In a previous post I outlined some thoughts Karl Barth offered at a gathering in 1962 and which constitute one chapter of the book, Barth in Conversation. He was asked to say something about the church in a totalitarian state, such as existed in 1962 in East Germany and other countries behind the Iron Curtain. Barth had experienced totalitarianism in Germany in the 1930s and had opposed it in his sermons, writings and church activism. So it was perfectly reasonable for that 1962 gathering of Protestant book dealers in Switzerland to ask him such a question. In my previous post I shared his thoughts on totalitarianism in general and I drew a connection between his thoughts and what Paul called the powers and principalities that rule our lives. I offered the example of social media and the internet as contemporary manifestations of the powers and principalities. But let’s return to Karl Barth and see how or if he answers the question about the church in a totalitarian society.
Barth was asked about “possibilities” for the church in a totalitarian state. Barth turns to the question by first rejecting the term possibilities in the plural.
For the church in a totalitarian world and in a totalitarian state, there is only one possibility – one alone, but it is a genuine possibility. And I would now like to describe it simply with the word in the third chapter of Mark’s Gospel: “And looking around at those who sat about him” (Mark 3:34). The Latin text of the New Testament puts it in a remarkable way: circumspiciens ad eos, qui erant in circuitu. I believe that this word circuitus is actually the proper word for “church”. The church is those who are around Jesus and whom he looks at around him. And that the church be this circuitus, and so simply be church in the totalitarian world – that is its “possibility.” (Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, page 242)
Barth quoted the verse in Latin probably because it was more accessible to his listening audience. But the Greek original is just as powerful: καὶ περιβλεψάμενος τοὺς περὶ αὐτὸν κύκλῳ καθημένους. The church is only church when it is κύκλῳ. κύκλῳ (around) whom? Christ Jesus! When the church is κύκλῳ, the “circle” around Christ, Barth likens it to a wall – but “a completely different one from Mr. Ulbright’s”, and here Barth makes reference to a man associated with the building of the wall in Berlin; or, in 2018, Barth might say, a wall “completely different from Mr. Trump’s!”
The church knows that all the totalities of the world and society and also of the state are actually false gods and therefore lies… Whenever the church takes these lies seriously, then it is lost. With all calmness and in all peace, it must treat them as lies. And the more that the church lives in humility and knows that “we too are only human, and there are also many lies in us,” then it will know all the more surely that “God sits in governance” over and against the lies that are in us and over and against the lies in the world and in the state and wherever else they may be. And in that case the church, regardless of the circumstances and no matter how entangled and difficult the situation, remains at its task and knows itself to be forbidden to fear for its future. Its future is the Lord. He, not the totalitarian state, is coming to the church.
But, of course, the church must believe that. The church must be in its place. The church must get serious about what it proclaims… (Ibid., page 243)
I don’t need to quote any more of Barth’s comments. It’s plain to see his approach in dealing with matters of political and spiritual urgency. He always comes back to the original vision of the Scriptures. He does not rely on any historical experiences of the church because he knows that the church easily fell and falls into lies. He saw the German church capitulate to the lies of Hitler in the 1930s. He and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were the most prominent spokesmen against the lies of Nazi racist ideology. But almost all German church leaders preferred to listen to the lies of Hitler than the warnings issued by Barth and Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer and other courageous Christian opponents of Hitler paid with their lives and became martyrs for the faith in the murderous hands of the Reich.
Barth refused to give allegiance to the powers and principalities, whatever form they took. Standing firmly on the Scriptures, he was able to see through the lies and deceptions. That is the church’s greatest task in every generation. We are not here to adapt the Christian message to any social movement or moment. As another recent Christian activist put it, Jesus Christ did not bring about the kingdom of God by “christianizing the social order” (John Howard Yoder, as quoted in The Wisdom of the Cross, edited by Stanley Hauerwas et al, page 199). The patristic era of the church is often invoked as a time when the Roman Empire was indeed “christianized”: pagan practices, rituals and temples were replaced by Christian analogues. Barth would have none of that. The temptation is too great, and the church never mustered the spiritual strength to withstand the allure of prominence and success in the eyes of the world.
So yes, there is nothing outdated in Barth’s opposition to Hitler in the 1930s or the comments he made in 1962 in the face of the Iron Curtain that divided Europe. The church must always be κύκλῳ, around Christ. He is the only totality the church should recognize. And I love that word, totality, that Barth uses. We always have and always will live in times of totalities: entities that command our full attention and allegiance, that drain our attention spans, that make it impossible for us to be challenged by the Scriptures in their full force.
Barth was born (1886) into a world where the integrity of the Scriptures was questioned. How could the Bible still be called the Word of God when scholars had proven beyond any reasonable doubt that the Old and New Testaments were written by fallible human beings over the course of many centuries? Barth’s confidence was not shaken by these developments. But neither was he a fundamentalist. He saw that the writers of the Bible were completely, passionately absorbed and transformed in the message they were communicating, and by their writings they transmitted this message to anyone who is prepared to be similarly affected.
The Scriptures are a message from God. True, spoken and transmitted indirectly through human words and understanding. But that does not take anything away from their power to transform human lives and to guide us through difficult times. Indeed, acknowledging the human element only strengthens the Scriptures: in addition to being God’s message to us, the Scriptures are also a response to God’s message. And we also must stand in our own time and respond to God’s clear message. Jesus Christ is the only totality I as a Christian should accept in my life. When I don’t, I capitulate at least part of my affections to the powers and principalities that lurk at every corner. I will never be a Karl Barth. But I know from experience that I am strongest in my resistance to the fallen powers and totalities when I place myself under the government of Scripture.