Shouldn’t a revolution … differ vastly, in action and feeling, from the forces it seeks to dismantle ?

Kathleen Alcott, America Was Hard To Find (Harper Collins, Ecco, 2019), p. 227

Today is the 77th anniversary of the failed July 20 assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler.  Less well-known, but no less opposed to Hitler and the Nazis, was the Kreisau Circle around Count Helmut James von Moltke.   The circle met a number of times and produced detailed plans for a postwar Germany, part of a united Europe. Moltke, however, was opposed to the use of violence, even against Hitler, both on principle and for pragmatic reasons, and the circle never formally aligned themselves with those groups who were plotting the assassination of Hitler.

Helmut von Moltke. Image supplied by widow of Helmuth James von Moltke, Freya von Moltke, with express permission for it to be used freely world-wide without constraint.

Nevertheless, this did not prevent them eventually being arrested, tried and executed for opposition to the Nazi state.  Yet as von Moltke wrote to his wife Freya from prison in January 1945:

The nice part about the argument is this: We didn’t want to use any force – that’s established; … All we did was think… And National Socialism has such a great fear of the thoughts of these three solitary men [Alfred Delp; Eugen Gerstenmaier; von Moltke], the mere thoughts,  that it wants to wipe out everything that is infected by them.   How’s that for a compliment ? 

Freya & James von Moltke, Last Letters (NYRB, 2019), p. 283

For von Moltke, even tyrannicide was no foundation on which to build the new society of which he dreamed and for which he planned.

A generation on, in the early 1960s, Trappist monk Thomas Merton had an ongoing struggle with the newly-formed Catholic Peace Fellowship, He agreed with what they stood for, but queried their methods of protest, a stance which was the source of some heart searching for him. Merton wrote to Jim Forest in December 1965, soon after the death by self-immolation of Roger La Porte in protest at the Vietnam War, expressing his fears about what was going on:

… I think it is extremely important not to come out with some gesture that strikes the average Catholic as needless provocation and drives him [sic] back into the arms of conservatism and inertia.

Thomas Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns (ed. William H. Shannon), FS&G, 1985, p. 289

The previous month, Merton had written to Forest that:

This whole atmosphere is crazy, not just the peace movement, everybody. There is in it such an air of absurdity and moral void, even where conscience and morality are invoked (as they are by everyone). … The country is nuts.

Thomas Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns (ed. William H. Shannon), FS&G, 1985, p. 286

Some two years later, Merton wrote to Jesuit priest and peace activist Dan Berrigan in October 1967 in an attempt to set out his thoughts on the question of protest, and especially the question of violence against property:

Ethically and evangelically we are getting toward the place where we have to be able to define our limits. … In my opinion the job of the Christian is to try to give an example of sanity, independence, human integrity, good sense, as well as Christian love and wisdom, against all establishments and all mass movements and all current fashions which are merely mindless and hysterical. …The most popular and exciting thing at the moment is not necessarily the best choice.

Thomas Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns (ed. William H. Shannon), FS&G, 1985, pp. 97-98

For even protest movements can become captives of the principalities and powers, and reflect the very values they seek to oppose. This was the reason for Martin Luther King’s dogged insistence on non-violence in pursuit of the “Beloved Community”. For King any other way would have contradicted the very vision that so energised the civil rights movement.

Over half a century ago, French lawyer and lay theologian Jacques Ellul wrote in his first, seminal work, The Presence of the Kingdom:

This then is the revolutionary situation: to be revolutionary is to judge the world by its present state, by actual facts, in the name of a truth which does not yet exist (but which is coming) – and it is to do so, because we believe this truth to be more genuine and more real than the reality which surrounds us. Consequently it means bringing the future into the present as an explosive force.

Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom (London: SCM Press, 1951), pp. 50 – 51

The task of the Christian revolutionary, therefore, is to be in his or her particular time and place a sign of the end in the midst of time. In purely pragmatic terms the effectiveness of the sign cannot usually be measured by the standards of conventional political power. The sign acts as a sign of contradiction.

Pictures of some of those executed for their resistance to the Nazis, German Resistance Memorial Centre, Berlin.   Photo:  Peter King

Which brings us back to von Moltke and the Kreisua Circle.  They too were signs of contradiction in the midst of the violent horrors of Nazism.    As von Moltke wrote to his wife Freya in another letter from prison:

I never wanted or encouraged acts of violence like July 20. Quite the contrary. I fought preparations being made for them because I disapproved of such measures … for many reasons, and above all because I believed this was not the way to eliminate the fundamental spiritual evil.

In our own time there are those who would use violence to bring in the Kingdom of God, who believe that the use of violence is justified in bringing about their vision of a Christian society.  Von Moltke, Merton and Ellul, from their very different contexts and perspectives, question that, and pose the simple yet profound question with which I started:

Shouldn’t a revolution … differ vastly, in action and feeling, from the forces it seeks to dismantle ?

The section on Thomas Merton and Jacques Ellul is adapted from my article ‘Demythologising our Times: Living Humanly in the Twenty First Century’ in The Merton Journal, Advent 2002

Revd Peter King is a Research Associate of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence. He trained at Bristol Baptist College and was ordained in 1988, serving for eight years at Eynsham Baptist Church, Oxfordshire. He now works for the Anglican Diocese of Chichester in adult theological education. 

Signs of Contradiction
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2 thoughts on “Signs of Contradiction

  • 22nd July 2021 at 11:04 am

    I´m not sure if you are familiar with James H. Cone and his book “God of the Oppressed”? In this book, while Cone never outright advocates that the black community in America should use violence in its pursuit of racial justice, he does seems to suggest that MLK´s methods were not intense enough. Cone seems to also be suggesting that a nonviolent posture in pursuit of racial justice is yet another example of the black community submitting to a white theological paradigm. Cone´s thoughts immediately bring an important question to mind:

    Are oppressors ever in a position to tell the oppressed how to go about fighting for their emancipation?

    While I firmly believe that in the final installment of God´s epic kingdom there will be no violence, I´m not convinced that in our present time a call to nonviolence in all situations and circumstances is absolutely justified.

    • 23rd July 2021 at 11:36 am

      Thank you for your comment Matthew.

      I totally agree that oppressors are in no position to tell the oppressed how they should work for their freedom. In fact if you follow Helder Camara’s analysis in “Spiral of Violence”, oppressive social structures are just as much expressions of violence (what he calls Violence 1) as the responses they provoke (Violence 2). Violence 3 is the violent response of the authorities to Violence 2, hence the “Spiral of Violence” of his title.

      However, when I am talking about ourselves, and not others, then I do take Merton’s words seriously, and do see von Moltke’s refusal to use violence as an inspiration, even though I have nothing but admiration for Bonhoeffer and all those others involved in the July 20 plot.

      Thank you again for posing these important questions.


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