A Barmen Moment in America
In 1934 Germany, in response to continued aggression by the German state encroaching upon the freedom of the Church, the Confessing Church adopted a declaration at its first gathering in Barmen. What then came to be known as “The Barmen Declaration” was a confession which makes clear the purpose and goal of the Church in a time of political upheaval and national crisis (1). In response to overreach by the National Socialist state, the Confessing Church sought to counter truth claims based upon national supremacy or superiority with the sole truth claim, that of Jesus Christ.
The Barmen Declaration consists of six articles written by Karl Barth. Barth viewed the acceptance of the National Socialist state by the German Christians as a failure to follow the first commandment: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2–3 RSV). In falling under the influence and authority of the Nazi state, the German Church had forsaken its responsibility to bear witness to the one God who brought the Hebrew people out of bondage to an oppressive and dominating idolatrous state.
I would argue that in America, we face a similar crisis. This crisis is not unique to American Christian experience, but as an American Christian, I can only speak to things I know firsthand. I must also clarify that this is not primarily an attack on the President of the United States, Donald Trump. He is not the cause of this crisis, but merely a symptom of a long-standing sickness at the heart and soul of the American church. It is too easy to compare Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. It is too easy to seek to make quick comparisons. It is too easy to conflate two separate crises. But the Church must stay vigilant in its witness to the Truth, Jesus Christ, and in bearing this witness, must be aware at any time when the State seeks to subsume the Church under its authority and use (abuse) the Church for its own means.
For this reason, I argue that we must reread and reclaim the Barmen Declaration in America today, as we reclaim the vocation and responsibility we have been given by God in our baptism to bear witness to the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.
The first article of the Barmen Declaration begins with two scripture references: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6 RSV) and “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber…I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved” (John 10:1, 9 RSV). The text of the Declaration then goes on to read: “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death. 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, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.” Here is the foundation of all Christian witness: Jesus Christ, “the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.” As a response to this, we as Christians must “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, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.” God’s self-disclosure of himself to sinful humanity in the person of Jesus Christ is the sole foundation for Christian witness. There can be no other starting point, whether that be political, societal, cultural, or ideological. To stake out from any other foundation is an exercise in idolatry, and we will utterly fail.
Arne Rasmusson notes that “Both German Christians and many moderates could, as we have seen, describe the ‘events’ of 1933 as a work of God, the ‘powers’ of Volk (people) and race as normative creational ‘orders,’ the ‘figure’ of the Führer as a tool of God, and the ‘truths’ as National Socialistic ideology” (2). For the Church to view abrasive and blasphemous undertakings by the State as tools of God is for the Church to abandon its witness to the God who stands above and beyond all of our attempts at description and discovery.
The second article begins with reference to 1 Corinthians 1:30: “Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (RSV). The text then goes on: “As Jesus Christ is God’s assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins, so in the same way and with the same seriousness is he also God’s mighty claim upon our whole life. Through him befalls us a joyful deliverance from the godless fetters of this world for a free, grateful service to his creatures. We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords — areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.” Different spheres of life do not and indeed cannot have their own sources of autonomy. In confessing Jesus Christ as the universal savior and redeemer, we must confess that Christ is Lord of all. There can be no separation into different spheres of autonomy. The State, regardless of its episodic claim to total autonomy, is under the Lordship of Christ, as well. There is no political sphere divorced from an ecclesial sphere. Christ is Lord of both spheres, whether the two know it or not.
The third article begins with Ephesians 4:15–16: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body [is] joined and knit together” (RSV), and then follows, “The Christian Church is the congregation of the brethren in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in Word and Sacrament through the Holy Spirit. As the church of pardoned sinners, it has to testify in the midst of a sinful world, with its faith as with its obedience, with its message as with its order, that it is solely his property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectation of his appearance. We reject the false doctrine, as though the church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.” The Church points to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. This Lord is the only one to which the Church can point and remain the Church. The message of the Gospel remains the same, regardless of circumstance or experience, regardless of ideological or political convictions. Following the 1933 Nazi Revolution, moves were made to alter the order and function of the German church to follow the order of the day (Aryanization; anti-Semitism; etc.). The Church cannot allow such changes divorced from a summons of God. The Church exists upon the foundation of God and exists to bear witness to God. Humanity has not right to change the purpose or mission of the Church.
The fourth article begins with Matthew 20:25–26: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be first among you must be your slave” (RSV). Following, the declaration reads: “The various offices in the church do not establish a dominion of some over the others; on the contrary, they are for the exercise of the ministry entrusted to and enjoined upon the whole congregation. We reject the false doctrine, as though the church, apart from this ministry, could and were permitted to give to itself, or allow to be given to it, special leaders vested with ruling powers.” Jesus Christ is the sole leader of the Church. No other ruler can make such a claim. The State has no authority over the affairs of the Church. In this article, Barth rejects the leadership of the newly appointed Reichsbishop, placing the German Evangelical Church under the authority of the Third Reich. Such claims to power and authority over the Church by the State are an abuse and an overreach. The Church does not exist or function under the leadership of the State, and cannot be collapsed under the State and remain the Church so called into being and sustained by the Triune God.
