Archives For The Barmen Declaration

On page 291, of his 2013 book, Hollywood and Hitler, Thomas Doherty makes a small, but note worthy statement about the song “God Bless America.”  Written by Irving Berlin from an earlier tune called “Yip!, Yak!, Yaphank!” , “God Bless America”  was to become an unofficial second national anthem.

 ‘as the wave of antisemetic violence [during what was penned by journalists as Krystallnacht], in [Nazi Germany], was subsiding, the singer Kate Smith had long planned to dedicate her variety show program to the 20th anniversary of Armistice Day, a solemn look back at the last war as the world stood on the brink of another. Smith asked Irving for a patriotic theme suitable for the occasion’[i]

Whilst it is right to describe “God Bless America” as a patriotic song, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that it also fits well within the rubric of protest songs.

Cast in the light of his original intent, Berlin’s song is an anthem for peace. It rallies people of all races, around the banner of peace.

God Bless America” is perhaps also the most significant musical push-back against the onslaught of mid-20th century Nazism, to come out of America during that pre-WW2 era.

Post-1939, into, America’s 1942 involvement in the war; first in the Pacific, then in the North African, and European theatres, this prayer for peace, while still holding its integrity, extended its meaning towards a prayer for freedom.To call on God’s blessing is to call on His grace and victory.

And if prayer is, as Karl Barth asserted:

 ‘…the beginning of an uprising, [a revolt] against the disorder of the world’[ii]

Then “God Bless America” is a protest against one thing, that is effective in drawing people’s attention towards another. Towards the God, who, in His Covenant with Israel, and it’s fulfilment in Jesus Christ, sets out to present Himself as the revolution against the disorder, that is set in play by false lords, false claims to authority, and all human versions of “ordering” the world, which takes place under those false claims, in total allegiance to those false lords*.

Irving’s lyrics join up with the voice of the Confessing Churches, who, in the 1934, Barmen declaration, led by Karl Barth, declared that any proposition that suggests, or asserts that salvation could come through Hitler, or any human, outside of or abstracted from God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, is false, and is therefore is to be utterly rejected. This is because:

‘Jesus is the one Word of God and the proper hearing of this Word takes place in trusting and obeying […] The one Word is the way upon which, and the door through which, God comes to us in his truth and in his life, comes as the light that overcomes the lie and as the resurrection that disempowers death’[iii]

There are no ways to God, there is only one way from God to us. Founded and expressed entirely through, and in Jesus the Christ. No man, woman, leader, idea or natural organism can lay claim to this revelation that lays claim to all of humanity, without usurping God. It’s not something that can be moulded, crafted and raised in the name of human triumphalism.

Irving Berlin’s song declares that before nations and governments, there is no other Lord, but God.

As problematic as ambiguity and nationalism[iv] that is attached to the song, can be; at its inception, “God Bless America” was conceived as an anthem for peace. It was written at a time when the majority of Americans understood God as the one who makes Himself known in history, as testified to in the Judeo-Christian Bible.

What “God Bless America” became was both a prayer and protest. It focuses, unites, humbles, and in combined song, rouses a challenge against all those who actively seek to do the opposite.

God Bless America” is a song of defiance in the face of an adverse and overwhelming enemy. As a prayer, it becomes the anthem for revolt. Not just against an oppressor from without, but also from within; against the sinful nature of the flesh that exists within each of us, to which God has answered, not by the way of man’s religion, and feeble attempts to save himself, by way of the Cross of Jesus Christ.

In “God Bless America” both the Sh’ma Yisrael and The Lord’s Prayer are heard. If we lean in close enough, we’ll hear Irving, Kate, Barth, Roosevelt and the many others, who, in fox holes, camps and gas chambers, ‘prayed both'[v], we may hear them “whisper their legacy”[vi] to American and non-American alike. I should point out that I’m not an American, but that doesn’t mean I’m exempt from joining in and singing the same kind of prayer and following the same kind of protest. For:

‘Even the “devils believe and tremble,” and I really believe they are more afraid of the Americans’ prayers than of their swords’
(Abigail Adams, 1775, Letters #55)


References:

[i]  Doherty, T. 2013 Hollywood & Hitler: 1933-1939, Columbia University Press, p.291

[ii]  Barth, K. CD Fragments IV:4

[iii]  Busch, E. 2010 The Barmen theses then and now: the 2004 Warfield lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary, Wm.B Eerdmans Publishing Company Grand Rapids Michigan, U.S.A. pp.23 & 37

[iv] For more on this see Sheryl Kaskowitz’s article ‘How “God Bless America” became a conservative anthem’

[v] Victor Frankl: we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions. Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.’ Man’s Search for Meaning, Beacon Press. p. 134.

[vi] Robin Williams, 1989. The Dead Poets Society.

