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Theologian seeks presidency in Germany to protest bombing

NCR Staff

A well-known Catholic feminist theologian and peace activist in Germany is running for her country’s presidency in order to protest the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia.

Uta Ranke-Heinemann spurns the campaign trail, preferring to give interviews from an armchair in her home in Essen, near Germany’s western border with the Netherlands. But Ranke-Heinemann, author of Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, a 1988 book that strongly criticized church teaching on women and sexuality, is serious about exploiting the visibility of an election to speak out against the war.

“I grew up with American bombs falling on my family,” Ranke-Heinemann, 71, told NCR in a telephone interview. “I know what the flames, the destruction that I see every night on television mean. Nobody was saying anything against what’s happening in Yugoslavia, so I decided to.”

A special assembly comprised of the lower house of the German parliament and representatives of the country’s 16 states will elect the new president May 23. The post is largely ceremonial.

Ranke-Heinemann’s father, Gustav Heinemann, served as Germany’s president from 1969 to 1974.

In 1969, Ranke-Heinemann became the first woman to qualify as a lecturer in Catholic theology in a German university. Eunuchs brought her wide international acclaim; the book was a worldwide success, selling well over a million copies.

Her local bishop revoked Ranke-Heinemann’s chair in theology at the University of Essen in 1987 after she said the virgin birth should be understood theologically rather than biologically. She obtained a position teaching the history of religion at Essen instead -- a job not under ecclesiastical control -- and she still holds emeritus status there.

Ranke-Heinemann says NATO leaders are right to want to end the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. “But people are never more dangerous than when they have good intentions,” she said. “The idea that somehow we will save people by bombing, that we will help some children by starving others, is absurd.”

She also objects to NATO’s decision to strike TV stations, Milosevic’s home and other targets seemingly chosen for intimidation rather than military value. “The idea seems to be, I am your god NATO and you shall have no other gods before me. That’s an unbelievably arrogant, horrifying stance.”

Germany, a NATO member, sent 14 Tornado fighter-bombers to take part in the aerial assault on Yugoslavia, marking the first time German forces have taken part in combat since World War II. Though left-leaning politicians have voiced opposition, most polls show a majority of Germans support the bombardment.

Ranke-Heinemann said that international mediation, under the auspices of the United Nations and with strong Russian involvement, should replace bombing.

“On my trips to America, I was always impressed with what a pious people they are,” she said. “But how do they reconcile such piety with all this killing? It seems to me what’s happening in Yugoslavia is an eloquent refutation of Christianity, to the extent it’s murder carried out by Christian nations using all sorts of fine words to mask what’s happening.”

When the vote is held May 23, Ranke-Heinemann will be the official nominee of the Party of Democratic Socialism, the successor to East Germany’s communists. She cheerfully concedes it is “ridiculous” to think she might win. “Everybody in Germany knows I will not be elected,” she said.

Nevertheless, Ranke-Heinemann’s campaign has attracted wide interest. She has been quoted in most major newspapers and on television and radio programs about her opposition to the war.

“My husband didn’t want to me to do it, because he was afraid the nasty letters would start all over again,” Ranke-Heinemann said, referring to negative reactions in some quarters to her earlier criticisms of the church.

“But it has been exactly the opposite. I was walking to the grocery store the other day, and a woman waiting for a stoplight jumped out of her car and hugged me. When I got there, the cashier embraced me, too.”

Her caution about public reaction is based in part on withering criticism of her theological views from church authorities over the years. Cardinal John O’Connor of New York likened Eunuchs to “scrawling dirty words about the church on bathroom walls.” Archbishop Johannes Dyba of Fulda, Germany, once asked during a public homily, “When will Uta Ranke-Heinemann finally leave the church?”

Though she acknowledges that Pope John Paul II has been one of the few international figures to speak out clearly against the bombing, Ranke-Heinemann says he hasn’t really committed himself to ending it.

“If he were serious, he would send all the bishops and cardinals to protest in front of the White House,” she said. “Can you imagine what kind of effect that would have?”

Ranke-Heinemann’s family is a fixture in German politics. She is the aunt of the wife of another presidential contender, Johannes Rau. Her father was the federal minister of the interior under Konrad Adenauer, Germany’s first postwar chancellor. Heinemann resigned in protest over Adenauer’s decision to rearm and later served as president during the term of leftist Chancellor Willy Brandt.

Ranke-Heinemann helped lead the peace movement in Germany during the 1970s and 1980s, working alongside famed Green Party founder Petra Kelly. Today Ranke-Heinemann distances herself from the Greens, who have moved to the political center in their partnership with Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s reformed socialists.

National Catholic Reporter, May 14, 1999