Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.

Our Weimar Moment

Kopf / Kristus (Wittek 121, Schapire 208). Original woodcut, 1918. Edition: 75 signed and numbered impressions on paper with larg margins published in the 1919 portfolio, Neun Holzschnitt / Nine Woodcuts.
Kopf/Kristus, by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

I wrote this after I could no longer watch the returns of Election Night, so it’s a bit of a panicking paroxysm, but given the state of affairs, I think I’m allowed it.

Two nights ago, I started a post about the fact that with a Trump victory, the United States would be entering a period similar to that of Weimar Germany. I abandoned that post. Because the more I wrote, the more I felt that that was not the case. But now as I watch the electoral returns, I am not so sure. With Trump comes the success of a poorly education, well-swayed patriarchal, white, disenfranchised, angry electorate. And with that electorate comes significant hatred and desire for vengeance. Racism, sexism, anti-semitism, xenophobia, all of it.

And with it is the kind of Christendom, that pragmatic, cultural power of Christianity as an earthly institution, that has supported slavery and the secondary status of women, the abandonment of the stranger, the marginalization of the Other (gender, sexual, and otherwise), and the force of law over grace and forgiveness. And that Christendom, which has been embodied in the Religious Right, found its champion in Donald Trump. From Jerry Falwell, Jr. to Eric Metaxas, from Phyllis Schlafly to James Dobson, Donald Trump is their voice and savior. This man who lies and bullies without restraint, who emboldens and invigorates the alt-right and KKK, who sells the idea of his own greatness to those who feel their greatness denied. Trump promises a return to a mythical golden age of prosperity and normalcy and mastery. How does this not smack of Germany in the 1920s?

The United States has not lost a global war, but there is real fear within its borders. There is fear because a black man has been in office for two terms. A woman is running for the presidency. Families with darker skin and different languages and cultures are in sight. Jobs and industries have evaporated. People have seen people use an unfamiliar world religion for power. And war leaves fearful, vulnerable people at a disadvantage. Trumpists perceive persecution from many sides and they are done, just done. They want control and power and they look like they have it.

And even if they did not win the presidency, they already have that might. They have heard and heeded the call to arms. It is the Trumpification of the United States. And it is a brutal, unkind call. It is a violent call. It is a call that already employs Jesus as its foundation and defense. What surprised and sobered me was the sheer number of evangelicals who genuinely support Trump – even when the basic doctrines and teachings of Christianity even so broadly understood do not comport in anyway with Trump, per se, and Trumpist rhetoric or values. Christendom has always been a frightful thing. But that dark Christendom, that Christendom of empire, like that statist Christendom of the Reichskirche, that is of the worst kind of Christendom. It is the Christendom that avidly seeks to crucify, to dominate, to rule, to act as God’s Hand. And with its hammer, it will scatter the multitudes. It rules by fear.

In the midst of German turmoil, the brittle Weimar government sought to bind the hemorrhage of a country and culture coming undone. German culture had a small, but brilliant moment in the face of a growing monster. I have always been fascinated by and embraced the romantic idea of Weimar art and culture. They were years caught in a vice, between 1918, Germany’s defeat in WWI, and 1933, the rise of Hitler. Weimar culture is defiant, subversive. It is creativity against insurmountable odds. It understands that the end is just below the horizon.  There is this desperate amalgam of frenetic hope and despair. So, of course, I love it. It feeds me. It feeds my craft.

But it is not something to be repeated or pursued. Weimar is not nihilism, but instead constructive chaos. It could not sustain itself because the institutions that enabled it collapsed. Weimar is reactive, as the best underground art and counterculture is. The Reagan and Thatcher years demonstrate that, too. Arts and letters flourished, even as the factions of the Church calcified into the Religious Right and transformed into the subversive liberation theology in South America.

In Germany and throughout Europe, a Church sought to rebuild itself after the Great War in ecumenism and openness. The young theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was part of this Church, was part of this Europe. He did his best. He was killed. There were other martyrs, yes. Countless others. Sophie Scholl. Simone Weil (let’s just add The Red Virgin, today. I don’t think she’d mind). But there were others who lived. Countless others. Martin Niemöller. Karl Barth. I wish I knew the names of women who were there, who fought, who resisted.

They worked hard to fight fascism and oppression and fear. They were and are the Church. They fought an institutional Christendom, both officially Nazi and fascist and implicitly imperial. They proclaimed the Gospel and they worked to hide and save the outsiders, the Jews, the Roma, the oppressed. The United States is not at that point, yet, and I would like to think that we won’t. But anti-semitism is real and Islamophobia is real and xenophobia and racism and sexism and anti-intellectualism are real. And it is not going away. And we must fight it. We must resist.

And it must be fought with love and mercy and grace and forgiveness and justice and resolve. But what I take from Weimar culture, from Max Beckmann and Otto Dix, from Fritz Lang and the Bauhaus, German Expressionism, and Dada, what I take from them is that our resistance must be subversive and creative. Love and mercy must be subversive. We must care for the stranger in “disordered” ways. There must be a queering of our care. Christendom’s Order, Trumpist “Law and Order” is narrow and exacting and demanding. It is unjust. It is neither grace, nor gracious. But our love and action must be “degenerate” to borrow an epithet from the Nazi authorities of official culture. Love trumps hate. Let us love one another.

We must not be nihilistic about things. But we can be bleak and we can be sober. We can be bleak in our theology because we can and must include lamentation. We have lost much, we are losing and will lose much. But our bleakness is eschatological, seeking to act toward a rupture of the present. Words and acts of prayer are a salve. Lamentation eases our pain of loss past and present. It girds us against the loss of the future. The German Expressionists employed religion in their art to convey the greater suffering. We have much work to do. But we must work to prevail. We will not forget or allow ourselves or others to ignore the suffering of those who came before us and the suffering that they endure now. We will not allow our nation to go back to the 1950s, to the time of Jim Crow and closets and xenophobia.

But I cannot resist understanding this election day as our Weimar Moment, when an Angel of Darkness passes over us and we feel the chill of the future. Our Weimar Moment can be our strength. We shall not deceive ourselves as we have seem to have done. I certainly did not expect this – not on this grand scale. But I will not go quietly. I will not forget the Weimar and I will not forget the America I believe in. I will say goodbye to the past I thought I knew and understood and look toward the near future and the eschatological horizon where the sun is setting beneath the earth’s line. I say this theologically, because the season of Advent is coming. Let us love one another. Truly. With sustaining acts of real kindness. And too all other things, we must say farewell.

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By Burke
Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.


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