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Barth on War, Peace, and Pacifism: A Primer

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Current crises across the Middle East and other war-torn locations demand careful consideration of war, just war theory, and other tenets of military interventionism. The Christian theologian faces a particularly daunting task in this respect because the eschatological principles of God’s kingdom appear contrary to what might be a faithful Christian ethic in the penultimate present.

Current crises across the Middle East and other war-torn locations demand careful consideration of war, just war theory, and other tenets of military interventionism. The Christian theologian faces a particularly daunting task in this respect because the eschatological principles of God’s kingdom appear contrary to what might be a faithful Christian ethic in the penultimate present. The famed 20th century theologian, Karl Barth, whose views were formed in the crucible of World War II, wrestles with this tension. While never writing extensively or explicitly on “just war theory,” Barth does offer sustained treatments of the Christian response to war in Church Dogmatics III/4, and further elements of his thought can be drawn from works such as “Church and State.”[1] My aim here is to simply offer a brief summary of his thought on the subject, drawing substantially upon a number of scholars and theologians who have proved incredibly helpful in this area of study. [2]

For Barth, both church and state are subject to Christ. While the state’s primary obligation is to provide for the freedom of the church, the church has a corresponding obligation to “guarantee” the existence of the state. Barth goes as far to suggest that the state has its form by way of analogy from the church.[3] In his important work “Church and State,” Barth roots this approach to civil and ecclesial relationship in Jesus’ encounter with Pilate, against the backdrop of God’s eternal degree. He insists that the encounter reveals the divine task of the state to establish justice, the failure of the state in this respect, but also the ultimate divine justice that God achieves through the state’s failure.  Pilate unknowingly becomes God’s servant and God’s agent of eternal justice. Barth concludes, “we cannot say that the legal administration of the State has nothing to do with the order of Redemption.” Accordingly, Barth interprets the exhortation in 1 Timothy 2 to pray for governing authorities as a way for the church to pursue its own freedom to proclaim the gospel in safety, adding, “But this freedom can only be guaranteed to it through the existence of the earthly State which ordains that all men shall live together in concord.”[4]

Because the state and the church are both called to divine justice, and because divine justice paradoxically prevails even though the “demonic” actions of the state, the Christian must never outright refuse military participation without careful discernment. Given the possibility of the state acting on behalf of the church’s freedom to proclaim the gospel, the Christian must not be closed to the possibility of God’s command to serve the state in a military capacity.[5] But Barth does not think that this is solely the decision of the individual; it should be a decision of the church, and it must be approached on a case by case basis. And even then, participation must be a last resort. [6] Rasmusson points us to these words from Barth: “May the Church show her inventiveness in the search for other solutions before she joins in the call for violence!”[7] Barth makes clear the seriousness with which he takes the matter:

“… if there can be any question of a just war, if we can describe this undertaking and participation in it as commanded, then it can only be with the same, and indeed with even stricter reserve and caution than have been found to be necessary in relation to such things as suicide, abortion, capital punishment etc. War is to be set in this category, nor is there any point in concealing the fact that the soldier, i.e., the fighting civilian, stands in direct proximity to the executioner. At any rate, it is only in this extreme zone, and in conjunction with other human acts which come dangerously near to murder, that military action can in certain instances be regarded as approved and commanded rather than prohibited”[8].

In such occasions when the church heeds the states call for violence, the state must be deemed a just state in which the gospel is allowed to be proclaimed freely. Barth insists that such a state must be defended when it “has serious grounds for not being able to assume responsibility for the surrender of its independence, or…when it has to defend within its borders the independence which it has serious grounds for not surrendering.”[9]Famously, in September 1938, Barth wrote a letter to Czech theologian Josef Hromadka on “the Czech crisis” that had led to the Munich Agreement. Barth went as far as to praise the Czech resistance to Hitler “Every Czech soldier who… fights and suffers, will do it also for us—and I say this today without reservations: he will do it also for the Church of Jesus Christ which, under the conditions of Hitler and Mussolini, can only be destined to either ridicule or extermination.”

