Barth Behind Bars

So I finally read me some of that Karl Barth I’ve heard so much about. He used to preach in Swiss prisons, and Deliverance to the Captives collects several of his prison sermons.

I got a lot out of it. He’s so good at just simply reminding us to look at God, at God’s action in our lives and the utterly unearned love He offers us. Barth is great about pointing us to see God’s power working in our lives regardless of the injustices others have done us or the injustices we ourselves have done.

I’m not fond of the “we are all prisoners, and those on the outside are even more imprisoned than you!” shtik, as a thing a person who can leave the prison says to people who can’t. It’s not necessarily my place to have an opinion about this, but it seems like not actually solidarity, viewing prison too much as an cipher in the theological alphabet and not enough as a literal experience of other people. I would willingly read this exact same point made by Hans Fallada but the thing is, I suspect he’d make it slightly differently. With some self-lacerating satire I think you could get across the way in which it’s true as well as the way in which it’s callous.

Barth also sometimes scolds you (and by “you” I mean literal prisoners) for not being happier. Jesus died for you and now you are utterly free from sin so how dare you not rejoice? As with the previous paragraph there’s a way in which this is true. Part of the discipline of the liturgical calendar is that it essentially forces us to rejoice or at least accept that rejoicing is a duty of our condition, even during some of our hardest times. We’re not allowed to escape the truth to which the alleluia is the only just response. We’re given a way to do rejoicing as an action, to enter into it with our will and body even when our hearts, as they say, aren’t in it. But I read an especially “Smile, d–n you, smile!” sermon while I was on my way to confession. And I was pretty churned-up by it. I felt yelled at, kicked when I was already fairly down, and I got indignant because come on, allow me to feel sorrow for my sin! That too is a truth to which I have a duty to respond. There’s a reason the Christian tradition has the phrase “the gift of tears.” If Jesus got to express anguish maybe maybe let His followers imitate Him? Lol I know this is such an American thing, the defensive demand that we be allowed to feel bad, but it’s because we’re constantly surrounded by capitalists and Christians with unnecessarily intense dentistry, all yelling at us that We Have a Duty to Our Joy. (I think I saw that on a pillow in an airport mall.)

Barth is also sort of hilariously embarrassed by the fact that God is not the only actor in the drama of our salvation. The emphasis on God’s power and our own utter dependence, our weakness and humiliation, is necessary and honestly such a comfort. But Mary’s fiat is a crystalline and strange model of our own acceptance, our consent to God’s transforming love. Only He makes this acceptance possible. On our own we have nothing, not our lives nor the power to say “yes,” this is basic St. Anselm by the way (I think) but also just like, logic. But God, because He is love, wants us to accept His love, to surrender ourselves; He waits on Mary’s word and the story is pretty awful if he doesn’t.

On a psychological level I think there’s a thing where people, especially depressed people, want to elide the role of their own consent in God’s work. It’s easy to believe that you offer nothing, that you are so fundamentally broken that your consent and gift of self are worthless. Or that you are so flattened by suffering or self-loathing that you are incapable of offering anything. Yet God has given you something to offer–yourself–and has made it possible for you to give. I can easily think of times when I wish I’d noticed this dynamic in the lives of friends and done more to show them that I view them as gifts. Maybe that would have made the difficulties and sacrifices involved in self-gift seem more worthwhile and imaginable.

On a rhetorical level Barth ends up having to admit that we are called to accept God’s love and mercy. Why be shy about it? You’ll have to cop to it eventually anyway.

And on a “my personal obsessions” level, passion is an action, acceptance is an action, surrender is an action, submission is good and you should do more of it. (She said, meekly.)

So those are my yowlings and scratchings. But like I said, overall I loved this slender book and I learned from it. I think it’s helped me be clearer in writing and talking. I loved Barth’s distinction between anxiety over God and fear of God–in fact that sermon alone, you might check out if you’re one of the anxious Christians for which the City of the Internet is renowned. Barth doesn’t come out and say, “You will fear God when you encounter Him because He is sublime,” because Barth is a normal person and not a conservative aesthete. But he made me really envision that encounter between the soul and her strange Lover. Imagine you meet a tiger–you hold your hand out–you caress his heaving side. You pet his flank and feel his hot breath against your face. Are you afraid? What is that fear like?

Imagine he tells you that you can become like him–a tiger bride.

Barth doesn’t say that, because he’s not some kind of demented mad-scientist child of Pauline Reage and Angela Carter. But it’s a kind of fear totally different from the anxiety about whether God likes us and what God will do with us, which I think we do often assume is what “fear of God” is.

There’s a crisp form-follows-function element to Barth’s style here. Most of every sermon is pure description. He doesn’t exhort, doesn’t even encourage. He just tells you what God in fact has done and says, so insistently and necessarily, that these acts of God pertain to you. No one is excluded or irrelevant. He mostly doesn’t tell you what to do about these facts. Just that no matter who you are and how you see yourself, these facts are relevant to you.


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