Category Archives: Books

European Colonial Arrogance and Nazism

I just finished reading a fascinating and troubling historical book on Germany’s colonial past in Namibia and on how the arrogant ideas and attitudes that characterize Europe’s colonial endeavour motivated Nazi genocidal action, particularly in the Soviet Union and the Eastern European territories they conquered: The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism (London: Faber and Faber, 2010), by David Olusoga (an Anglo-Nigerian historian and producer, working for the BBC) and Casper W. Erichsen (a Danish historian, who is the director of a Namibian NGO dealing with HIV and AIDS).

Important social changes in Germany at the end of the 19th Century (a rapidly growing population that resulted, for example, in slums in Berlin), as well as the rise of anthropological views that fed on social Darwinism, fueled a desire of both the military and the imperial administration (although chancelor Bismarck was first reluctant) to look for vital space (Lebensraum) by colonizing African countries, the population of which was considered to be less developed and advanced. Because of the resistance of the Herero and the Nama peoples in Namibia, the original perspective of bringing culture and education, rapidly turned into agressive warfare to enslave and anihilate these people – in line with what had happened to the Indians in North America and with what the British were doing in South Africa, where they invented the first concentration camps in their war with the Boers. The first part of the book tells us the story of these wars, the concentration camps and the genocide that took place.

The second part of the book analyses in various ways (some of the military and the civil servants who had worked in colonial Africa played a role in the origins of the Nazi party; racist social Darwinism that had constituted the ideology behind imperial colonisation was further developed as an anthropological science; the colonial idea of concentration camps evolved into annihilation camps as Auschwitz or Treblinka; underdeveloped people, especially the Slavic peoples, were enslaved at the service of industry, as had been the case with the Herero’s and the Nama’s in Namibia; Hitler and other Nazi leaders considered their activities in Eastern Europe and Russia as colonisation in line with what the British Empire had done in India and with how the USA had treated the Indians; …) how the ideas and attitudes that determined the colonial ambitious of imperial Germany in Africa came to influence the Nazi hunger to expand Germany’s vital space by annihilating populations that were considered to consist of lesser human beings (Untermenschen). The authors want to show that part of Nazi arrogance and violence was rooted in European colonial attitudes and views. By doing so, they explain that Nazism is not a phenomenon sui generis, but the extreme symptom of some destructive and murderous European colonial ideas. That is certainly something that should make us think and reconsider the importance of the history of European colonialism.

I can only recommend this book: it is fascinating and shocking at the same time. It should make theologians as myself think about the responsibilities they have in dealing with ideas that determine social and societal behaviour.


DR Congo: Positive Prospects

A few days ago, at the Faculty of Social Sciences (K.U.Leuven), organized the presentation of research involving in depth-interviews of about 800 Congolese students on the future for sustainable peace in DR Congo. Luc Reychler presented this open book, with a call for reactions and further research, under the title: “DR Congo. Positive Prospects. Building Sustainable Peace Together. Open Book“. The questionnaire touched on an appreciation of today’s situation in DRC, on the various forms of violence, on descriptions of peace and imaginations of the future, on factors necessary to build up peace, on identity issues, on dealing with the past, on foreign players and on the engagement at the service of peace. The results express strong hope and a will to engage a situation that one knows to be very difficult. Of course, one can express criticism of the research, if it would be closed down at this point. Indeed, only students were questioned – they are not representative of the whole Congolose population – and one can wonder to what extent answers are formulated from the perspective of a wished or expected state rather than of the threatening reality. The reseach answers these objections by taking on the form of an “open book”, i.e. the results are brought to the public so as to provoke further research and debate. This is research that calls for engagement and, therefore, for further research.

I had been asked to “respond” to the research. I focused on two perspectives.

(1) I highlighted three aspects of the methodological approach to the research. This is, first of all, research done by people who enter into solidarity, who are aware that the concerns of the people in DRC are also their concerns – the researchers are researching issues that are important to them and that may even raise their anger. Secondly, there is engagement in the sense of interdisciplinary analysis, that attempts to listen to people and to give them a voice, particularly to people whose opinions are not taken into account. Theories of interpretation are developed and revised through a process of conversations with real people in the situation. Thirdly, this research moves with people: responsibility is given to people, they are encouraged to work with the research and to gather hope and energy out of it.

(2) I described some of the ways in which this research works in a European context: how does this research call us to action in Europe? How can we collaborate with the inhabitants in DRC? Several lines of action are possible. How do we as Europeans assume responsibility in the plundering of natural resources in the Congo – how can we elaborate political and legal tools that will help to tackle, on the European side, the plundering of the natural resources? A further question concerns how we deal in Europe with refugees, migrants and the diaspora that arise out of DRC? Are we able to move into an adult relationship with Congolese, who attempt to state their identity, without remaining trapped in colonial and paternalistic patterns of analysis and thought? How can we relate as adults amongst ourselves? The most vital question is, I think, how to descry and sustain hope that energizes.