*According to an unverified source, the Klu Klux Klan, only with Pro-American Nazi’s are said to have boycotted the song. The only source I could find, so far, which mentions this, is parade.com:  6 Things You Didn’t Know About the Song ‘God Bless America’ 

Original image credit: Photo by Jake Ingle on Unsplash

This past week I’ve posted two brief reflections on Eberhard Busch’s lectures featured in ‘The Barmen Theses: Then and Now’.  The first reflection discussed Prayer and Christian Ethics. The second, was about the Church, the State and the claim of Jesus Christ as Lord over both.

The subject of Natural Theology will form the third.

In the light of the renowned forcefulness of Barth’s “Nein” to Emil Brunner, there may be some irony in suggesting that any discussion about Natural Theology requires a certain amount of sensitivity and decorum.

This is especially so, given the serious word limitations of a blog post about it.ID-100165049

Developing an understanding here by reading a meme or two point outline could mean missing key contextual information that is essential in arriving at a well-informed theological conviction. Take as an example, the plethora of tangents, verbose material drawn out and drenched in heavy theological jargon about the subject.

In sum, Natural theology ‘acknowledges something other as God.’[i]

This takes belief beyond the author in and of authority – God, and asserts humanity as the ultimate authority, outside Jesus the Christ.

As Busch states:

‘In such a Natural theology humanity has so much divine Spirit within it that it can comprehend God by means of its own capacity to do so. Humanity therefore has no need of God’s coming to meet it. To speak of one Word repudiates precisely the claim that there is a second word of another god that purports to be authoritative for the Christian witness and is thus not subject to the standard of the one Word. The term “Word of God” designates a particular story as it is attested for us in “holy scripture.” In this story God distinguishes himself from all other gods. By electing particular people to be his people, he differentiates himself from the gods that people choose for themselves.’[ii]

Within the pages of  ‘The Barmen Theses: Then and Now’ Busch addresses Barth’s rejection of Natural theology, constantly keeping in mind the all important historical context of the German Churches in the 1930’s.

Article one: (8:12)We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.
‘”No” to Natural theology, in this context, is first of all a word of repentance in which the confessors must ‘beat their own breasts.’ There was very real cause for that repentance, for up until then, the confessors had, to be sure they made a distinction between themselves and the German Christians at some points. They were thinking in the same patterns. This pattern made room, on the one hand, for faith-centred preaching for the heart, or within churchly spaces, while on the other hand, it endorsed the church’s “joyful yes’’ to the racial nationalistic ideology. This “yes” was even theologically grounded, but with reference to another god, from the One who is ‘’attested for us in Holy Scripture”.[iii]

Avoiding Barth’s and the ‘Confessors “No” to natural theology, could mean walking away from any reading of this “No” with little other than the rough idea that natural theology = bad theology, because badass Barth thundered it forth as such.

Sadly, in the theological climate of today it is too easy to leave this ”no” to natural theology at that, writing it off as intolerant, anachronistic or bigoted.

It might be sufficient here to say that Natural theology leads humanity into taking its point of reference about who God is from itself rather than The Word of God.

Causing humanity to abandon God as we reach for God outside the Revelation of The Word of God.

When this happens the reconciled relationship enacted by ‘God’s free decision in revelation’ (Karl Barth) is abandoned. Subsequently, the voice of the Church is silenced by its irresponsible acquiescence to ‘something other as God’ (Busch), slowly allowing itself to be concealed behind a veil of what can be posited as either practical atheism or deified existentialism.

In other words, we miss the point of the Gospel that states in Jesus Christ, God comes to us. To be God with us, for us and, ‘not God without us’ (Karl Barth).

I am in agreement with Eberhard Busch as he strongly advocates the necessity of not just visiting this issue on the surface, but sticking with it until one can see clear through it. The imperatives laid out for us in the Barmen Declaration have way too much relevance to us in our contemporary context to ignore.

 “If anyone tries to flag you down, calling out, ‘Here’s the Messiah!’ or points, ‘There he is!’ don’t fall for it. Fake Messiahs and lying preachers are going to pop up everywhere. Their impressive credentials and dazzling performances will pull the wool over the eyes of even those who ought to know better. But I’ve given you fair warning.”
(Jesus, Mt.24:23-24, The Message)

Sources:
[i] Busch, E. 2010: The Barmen Theses: Then and Now, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, p.28
[ii] Ibid, pp.27-28
[iii] Ibid, p.28-29

The Theological Declaration of Barmen: Sacred-texts.com
Image: courtesy of Sira Anamwong, “Church of The Light” / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The clear intent of ‘The Barmen Declaration’ is found in its authors struggle to find balance. They did this by reasserting orthodoxy within a hostile historical context; a grey situation discoloured by misplaced allegiances, betrayals and compromise.

For instance, the authors of ‘Thesis Five’ reject, in two correlating parts, ‘false doctrine’:

Firstly, the State ‘becoming the single and totalitarian order of human life.’

Secondly, ‘the Church appropriating the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State.’

Eberhard Busch

Eberhard Busch

The authors were rejecting the trend in 1933 Germany, whereby theology was sliding into blind agreement with ideology. This trend would consequently lead to the worship of human lords over and against God.

