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Remembering Dorothee Soelle by Renate Borger

by Luttpold Braun Saturday, Dec. 25, 2004 at 7:58 AM

The fate of love in the middle-class world is its reduction.. The language of love is often destroyed by institutions like the family and the church.. Love is reduced to a private, helpless and sentimental affair.


By Renate Borger

[This address from the 2003 Ecumenical Church Day in Berlin is translated from the German on the World Wide Web. Dorothee Soelle was a well-known German theologian and professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York whose books include “On Earth as in Heaven”, “Suffering”, “Thinking about God” and “The Arms Race Kills Even Without War”.]


“I must die. But that is all that I will do for death. I will refuse all other requests to respect its officials or celebrate its banks as humanly friendly and its inventions as advances of science. I will resist all the other seductions to mild depression, socialized relationlessness and the secure knowledge of eventual victory. I must die but that is all I will do for death. I will laugh against death, tell stories how death was outwitted and how women expelled death from the country. I will sing and reclaim the land with every act.”

The dear God has many special friends and joys, childlikeness and serious responsibility, anger, delight in life and courage if one is unloved. Courage can be a professional risk. One can be stamped unscientific and excluded. The more this courage is shown, the more it will be a shining example.

Dorothee Soelle was born in 1929. She lived, loved and worked with Fulbert Steffensky, a former Benedictine monk. With him, she developed the political night prayer at the end of the 1960s in Koln, a model for the Munich political Saturday prayer. She was a political theologian and a devout mystic. She was a penetrating thinker and a tender poetess, a feminist who loved and challenged men and women as people. She showed the way from the humble attitude of neediness for redemption for redemption and burdening sin with which we catholic children must still pray today. Lord, I am not worthy to stand under your roof… She showed the way out telling us: God needs us for his creation just as we need God. God waits on you and rejoices in your contribution in the world!

Charity was a political, public theme of building on the reciprocity of giving and taking, more than a private love program. Charity is not a caritive focus on a world to come but love for the living, for what we can experience in grace, joy, cooperation and mutual enrichment if we are not structurally encouraged to greed and fear because greed and anxiety are best suited to capitalism

Giving and taking, attentiveness and suffering are the three aspects of love. Charity is a relation, not a virtue. From relations arise the net of life. When we give without calculating or take without shame, we become attached to this great net and make it more reliable (p.48). Give to your neighbor; he gives like you. Take from your neighbor; he has obligations like you. The equality consists in everyone giving and taking…

The sentence “Giving is more blessed than receiving” is untrue and misleading in a deeper sense. Perhaps we should say: Giving and receiving are more blessed than having and hoarding. I can only receive and give with my hands when they are not occupied in hoarding.

To learn this balance or reciprocity of love, we need a certain kind of concentration that Simone Weil described as attentiveness to reality.


Pain is inevitable with giving and taking. This is said to Marxists, humanists and above all positivists and behaviorists who seek to eliminate pain as immaturity, unnecessary or an unreasonable exaction.

“We know that we are never finished with love and always remain in its debt. That we always fall behind love is the messianic pain in the not-yet redeemed world. I would love to be the tree that lives in giving and receiving and is attentive to the earth and the sun. But pain separates me from these brothers and sisters…” (p.49).

Loving your neighbor as yourself means being attentive, learning to give and take and not denying pain!

However these are not present conditions, a friend said. What is the point of speaking of love under capitalist conditions? Must we not speak of failure in the social sense, not in the moral sense?…

The problem is the contradiction between inward- and outward morality, of family and the working/business world, between private- and social spheres. This contradiction intensifies. Practicing giving and receiving is impossible for example for a mother who must educate children for competition.

“Pressure to perform destroys the natural structure of giving and taking.” Love is banished into private affairs. The division system (Luhmann), state, economy, science and family is in force. Love should be in the family. A little space remains for love.

“The fate of love in the middle class world is its reduction. Love is no longer able to meaningfully define relations between people and regulate them satisfactorily.”

The subjective experiment of loving in a world of objective non-loving, especially for the most competitive, men is made impossible. “It is a desperate attempt of men to become persons, at least in bed. In a world that objectively (technologically, economically and politically) only knows useful- and sexual objects and limits human activities to producing and consuming where selling and buying emerge out of giving and receiving, the attentiveness of love cannot arise or grow.

The language of love is often destroyed by institutions like the family and the church. New improved designs of human life are necessary where love is reduced to a private, helpless and sentimental affair.

The technocratic answer is that charity is pointless and overstrained; only interests are important. Others, Christians, humanists, Jews and socialists say:

Love is the deepest human need. Learning to give and take is the greatest task. The acknowledgment of its existence is threatened today, not only the fulfillment of this need that was endangered in all ages! What the person needs and whether he or she can manage with less love are contested!