The fifth article quotes 1 Peter 2:17: “Fear God. Honor the emperor” (RSV). Following this, the declaration continues: “Scripture tells us that, in the as yet unredeemed world in which the church also exists, the State has by divine appointment the task of providing for justice and peace. [It fulfills this task] by means of the threat and exercise of force, according to the measure of human judgment and human ability. The church acknowledges the benefit of this divine appointment in gratitude and reverence before him. It calls to mind the Kingdom of God, God’s commandment and righteousness, and thereby the responsibility both of rulers and of the ruled. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word by which God upholds all things. We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the church’s vocation as well. We reject the false doctrine, as though the church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State.” The State serves a purpose in the “as yet unredeemed world in which the church also exists.” The State is constituted by God to “provide for justice and peace.” The State cannot however assume totalitarian control, seeking to fulfill the work of the Church, and the Church cannot go along with this assumption of control and thus become “an organ of the State.” Governmental authorities have been constituted for an express purpose. The Church has been constituted for an express purpose. The State cannot assume control of the Church in the carrying through of its orders, and the Church would be wise to not unite to the State in order to carry out its witness to God.
The sixth article begins with a combination of Matthew 28:20: “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age”, and 2 Timothy 2:9: “The word of God is not fettered” (RSV). The article then reads: “The church’s commission, upon which its freedom is founded, consists in delivering the message of the free grace of God to all people in Christ’s stead, and therefore in the ministry of his own Word and work through sermon and Sacrament. We reject the false doctrine, as though the church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans.” The task of the Church is witness to God’s free grace given to all people through the person of Jesus Christ. This is done in preaching and Sacrament. On this basis, the Church is free to proclaim this grace, and cannot be hindered by governmental dominance or abuse. For the Church to take up any other task, placing “the Word and work of the Lord in service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans” is sinful human arrogance. The Church’s task is one of witness. This task cannot be used to present fallible human interests and positions as the work of Christ. The Church must remain free to carry out its commission, and cannot as such be attached to any other authority than that of Jesus Christ.
The Barmen Declaration is a striking declaration of God’s sovereignty in and for the Church. The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ. The Church cannot be based upon any other authority. The Church cannot answer to any other authority. The Church is called expressly to the task of proclamation, through preaching and Sacrament, of God’s free grace offered to all. Any connection between Church and State diminishes the efficaciousness of the Church’s response to God’s command. The Church must remain free to point to God’s free grace for all, irrespective of cultural, political, national, racial, or any other boundaries. The American church must realize this truth. The witness of the American church is harmed by its obeisance to the State. Two particular instances in our recent life must be noted here, as a warning for American Christians, that the State is seeking to use (abuse) the Church for its own purposes and ends.
First, on May 22, President Donald Trump ordered governors to open houses of worship, deeming the Church an “essential” service during a global pandemic. This language is evident, if we have eyes to see. As Stanley Hauerwas has noted, “You know you are in trouble when the state tells you that you are performing a vital function for the state” (3). For the President to make such a claim reveals the nature of Church-State relations within our current government. The State views the Church as little more than a tool, a voting bloc worth little more than private, individual piety and quietistic support for the order of the day. This is an egregious position, and one that should worry the Church, and simultaneously call the Church to response by bearing faithful witness to Christ. The Church so bears this witness by existing as an alternative community to the dominance of the world left to its own devices. The Church exists to point out another way of being, another way of life formed by weakness, rather than strength, and service, rather than dominance.
The second issue is the impetus for this post. Last night, the President had peaceful protestors in Lafayette Square tear-gassed in order to disperse them so he and his staff could walk across the street, to stand in front of St. John’s Church, awkwardly brandishing a bible, for a photo op, in which he threatened martial law, or military violence against American citizens on American soil. No word was spoken to or about the Church, no mention was made of Jesus Christ. The President merely used the boarded up church behind him and the closed Bible in his hands as political props, which held no value other than garnering support among his faithful evangelical base. The President, in this action, made clear his views upon scripture and the church. None of this should surprise us, and indeed, the blatant idolatry and blasphemy from a notoriously pagan president is not the primary issue which should concern the Church. Rather, the Church should recognize and denounce this idolatry instead of applauding or accepting it. The issue is within the Church. For the Church to witness such blatant blasphemous usage of Holy Scripture and a church building and accept, or worse, applaud the action, is disastrous. The mission of the church is highly compromised by the marriage of Church and State. Any time the Church seeks to lie in bed with the State, it finds not a loving spouse, but an abusive tormentor. And so, we find ourselves at a decision point. We as American Christians can bear witness to one thing and one thing only: American greatness through any means necessary, regardless of how many lives are lost, or the self-denying way of the cross. Jesus has spoken. God has called us to take one of these paths already. The ball is in our court. We must bear witness to one of these realities. Make no mistake, we cannot faithfully bear witness to both.
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(1) All quotes from the Barmen Declaration have been taken from the following link: https://www.ucc.org/beliefs_barmen-declaration.
(2) Arne Rasmusson, “Barth and the Nazi Revolution,” in The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Karl Barth: Volume 2: Barth in Dialogue, ed. by George Hunsinger and Keith L. Johnson. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell, 2020. 971.
(3) From an email correspondence reported on Twitter. Original tweet available at the following link (https://twitter.com/mlcfrench/status/1264174194578857986), though the quote has been spoken multiple times in various iterations in a Karl Barth reading group lead by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon over the last couple of weeks.