This research is important and provides important information if it is taken to stimulate further engagement and research. I know the authors will know return the research to those who have answered the questionnaire, so that the reflection process may continue also in DRC.

Ireland … Empowering Histories … toe-rust-en

It strikes me as soon as I enter a bookshop here in Dublin: titles about Irish history are claiming my attention … Compared to my experiences in Belgium and Flemish bookshops, I find this refreshing. Here is a people that continues to reflect on its roots and its complex and often painful history. I find this empowering – as I find it empowering to walk through the streets of Leuven with names that refer to inspiring historical persons or to important events from the past … It is as if this past is yelling at us: “Don’t you ever dare give up … We’ve done our share so many years or centuries ago, now it is your turn”. Amidst great societal changes we gain inspiration and strength from people who have gone to that same experience and who have shaped our history. The Irish seem to be masters at this and they also seem to display a great sense of self-humour when telling their stories.

I am at the same time reading Jonathan Lear’s book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, a book that Linda Hogan recommended in her final contribution to the Concilium conference in Trinity College. I have still a way to go in this book, but I appreciate the question that inhabits its author. Starting from an attempt to analyse the experience of the Crow Indians at the moment that they become aware of the disappearance or even destruction of their traditional and empowering frames of reference set up by hunting and warfare, the question arises: what do people think, do, hope at a moment that the frames that have structured and given sense to their individual and collective lives, collapse? How can they find, precisely in those ideas and convictions that empowered them but that are now loosing their strength, a renewed way of looking at the world? Can they draw from a force that has become weak?

This is a question that keeps my mind busy when I teach theology. The young students in front of me face a rapidly changing world with challenges as I have never known myself. I had to learn to live through the fear of an all-destructive nuclear war … but in a way that was still under human “control”: someone, somewhere, sometime had to press a button. Today’s young people face, in the global and planetary environmental crisis, a challenge that is out of control: natural processes are re-shaping the planet and will have tremendous consequences for human and other life. Although we, human beings, are part of the causes of these changes, there is no “button” anymore that we can press to avoid them. The classical frames of control, that we have, most certainly in the so-called Western World, got used to appear to be an illusion. How should I, as a “professor”, empower young people in the face of such challenges?

I frame the question in Flemish: how can I “toe-rust-en” (equip, prepare) young people? I like the Flemish verb “toe-rust-en” because it allows me some fuzzy (and incorrect, but suggestive) etymologies. (1) “Toe” refers to the word “toekomst”, future. If we want to prepare ourselves, we have to look towards and from the future … What do our visions and our imagination suggest about the future? Do we have images, such as the “Kingdom of God”, that can attract us and empower us to design them in the present? (2) “Rust” means rest, peace, calmness. How can we prepare ourselves and particularly young people so as to stand with a sense of confidence in the world? How can we provide ourselves with a sense of co-belonging with the planet (and ultimately with the universe) that we can really appreciate by calling this world a “creation”? How can we discern, together, the feelings and emotions that inhabit us in the face of global challenges as the environment, justice, poverty, violence: are we guided by fear, anger, hope, self-preservation at all cost, etc.? (3) The “en” in Flemish indicates a verbal infinitive, but it has also, as a separate word, the meaning of “and”: in my (meager) etymology, therefore, I can emphasize that we will not be able to equip young people if we do not teach them the effort implicit in a verb and the fact that they will have to collaborate and work together, not only amongst human beings, but in harmony with the planet and its living and non-living inhabitants. Moreover, to be well equipped, young people will have to learn some trans-disciplinarity, in going beyond the disciplinary perspectives they will have studied in depth and even beyond the collaboration between these various disciplines, towards new forms of knowledge that will only arise when they start talking to one another in open and creative ways. Knowledge, here, emerges in between the noses. Knowledge, here, emerges when space is given to voices that are not usually taken account of (this includes the voice of nature itself).

I try to teach theology in this way, and I think that theologians may well have an important role to play in these efforts to reframe and reshape in a creative and future-oriented way our perspective and understanding of sustainable and dignified life together for this planet. Theologians may play a role of convenors, may attract the attention to “forgotten” or “smothered” voices, may stimulate visionary thinking, may exemplify interperspectival conversations, etc. But, to do this seriously, we will have to re-learn to tap into our history, not as the description of a bygone world, but as the empowering stories of people and their convictions and faiths in the face of a threatening reality and of what J. Lear calls “cultural devastation”.