May one conclude that love that refuses to entrench itself in the family and join in renunciation on justice still has different future possibilities? Is the technocratic watchword that declares the deepest needs non-existent and manipulates them out of the world the only watchword? Or is a society conceivable that takes needs more seriously than earlier times because it seeks to realize giving and taking on a different economic base for all people? (p.55)


“Home”, according to Ernst Bloch’s closing sentence from “The Principle of Hope” is “something that shines to everyone in childhood where no one was”. “Working, creating persons reshaping and surpassing given realities and establishing compatriots without alienation and estrangement in real democracy” are the original conditions for home…

The promised home makes us homeless. The dialectic, this foreignness of what home is and that it isn’t found, seems irreparable. Homelessness arises on account of a home in which no one was. Homelessness in the sense of something irreparable and to be found is very human and not a reason for complaint. A totally domesticated person would be rather ridiculous to me…

Persons do not simply belong to the sphere of nature. Therefore the experience of homelessness is queued up. A harmless domesticated Christianity is a danger.” (p.124).


“The more we are incapable of bearing our own suffering, the easier it is to endure foreign suffering” (Kolakowski quote). Soelle” “This is the double face of apathy: denial and repression of one’s own suffering and icy tolerance of the other’s suffering. The strategies for avoiding suffering in our intimate relations are connected with the breath-taking tolerance with which we watch the genocide of whole peoples.” (p.33)

The person is the political. The truth of this slogan from the women’s movement was never so clear as in the problem of apathy, white middle-class apathy in the first rich world. Apathy with its dimensions of subjective paralysis, repression of suffering and objective incapacity for suffering may be a new psycho-social quality, similar to what the young Marx called “alienation”. When sympathy is classified with crime and criminalized, what else can be expected of citizens? Apathy, technologically possible, publically desired and culturally affirmed apathy! (p.34)

The state of permanent structural injustice that we enjoy has obvious consequences for our value system. We have reversed the relation of love and suffering and the order of precedence. Being and remaining free of suffering until death is certainly the highest accepted value. Health is the highest good, as everyone knows. Being alive, transcending the ego and being in communication and sympathy with all living things is subordinated to freedom from suffering. Apathetic freedom from suffering, privation, pain and involvement is promoted as the supreme value like smooth beauty, spotless cleanliness and the unbroken career that characterizes our lifestyle before other people. The goal of becoming capable of love and enabling justice is subordinated to the goal of getting away “good” and “intact”. (p.36)

Grace is the reunification of life with itself, the reconciliation of oneself with oneself, the re-acceptance of what was rejected.. (error-friendliness!) (p.40)

“Desires must go beyond the reality that we know. That is their strength and is also the strength of prayer. Learning this is tremendously valuable” (SWR 4/26/2003).


I believe in God’s good creation, the earth. This creation is holy, yesterday, today and tomorrow. Do not commodify it; it does not belong to you or any corporation. We don’t own it like a thing that one buys, uses and throws away. It belongs to another.

We can know this from God, our mother. How can we speak of God without the flowers that praise God, without the wind and the water that tell of him in whispers? How can we praise God without learning protection from our mother?

The earth exists for everyone, not only for the rich. It is holy, every single leaf. The ocean, the land, the light and the darkness, being born and dying – all sing the song of the earth.

Let us not live one day and forget them.

We want to preserve their rhythm, allow their happiness to shine and protect them from greed and thirst for power because they are hallowed and we can be free of addiction or craving. Because they are hallowed, we learn healing.

I believe in God’s good creation, the earth. It is holy, yesterday, and tomorrow.


“New forms of slavery arise today before our eyes in the course of deregulation and globalization of the economy. The worst violations of human rights today are the consequences of the world economy. Boundless world trade is the new idol that dominates us.”


“Technical progress has produced a mega-machine that disfigures all nature and everything created. It believes in its second creation that should be better than the first. Joining this culture of apartheid and death with life will not be easy.” (from the book, “What I believe”, 1990)


The greatest terrorist in our world is not Osama bin Laden, the Taliban or Saddam Hussein but the neoliberal world economic order that destroys local exchange structures. Debt slavery tramples on social human rights.


Teach us to be a minority, O God!

Keep us from the mania for harmony and bowing before great numbers. You know how hungry we are for your clarification. Give us teachers, not only show-masters with ratings.

See how thirsty we are for your orientation, how much we want to know what counts. Make us brothers and sisters with those who have no lobby, who are not marketable.


We are not only 10,000, I say, we are more! The dead of the two wars are with us! A journalist asked me, how I could know this. I said: Haven’t you seen them? Haven’t you heard your grandmother moan? Do you dwell completely alone without once allowing the dead to drink with you? Do you really imagine that you are only you?


Ask God daily for the gift of tears, I read with the mystics.

Daily, may we be salt and shame, daily may we become free, O God.


Organized religion is dialectical with its ifs and buts. Organized religion is Yes and No at once.. I hope that you all become a little pious. Don’t forget the best! That you praise God sometimes, not always since only gossips do this but sometimes when you are happy so that happiness entirely by itself flows into gratitude and you sing Hallelujah or the great Ohm of the Indian religion…

There is no God within! Has one of you ever said in visiting a church, don’t go in! God should be in your life!

True joy, joy in life, the happiness of being alive is not a joy over strawberries, being free of guilt or having a marvelous visitor. True joy is without questions. Sonda Warombe, like my best friend from the Middle Ages, Meister Eckhart, says: If I could only give you a little, that would be much and I would confidently renounce my illicit extra-special desires, these motherly exactions, that you read for example the life of Meister Eckhart!

Don’t forget the best! (from the CD “Mad for Light!”)

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