"Flashback Friday" on Dorothee Sölle: Political Theologian Par Excellence



by Rev. Dr. Norman Faramelli


Today’s post is a “Flashback Friday” (much like our “Throwback Thursday” feature, only a day later!). Approximately once a month, we hope to offer a blog post that features an article from past editions of Religious Socialism. The post below is from the Fall 2003 edition of Religious Socialism, a tribute to Dorothee Sölle, who had died that April. Dorothee Steffensky-Sölle (September 30, 1929 –April 27, 2003) was a well-known German liberation theologian who taught at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City and was a member of the DSA Religion and Socialism Commission. (You can read a “Throwback Thursday” piece written by Sölle  at this link.)   – Editorial Group of “Religious Socialism” 


On April 27, Dorothee Sölle died at the age of 73. With her passing, the world lost a gifted theologian political activist, poet, and spiritual leader who championed the cause of democratic socialism built upon religious foundations. Sölle was a German by birth, but her outlook was that of a world citizen. From 1975 to 1987 she was visiting professor of theology at Union Seminary in New York City and was involved in many progressive movements in the United States, including Democratic Socialists of America and one of its predecessor organizations, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee. Sölle left us a great legacy that we can celebrate, even as we are diminished by her death.

Political Theologian

Sölle must first be understood in the context of the political theology that emerged in Europe in the sixties and seventies, a movement that grew in parallel to the Liberation Theology movements in North and Latin America. Political theology in Europe was deeply influenced by the events of World War II (and particularly the Holocaust).

Three of the major figures in political theology were Jurgen Moltmann, Johannes Metz, and Dorothee Sölle. All three grew up in Nazi Germany. Metz (a Roman Catholic) and Moltmann (a Lutheran) were both drafted into the German army toward the end of World War II, at the ages of 16 and 18, respectively; experienced the horrors of war; and ended as prisoners of war. Sölle was a teenager during the war, and although she did not serve in the military, she lived with the disasters of World War II and with the legacy of the Nazi regime. For all three, the horrors of war, the significance of Auschwitz, and the depths of human suffering shaped their theologies. That is, the struggle for peace and justice, rooted in human suffering, formed the basis for political theology. Sölle, like Moltmann, was a Lutheran, deeply influenced by Luther’s emphasis on the incarnation and the “theology of the cross.”

Sölle’s first major works were in this area were Political Theology (1974) and Suffering (1975). Political theology, like Latin American and black liberation theologies, is rooted in praxis; that is, the theologian is engaged socially and politically in the issues that s/he addresses. S/he engages in social action and then reflects upon that activity. By that definition, Sölle was a political theologian par excellence. She truly understood the meaning of praxis and lived it. In addition, she sought ways to integrate the work of Latin American liberation theologians with European political theology, as seen in her Stations of the Cross: A Latin American Pilgrimage (1993).

Democratic Socialist, Political Activist

Despite the prominence she gained in academia, Sölle was never content with being solely an academic theologian or, for that matter, with simply being a political theologian. For instance, she made significant contributions in feminist and ecological theology. In addition, Sölle was a vocal and visible antiwar and political activist in the seventies and eighties. She was deeply moved by the horrors of the Vietnam War, and was a fervent critic of American imperialism and the consumerist culture—especially a “culture of death” that she believed manifested itself in the endless arms race and the corresponding neglect of the poor. In the two books she wrote in 1983 (On War and Love and The Arms Race Kills Even Without War) Sölle recognized and named the folly of endless military spending and the corresponding depletion of funding for the poor.

Sölle was deeply influenced by Marxist social analysis, but never accepted Marx’s views on religion. She was committed to a socio-economic analysis that uncovered the inherent contradictions in contemporary economies and identified the agents of change to develop economic alternatives. She saw the alienation of workers from both the product and the meaning of their work. In 1978, she set forth her views on democratic socialism in Beyond Mere Dialogue: On Being Christian and Socialist. In this work, Sölle addresses sin and alienation, cross and class struggle, and resurrection and liberation.