Nevertheless, Barth developed serious reservations about modern warfare. In his most detailed consideration of the subject in his Church Dogmatics, Barth begins his discussion of war by outlining three ways in which modern warfare is unjust. First, while in premodern societies war was seemingly confined to “princes and rulers,” there is now no individual citizen who can claim neutrality. There are no spectators. There are none who can cast their responsibility, guilt, or conscience upon the collective state. “Each individual is himself the fatherland, the people, the state; each individual is himself a belligerent.”[10] Barth says that every individual, as every Christian, is bound to the state; even, is the state. From this follows, on the one hand, that no one can leave all responsibility to the political authorities, but has to take responsibility him or herself. On the other hand, no one can discuss the issue of war as a private individual only, but has to take decisions as a citizen in solidarity with the state. Second, material and economic power has emerged as the root of virtually all wars, and that it is usually fanciful to try and use political mysticism to justify war in the name of honor, justice, and freedom.[11] Wars undertaken in order to expand geographic borders, political power, or national ideological interests are never and “ought not to be undertaken.”[12] Third, most tragically, war is impersonal. Formerly, combatants encountered one another in such a way that self defense seemed an “unavoidable position” in which killing was a “duty and right.” But today, combatants “cannot even see their individual opponents as such.” “War,” writes Barth, “does in fact mean no more and no less than killing, with neither glory, dignity nor chivalry, with neither restraint nor consideration in any respect.”[13] Barth concludes the section by pointing out the simple fact that war tends towards multiple forms of human disobedience to God. The ways of war – “to kill effectively,” as Barth puts it – is often associated with stealing, robbing, arson, lies, deception, slander, and fornication.[14] War in itself cannot further one’s sanctification or discipleship.

Given modern warfare’s tendency towards evil and injustice, participation in war can take place only in extreme circumstances and with careful deliberation over the nature and aims of the state in question. It ought to be pursued only as a rare exception to the rule of peace. War is not the proper work, the opus proprium, of the state, but a strange, alien work (opus alienum). The primary task is to “fashion peace” in such a way that meaningful and just life, not war, results.[15]The church is therefore “commissioned to oppose the satanic doctrine that war is inevitable and therefore justified, that it is unavoidable and thus right when it occurs.”[16]

 

At this point, we ought not to be surprised that Barth offers a sympathetic nod to the pacifist position, though not without critique. Acknowledging that arguments for pacifism are “almost overpoweringly strong,” Barth insists that all approaches to war should take the pacifist position seriously.[17] In CD IV/2, Barth complements his pacifist sympathies in his reflection on Jesus instruction to the disciples in Matthew:

“The decisive contradiction of the kingdom of God against all concealed or blatant kingdoms of force is to be seen quite simply in the fact that it invalidates the whole friend-foe relationship between one human and another…. The disciples are told: ‘Love your enemies!’ (Matt. 5:44). This is the end of the whole friend-foe relationship, for when we love our enemy he ceases to be our enemy. It thus abolishes the whole exercise of force, which presupposes this relationship, and has no meaning apart from it. [18]

 

According to Barth, the Gospels prohibit the disciples from using force, and which “invalidate the whole friend foe relationship”. This is due to the new law, the new ethic, the new reality of the kingdom that has come in Jesus Christ. Christians are to live peaceably because they are children of the Father in heaven whose essence it is to love not only those who love him but also those who do not.[19] Even so, he continues from the previous block quotation:

… In conformity with the New Testament, one can be pacifist not in principle but only in practice. But let everyone consider very carefully whether, being called to discipleship, it is possible to avoid – or permissible to neglect – becoming a practical pacifist![20]

The tension between Barth’s allowance for military conscription and his critical appreciation for pacifism is characteristic of his theological project as a whole. Not only does there always seem to be a paradoxical or dialectical element at work, even if only subtle, but even more fundamental is his unwavering commitment to the God’s freedom of command. Barth refuses to bind God or God’s freedom in such a way that one is tempted to render absolute a practice or philosophical principle that lies outside of God’s revelation. We can certainly admire Barth’s proposal in this respect. Yet one cannot but wonder whether this leaves Barth with any groundwork for a sustainable Christian ethic whatsoever, not least in times of war.

 

————

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, trans. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Vol. II/l, III/4, and

IV/3. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957-1969.; Barth, Rechtfertigung und Recht (Justification and Justice), 1918. Trans. Ronald Howe “Church and State,” Reprint Smith & Helwys, 1991.

