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"Only the one who cries for the Jews may sing Gregorian"

by Franz Segbers Monday, Apr. 04, 2011 at 11:39 AM

Crying and singing, ethical engagement and praising God belong together. The great events of world history should be seen from below, from the perspective of the dismissed, suspicious, mistreated, powerless, oppressed and mocked. God's honor is the person who lives.


By Franz Segbers

[This meditation is translated from the German on the Internet,]

When the persecution and deprivation of rights of Jews increased right after 1933, Dietrich Bonhoeffer recalled the double and inseparable task of the church: to be a “church for others” and to praise God. This twofold task is expressed in the well-known dictum “Only the one who cries for the Jews may sing Gregorian.” Even if this saying is only quoted by his biographer Eberhard Bethge and is not found in Bonhoeffer’s writings, it has an enormous power because it was engraved in the memory with its double tension. Crying and singing, ethical engagement and praising God belong together. Bonhoeffer emphasized attention for the suffering, even if they were outside church walls. In one of his letters, Bonhoeffer later told of an important learning experience: “that we learn to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the dismissed, suspicious, mistreated, powerless, oppressed and mocked, in a world of the suffering.”

Thirty years ago in our anthology “Am Ort der Arbeit” (Mainz/Munich 1981), Christian Gremmels and I dared this double view downward and outside. We allowed those to speak who have much to say about work but rarely are heard. Social ethics should become a second act. The first act involves the happenings of life, the fears, disappointments and also the resistance of those who are experts on work, the workers. Listening to them is the first task of theologians. We asked: “Can theology adopt this way of looking at things? “ In the same volume Horst Symanowski, founder of church industrial- and social work and Bonhoeffer’s student, argued against such questions of expert theologians: “The first challenge for the theologian is listening. He will learn where the pressure of suffering arises with workers and how they endure and seek to mitigate it together. Sharing his hope for a new world based on Jesus Christ with those who daily struggle hard for its partial realization makes him happy.”

These reports on the place of work speak of a division of the church that continues today. Summarizing the learning experiences after a long consultation process, the economic- and social declaration of the churches said two churches exist: one that serves society and the other that is alarmingly self-centered giving little attention to events in society. What separates the churches are two opposite lines of vision – one church looks at itself and the other looks straight at the world.

This division transposes churches into two different life worlds – into “thinking in two realms,” as Bonhoeffer formulated in Ethics. In one realm with its life world, the church simply ignores this division and speaks of a unity that only occurs in faith and an equality that only exists before God. This form of unity declares the gulf running between poor and rich, the humiliated and the rulers as not always important. The price for this unity is another division, a division separating people from each other and real living conditions from faith. There God and the person, spiritual and worldly, real and conceptual, bread and religion should be separated.

There is a counter-movement pervading the whole history of the church against these interests of separation. In it the church division is overcome. What should be neatly separated should be brought together. Then everything is important, whether children can attend school, whether people have work and bread and whether people without work can live in dignity.

In the 3rd century, Irenaus of Lyon, bishop in Lyon, explained this mixture when he said: “Gloria Dei vivens homo” – “God’s honor is the person who lives.” This bold saying makes the real life world into the place where God’s honor is manifest. God’s honor is violated when a person is trampled, when bread, work or school are lacking. “Pray and work,” Benedict of Nursia wrote to his order in the 3rd century and made God’s praise and work into a rule of life for everyone. With the double commission “struggle and contemplation,” Frere Roger, the founder of Taize, sang Taize hymns and opened eyes for the facts of life. Dorothee Soelle was on the same path when she spoke of “mysticism and resistance.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer also stood in the same line of tradition when he stressed “praying and doing the works of the just among people” (Letters and Papers from Prison) which for him meant concretely “Only the one who cries for the Jews may sing Gregorian.” Bonhoeffer joined the Gregorian chant with crying against the deprivation of rights of fellow Jewish citizens and tore down the dividing wall between the supposedly essential and politics. Life in discipleship should share “in the reality of God and the reality of the world” and therefore sends Christians into the conflicts and confrontations of their time. The cry for the Jews and the chant are two sides of the one “mystical-political double constitution of the discipleship of Jesus,” as Johann B. Metz says. This double constitution forces us to ask: where are people suffering? From what are they suffering? Who makes them suffer? Praising God and justice for the poor are so inseparably connected that God is praised when the poor gain justice and the poor gain justice when God is praised.

The French bishop Jacques Gaillot said rightly: “I believe the gospel makes us sensitive to suffering and simply means being the eyes and ears for sufferers… Whoever dives into God comes up alongside the poor” [quoted in: Publik-Forum, “Whoever humiliates people spits in God’s face,” 1998]

More than only questions of ethics were raised in political engagement for more justice and dignity. Ethics alone is too weak because it only addresses beliefs and convictions and not the whole person of body, soul and spirit. Spirituality interprets the unemployed or those made poor as brothers and sisters robbed of their right to work and income. It guides to a solidarity that creates justice. The economic- and social declaration of the churches intended this when it emphasized “that doing one’s utmost for solidarity and justice is indispensable for the testimony of the gospel. The cry of the poor must have its place in the church service, not only the chorale. “Mysticism,” encounter with God, and “politics,” service to society, cannot be separated for Christians” (Nr.46).

