Day 3: Karl Barth on God's Self-humiliation and Political Preference for the Poor

Welcome to Day 3 of the German Political Theology Blog Conference, brought to you by Theology Corner! For an introduction to the conference and a list of the schedule, click here.


We cannot rightly claim to follow the way of Jesus Christ without following him into solidarity with the poor and the oppressed. God’s self-humiliation in Christ necessarily entails political preference for the poor. What might this look like in a world of rapidly increasing economic inequality? The Church today cannot remain indifferent. We must follow the way of Jesus Christ into self-humiliation and “take sides,” entering into solidarity with the poor and weak by standing against the systemic oppression of the impoverished.

Liberation theology popularized “God’s preferential option for the poor.” While there are a number of differences between Karl Barth and liberation theology, they both considered preferential care for the poor to be a Christian obligation. [1] Although Barth is sometimes seen in an apolitical light, his theology was profoundly political from beginning to end. As he admitted towards the end of his life, “[M]y theology always had a strong political side, explicit or implicit.” [2] It is well known that Barth was politically active in his early days as a pastor and with the Confessing Church, but it is often mistakenly implied that Barth’s theology was de-politicized when he left Germany for Basel. The truth is, Barth’s entire theological project was politically oriented, even if it became more implicitly political later in his career. The example I want to examine for this is the connection between Barth’s Christology (particularly in CD IV/1) and his political preference for the poor. 



Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation stresses God’s self-humiliation in Christ, and from this it is only a small step to see the connection between God’s self-humiliation and the preferential option for the poor. It is precisely because God became a man in Jesus Christ, thereby taking up our darkness and sin as his own, that God stands in solidarity with the poor for the sake of the liberation of all humanity. That is to say, for Barth, God’s self-humiliation reveals God’s inherent preference for the poor—not simply against the rich but also for their own liberation. [3] But this universal liberating movement must begin with the Church’s preference for the poor in the political sphere, as Barth writes:

“The Church is witness of the fact that the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost. And this implies that—casting all false impartiality aside—the Church must concentrate first on the lower and lowest levels of human society. The poor, the socially and economically weak and threatened, will always be the object of its primary and particular concern, and it will always insist on the State’s special responsibility for these weaker members of society. That it will bestow its love on them—within the framework of its own task (as part of its service), is one thing and the most important thing; but it must not concentrate on this and neglect the other thing to which it is committed by its political responsibility: the effort to achieve such a fashioning of the law as will make it impossible for ‘equality before the law’ to become a cloak under which strong and weak, independent and dependent, rich and poor, employers and employees, in fact receive difference treatment at its hands: the weak being unduly restricted, the strong unduly protected. The Church must stand for social justice in the political sphere. And in choosing between the various socialistic possibilities … it will always choose the movement from which it can expect the greatest measure of social justice (leaving all other considerations on one side).” [4]

Jesus Christ is the basis for the Church’s preference for the poor, and therefore to neglect the poor is to neglect Christ. It is for Christ’s sake that the Church must stand on the side of the oppressed. Barth’s well-known Christocentric thought is here applied to the realm of political action. In Church Dogmatics volume IV/1, he provides the theological basis for this move when he discusses the self-humiliation of God in Christ. “God chooses condescension.” Barth writes, “He chooses humiliation, lowliness and obedience. In this way He illuminates the darkness, opening up that which is closed. In this way He brings help where there is no other help” (CD IV/1, 199). With this in mind, notice why Barth argues here that the Church must take sides with the oppressed: 

“Christ was born into poverty in the stable at Bethlehem, and He died in extreme poverty, nailed naked to the Cross. He is, then, the companion, not of the rich men of this world, but of the poor of this world. For that reason He called the poor blessed, and not the rich. For that reason He is here and now always to be found in the company of the hungry, the homeless, the naked, the sick, the prisoners.” [5] 

God’s preferential option for the poor is no empty humanism. For Barth, the Church must take sides with the poor because it is precisely here, in the company of the poor and oppressed, that we find ourselves in the company of Jesus Christ, God in self-humiliation. It is because of Barth’s devotion to Jesus Christ that Barth calls the Church to stand on the side of the poor and oppressed. We cannot separate Barth’s theology from its political implications, as George Hunsinger writes, “Those who think they can have Barth’s doctrine without his radical politics show that they have yet to understand him.” [6]

American evangelicalism embraces Barth’s theology more readily today than it did in his own time, but it has not yet embraced his radical politics. Americans seem to desire his theological revolution without his political revolution, but Barth’s theology, rightly understood, is implicitly connected to his political conviction that the Church must stand on the side of the poor and oppressed. We cannot have the one without the other.

