Today is the Feast of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, also known as Saint Catherine of the Wheel, patron – among other things – of scholars, students, philosophers and theologians. Although one would not normally associate the practice of theology with an act of martyrdom, we have a theologian here to consider whose death at the hands of his Nazi jailers was a kind of martyrdom, a death in any case fitting for a witness to the theology he was not simply content to think out, but actually committed himself to live out.
But first, let us divert somewhat.
In face of our present-day, ever-expanding so-called War on Terrorism with its massive detritus of ever-growing governmental surveillance, along with obdurate government-sponsored torture and assassination by the one super-power in the world (not to mention vigorous governmental subversion of the U.S. economy through the bank bailouts and of the world economy as well through consequent “quantitative-easing” by the same super-power), what might be a Christian response to this new, world-wide, fascist threat? Because, let’s face it, the response from the Christian community as a whole to this coldly calculated assault on the soul of contemporary humanity has been thus far, for all intents and purposes, absolutely void. Regarding this void we could ask, is this because we who acknowledge the saving and healing power of the Cross are blind to where humanity is clearly heading? Is it because we see it but are afraid to speak out? Is it because, although we see it, we simply cannot be bothered? Or is it because we believe the War on Terror is authentic and justified and therefore all measures deemed fit by the government to be taken toward victory in this projected fifty year-long war are justified? Here is a relevant comment from a prominent churchman:
We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, and straightforward human beings. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?
These words, which seem to me could have been spoken just the other day, were the words of the prisoner Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Letters and Papers from Prison, Touchstone, 1997), pastor of the Lutheran Church in Germany, written some sixty-six years ago prior to his execution at dawn by hanging on April 9, 1945. Due to his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler, this sentence to hang by the neck until dead brought with it the added requirement that it be in fact a slow death by strangulation, which the use of piano wire consequently assured.
A brilliant Protestant theologian as well as profound, Bonhoeffer stressed piety, both personal and collective, reviving the idea of the imitation of Christ. Christians should not retreat from the world, he stressed, but act within it. Believing that two elements were part and parcel of faith, the practicing of justice and the acceptance of divine suffering, he made it a point that the Church, like every Christian individually, “had to share in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world” if it were to be true to itself as the mystical body of Christ.
I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that is it only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world. That, I think, is faith. (Ibid)
To take seriously, he says, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world. What we suffer belongs to the life and destiny of each of us. What God suffers is the suffering of every single creature in existence, from worm to Seraph. To suffer oppression and to oppress – knowingly or unknowingly – is the tragic truth of the human condition. As Simone Weil says, “Human beings are so made that the ones who do the crushing feel nothing; it is the person crushed who feels what is happening. Unless one has placed oneself on the side of the oppressed, to feel with them, one cannot understand.” (Lectures on Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 1978, p. 139)
To identify with the oppressed, however, which can only mean to feel with the oppressed, is indeed “taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world.” For, as Bonhoeffer enjoins in Letters and Papers from Prison, “We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer” (p. 262). Elsewhere he explains:
God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love. (Ethics, Fortress Press, 2009, p. 84)
With Nazi ascension to power in January of 1933, Bonhoeffer became an open and active opponent of the regime from the very beginning, delivering a radio address in which he attacked Hitler only two days after Hitler was installed as Chancellor. In this address he warned the people of Germany against falling into an idolatrous cult of the Führer (leader), who could easily reveal himself to be in reality Verführer (mis-leader, or seducer). Not surprisingly, he was cut off the air in the middle of a sentence. In April, he spoke out against Hitler’s persecution of Jews, declaring that the Church must not simply “bandage the victims under the wheel, but jam the spoke in the wheel itself”, his voice the first and, as it turned out, virtually the only voice to call upon the Church to resist the regime.
“Action springs not from thought,” declared Bonhoeffer, “but from a readiness for responsibility.” We sense that Bonhoeffer’s theology of “this-worldliness” was his articulated commitment to take God’s suffering in the world with utmost seriousness, his solemn pledge to stand before the wheel of oppression wherever it might be encountered, to stand before it not only to “bandage the victims under the wheel”, but, as he said – and at whatever the cost to himself – to “jam the spoke in the wheel itself”. Apropos of this Simone Weil writes:
It is quite possible to avoid the social problem. The first duty that it places on one is not to tell lies. The first form of lie is that of covering up oppression, of flattering the oppressors. This form of lie is common among honest people, who in other ways are good and sincere, but who do not know what they are doing. (Lectures, p.139)
The second form, Weil explains, is demagoguery, which the Nazis were well-suited to exemplify, just as the leaders of the War on Terror are well-suited to exemplify in our day. Clearly Bonhoeffer was not one of those “honest” people Weil was referring to who tell lies. He knew what he was doing, he knew what he was saying. His honesty was like that of any saint, in that he had a profound awareness of his own sin together with a profound feeling for the suffering of others, a feeling that he saw from the depths of his soul as the sufferings of a loving God at the hands of a godless world.
As mentioned at the start, today is the Feast of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Raised a pagan, she converted to Christianity in her late teens. The legend tells that around 305 she visited her contemporary, the Roman Emperor Maxentius, with a view to convince him of the wrongfulness of his persecution of Christians. Although she did not manage to win him over, she did succeed in converting his wife the Empress, along with many pagan philosophers whom the Emperor sent to dispute with her, all of whom were subsequently martyred. As the Emperor could not convince Catherine to abandon Christianity, he imprisoned her. It was because the people who visited her kept converting that she was condemned to death on the “breaking wheel”. This was (however often it may have been used in the Roman era) a fairly common device of torture used for capital punishment in the Middle Ages and early modern times for public execution by cudgeling to death. According to the legend, the wheel broke when Catherine touched it. Therefore she was beheaded instead.
Both in their different ways, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theologian, and Catherine of Alexandria, patron of theologians, jammed a spoke in the wheel of official oppression. We can earnestly ask who in our day will witness to the sufferings of God in this Godless world. Who will, as official lies become more blatant, as governmental global surveillance and policing become more onerous, as by official economic policy the super-rich become ever richer and as everyone else becomes ever poorer, not simply bandage the victims under the wheel as the churches are wont to do, but will prove to be martyr enough to jam the spoke in the wheel itself, in that breaking wheel, that Emperor’s wheel and Führer’s wheel, of the coming official, world-wide oppression? As the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church begins in our time to share in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world – who?
Pax et Bonum,