Another Perspective

Playing With Pacifism

The Evangelical Left's misappropriation of Karl Barth.

By 8.25.09

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The modern Evangelical Left does not want to defend America, and the great mid-20th century Protestant theologian Karl Barth might partly be at fault. Much of the modern Evangelical Left is literally or functionally pacifist, looking to thinkers like Stanley Hauerwas of Duke Divinity School, Glenn Stassen of Fuller Seminary, activists like Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, or self-proclaimed urban monastic Shane Claiborne.

In his book last year Jesus for President, Claiborne equated the U.S. with the biblical Whore of Babylon and the Roman Empire, which, like America, tried to "slaughter God's love in the world." If the Apostle John were writing his Apocalypse today, he would use a "phrase such as 'mission accomplished' or describe the image of a flaming oil field under a sky of black smoke," the popular evangelical speaker surmised.

Hauerwas, whom Time magazine has pronounced as America's most "influential" theologian, is more sophisticated than Claiborne but no less polemically pacifist and anti-American. "Because I am a pacifist, the American 'we' will never be my 'me,'" he has written, having blamed the U.S. for stirring up 9/11's terrorism through its own violent imperialism.

Not usually as provocative as Hauerwas or Claiborne, and trying to grab a larger share of evangelical opinion, some on the Evangelical Left have masked their pacifism behind anti-Iraq War protests, without fully explaining they oppose participation in any violence. The anti-torture campaign by the Evangelical Left, which has insisted that all U.S. aggressive interrogation is "torture," without precisely defining torture, has also rested on pacifist assumptions.

Some of the pacifism is Anabaptist in origin, and the late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, who taught at Notre Dame and who reinterpreted the Crucifixion as a metaphor against all violence, is a favorite to much of the Evangelical Left. Hauerwas credits Yoder for explaining that, "Nonviolence is the way that God has redeemed the world through cross and resurrection." Along with Hauerwas and many others, Yoder looked to Barth, under whom he studied at the University of Basel, in Switzerland. Such admirers discern in the Swiss theologian, sometimes unfairly, a hostility to force, even by legitimate state authority.

Yoder admiringly wrote Karl Barth and the Problem of War, in which he argued that Barth was a "chastened non-pacifist" whose theology ultimately argues against war, even if Barth himself was not explicitly pacifist. Undoubtedly Barth's rejection of natural law his rejection of natural law, and ambiguous attitude towards civil authority, precluded enthusiasm for Christianity's dominant Just War tradition. He refused to compromise with Nazism while teaching in 1930s Germany and was forced into exile back into his native Switzerland. While stalwartly anti-Nazi and supportive of Western resolve against Hitler, Barth's stance towards the Soviet Union and communism were more ambivalent.

In 1951, Barth defended his ambivalence towards the Soviets in an article, somewhat ironically, for Christianity and Crisis, the journal Reinhold Niebuhr founded to combat Christian pacifism on the cusp of World War II. "The determination, whether rightly or wrongly motivated, to resist Stalinist Communist aggression is the common policy of the West," he wrote. "Its intensification through a Christian word is superfluous." He urged a calm silence for Christians during the Cold War, in the midst of "hysteria and fear."

Insisting he was no pacifist, Barth recalled that peace with Hitler was "neither human nor Christian." He admitted that if he were an American or British statesmen, he would not "neglect preparations for a possible military defense." But he inaccurately asserted that Russia had not presented any "ultimatum or committed aggression." And he warned against war fever, urging resistance to any "holy crusade against Russia and communism."

Rather than military rearmament, Barth suggested Western emphasis on social justice. He particularly warned against German rearmament within the Western alliance, as "it is impossible to expect of the German people that they arm for a war that is bound to be a civil war for them." Barth's discomfort with a remilitarized Germany soon after World War II may be understandable. But his unease extended to nearly all Western assertiveness during the Cold War.

In 1960, Barth wrote for the Christian Century that he could not agree with the "great majority" about the East-West question. He professed no "inclination" towards Eastern communism, and "decidedly prefer[ed] not to live within its sphere and do not wish anyone else to be forced to do so." But he denounced anticommunism as an "evil even greater than communism itself." Barth thought communism's "inhuman compulsion" was not necessarily inferior to the "fleshpots" of capitalism.

Portraying communists as "enemies" was a "typical invention" of "defunct dictators," Barth complained, and only the "Hitler in us" could be anticommunist "on principle." He remembered that the West, grateful for Soviet defeat of the Nazis, had conceded Eastern Europe to the Soviets, whose quest for security was hardly "incomprehensible." Later Western calls for "rollback" understandably forced the Soviets to react defensively, which the West then mischaracterized as an "offensive military threat."

Barth indignantly asked: "Did we not provoke him [Russia] by erecting a massive Western defense alliance, by encircling him with artillery, by establishing the German Federal Republic -- which seemed to him like a clenched fist pushed under his nose -- and by rearming this republic [the U.S.] and equipping it with nuclear missiles." He thought the "higher consecration" of the Cold War struggle against Soviet communism complete "madness."

The East had offered the West "neutrality" and "coexistence," Barth lamented, but was refused. And the churches had "injured" the Gospel by linking it with the "badly planned and ineptly guided cause of the West" rather than understanding the East's "dialectical reality." Barth noted that he had been accused of being a "crypto-communist" and "fellow traveler," or at least a "politically naïve dilettante," getting "mischievous pleasure out of confounding the bourgeoisie."

Likewise, Barth had been challenged for the "flagrant self-contradiction of refusing to reiterate against communism what I had once brought forward against National Socialism," he admitted. He also was called basely ungrateful for the "privileges and benefits of the 'free world.'" Even in Switzerland, there were "small McCarthys" who tormented Barth for his "anti-democratic" and "anti-humanistic" stance in the Cold War, he bemoaned, especially for his "silence" about the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

Barth had no apologies and instead excoriated his critics. "What if the luckless era of Dulles and Adenauer should come to and end?" he sarcastically asked. "What if the German Lutherans would one day turn from their evil ways? What if from the Vatican or from Geneva instead of meaningless generalities a prophetic apostolic word of repentance and peace were to be heard one morning?" Of course, the West never lived up to Barth's hopes for accommodation with the Soviet Union.

Three years later, in 1963, Barth visited the U.S. for the first and only time. He was anxious to meet members of the Kennedy Administration, but as the recently deceased Ernest Lefever recalled for a Weekly Standard remembrance in 2007, Kennedy was not enthusiastic about meeting the world renowned but somewhat anti-American theologian. Instead, Lefever hosted Barth at his Washington, D.C. home and invited Kennedy staffers like Arthur Schlesinger.

Repeating his usual preoccupation, Barth asked the Americans why the U.S. had rearmed West Germany. He was surprised to learn that the Soviets had formidably rearmed East Germany. The audience of anti-Communist Democrats tried to correct Barth's numerous other international blindspots. Lefever recalled Schlesinger years later telling him that Barth had reminded him of "a leftover from Henry Wallace's pro-Communist activities in 1948." More charitably, Lefever, himself a former official with the National Council of Churches, described Barth as "too unworldly" to "speak truth to those entrusted with the fateful decisions of our time."

Is today's Barth-admiring Evangelical Left equally too "unworldly" to be politically relevant? If so, its adherents are blithely unaware of their limitations.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.