Karl Barth never ceases to confound his students or humble our feeble attempts to steer him in a particular political direction. One key example of this is a letter written in December 1939, to ‘The French Protestants’ at the outbreak of World War Two.
His words here are straight from the front, back towards the left and then on towards the right.
Barth is not advocating that the Church take up a “‘crusade’ against Hitler“. Rather that the Church repent and pray for a ‘just peace’. Choosing the better side of responsible action over against irresponsible action or worse, total inaction. Barth is calling for the Church to awaken; to turn from a politics of appeasement and blind compassion, in order to avoid the problems created when both are infused with good, but naïve intentions.
‘It would be regrettable if the Christian Churches, which in previous wars have so often and so thoughtlessly spoken the language of nationalism and militarism, should just in this war equally thoughtlessly decide to adopt the silence of neutrality and pacifism. The Churches to-day should pray in all penitence and sobriety for a just peace…to bear witness to all the world that it is necessary and worth while to fight and suffer for this just peace’
(Barth in Loconte, J (Ed.) The End Of Illusions, 2004:157)
According to Joseph Loconte, Barth lamented the ‘Munich Agreement’ writing in his diary: ‘catastrophe of European liberty in Munich’ ibid:153). Adding in a letter to Czech soldiers that ‘resistance to Hitler, was service to Christ’ (ibid).
Also noting that the partial injustice of 1919, The Treaty of Versailles, made England and France ‘chiefly responsible for the state of affairs which arose in Europe after 1919 – which in turn, as far as Barth sees it, makes them responsible, too, for making Hitler possible’ (ibid:156).
Although Barth prefers the term ‘just peace’, steering away from applying the phrase ‘just war’, he is advocating the latter. For instance: ‘Our generation would be answerable before God and before humanity if the attempt were not made to put an end to the menace of Hitler’. (ibid:156)
Other than reinforcing the important relevance of Barth to contemporary discussions. This letter shows that placing him into an ideological box, in order to serve an understanding of his theology, or using any conclusions drawn from that to advance the defence of utopian illusions or a benevolent ideological master, are deeply flawed. Such as being quick to claim that Barth was a sold-out pacifist.
Since there are parallels between his time and ours.Today’s Church needs to “get this”. It ought not fail to stand against sloppy sentimentalism, popular activism nor fail to act on the warnings which were so powerfully relevant for then, and are just as relevant to us today.
‘Why have we heard and why do we continue to hear, and that not infrequently, voices of eschatological defeatism, a defeatism which appealing to the truth that “the whole world lies in the evil one,” busies itself almost cynically with asserting that Hitler’s present adversaries for their part are no saints either? The apprehension of the truth that God alone is holy will not excuse us from the duty of putting up resistance to-day.’ (ibid:157)
‘We must be prepared for God, just when we are acting in obedience to His command, to confront us with His own “Il faut en finir,” and again by His command to lead us to something wholly other… Done in this spirit of preparedness, our work of resistance will then be a good work…We are both allowed and obliged to know that God will reign in any case and the He makes no mistakes’ (ibid:161)
Loconte is right: ‘Any serious student of the 1930’s is struck by the familiarity of the debate’. (ibid:3)
Barth, K. 1939 First Letter to the French Protestants in Loconte, J. (Ed.) 2004 The End of Illusions Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Image: French roughly translated in English as ‘We must/will end it’ or ‘We shall go on to the end.’
(Originally posted Jan. 2015)