The new book Human Flourishing: Economic Wisdom for a Fruitful Christian Vision of the Good Life publishes papers delivered at colloquia that were held by the Oikonomia Network in 2019. This innovative, cross-disciplinary scholarly collaboration is now available in an inexpensive paperback. This is an excerpt from a chapter in the book; footnotes have been omitted.
Note: Mark your calendar today! This chapter, and the previously published chapter by Michael Thigpen, “Flourishing and Justice as ‘Subduing’ the Earth,” will be among the papers discussed in our scholarly paper session at Karam Forum on January 5. See the story in this month’s newsletter for more details.
It is safe to say that current political discourse in the United States (with analogous patterns in Europe) is marked by an ever-shrinking center pushed out by the margins. Such political movements are strangely wedded to a growing plurality of economic policies. Former commitments among conservative political affiliates in the US to a global free market have given way in recent times to national protectionist policies and tariffs in the current Republican presidential administration, while moderate progressive positions of recent Democratic platforms are being challenged with candidates promoting avowedly social-democratic programs. In this paper, I examine the case of Karl Barth as a resource for thinking about how Christians in this time might eschew ideological commitments in favor of creative economic solutions, a position perhaps surprising given Barth’s apparent socialist sympathies.
Karl Barth: The Complex Case of a Disillusioned Socialist
Karl Barth is widely considered the most significant Protestant theologian of the twentieth century. He is understood to have had democratic–socialist commitments, and, while rooted in fact, Barth’s own political and economic convictions are not so easily summarized. During his first pastorate in the Aargau region of Switzerland, Barth grew increasingly disillusioned with the liberal theological and political commitments of his former teachers and education. His tenure in the small village of Safenwil introduced him to the harsh working conditions of factory workers at first hand, and he became involved in the socialist movement of his time. His famous December 1911 address, “Jesus Christ and the Movement for Social Justice,” presented distinct religious socialist commitments. There Barth echoed classic socialist positions such as an opposition to private ownership of the means of production and private profits unshared by labor which received only wages. Yet Barth’s position was truly a religious socialist one, for his theological and political convictions were closely wedded, evidenced in his famous assertion in his address, “Jesus is the movement for social justice, and the movement for social justice is Jesus in the present.”
Barth’s speech was seen as provocative and dangerous enough that a response was published in the paper Zofinger Tagblatt by the regional factory owner Walter Hüssy, who attacked Barth’s radicalism and attempted to school Barth in basic capitalist principles. Barth would have none of this. He in turn responded with a fiery letter that affirmed his socialist convictions. Against Hüssy’s claim that all of the risk of enterprise was assumed by the factory owner, and that the workers contributed “not in the least” to its profits and therefore had no claim to any share of them, Barth responded, “Even a child can see that an industrial enterprise would have neither net profits nor profits in general without the participation of the worker.”
In but a short time, however, Barth’s admiration for the socialist movement soured. Two primary reasons might be given for this, and these were noted by Helmut Gollwitzer in his essay, “Kingdom of God and Socialism in the Theology of Karl Barth.” Gollwitzer claimed that Barth became disillusioned with socialism because of “the participation of the European socialist parties in the wholesale slaughter of the First World War and rise of Leninist centralism after the Soviet revolution.” [p. 52] Indeed, Barth’s disillusionment with socialism as a movement was in no small part due to the failure of the socialists to stand against war and their breaking up along national lines in support for their respective warring nations. Barth’s turn from his Protestant liberal inheritance was followed by a loss of confidence in what he had earlier called in his letter to Hüssy the belief in “the moral progress of humanity.” Such naïve liberal optimism and straightforward identification of the kingdom of God with socialism evidenced in his 1911 lecture was replaced with a radical judgment of God upon all human programs of culture and politics, as expounded in the famous second edition of his Romans commentary of 1922. Because his early socialism had been predicated on a sanguine view of human nature, it was therefore impossible for his socialist commitments to remain unchanged in light of his new theological viewpoint. In a late biographical sketch, Barth reflected back on the revolutionary time of the Great War:
A change came only with the outbreak of World War I. This brought concretely to light two aberrations: first in the teaching of my theological mentors in Germany, who seemed to me to be hopelessly compromised by their submission to the ideology of war; and second in socialism. I had credulously enough expected socialism, more than I had the Christian church, to avoid the ideology of war, but to my horror I saw it doing the very opposite in every land. [Karl Barth-Rudolf Bultmann Letters 1922-1966, p. 154]
Nearing the end of his life, Barth therefore remarked in comments too often overlooked in considering his socialist proclivities, “Once I was a religious socialist. I discarded it because I believed I saw that religious socialism failed to take as serious and profound a view of man’s misery, and of the help for him, as do the Holy Scriptures.” [Final Testimonies, p. 39]…Barth’s relationship to socialism was thus quite complicated, and not nearly as straightforward as both his detractors and admirers grasped….
