Not about the Pope this time, now for something different from Holland: a red theologian

Jurriaan Bendien J.Bendien at
Sun Dec 22 12:05:08 MST 2002



by Emile Bode

The songs of theologian and poet Huub Oosterhuis (69) are sung around the
world. His liturgy is used both in protestant and in progressive catholic
churches. The official catholic church however ostracised him already 33
years ago, after he married a woman. Life's happiness resulted in two
talented children: Tjeerd and Trijntje, known from the popgroup Total Touch.
During the funeral of Prince Claus in the New Church in Delft, Oosterhuis
presented an impressive service. For the first time large numbers of Dutch
people were introduced to his style. So how does this progressive theologian
in a hidden congregation experience his faith ?

"Of course Christmas has a special meaning for me. At Christmas eve in 1971,
our son Tjeerd was born. I had the idea then that I knew how it was to be
God. Christmas is always pleasant and always good. In the cultural centre De
Rode Hoed (The Red Hat, Amsterdam) where I was director for years, I preach
on the evening before Christmas two times for 500 people. I think it is
going to be my 36th Christmas sermon. And you always hope you come across in
a way that people can understand."

Huub Oosterhuis was a friend of (recently deceased husband of Queen Beatrix)
Prince Claus. Many times he was at the Prince's sickbed. Nevertheless it was
a surprise for him, that he was invited to present his reflections at the
funeral of Prince Claus in the New Church in Delft. Oosterhuis is after all
a controversial theologian, who is not only admired, but also vilified. In
1970 he was banned from the Order of Jesuits because of his freethinking
interpretations about God and Jesus. The drop which made the bucket spill
over was the fact that he rejected celibacy, and had decided to marry. Since
that time he gives his own content to the Bible in his speeches and writing.

He says: "The official church scene has declined enormously. Especially the
catholic mother church has dramatically spoilt its chances for renewal. I
cannot conclude otherwise than that the catholic church has lost its moral
authority because of its outdated views. Bischops have surrendered to a
powerhungry mafia in Rome, that is the Vatican. I think that the Vatican is
a sect which has excommunicated the great theologians of our time, like
Schillebeeckx and Kung. The system is propped up by sexually traumatised
celibates. The sex scandals with priests in the United States now get into
the paper, but they were happening 50 years ago too."


To his satisfaction, Oosterhuis signals a strong growth of the "church
outside the church". "I call it the hidden congregation. Our ecclesia in The
Red Hat in Amsterdam is an example of this, but I know this hidden
congregation also exists in the town Ter Apel. There you have a minister
with his own church and sixty people. They sing my songs and I do sermons
there sometimes. You have groups like that in Zierikzee, in Flanders and
everywhere in Germany. There people come together with their questions and
feelings. They are questions which the official church cannot or will not
answer. I try to explain the Bible to these people in my own way. I choose
for an interpretation which explains as much as possible. I talk about a God
who champions the oppressed and refugees. I preach regularly about biblical
texts, in which we are told that it is time for a new heaven and a new
earth. Then swords are turned into plowshares, and nobody lends himself for
war anymore. Everybody can sleep peacefully, and young people wil not die
there before they're a hundred years old, as a biblical poet said once so
well. The core of those stories is of course to make an end to exploitation.
That your home is not seized; that you don't plant vineyards while others
plunder them and consume them. All these stories which not infrequently deal
with solidarity, are what make the bible so unique. This happens in no
religious document. I think that there is a large hidden congregation, which
is waiting for that story."

The book "In the Shadows of tomorrow" by the famous historian Johan Huizinga
is one of the foundations of Oosterhuis's ideas. "Huizinga asked himself
already in 1935 if there is still hope for this terrible world, in which
Nazism is inpower in Germany. He fixes his hope on a worldwide hidden
congregation of people who will not bend their knees for lies, and who will
not give in for cheap slogans. Huizinga saw what you HAVE to see, and on
that basis he had hope, despite the darkest facts."