Christians should not enter into the public and political spheres for their own sake, but for Christ’s sake. In a concrete sense, this means engaging in politics for the sake of the poor and oppressed. Christians who vote, petition, and engage in political discourse selfishly, with only their own interests in mind, have failed to be truly Christian in their politics, no matter what lip-service they offer to Christian values. 

The present economic status quo in America helps only those who are already rich, privileged, and healthy; it actively oppresses those who are impoverished, unwell, or disabled. By either silently or vocally supporting the status quo, the evangelical Church has placed itself on the side of the oppressors rather than the oppressed. It has, in Barth’s words, used the cloak of “equality” to support restricting the rights of the poor and maximizing the rights of the successful and the wealthy. A prime example of this can be seen in the recent GOP tax bill, which provides a trillion dollar tax cut to benefit the wealthiest 1% of Americans, while at the same time they violently cut support for Medicaid and other social welfare programs that help the poorest classes of society. While the middle class will see some benefit from this tax cut initially, they too will eventually suffer the weight of its burden. [7] This bill does little more than steal from the poor to give to the rich, and all under the guise of a widely problematic economic theory. It would be difficult to imagine a bill that stands more forcefully against the poor, and therefore, it is impossible to justify it on any Christian basis.

The Church must take a stand against oppression, wherever it may be found, and therefore we must be a consistently critical voice against the status quo. When the status quo remains unchallenged, those who stay silent are complicit to ongoing oppression. The Church must stand in favor of the weak and the small, because Jesus Christ came to seek and save the lost, to befriend sinners, and to take up our poverty as his own.

By baptizing the anti-poor Republican agenda, by supporting Donald Trump and his billionaire friends who benefit from his unethical policies, the evangelical Church has removed itself from the side of Jesus Christ and has taken sides with the perpetrators of oppression. In the gospels, we see precisely the opposite: Jesus placed Himself in radical solidarity with the poor and oppressed, and his warning should be ever on our minds again today in the midst of rampant economic injustice: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Mt. 25:31-46).

Conclusion: The Church must take sides and stand in solidarity with the poor and oppressed—for Christ’s sake. The implicit connection between Barth’s Christology and his political convictions lends further support for this call to action. Barth’s theology is sharply incongruent with the evangelical support of Donald Trump and his Republican allies, particularly in their blatant mistreatment of the poor and oppressed members of society.

 

notes

  1. For a comparison, see George Hunsinger’s “Karl Barth and Liberation Theology” in Karl Barth and Radical Politics (second edition).
  2. Final Testimonies, 24
  3. It’s worth noting here what Jürgen Moltmann says about the two sides of oppression: “Oppression always has two sides. On the one side stands the master, on the other side lies the slave. On the one side is the arrogant self-elevation of the exploiter, on the other the suffering of his victim. Oppression destroys humanity on both sides. The oppressor acts inhumanely, the victim is dehumanized. The evil the perpetrator commits robs him of his humanity, the suffering he inflicts dehumanizes the victim” (Experiences in Theology, 185). In terms of poverty, liberating the poor includes liberating the rich from the dehumanization of their wealth. Therefore, preference for the poor is not a preference against the rich but for their liberation too. For Moltmann, this results in a more robust doctrine of justification, “in which the justification of the victims of sin comes before the justification of the slaves of sin” (A Broad Place, 230).
  4. Against the Stream, 36; italics mine.
  5. Ibid., 246
  6. Karl Barth and Radical Politics (second edition), xii
  7. For these remarks, see the cost estimate report published on November 26, 2017 by the Congressional Budget Office, entitled “Reconciliation Recommendations of the Senate Committee on Finance.” Accessible via CBO.gov

Morrison is an author and amateur theologian whose books include Karl Barth in Plain English and T. F. Torrance in Plain English. His current writing project, the “Plain English Series,” examines significant modern theologians to provide approachable yet scholarly introductions for the average reader (forthcoming titles include: Jürgen Moltmann in Plain English and Schleiermacher in Plain English). 


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