[2]I am especially indebted to the following articles: Justin Parrish Ashworth, “Neither Just nor Necessary: Barth and War, Again.” Political Theology, June 2011; Arnel Rasmusson, “”Church and war in the theology of Karl Barth, Dutch Theological Journal,  Nommers 3 & 4, September en Desember 2013. Ashworth and Rasmusson have done much of the groundwork by gleaning from a wide variety of passages throughout the Barth corpus.

[3] Barth, “The Christian Community and Civil Community,” 1946.

[4] Church and State, 131.

[5]Dennis Okholm, “Defending the Cause of the Christian Church: Karl Barth’s Justification of War,” Christian Scholar’s Review 16, no. 2 (1987): 160.)

[6]CD III/4:464-470.

[7]Rasmusson, cit. Barth, Against the Stream: Shorter Post War Writings, 194-652. New York, NY: Philosophical Library, 1954).

[8]CD III/4 454.

[9]CD III/4, 461.

[10]CD III/4, 451.

[11]CD III/4, 451.

[12]CD III/4, 461.

[13]CD III/4, 453.

[14]CD III/4, 454.

[15]CD III/4, 458-9.

[16]CD III/4,460.

[17]CD III/4,455.

[18]CD IV/2. 549-50.

[19]CD IV/1, 191.

[20]Ibid. 

Rev. Adam Borneman is a graduate of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He currently works with Macedonian Ministry, an Atlanta based organization that provides leadership development training for clergy nationwide. 

7 thoughts on “Barth on War, Peace, and Pacifism: A Primer

  1. Excellent and timely. Rev. Borneman’s highlight of this tension resonates with me, an elder and war vet. Many times in many places I have knelt seeking wisdom to guide my steps. Now I see dimly as in a mirror.

  2. Fascinating and helpful. WW1 is often suggested as the background and arena in which Barth’s formerly liberal theology collapsed, impelling him toward the Romans commentary, “that fell like a bombshell onto the playground of the theologians.” Thanks for this!

  3. I wonder if Barth moved further toward pacifism later in his life. For example, in a letter to a Japanese professor in Tokyo in 1963, Barth said:

    What the world needs is revolutionary knowledge that by the love with which God has loved it, it is freed from the unhappy necessity of seeking its salvation in any national, political, economic, or moral principles, ideas, and systems (whether western or eastern), and therefore of seeking it in the unavoidable cold or hot wars. The world is liberated for a life of man with God as his Father and his fellowman as his brother. It is thus liberated for a life which makes war in any form superfluous, abolishing and excluding it. The world must recognize that by the love of God in Jesus Christ it is already a liberated world.

    http://freedominorthodoxy.blogspot.com/2014/08/karl-barth-proclaiming-peace-of-god.html

  4. I don’t know much of Barth but, given the extraordinary and contradictory position of churches to pacifism generally (including the statistic that 60% of the American force to Iraq have been evangelical protestants), I can easily believe it. Consequently, I liked your conclusion of this supposed great theologian: i.e. “one cannot but wonder whether this leaves Barth with any groundwork for a sustainable Christian ethic whatsoever, not least in times of war.”

    How extraordinary that such an eminent theologian should write, “one can be pacifist not in principle but only in practice. But let everyone consider very carefully whether, being called to discipleship, it is possible to avoid – or permissible to neglect – becoming a practical pacifist!” Such blatant contradiction at the centre – it is mad! crazy!

    Here is another contradiction of Barth from his own writings:

    “What the world needs is revolutionary knowledge that by the love with which God has loved it, it is freed from the unhappy necessity of seeking its salvation in any national, political, economic, or moral principles, ideas, and systems (whether western or eastern)…” (thank you fellow commentator John Walker for this)

    And yet he wrote (and, I assume, did not recant):

    “Every Czech soldier who… fights and suffers, will do it also for us—and I say this today without reservations: he will do it also for the Church of Jesus Christ which, under the conditions of Hitler and Mussolini, can only be destined to either ridicule or extermination.”