To his regret, he says, the official catholic church has no answers to these
questions, although there are also priests in it who don't kowtow to Rome.
"I don't think that their frigid attitude will soon disappear. People like
cardinal Simonis are totally convinced that they, in the face of oppression,
are the champions of the truth. Simonis said in a television programme that
people got very upset because a guy was hit to death in Venlo, even though
on the same day in our country 50 abortions take place that nobody talks
about. That is how he enters into discussion. Church leaders like Simonis
see themselves as the successors of the apostles, appointed by God himself.
They think that they are the bearers of the christian heritage of old and
will take it through the storms. They think very differently from you and I.
Don't underestimate the rigid, humble arrogance of church leaders. Similar
views you can, by the way, also find in fundamentalist, islamic tendencies
and among Jews."

We asked his response to the recent comment by the pope that God is averting
himself from humanity because of all the wars. Oosterbaan is quick in his
reply: "According to the Bible, God will never get enough of humanity
anymore. He has promised that. That is called his convenant with all who are
alive, with all the living".

Abolition of celibacy would, according to him, be a great relief for the
catholic church. "Celibacy is a source of poison and misery. If it is
abolished, then you will get people again who want to work in the churches.
Because then they can have a normal life and no longer that idiotic
sacralised priest life. I married, by the way, only when I was in my
thirties and I did not suffer relentless under celibacy. I know many people,
especially female believers, sisters, who are happy in celibacy. So that is
possible too."

Oosterhuis does not consider all church leaders rigid and frigid. "Bishop
Muskens of Breda is a very open person and his predecessor Bishop Ernst was
open too. When I recently got an honorary doctorate from the Free University
of Amsterdam, Muskens wrote me a lovely letter: "When the old injuries of
the catholic church are over, we will be thankful for your contributions".

The theologian will never receive honorary doctorates from the catholic
universities though. "I have heard once that people at the universities of
Nijmegen, Tilburg and Leyden were enthusiastic about me, but the catholic
church leadership will never tolerate it. No, I do not expect any
rehabilitation. Something like that has never happened. Did you know that
last year in the Bishopric Roermond my song texts are rejected from the
official songbook ? That is the spiritual level of the catholic church in
the 21st century. The guy who did that is now responsible for the liturgical
policy in the whole of the Dutch roman catholic church province. I am very
grateful that I have been sacked by this official church. I don't even want
to think of the possibility of working under this authority".

Our interview is taking place in his office next to The Red Hat in the
Keizersgracht in Amsterdam. This centre for debates, lectures and musical
programmes was in the 17th century a hat factory and afterwards a
Remonstrant refugee church.


Oosterhuis has been voting for Socialist Party leader Jan Marijnissen for
years. "I trust him. He is a socialist of integrity. He worked himself in
mass production on the conveyor belt, went partially deaf because of the
noise in the factory. He knows what he is talking about. It is also nonsense
that this party has no experience with government administration. The
Socialist Party has been on many city councils for ages, and especially in
the province Brabant it has changed the climate in many enterprises. They
are not careerists, because their parliamentarians get a wage equivalent to
a teachers salary. The rest goes to the party coffers. That signifies
something ascetic but that has nothing to do with sectarian thinking. The
Socialist Party is closer to the social ethics of the Bible than many
christian parties."

We asked whether Oosterhuis sees a connection between Jesus of Nazareth and
Pim Fortuyn. Both after all managed to get a lot of followers and were both
honored and villified. "I did not see a new Jesus in Pim Fortuyn", he
answers. "The story of Jesus is a Jewish story of faith, not a historically
accurate and reliable report of a life. We know historically-factually very
little about Jesus. We know justabout everything about Pim Fortuyn. Fortuyn
was a hype. Most of what he said, has disappeared since he died. What Jesus
has evoked, has been good for 20 centuries. I was not an admirer of Fortuyn,
but his personality interested me. When he was shot dead, I was in France. I
went back straightaway, because I wanted to experience everything. I was
shocked by what I saw. The bewildered eyes of a man who said on television
"The foreigners still have the islam, and we don't have anything anymore".
Those are statements that make you wince !".

