Blog | November 2012

Good and evil in a sufficiently unsuccessful interview

by Jörg Hüttermann


Mr Klausen is a friendly, well-kempt man, about 50 years of age, and greets me at the door. He is wearing a suit and tie and my first impression of him is of a rather inhibited man. On the other hand, he behaves as if he were used to interacting with people outside of the congregation. He leads me into the large modern building whose red brick façade has often caught my eye whenever I’ve driven past it on my way into the city center. For me, this functional prayer house possesses none of the attributes that constitute a sacred building. If I didn’t know better, I would associate both this house and the rather businesslike attire of Mr. Klausen with the world of business and corporations rather than with church and religion. We go into the “brother room”, which looks like a sparsely furnished conference room in an office building.

The conversation begins somewhat haltingly, but then, contrary to what I’d feared, my interview partner shows himself to be willing to talk about his life, so that our conversation becomes more relaxed. I am truly interested in his biography as I consider it a stroke of luck to have access for once to the leadership circle of a Mennonite congregation and to learn about the life of a congregation’s elder. After about 45 minutes, Mr. Klausen takes his Bible out of a zippered case and opens it every now and then in order to present a quote that fits to our conversation topic. After each quote, Mr. Klausen shuts the Bible again and replaces it on the desk in front of him, creating ever new still-life arrangements with it and the nearby glasses case.

The diverse number of combinations he manages to create with only these two objects, which he places sometimes diagonally and sometimes parallel to one another, then on top of each other, and then at a larger distance from one another, greatly surprises me. One could say that Mr. Klausen is building the quasi-ontological foundation of his cosmos in front of my eyes and ears during the interview. He sketches the coordinates of this biblical world with hands, objects, and words. All the while, the Bible is his true foundation and simultaneously the cocoon around his person, which must be protected from evil. At the same time, his biblical narrative has an effect on him, as a result of which he visibly gains more self-confidence and strength as the interview progresses, and finally almost completely dominates the interview. In the end, Mr. Klausen is preaching to me. The transitions between self-portrayal, spinning (not meant in a derogatory way of spinning a yarn, but in terms of the metaphor of the protective cocoon), and mission are fluid. I surmise that the about-turn from an initially defensive attitude to an ever more effervescent performance is paradigmatic for the encounter between the elder and the laypeople of the congregation.

As became clear throughout the following hours, the apocalypse of John (and other apocalyptic Bible passages) are central to the Mennonite concept of ethics. John’s retelling of the apocalyptic story focuses on the dream of a Babylonian emperor that so frightened the ruler that he turned to a prophet for an interpretation of the dream. The emperor had dreamed of a large statue, a monument that portrayed a larger-than-life person. The head was of gold, the arms of silver, the torso of iron, and the legs were made of something or other, but the feet were made of clay and iron. Finally a stone fell from the sky and destroyed the feet of the monument, causing the entire statue to crumble. The collapse of the statue led to the mixing of the gold and the clay. The falling stone, however, expanded so that it filled the entire earth.

The Babylonian emperor asked his adviser what this dream portended. The prophet told him that the head of the statue represented the epoch of the current Babylonian kingdom, which would continue to exist for several more generations. The king therefore did not need to fear that his empire would be destroyed. However, the prophet continued, the dream described the apocalyptic future of humanity as determined by God. According to this idea, the arms symbolized a coming era of conflict between the Persians and the Greeks. The iron torso represented the rule of Alexander and his Epigones. The legs symbolized the division of the world into Eastern Rome and Western Rome. Finally, the toes were a sign of an even more distant future in which the world or the ailing leftovers of the Roman Empire would crumble even further. Only after that would the world be united, followed by the dictatorship of Satan. In Herr Klausen’s words, the euro and the EU, the UN and above all the ecumenical movement with the Roman Catholic Church at the forefront, are all early signs of the final phase of the return of the Messiah. Then Mr. Klausen explained another prophecy, one that announced that directly prior to the appearance of the Antichrist, religious leaders in “purple” robes would determine religious life. According to him, this refers to the Catholic cardinals and Roman clerics. In light of these events, those loyal to Christ must now gather together, because they alone will be saved by the Messiah, who will soon appear.