Beginning his chapter with a summary of Thesis Five, Eberhard Busch cites Gustav Heinemann, a delegate to the Barmen Confessional Synod, 1934, and President of the Federal Republic of Germany { or West Germany}, 1969-1974.

“Let us respond to the world when it wants to make us fearful: Your lords are leaving, but our Lord is coming…Their lordship will end, and His Lordship will become apparent to all in the future”[i]

Busch then unpacks this reflecting on the power distinctions between Church and State.

‘the fact that the spheres of Church and State are separate as two entities demonstrates that we are living in an as yet unredeemed world. It cannot redeem itself, but can only be redeemed – by God through the Redeemer whom he has sent…one day the Church and State will be one, but one in Jesus Christ.’

This distinction involves understanding the abuse of power and the accountability, just critique allows. Itself a tool for the prevention and cure of corruption.

However:

‘We must be very precise here: the fact that a state has power does not mean that it is corrupt.

Jacob Burckhardt’s axiom, “power is in itself evil”, is famous but not correct. One easily concludes that the temptation to abuse power always lurks close to power itself. But it must be stated that the wrong use of power is what is evil.

As a result of placing the gospel before the law, the way of speaking of the law is completely different. It is the law of God that encounters humans, in distinction from all other legal orders…The law of God “calls to our mind” what just action is. And it is not merely common, but is framed and interpreted by the terms “kingdom of God” and “God’s righteousness.” Thus it does not enforce submission and allegiance, but instead calls for responsibility.

Rulers and the ruled are made accountable in the same way…It is part of the political sentinel’s office of the Church to “call to mind” that common responsibility.’[ii]

These words are worth highlighting:

‘In placing the gospel before the law, the way of speaking of the law is completely different… it does not enforce submission and allegiance, but instead calls for responsibility.’

What stands out the most though, is Busch’s clear discourse which shows that The Barmen Declaration is an important historical document. One that is still relevant, as it shines the light on theologians and pastors who are still determined to push against the tide of compromise.

Not compromise in a diplomatic sense, where an exchange of understandings is metered out in order to establish mutual respect, but in the perilous decision to abandon theological critique as unscientific, intolerant, anachronistic and therefore ultimately irrelevant.

Source:

[i]  Busch, E. 2010 The Barmen Theses: Then and Now Wm.B Eerdman Publishing Company, p. 71
[ii] Ibid, pp.80-82

Image: On Scripture, and Understanding Jesus TheologyandChurch.com

‘Pray consistently and never quit’

– Jesus. (Luke 18, The Message)

 

It has been some time since I last read through Eberhard Buschs’ ‘The Barmen Theses: Then and Now’. Only 101 pages in length, the book is a compendium of lectures given in 2004 on the 1933-34 Barmen Declaration[i], of which Barth was a ‘’principle’’ author.

There were many things about this little book worth sharing. A lot of its content grabbed at my heart and mind, energising the direction of my own theological study. Buschs’ exhortations are helpful to anyone actively pursuing a lens from which to understand God’s alignment with us, through Jesus Christ, and how our response to that alignment is applied in today’s world.

In between other jobs this week I’ll attempt to systematically post small sections I found to be significant.

Here, under the title ‘Thesis Two: The Rigorous Gospel and the Gracious Law’, Busch lays down some serious theology about The Lord’s Prayer and the Christian.

 

‘Christian ethics is an ethics of freedom. It has to do with a freedomBarmen these then and now that has little to do with coercion as it has to do with decision and preference.

It is a freedom that is not practiced in isolation but rather in connectedness with God and his children who are “my” brothers and sisters.
But still, in this sense, it is an ethic of freedom.There may be situations in which one swims against the current and still cooperates with others.

In so doing, one might be able to arrive at good agreements with one’s non-Christian fellows.

In this freedom one will occasionally have to demolish some things critically, but only in order to preserve things worth holding onto or to risk new things.

Behind all these endeavours there will be prayer – and it will become quite obvious whether that is really what is behind it all.

According to the prayer of Jesus, the Lord’s Prayer, our prayer engages first of all the world’s rebellion against God and asks that his name should be hallowed, that his will should be done, and that his kingdom should come. It then asks for God’s engagement in human distress, that he should take to heart humanity’s hunger and thirst, its failure and guilt, its oppression by evil powers.

Such prayer is not merely preparation for the ethical conduct of Christians. It is its first act.’

– (‘The Barmen Theses: Then and Now’, 2010:47)

 

Of the many good statements about this topic I have read, his claims here rate among the best reflections (Calvin, Spurgeon, Barth, Tozer, Bonhoeffer et.al) on how Christian prayer and ethics meet.

 

Related Reading:

Confessions: Barmen, Barth and Busch.

[i] The significance of the Barmen Declaration, in brief, is its value as a unified statement created by the Confessing Church, in Nazi Germany, which publically rejected the slippery slope embarked upon once theology is surrendered and becomes a blind servant to an ideology.