All this may sound like theological abstraction. But with Bonhoeffer I would like to dare a translation experiment that leads into the conflicts of our days and makes visible a nasty gulf between the supposedly productive and achievers on one side and those dismissed as superfluous and declared unproductive on the other side. The Hartz IV recipients not needed any6 more are on the other side [Hartz IV, the German welfare reform, combined income support and unemployment benefits and radically reduced the duration of benefits]. These people with their worries are rather foreign to middle class communities. Those outside look like a foreign ethnic group. Are the poor, the first addressants of the gospel and Jesus’ first concern? What does the “mystical-political double constitution of Jesus’ discipleship” (J.B. Metz) demand in times of Hartz IV for rights of the poor? Bonhoeffer set the church on the side of the poor: “The church is unconditionally obliged to the victims of every social order, even if they are not part of the Christian community” [Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Church before the Jewish Question in: Collected Writings 1966]. Where and how is the church demanded today to stand on the side of the victims? Is the church spreading compassion with the victims or standing up for their rights?

On February 9, 2010 the German Federal Constitutional Court ruled on Hartz IV that the state is obligated in its commission to protect human dignity and in its welfare state mandate to ensure that the material prerequisites for dignified life are made available to those without any income. Millions of people who must live at the edge of the well-to-do society now have hope that their right to a dignified existence may be fulfilled.

A vigorous debate was kindled when the German government thought raising regular benefits merely five Euros to 364 Euro monthly and an education package for needy children would be just. The diakonia was not touched by this. I suggested an alternative calculation of benefits. However the diakonia on the federal plane was afraid of attacking the Hartz IV policy of the German government with a different calculation of benefits and preferred to merely counsel the political decision-makers. We gained ten regional associations of the diakonia who drew up an alternative benefit calculation. The proposal woke people up. The benefits must be at least 433 Euro. The difference of 69 Euro compared to the official government calculation of 364 Euro represents rights in cents and Euros withheld from the poor.

What is the church and what is the diakonia today? Are they political advisers or civil society actors that meddle in social confrontations? How can they praise God and champion the rights of the poor? Whoever shows the rights withheld from the poor in cents and Euros and the injustice done to poor persons assails government policy. Critics make themselves vulnerable. Political consultation is dangerously harmless and not particularly disturbing. The government does not feel threatened. Political consultation remains a vague discussion that does not do its utmost for the rights of the poor or meddle in any conflict.

So I hear Dietrich Bonhoeffer today. He wants to keep me and our churches from settling in a church beyond social conflicts. If praising God and honoring justice is the basic task of the church, justice withheld from the poor is a spiritual and political problem. Therefore Bonhoeffer today would recall the basic task of the church for our time and say: “Only the one who cries for Hartz IV recipients may also sing Taize hymns.”


[This excerpt from the free Internet book “God, Christ and the Poor” is translated from the German on the Internet,]

In his answer, Leonardo Boff criticized the absence of an incarnation theology in Clodovis Boff’s theology. In Leonardo’s words, this means “that God’s Son leaves behind his transcendence (his God nature) and human nature in the flesh takes form in Jesus of Nazareth, that is being imperfect, vulnerable and poor. This humanity… was God’s part since Jesus is simultaneously “true God and true man” (Chalcedon in 451 A.D.). This Jesus is the world judge and “identifies with the poor… It is symptomatic and irritating that the text Matt 25, 31-46 so central and characteristic for the theology of liberation is not even mentioned by Clodovis… Still “this text is enough to level the whole theoretical construction… Therefore we could conclude: Identifying the poor with God and Christ is not a theological error.” Following a quotation from Karl Barth, Leonardo Boff formulates: “Because God was a poor man, the poor person was the standard of all things.” He urges “a Christian theology that takes seriously the dogmatic truth of the unmixed and unseparated unity of the poor man Jesus as the eternal Son of the Father.”

Other advocates of liberation theology also defend this view. They resist the reproach of Clodovis… that liberation theology replaces God with the poor, that the poor “replaces” God in the discourse of liberation theology so that “both have the same theological place.” A “hermeneutical circle” results according to Luis Carlos Susin and Erico Hammes: “Giving God priority over the poor or giving the poor priority over God are false priorities because they should be thought together and identified as happens in Matt 25. There is no “either-or” here but an “is.” Thus the poor is God and vice versa. Every construction of a priority is corrupt and can lead to utter confusion. Thinking in a more complex way in the hermeneutical circle and not in logical linearity is necessary.” In the words of Ludger Weckel, “the hermeneutical circle reflects more complex structures since the two poles of the circle (the crucified Christ and the crucified people of the poor) refer to each other and explain one another.” According to the two aforementioned theologians, “God’s transcendence consists in transcending himself toward us, the creation and the weakest. This is a transcendence of trans-condescension (= the surpassing joint descent).