    Come on people, get real! Don’t you all know that the Church thrives under state persecution??? It could be a Nero, a Stalin, a Mao or a Hitler – doesn’t matter! The Church is NOT dependent on the state to provide freedom for Gospel proclamation! Did Jesus promise us safety if we preach His Gospel? No, He said, “If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you.” If, as Barth wrote, “(we are free) from the unhappy necessity of seeking (our) salvation in any national, political, economic, or moral principles, ideas, and systems” then we are also free of any obligation to live under (State) laws that justify lethal violence! As Christians our new obligation is to the Spirit and to love all in fulfillment of the law. Barth’s exhortation to the Czech (above) is worse than nonsense – it is the spirit of the anti-Christ.

    God’s spoke of His values (Gen 9:5,6) to inspire the rule of law to Noah & to all Noah’s descendants including us in order to prevent recurrence of the pre-Flood carnage (Gen 6:11), in which people felt entitled to reek any amount of violence, or extract any amount of revenge, they liked (Gen 4:23,24). All law has as it’s basis “don’t murder” in order to limit the overwhelming problem of humanity’s capacity for vengeance & violence. Every nation’s Law, not just Jewish Law, was given to be our GUARDIAN until the Christ should come (Gal 3:24). But, now the Christ HAS come and we who believe in Him at last have a real choice – nay an obligation – to love our enemies in PRINCIPLE AND in practice!

    We who are the first fruits of the Gospel are to pray for state rulers to promote peace in this period before the faith of Christ has come to justify (transform) all. Extreme levels of ongoing fear make physical survival a cognitive imperative, affording little room for human beings to hear and meditate on the Word of God. Compared to rampant violence, violation & fear, (even) worldly peace attained through (mere) law and order, is a great blessing.

    However, let us not waste breath on those who, at the moment, reject Christ’s rejection of the Kingdom of Man – they will always continue to kill and tell lies in order not to die… Without the faith of the Prince of Peace in the Heavenly Father of all, they CANNOT do otherwise. The terms “national pacifism” and “pacifist nations” are extreme oxymorons.

    Barth doesn’t see this because he, like all of us, are a steeped in Constantinian, Augustinian & Anselmic theology from the moment we enter the Church. Without a true and PACIFIST view of the Cross we cannot understand the Prince of Peace, nor the Scriptures, which testify to Him. Our God is Pacifist – it is only doubting, fearful, angry, and violent humanity that seeks to make Him otherwise.

    We must also understand that God’s pacifism is subservient to His love. He seeks to grow our loving faithfulness to Him. He allows our violent deaths as He allowed Jesus’ violent death because of the greater blessing to be attained thereby. He ‘experimented’ with calling a nation for Himself for the greater blessings thereby attained. But modern states cannot fulfill God’s Kingdom plan – but they can and do oppose it on this question of how to treat our (corporate) enemies. Jesus calls His followers to transfer their primary allegiance for ultimate safety & wellbeing from secular states to the Him and His Kingdom of light and love.

    Why has God ordained it to be this way?

    Consider that those who are martyred in the Faith are most praised in Scripture – “greater love has no man (or woman or child)” than that they lay down their lives for Jesus, for Father God, and for their enemies – in the knowledge and faith they got from Jesus about the Faithful Creator. Jesus manifested His faith in God, and the truth about God and us, by allowing Himself to be killed by our sinfulness; so that God might raise Him from death – so that we might imitate His faith and so be transformed to be like Him; free at last from our fear of death which turns us into murderers and liars! This at last is both Humanity’s and God’s justification. In the end our very natural instinct for self-preservation is the vehicle for the maximal growing of our faith through which we may know God (since the degree of intimacy of ALL personal relationships depend directly on the degree of mutual faith).

    Much more could be said, all derived from Scripture. So wake up Church! You say, “But this is NOT what the Scriptures say!” But it IS what they say – you just have too few Christian pacifist theologians to show you (& the Constantines, Augustines, Anselms & Calvins have been killing them off for 1500+ years). What an exciting time to be a Christian… the start of a new golden age of the Church! So start reading Biblical Universalists. And read Rene Girard & S. Mark Heim on sacrifice. And read me!

    Or go on in your patently obvious, sad and pro-violence contradictions!

    Jub the pacifist

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