by the situation of mankind today, and that is it precisely under this challenge that the promise of the gospel makes itself heard, and proposes to set us on our feet again and to make us work for a mankind that threatens to commit suicide. The disproportion between the apparent weakness of this promise and the gigantic might of the powers of annihilation is the same disproportion that exists between the Crucified One and the might of those for whose political game he is only an insignificant pawn. It is the same disproportion too as that in which the hearers of the gospel constantly found themselves when confronted by the murder and violence around them which they could not prevent. If…the message of the resurrection was contrasted with the “pessimism of destruction” which world conditions today so strongly suggest, the intention was not in the least to make light of this pessimism of destruction, or to deny that it was right and reasonable. It is a realistic view of the matter. But just for that reason it is impossible any longer to prevail against that hopelessness resulting from all realistic analyses of the world situation today, and the paralysis which results from it, with anything less than the message of the resurrection. Not that we are to console ourselves for the threatening destruction with the inalienable prospect of eternal life that is ours beyond the grave, and to leave this world to its fate. That would be an egoistic consolation, which in addition overlooked the fact that every one of us has a share in the responsibility for this fate. It is a legitimate consolation only when it helps us to overcome that paralysis and to take up anew the struggle for the salvation, in history, of this world, which is God’s beloved creation. It is a legitimate consolation when pity for those who are daily sacrificed to the powers of destruction drives us to place ourselves by the side of the victims, and to repudiate our complicity with the powers of destruction.
How each of us in the entanglement can bestir himself and work actively against the entanglement, and replace previous solidarity with the agents of destruction by solidarity with the victims, and thus also with the overall victim, our mother earth, from whom we draw life – for this no general prescriptions can be given. In daily practice, in conversation between the disciples of Jesus and their clear-sighted contemporaries, the ways for this must be sought, and every moment of time that is still left us is a respite of grace, for which we must take advantage with all our powers (223; bold is mine).