Part of the success of Pim Fortuyn was due to his outspoken language about
asylum seekers. Oosterhuis:: "I know that many Dutch people are afraid of
foreigners, but I myself am not afraid. I am convinced that many muslims do
not feel safe and therefore stick rigidly to their religion. But also in
Islam new insights will occur. Even there, sooner or later, the
Enlightenment and dechurchification will penetrate. I think it is our human
duty not to fuel xenophobia, but get into dialogue, get into discussion. I
sometimes ask myself: who in our country will have the moral authority to
lead that discussion ? In a way that different voices can be heard and
things can be said. I have thought sometimes: the royal family can do it.
Prince Claus might have wanted to do it. He had pretty radical ideas for his
station in life. If he hadn't grown sick, he would have been the right
person maybe. Fortunately his legacy is cherished by his children. You could
imagine that a number of authorative Dutch people outside the political
scene could call on the Queen, to stimulate this discussion informally, for
example in palace talks in Amsterdam which the Queen has each year with some
people. You need utopian initatives to make changes."

Sometimes, despite everything, the theologian sticks to his visionary
prophetic thinking: "I am of a kind that would rather be damned than accept
the prevailing social relations as they are. That is like a red thread
through my texts. I stick to the hidden congregation. If you look at it from
that point of view, you also see the wonders of humanity. Recently I visited
the child-intensive care unit of a hospital twice. There was an 8 year old
boy there dying of meningitis. I looked at the faces of the desparate
parents. That boy survived, thanks to an incredible, finely woven net of
medical services. All devotion, ingenuity and insight came together around
that child. Those medical people fought like lions to save that life. That
intensive care I considered as holy ground. Because who saves one human
life, saves the world, as a Jewish proverb says".


""Three days later I was in the same hospital for the child of Socialist
party parliamentarian Harry van Bommel, called Marnix, eight years old, also
meningitis. That child did not survive. I talked at the funeral and I said:
is there a God who helps the one child and lets the other one die ? Are
there two kinds of God who gamble with each other ? No. There is no answer
to the question why. But if there are people who can save a child, then it
is also possible to solve the problem of refugees, Then you can solve
anything. There is some much friendliness and helpfulness among people; many
do not let each other crap out. That is an enormous, often invisible power.
You can also call it a political factor if you like. I guess you will have
noticed by now: I am among those who believe you can consciously make

After his sermon at the New Church in Delft, Oosterhuis became a wellknown
Dutchman. He spoke candidly about Prince Claus. About his depressions, his
solidarty with those less well off, and his power as a german national to
heal Dutch war wounds. "The word God he never mentioned. He was not an
agonistic; he just did not have the need to use loaded terms like God. Claus
was indignant about all forms of injustice. He understood from personal
experience the crisis of foreigners, refugees and asylum seekers. He thought
there should be a "new economic theory". He said in a speech on 15 May 1991
that the existing theories are mainly concerned with the question of how
those who are rich can increase their wealth even more. He thought that was
inhuman. He was to the left of many political parties. But under the
pressure of ministerial responsibilities he could not say a lot. Even so he
was inexhaustibly ingenious in helping people in difficulty, around the
world. He wanted in no way to be privileged. He thought it was strange that
he did not pay taxes. He was annoyed if he was admitted to hospital with
special urgency and privilege."

It is often said that prince Claus would deepdown not have minded if the
monarchy would disappear. Oosterhuis says: ""That is true. It was no big
deal to him if there was, or was not, a monarchy. That is perhaps
characteristic of this royal family. But Queen Beatrix is somebody who says,
if you are going to do it, you have to do it right. Then you have to build
up a House and she has done that. As regards myself, I have nothing against
republicanism, unless it becomes a hobbyhorse. At the moment however the rep
ublic doesn't have a shadow of a chance. Because the House of Beatrix has a
lot of credibility."

Translated from De Telegraaf, 21 December 2002, p. 17, 27

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