The Church in the World and the Church in Prison

By Jürgen Moltmann

Note: This address originally appeared in the January 2012 edition of Hospitality, the newspaper of the Open Door Community in Atlanta, Georgia.

Jürgen Moltmann is Professor Emeritus of Systemic Theology at the University of Tübingen, Germany, and one of the world’s leading Protestant theologians, having authored such books as “Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology,” considered one of the most influential theological works of the second half of the 20th century, “The Crucified God” and “The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology.” He has been a good friend of the Open Door Community since 1983, and his life and theology have touched us deeply.

In October, at age 85, Moltmann traveled from Tübingen to Atlanta to deliver the annual Reformation Day lecture at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible. While in Atlanta, he spent a day with us at the Open Door, in conversation with community members and volunteers.

On the day after his Emory lecture, Moltmann and former Open Door volunteer Jenny McBride, who formerly directed Candler’s Certificate in Theological Studies program for women in prison, visited Lee Arrendale State Prison near Alto, Georgia, for the graduation ceremony for women who had completed the Candler certificate program there. The graduates included Kelly Gissendaner, who is living under a sentence of death and who has had a regular correspondence and friendship with Moltmann.

With his permission, we are pleased to share Moltmann’s remarks to the graduates with our readers — especially those of you who are imprisoned theologians!


Dear sisters and brothers in Christ:

You have invited me to your graduation ceremony of the Class of 2010. I am very grateful and happy to be here with you this morning. It is for me not only a privilege but also a precious gift. Your community is important for me. Therefore I came.

You will receive today your Certificates in Theological Studies. When I first heard of your study of theology in prison, pictures of my youth and of the beginning of my own theological studies emerged from the depth of my memory.

Yes, I remember. My theological studies started in a poor prisoner-of-war camp after World War II. I was 18 years old when I became a prisoner of war for more than three years. I was lucky: I was imprisoned in Britain, not in Siberia!

In a camp of forced labor in Kilmarnock, Scotland, I read for the first time in my life the Bible and encountered Jesus. I had not decided for Christ, but I am certain Christ found me there when I was lost in sadness and desperation. He found me, as Christ has come to seek what is lost.

I tried to understand what had happened to me. We had a “theology school behind barbed wire.” This camp was like a monastery. Excluded from time and the world, imprisoned professors taught imprisoned students “free” theology. We studied the Bible, church history and theology, but we also tried to come to terms with our death experiences near the end of the war. Theology was for us at that time an existential experience of healing our wounded souls.

This was the beginning of my theological studies and my first experiences of the church of Christ: the church in prison camps. Later I became a pastor and a professor of theology, but deep in my heart there is still sitting a frightened and sad young prisoner of war.

I think this was always the case with the church of Jesus Christ: there is the church in the world and there is the church in prison. There is the church in society and there is the church in the monastery. And this dual existence is also true for the experience of God: there are God-experiences on the way outside and there are God-experiences on the way inside.

On the way inside, we are seeking God in the recognition of our inner self. There is a ring around God and the soul. The more we recognize ourselves, we recognize God. And the more we recognize God, we recognize ourselves. Why? Because we are the “image of God.”

On the way outside, we are seeking God in other human beings, because whatever they are, they are images of God too. And we are seeking God in the beauties of God’s creation and in the suffering of our fellow creatures.

The way outside, into the blessings and troubles of the world, is dangerous and adventurous, as we surely all know. But the way inside is dangerous and adventurous, full of temptations and blessings, because the soul is a broad place and a rich land. Teresa of Avila went this way and told us in her book “The Inner Castle,” and in our time Thomas Merton went this way and told us, in his “Seven Storey Mountain,” what he experienced in the monastery of Gethsemani in Kentucky.

When did Christians start to seek God on the way inside? It was the so-called “Desert Fathers,” in fact young men from villages in Egypt in the fourth century. They wanted to follow Jesus into the desert.

The first was a young man named Antonius. The desert was in old Egypt, not the home of the gods but the land of death and demons. Antonius lived in a cave in the desert, fought for his survival, fought against the demons, fought against his anxieties and saw the victory of Christ. “Death, where is your sting? Hell, where is your victory?,” as the Apostle Paul quoted the first Easter hymn.

Hundreds of young men followed Antonius, until a former soldier, a veteran, whose name was Pachomisch, built the first Christian monasteries and brought discipline to the wild “desert boys.” These God-seeking Christians lived no longer in natural caves, but in man-made cells. Since that time we have had the dual formation of Christianity: monastery and world Christianity, monastic theology and world theology, the way inside and the way outside, the church in prison and the church in the world. And both need each other.

You will receive your Certificates in Theological Studies today. Let me say a word about what theology is. “I believe in order to understand” is a famous characteristic of theology. The Monk-Father Anselm of Canterbury told us this. To believe is good to understand is better.

Why does the Christian faith in a particular way press for understanding? I think because for a Christian, faith is only the beginning of a new world. It is a longing for God and a desire to see the truth face to face. “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face; now I know only in part, but then I shall know even as also I am known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

Christian faith is no blind faith, but a faith with open eyes. We pray with open eyes. We are not always happy with what we see here. All the more are we longing to see through the horizon of this world into the shining face of the coming God. God has seen us already and will never let us out of His eyes. Therefore the desire is in us to see God face to face and “enjoy God forever.”

Theology has only one problem: God. God is our pain, God is our joy, God is our longing. We are theologians for God’s sake. Every Christian who believes and understands is a theologian, not only the professionals at Candler or Tübingen. Every Christian!

Allow me to congratulate you. You are really theologians, and in fact excellent theologians. I have read a paper that Jenny McBride sent me, and I was impressed. My students at Tübingen could not have made it better. I would like to encourage you: go on and take the next course in Theological Studies. And you must not only learn from other theologians, but develop your own thoughts. We need your spiritual insights and theological reflections.

There is a worldwide fellowship of all theologians. There is an age-old community of all theologians. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are our brothers and sisters in the spirit of God. We need you: the theology in the world needs the theology in prison. The way outside would become a wrong way without the way inside. Without self-experience, there is no experience of God. You are the church! We are sisters and brothers in Christ Jesus.

Friede Mit Euch! (Peace be with you!)


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