My stay in Ireland helps me to better understand this and to tap into these resources. Sean McDonagh, whom I met at COP15 in Copenhagen, continuously introduces me into the Irish sense for a connectedness with nature. He also showed me the neolithic site of Newgrange, where I experienced the claustrophobic fear of being trapped in a dark world ánd the inventiveness of letting in, at the right moment, the creative ray of light. Moreover, he brought me to that sacred site of Tara, where St Patrick at a decisive moment of Irish history, found a way to work on Irish imagination, tipping this world into a new look on reality. He walked me around in Dublin City, to see the book of Kells in Trinity College, and to discover in the Chester-Beatty Library not only the oldest fragment of St John’s Gospel, but also the moving letters from missionary Jesuits. Finbarr Clancy, a fellow Jesuit, today invited me to visit Glendalough, a highpoint of Celtic Christianity, destroyed so many times in the course of its history, and nevertheless a site that breaths resilience, faith, creativity and beauty.

All these are examples of empowering and suggestive historical resources to move into a new world, through shifting grounds and considerable change. Of course, we should avoid getting trapped into the past by merely mimicking it: the power of history does not lie in providing us ready solutions for today’s challenges, but in putting us in touch with people who dared new visions in the face of a changing world.

Dogmatic and mystic approaches to religion

In the literary supplement of August 24, 2007 to one of our main Belgian newspapers, De Standaard, a K.U.Leuven colleague, Rik Torfs (Faculty of Canon Law), reviews Guus Kuijer‘s book: Het doden van een mens (Killing a human being). Rik Torfs particularly highlights one idea: the difference between dogmaticians (who think that religion can be understood as a system that humiliates human beings into respect towards God) and mystics (who emphasize love and the soul’s capacity to unite with God). The church today often presents itself from its dogmatic side, and that is the reason why people turn away from it, not because of their being concerned alone with themselves and not with God.

I agree with this view up to a certain point, but it also appears to me as to easy an interpretation of today’s reality and as to simple an opposition (between dogmatic people and mystics). Mysticism that is referring merely to an interior experience falls short – I think – of the profoundly community (and, therefore, ecclesially) oriented aspects of the Christian faith. Are Christians not called to believe precisely that life in common is a real possibility in view of the Reign of God? Is that not an important part of the Christian faith, much more than an interiorly satisfying psychological certainty about God’s existence? When the latter does not contain in itself that reference to the profound connectedness of all with all in God, then I fear there is something wrong with describing the experience as mystical. Even what we consider our most profound inner experiences can egoistically lure us away from the real encounter with God – the more profound our interior experiences are (and they may be experiences of desolation as with Mother Teresa), the more we are in need of thorough discernment along the criterion of commitment to life together.

This is not a plea, of course, for a “dogmatic church”, the structures of which would do away with the in depth experiences of commitment. But I am convinced that in the Christian perspective at the heart of the mystical experience lies the desire of God in us to spread out to the whole of creation, an ecclesial desire that spreads its wings to explore the whole of reality with which one is connected. Reducing and confining religious experience and the church to mere rules and structures is in danger of forgetting the burning bush at the inside of the world’s ecclesial desire – there is a danger, then, that the church and our faith fall prey to authoritarian abuse and ideologically covered-up flight from our responsibilities in the world. Forgetting that the mystical experiences brings us in touch with our creational and ecclesial belonging by reducing it to a mere private peak experience, is just as dangerous.

John le Carré’s “The Mission Song”

I finished reading yesterday evening one of John le Carré’s latest books, “The Mission Song”. As in another recent book, “The Constant Gardner”, le Carré addresses situations of abuse and injustice in Africa. The plot, a kind of coup in Eastern DRC so as to allow the greedy exploitation of natural resources, looks very real and the story line – a polit thriller – is well designed and allows to enter into the mind of a person who undergoes a conversion. I am impressed by the end (those who fight with the destitute and marginalized, will end up marginalized themselves, sharing the fate of those people they fought with and defended).

Over the last years there is growing awareness of the illegal exploitation of natural resources in DRC as a source of oppression and war. Transnational corporations are increasingly forced into accepting codes of conduct (see for example the Kimberley process), but they often adhere only by mouth. Attempts to bring such corporations to court often fail as the situations are complex and intricate. It strikes me, however, and a novel like “The Mission Song” helps to raise this awareness, that in a way those of us who ask for those natural resources and are willing to pay the price for them (the price should be as low as possible, of course), stimulate some transnational corporations to do their worst. They want to profit, of course, and these kinds of profits should be questioned. But we should not forget that often their profits arise from a response to a demand coming from people who are willing to pay the price and close their eyes on what happens.

Are we amongst those people?