Monday, April 16, 2012

Karl Barth's political discipleship

This is a picture of Barth in his army uniform. During the early period of World War II, Barth, who was then 54 years old, voluntarily enlisted himself to serve in the Swiss army. 

[Barth] was sent with 'the armed emergency service' to a unit which, in case of an attack upon Switzerland, had the task of holding up the German army within the border areas for a while until the Swiss regular army could gather in the 'stronghold' of the Alpine fortress." The unit, as its members knew, would hardly have had a chance of survival.
(Frank Jehle, Ever Against the Stream: The Politics of Karl Barth, 1906-1968, trans. Richard and Martha Burnett [USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002], p.69. Emphasis added.)

If the Germans had attacked the Swiss border, the Church Dogmatics will not come in 14 volumes.

It is worth noting that Barth's enlistment into the army was not so much motivated by nationalism in the service of his country. Rather, it was his resistance against the evil of the Third Reich. His enlistment was a service to God

In his letter to Bishop Bell of Chichester dated June 19, 1942, Barth enclosed a photo of himself in army uniform with the written words: "Resist the evil with all means." (Ibid, emphasis original.)

Barth has made himself a good example of Christian engagement with politics. We participate in a country's political process not due to nation-state nationalism. Our only allegiance is to God. And our only citizenship belongs to the heavenly Kingdom, the true State to which every other temporal country is but a reflection. As Barth wrote in 1938,

It must be emphasized, above all else, that in this future city in which Christians have their citizenship here and now (without yet being able to inhabit it), we are concerned not with an ideal but with a real State—yes, with the only real State; not with an imaginary one but with the only one that truly exists. And it is the fact that Christians have their citizenship in this, the real State, that makes them strangers and sojourners within the State, or within the States of this age and this world.” (Karl Barth, Community, State and the Church: Three Essays [USA: Doubleday, 1960], p.123.)


Martin Yee said...

Hi Sze Zeng,

Thanks. This post is very interesting to me as Karl Barth is both a Swiss and of German origin. Karl Barth blamed Luther's Two Kingdoms concept for spawning Nazism. Ironically, Hitler probably spared Switzerland because there are a lot of Swiss folks that are of German descent of which Karl Barth is one. Otherwise he may not have survived an invasion. LOL. This is just my theory.

On a more serious note, what Karl Barth wrote reflected Reformed Two Kingdom ideas mixed with his own historicised actualistic ontology based on his Christology. Barth, Moltmann, Pannenberg and Jenson's ontology all have Hegelian roots.

Recently one confessional Lutheran philosopher/theologian Dr Jack Kilcrease offered a very sharp critique on all these Hegelian influenced ontologies which is really worth pondering. See

Btw I saw the book you edited on sales in SKS Bookstore. So how is your next book coming along?


Sze Zeng said...

Hi Martin,

Thank you for pointing out Barth's accusation on Luther's 2-Kingdoms concept for the rise of National Socialism. I haven't come across this. Barth is inspiring.

Could we really consider Barth's "historicised actualistic ontology" Hegelian? If yes, in what sense?

How David Congdon frames Barth and Hegel may be helpful:

"With Hegel, Barth adopts a historicized conception of the being of God, and he even speaks of the history of God and the history of humanity as a “common history.” But this is precisely where Barth differs from Hegel, for the history of God and humanity is a “common history” only because it is the history of Jesus Christ; the history which God wills to share with us is in actuality “an invasion of our history” (7). Unlike in Hegel’s philosophy, Barth is able to posit a true encounter of grace between God and humanity, but he does so by employing an actualistic divine-human ontology concretely defined by the history of Jesus Christ. Barth thus carries out the radicalizing of Christian theology which he criticizes Hegel for failing to accomplish. In the end, despite his fondness for Hegel—and the debt he owes to his philosophy—the irreducible particularity of the person of Christ sets a clear barrier to any embracement of Hegelian metaphysics on Barth’s part."

Hahaha.. my next book? Currently, all my time is given to school's work and job-hunt. So haven't spare any time for other things. Thank you for asking. :)

Martin Yee said...

Hi Sze Zeng,

Karl Barth is "hegelian" in a general sense, in his approach to theology, seeing it historically and actualistically moving dialectically towards a unifying goal. Of course Hegel, Moltamann, Pannenberg, Jenson and Barth all differs in the details of the how and why.

Just a 2 cents worth from an amateur.


Sze Zeng said...

Hi Martin,

I'm an amateur too! :)