Karl Barth, probably the most important Protestant theologian since Martin Luther, observed that the task of the preacher was to hold “the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”
That’s different from the common understanding that “Politics do not belong in the pulpit.”
Of course it matters how we read and interpret the scriptures. And it matters how we read and understand the newspaper.
But Barth, while critical of all human political structures and institutions, was not afraid to take a stand on the issues of his day.
Born and raised in Switzerland, he completed his education in Germany, studying under some of the brightest theologians in Europe. But 1914 brought the most destructive war in human history.
It was especially disturbing to Barth that one of his mentors was among a group of 93 professors who signed a public endorsement of Germany’s Declaration of War. It seemed to him their brilliance had not prevented them from making a grievous error. Barth returned to Switzerland and served as pastor of a small village church.
After the war he went back to Germany, now as a professor of theology. He prepared lectures, engaged with students, and began writing his most substantial theological work, "Church Dogmatics." It runs more than 9,000 pages and was still unfinished when he died.
No one ever accused Barth of writing for the masses. Today’s seminary students usually avoid even a passing acquaintance with his work.
But in 1934, the world of politics intruded once more into German Christianity. The rise of Hitler and National Socialism were making an impact in the Church.
Some were speaking of Hitler as if he were something of a divine figure. In response, a minority of German Christians gathered to voice their opposition to the direction of the nation.
Barth was the lead author of the Barmen Declaration, which stated that Christians could not endorse, and must resist, the claims being made by the Nazi regime. He refused to sign an oath of allegiance to Hitler and was forced to leave Germany.
While physically safe from the ravages of the Second World War, Barth continued to speak out against National Socialism and worked to smuggle Jewish refugees out of Germany. When the war was over he continued to work on Jewish and Christian dialogue, and was invited to attend the Second Vatican Council, where that effort continued.
Barth was passionately engaged in the political struggles of his day and unafraid to speak out when it could cost him his job or his life. Though he did not put his trust in human political institutions, he never failed to call them to account for their failings.
I couldn’t help wondering what Barth would make of our nation’s current predicaments.
He was more than familiar with issues of ethnic identity and hatred. He saw the devastation caused by fear of “others.”
He spoke up on behalf of those whose voices had been silenced. I am confident he would add his own to the chorus insisting that Black lives matter.
But I believe he would be puzzled by the struggle we currently face around face masks.
Of course we realize that masks will not keep us, or everyone around us, completely safe. But it seems a small sacrifice to make on behalf of our neighbors.
Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” By this he meant for us to love one another with a generous, uncalculating, self-giving and even sacrificial love.
He also encouraged his followers “Love your neighbor as yourself.” His emphasis was never “You can’t make me.”
Instead, he invited us to extend compassion and care with those in this life who are most vulnerable.
Most preachers I know walk carefully around issues of partisan politics. We try hard to focus on the issues that lie beyond or beneath the labels we use in such struggles.
There are times when we are called to lift our voices to oppose injustice and evil, even at great personal cost. And then there are times when the right course seems literally right there in front of our face.
Stay safe. Be well. Take care of yourselves and each other. Wear a mask. It’s really not political. It’s just kind.
Jonathan Chute is Senior Pastor at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church. He can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org