[The following confessions/poems are translated from the German on the Internet,]



I do not believe

in a humanized


I believe in a

human person

I believe

a person

becomes a person

more and more

I believe

today’s person

because he lives in our cities

in the villages

in skyscraper bungalows

and barracks

is a forerunner

a signpost or sign

like the Neanderthal

is our precursor

There is still time before our incarnation

We are underway

I do not believe

that a person can do everything

I believe

he should not do everything

that he can do

I believe a person

would do much more

and could do much more

if a person

becomes a human brother

and sister

I believe in heaven

I believe a person

can become heaven to a person

I believe a person

can become culpable

and hell on this earth

to another person

I believe in Jesus

and I believe in me and you

I believe every person

carries this Jesus in himself as an embryo

I believe a person

is not a faulty design

I believe the climate is often lacking

for him to become

what he should become

I believe God is also overlooked

with the person

I believe every person

is a special aspect of God

I believe God can die in us

and has already died in some

I believe God must be carried

in our life

in joy and pain

in loneliness and community

I believe God in us

will see the light of day

I believe

there will be a great infection of human good will to all

I believe people

will be provided

and I do not believe

that truth must be protected

as in a prison

behind bars

of dogmas and laws

and thereby narrowed, falsified

and trivialized

I believe

the truth protects herself

and keeps herself clean

I believe

Jesus will come again

and again

and again

I believe

Jesus will appear again in assemblies/crowds

I believe


will spread over the whole earth

I believe

in the moment

in eternity in the moment

I believe

clocks will be absurd

and anachronistic

when time crumbles

I believe

we will live

space-less and timeless

that there will be no past

and no future any more

only the moment


I believe

that death

will be the great surprise

the great transformation

not the great destruction

I believe in God

I believe in Jesus

I believe in myself

I believe in people

I believe in the earth

I believe everything has meaning

I believe everything can be turned to good

I believe in the incredible

I do not believe everything said to me

but I am a believer

I know

that knowledge is not enough

I am a hoping person

and sometimes a lover


I believe in Jesus Christ

son of life, brother of humanity

firstborn of all creation

reminding us of our sisters and brothers

the trees and the birds of the sky

sister water and brother fire

he unites us with everything living

on our little planet earth.

I believe in Jesus the son of life

gives to us so we pass it on

he healed the sick and the sorrowful

he fed the hungry and the despairing

a co-worker of creation

that continues everyday in our work

when we protect our home from the plundering

of our little planet earth.

I believe in Jesus

son of life and a poor mother

political prisoner under Pontius Pilate

tortured to death even today

in the police cell camps and wars

that we still tolerate

on our little planet earth.

I believe in Jesus

the firstborn from the dead

they could not finish him off

he rose from the dead

he unites us with the dead before us

whom we mourn

and the dead next to us

whom we did not save

they are all our sisters and brothers

on our little planet earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ

child of life

a sister for all humanity

the truth that will make us free

from the pressure to exploit and profit from death

in Christ we feel the spirit of life

in a world addicted to death

with him we stand up, struggle

suffer and give our life

until God is all in all

on our little planet earth.


We believe in you, O God

All things come from your hand

Nothing can be taken from you

Happiness and grief come from your design

for us and all your creatures

We return to you

We believe in Jesus Christ our brother

He shows us the way. He helps us

He shows us you our Father

He sympathizes in our suffering and

With us he dies our death

As life he leads us out of death.

We believe in the Holy Spirit

that fills us when y8ou send it

that unites us and makes us y8our people.

The Holy Spirit opens our hearts for your word.

The Holy Spirit is the light that illumines our spirit

and the strength on our way.


In the midst of hunger and war

we celebrate what is promised: abundance and peace

In the midst of hardship and tyranny

we celebrate what is promised: support and freedom

In the midst of doubt and despair

we celebrate what is promised: faith and hope

In the midst of fear and betrayal

we celebrate what is promised: joy and faithfulness

In the midst of hatred and death

we celebrate what is promised: love and life.

In the midst of sin and frailty

we celebrate what is promised: deliverance and new beginning

In the midst of death surrounding us on all sides

we celebrate what is promised

through the living Christ

Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy)



We speak of love and share responsibility for violence

we cry for justice and are entangled in injustice

we demand the truth and come to terms with lies

we hope for peace and neglect being its living example


You take the sin of the world on yourself

you endured the violence of people

you opposed the injustice of the powerful

and defied the power of death


Give us the courage and the strength

to be trustful in love

to strive for justice and peace

and to be merciful as you are.


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