This allegedly literal interpretation of the Bible stirred up my feelings. This is a closed system. I cannot quite understand how this corresponds to a literal reading of the Bible, as Mr. Klausen claims, because the history of epochs presented here seems to me to be based on extensive interpretation. My interlocutor repeatedly stated that the holy texts “interpret themselves”, but this is not evident to me in this regard.

Two impressions that had a moral impact on me during the interview itself left a depressing effect on me. On the one hand, there is this sincere man with, in his view, the best of intentions and purest goodwill. Even Kant identified this goodwill as something that can be regarded without reservation as truly good – regardless of whether or not this will achieves the good it strives for. On the other hand, goodwill coupled with such a closed reading of the Bible has the power to destroy personalities and to undermine a basic background consensus that spans faith congregations. The sociological, effective consequence of this discourse is to save “one’s own” people and to avoid others who have been corrupted by Satan so as not to become morally corrupt oneself. From this perspective, one can encounter the people of the “world” only with the intent of missionizing them and otherwise only in order to pray for them. According to my ethical perception, this expresses an almost unrestrained presumptuousness. These people believe themselves to be in the forecourt of heaven or see themselves as the vanguard of the rule of God that is now beginning to form in this time of the Antichrist. Based on this understanding of the Bible and the resulting dualistic worldview, Mennonites do not want to engage with the mundane world and do not take on responsibility for the world outside of their faith community other than missionizing and praying.

What I find particularly oppressive is that I cannot just use Max Weber’s sentiment here: “That’s how they are, the moralists! We modern people, however, must ascribe to an ethics of responsibility that takes into account the consequences of action, not visible to the moralist, and not least with recourse to sociological insights, in order to place the responsibility for all people above a close reading of religious commands!” The reason is that this modern ethical position is itself presumptuous. From their point of view, Mennonites truly are taking responsibility, it’s just that this form of responsibility is limited to those people it is still possible to save. The prime duty is to save those who have been rebaptized and to induct new people into the faith. While doing so, one cannot engage with the earthly world too much, for otherwise the weak torch of the movement of those loyal to Christ will be in danger of suffocation through the dust of the earthly life. Within the Mennonite self-understanding, if they were to overextend themselves by trying to save everyone, then they would destroy themselves and no one would be left to lead those worthy of being saved to the good in the face of the Antichrist. According to this worldview, no one would be helped through such action. This ethical understanding is therefore by no means lacking in responsibility, it is simply based on a different concept of responsibility: it is a concept that is not oriented toward humanity as a whole, but toward the saving of at least a part of humanity. As Mr. Klausen explained to me, this particularistic concept of responsibility is based on the idea that humans are evil by nature, starting from childhood, and that only loyalty to Christ can lead to good. In order to make this view of humans plausible to me, Mr. Klausen referred to experiences with his own children during their infancy, which I found rather alienating.

After the interview, after seven hours and at about 1am, sitting in my car on the way back to Bielefeld, I felt very depressed. The interview had failed. My strategy of giving Mr. Klausen space to use up his spiritual ammunition in order to later speak with him in a more relaxed way about aspects of Mennonite daily life, which are profane to him but important to me, had not worked. There had been no “after” for me, for the ammunition that my interlocutor was using stemmed from a seemingly inexhaustible source – namely the holy text or his knowledge of that text as well as his preaching experience. I had lost the necessary distance to my interview partner during the conversation. The fact that this occurred was due not only to the fact that I had become ever more hungry and exhausted and less concentrated, nor the fact that he simply was more long-winded than I was. During the interview I was overcome by a quasi-bodily experience. I had felt painfully directly, and in some ways bodily – and specifically not at a Cartesian distance to the “objects of knowledge” – what I had long known cognitively, namely that Max Weber’s differentiation between dispositional ethics and an ethics of responsibility is untenable.


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