Theologian Martin E. Marty once said, “We do not want cheap grace, a casual people, or a forgotten victim. [..] As a Christian I am told that God is a gracious Other, but I also need and need to be a gracious brother. Gracelessness helps produce totalitarianisms as much as cheap grace might. If there is to be grace, it must be mediated through people.” Of course, the concept of a gracious, reconciled human relations is shared by people of many faiths and of no faith.
When talking about the “theology of hope” in the midst of suffering, many will turn to Jürgen Moltmann whose books, Theology of Hope” (1967) and The Crucified God, have been hugely influential. The foundations for this theology of hope and liberation were laid during his personal experience. In his autobiographical essay “Wrestling with God”, Moltmann reflects on the terrors at the end of WWII and the hopelessness he felt. As a 17 year old air force auxiliary, he survived the bombing of Hamburg by the Royal Air Force. (Noteworthy fact – the British used a biblical reference and symbolically named these attacks “Operation Gomorrah”.) Moltmann writes, “We wrestled with God in order to survive in the abysses of senselessness and guilt; and we emerged from those years ‘limping’ indeed, but blessed.” He describes the deep wounds of the soul, the survivor’s guilt, the lost hopes of his generation and the profound collective German shame.
Moltmann talks about encounters with people who showed him grace which profoundly impacted and changed him. The first was the kindness of the Scottish and English people who, in Moltmann’s words, met the German prisoners of war “half way”. He felt accepted as a person and experienced “forgiveness of guilt without any confession of guilt on our part, and that made it possible for us to live with the past of our people.”
The other experience took place at the Student Christian Movement conference in England in 1947. The group of German POW’s was invited and they went still wearing their wartime uniforms. At the conference Moltmann and his group were approached by a group of Dutch students. Moltmann describes how afraid he felt at first as he had fought against the Dutch in Holland,
The Dutch students told us that Christ was the bridge on which they would cross to us, and that without Christ they would not be talking to us at all. [..] We too could step on to this bridge which Christ had built from them to us, and could confess the guilt of our people and ask for reconciliation. At the end we all embraced. For me it was an hour of liberation. I was able to breathe again, felt like a human being once more.
Undoubtedly these experiences of reconciliation between former enemies left a profound impact on Moltmans as a theologian. In fact he first felt the calling to become a theologian while at Norton Camp where young Germans were supposed to be “re-educated”. (The proper term was denazification.) It was also at the Norton Camp where many highly respected British theologians came to teach and Moltmann considers it a unique and “generous gift of reconciliation offered to former enemies”.
Dr. Robert Enright, who is one of the pioneers of social scientific study of forgiveness, highlights the same paradox – the challenge of humanizing the evildoers. “What of those people who cannot see the other’s humanity? If we are so offended by the evil done that we see these offenders as less than human, then we can fall into the same evil. By granting to the offenders the status of human being, we repudiate the idea that human beings can be treated as less than human.”
Martin E. Marty in a Symposium in The Sunflower, Simon Wiesenthal (New York: Schocken Books, 1969)
Jürgen Moltmann. The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life, Trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1997)
Robert D. Enright, Forgiveness Is a Choice (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2001)