In To Work and To Love: A Theology of Creation (written with Shirley Cloyes in 1984), Sölle said that the book emerged “out of my own struggle to agree with God and to learn to praise creation.” The book was “an attempt to affirm our being created and becoming creators, being liberated and becoming agents of liberation, being loved and becoming lovers.”

Integrating Feminist and Ecological Theology

Sölle was deeply critical of a consumer mentality that paid little attention to the natural order, other than to see it as a source of natural resources to be exploited exclusively for human use. As her career developed, she increasingly directed her efforts to ecological and feminist concerns. (In 1994 she wrote the narrative to Great Women in the Bible in Art and Literature.) She saw the connections between gender and ecology. That is, gender inequality and environmental destruction are all part of the same mind-set. But Sölle had a knack for integrating these issues, as if they formed a unified web. In 1984 she wrote The Strength of the Weak: Toward a Christian Feminist Identity, in which she brought together issues of religion and life, politics and personal identity, feminism and liberation theology. She consistently noted that it is the same dehumanizing elements that combine to oppress both men and women.

In addition to integrating feminist and ecological thinking, Sölle consistently warned of the false splits between mind and body, the personal and the social, and the spiritual and the political. In this regard, her work is more biblical than that of most academic theologians, who compartmentalize and are comfortable making these sharp distinctions. For Sölle, those dichotomies are distortions of the gospel message. This integration was greatly assisted by her own involvement in social/economic/political issues. For her, theology was not a head trip. It is to Sölle’s work as spiritual mentor in a political context that we now turn.

Spiritual Foundations

One of Sölle’s latest works (written in collaboration with Louise Schottroff) was Jesus of Nazareth. (2002). In this work, one can see Christian theologians grappling with the serious problems of anti-Semitism. The book was written to address “centuries of Christian Anti-Judaism.” This theme was one of the pillars of political theology that played a significant role throughout Sölle’s life.

But Sölle also served as spiritual mentor to many and fostered a resistance theology. This theme did not suddenly emerge in her later years. The connection between spirituality and political resistance permeated all of her works.

In 1977, Sölle wrote Revolutionary Patience (which contained her poem “The Long March”…). Waiting for God is an essential part of being engaged in political action. In one her most insightful works On Earth as In Heaven: A Liberation Spirituality of Sharing (1993), Sölle addresses the poor and dispossessed, social vision, biblical roots and social transformation. One chapter in this book is “must reading” for all religious socialists — “Moses, Jesus and Marx: Utopians in Search of Justice.” Sölle warns us not to celebrate the apparent triumph of democratic capitalism over other economic alternatives until we find adequate ways to address the issues of the poor. In the last paragraph she writes,

If we allow the dream that the hungry will be satisfied to be prohibited, then we have separated ourselves from God, or in any case the God of the Bible. . . .There is something ineradicable about faith, hope and love. One may criticize the anthropology of previous socialism for being too optimistic. However, the cynical anthropology of real existing capitalism is unbearable for the spiritually gifted. Present reality is not everything! A transcendence stirs within us that cannot be satisfied. Even an economically stable capitalism will not succeed in smothering that stirring. For God wants to believe in us, to hope in us, and to become one with us in love.

Three more of Sölle’s works are particularly worth noting: (1) Window of Vulnerability: A Political Spirituality (1990) utilizes the works of feminist and third-world liberation theologies. Sölle critiques Western culture, which she views as suicidal with its militarism and environmental destruction. She rejects our current personal and corporate preoccupation with security and envisions a new culture of vulnerability—grounded in faith as resistance, a faith that is “saturated with a deep love of life.”

(2) In Creative Disobedience (1995), Sölle shows how German obedience to the will of the Nazis led to the destruction of six million Jews. She also notes how the church’s desire for unquestioning subservience has led many who claim to be Christian to participate in the oppression of others. She also shows how women’s obedience to men throughout history has caused numerous experiences of conflict, powerlessness, and misery.