Three Lessons from Barth’s Principled Political and Economic Pragmatism
Having surveyed the complex example of Karl Barth’s non-ideological socialist commitment, what might we glean from his example? Three initial lessons might be proffered.
First, Barth’s commitment to siding with the workers of his village and against capitalistic owners and management was based upon a true concern for the concrete welfare of such workers in a specific location and from there extended from this specific concern to more general ones for labor throughout Europe. Barth’s time as a pastor in the early twentieth century was marked by real social and economic stratification in Switzerland and in Europe generally, and the conditions of workers were marked by a lack of social safety nets and protections. Barth embraced the socialist movement as the most pragmatic option for addressing such issues….No small part of this practical involvement stemmed from his opposition to the (mis)use of child labor in the local factories.
Second, Barth’s commitment remained non-ideological in its orientation and was certainly so by the completion of The Great War. His mature theological position which allowed for no direct identification of the divine reality of the kingdom of God with the contemporary political or economic order or any such program entailed that there could be no moniker of “Christian” placed upon any worldly program, including that of a political party or economic system….
[His] concern for the disadvantaged leads to the third and final point. Barth was always more occupied with the concerns of socialism than committed to its methods or principled economic theories and convictions. He had no penchant for Eastern communism and rejected it as an answer to any question the workers may have, and as noted, he was distressed, as were many, by the authoritarianism and violent excesses of the Soviet revolution and its aftermath, even though he had earlier read and studied Marxist theory. Yet, regardless of this opposition to communism in the East, he nevertheless remained critical of capitalism in the West to the end of his life as well, and especially of its propensity to social and economic stratification with its growing disparities of wealth between rich and poor and its disenfranchisement of common labor. His mature position was marked by a realism toward a fallen political order that in various instantiations was comprised of tribal constituencies where, in his context of democratic Europe, the West naively overlooked its own problems in its principled and persistent opposition to Eastern communism, or optimistically overestimated the scope and possibilities of its own free market solutions…
Captialism, Socialism and Principled Pragmatism Today
It may be valid to ask whether Barth’s concern for the conditions of labor as well as for the underclass and those in poverty might be distinguished and even separated from his socialist commitments. Such an observation might easily lead one to expect that this essay will hereafter move into an ideological defense of capitalism as currently practiced, but such binary forms of thought wherein to point out the problems of communism or even socialism is taken to entail a commitment to contemporary capitalism, or vice versa, is itself part of the current problem of reflection upon economic and political questions for both Christians and others. Barth’s rejection of ideological socialism did not entail an abandonment of his criticisms of capitalism, criticisms which he quite consistently embraced throughout his life. Rather, it led to a more ad hoc approach to political and economic engagement for Christians, one that complemented his eclectic approach to borrowing from philosophy in the work of theology.…
If Christians in the end favor a form of capitalism over state socialism in their public witness, and compelling arguments can be made for this position, such arguments cannot be based upon a belief in capitalism’s absolute intrinsic superiority without remainder, but rather for the pragmatic reasons of capitalism’s dissipation of the authoritarian power that a centralized economy possesses, as well as for the benefits a market economy produces with its ability to move beyond zero-sum conceptions of wealth in meeting the needs of persons over time. The past demonstrates the dangers of centralized and collectivist failures, not only for economic reasons, but for more serious threats to the dignity and freedom of persons. Ideological socialism fails to realize that the drive for efficiency and equity of outcome in the end undercuts the very value, dignity, and freedom of the individual person. At the same time, principled capitalists in the end gauge social health through the same materialist grid, though one predicated on consumerism rather than collectivism. Christians must be much more critical of both than they have been, and Barth’s dialectical and principled rejection of any equation of the kingdom of God with current political or economic programs is a protection not only against naïve forms of economic optimism but, more importantly, against economic ideology and idolatry. In sum, Christians should, in economics and politics, as in all things, have a rich and vibrant dialectical imagination disciplined by the gospel which proceeds and exceeds all things. Such an imagination requires that all positions be open to re-visitation and revision in light of changing circumstances and human need. There is no timeless system.
Barth’s understanding of the church may in the end provide a key for such thinking that exceeds his political and economic observations. His ecclesiology, in which authority and decision-making was never centralized in a universal magisterium or denominational structure, but was vested in the realm of the local congregation and regional synods, would point against overly-vested centralized governmental and economic authorities. If Barth’s socialist convictions were not ideological but based, as Hunsinger states, upon socialism being “a series of concrete goals with strong affinities to the kingdom of God,” then we are justified to ask if socialism is in fact the best current form for such commitments to be addressed. [Karl Barth and Radical Politics, p. ix]…
What in the end must be said is that the church does indeed live within the world, but it should explore and point to answers that are not constrained by it. With creativity and courage, the church with humility is called to embrace the analogies and parables of the kingdom it finds within the world in this time between the times, while never confusing them for the kingdom itself, or even its own distinctive life and witness.