(3) In one of her later works, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance (2001), Sölle claims that this book is an expression of working for justice in a world steeped in consumerism, economic inequalities, ecological destruction, and global chaos. Sölle’s own dedication was formed out a need to hold together various issues in unity as resistance against the machine of death and destruction. Sölle shows how the work of Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., challenge us to a practice of nonviolence as a means of celebrating the unity of all living beings. Sölle notes “to be aware of the ‘silent cry’ in our world means to become one with it.” In the introduction, she writes, “My questioning is focused on social reality. This means that for the sake of what is within, I seek to erase the distinction between a mystical internal and a political external.”

In the final section, Sölle speaks of “Mysticism Is Resistance.” She makes a powerful case for the inextricable linkage between mysticism and political action. In our age, says Sölle, mysticism “still names our poverty and reminds us still of the power in us that holds together and heals. Religion still speaks of the sanctity of life for all that we can locate in love.”

For her, linking the personal to the social, and the spiritual and religious foundations with political action was central to the work of all religious socialists.

Focus On Justice

I want to conclude this tribute to Sölle with a reference to an address she made in the political night prayer at St. Katherine’s Church in Hamburg, Germany, one week after the 9/11 attack in 2001. Sölle said,

We live in a cycle of violence and are caught in it. Our prison is the best furnished in world history. Still we are captive in the cycle of violence producing counter-violence. Terror demands counter-terror raising the first terror to another level. Is there no freedom any more to break through the circle? Must we remain spectators when violence increases daily and threatens the lives of the majority of people, fellow-creatures and our mother earth?

She ends the address with this statement:

Rebelling for peace means today “Rebelling for justice.” Justice is the basic condition for peace. In 1983 I was in Vancouver for the World Council of Churches World Assembly. People from the South called our attention to the sequence. Justice and peace belong together but justice comes first.

Globalization from above is a barbaric system of impoverishment of the majority of humankind and destruction of the earth.

We need a different economic globalization from below in the interest of the earth and the interest of the poorest.

Rest in peace, Dorothee Sölle. You have graced us with your presence and your multiple gifts. You have reminded us that religious socialism contains two essential components—spirituality and political engagement. Even as we mourn your loss, we rejoice in the great legacy that you left us.

The Rev. Dr. Norman Faramelli is an Episcopal priest and longtime member of the DSA Religion and Socialism Executive Committee. He teaches Social Ethics at Boston University and serves as a consultant to religious institutions.


Major Works of Dorothee Sölle in English

2002 Jesus of Nazareth (with Luise Schottroff), Westminster John Knox Press

2001 The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance, Fortress Press

1999 Against the Wind: Memoir of a Radical Christian

1995 Creative Disobedience, Pilgrim Press

1995 Theology for Skeptics, Fortress Press

1994 Great Women of the Bible in Art and Literature, Eerdmans

1993 On Earth as in Heaven: A Liberation Spirituality of Sharing, Fortress Press

1993 Stations of the Cross: A Latin American Pilgrimage, Fortress Press

1990 Window of Vulnerability: A Political Spirituality, Fortress Press

1990 Thinking About God, Trinity Press International (London)

1986 Hope for Faith: A Conversation with C.F. Beyers, World Council of Churches Publications, (Geneva)

1985 Not Just Yes and Amen: Christians with a Cause (with Fulbert Steffensky), Fortress Press

1984 The Strength of the Weak: Toward a Christian Feminist Identity, Westminster Press

1984 To Work and to Love: A Theology of Creation (with Shirley Cloyes), Fortress Press

1983 On War and Love, Orbis Press

1983 The Arms Race Kills Even Without War, Fortress Press

1982 Beyond Mere Obedience, Pilgrim Press

1981 Choosing Life, Fortress Press

1978 Death by Bread Alone:Texts and Reflections on Religious Experience, Fortress Press

1978 Beyond Mere Dialogue: On Being Christian and Socialist, Earl Lectures, American Christians Toward Socialism

1977 Revolutionary Patience, Orbis Press

1975 Suffering, Fortress Press

1974 Political Theology, Fortress Press

1967 Christ the Representative: Essay on Theology After the Death of God, Fortress Press