Barth on the Poor and Oppressed


Readers will be glad to know I’ve just completed Church Dogmatics II/1. I’m really excited to move on the II/2, which focuses on Barth’s original understanding of the election of God. The Doctrine of God (II/1) was an interesting read that mostly focuses on the different attributes of God. In the section on the Mercy and Righteousness of God Barth weighs in on what I can broadly outline to be ‘liberation theology’.

“According to the Gospel of Luke and the Epistle of James, as also according the message of the prophets, there follows from this character of faith a political attitude, decisively determined by the fact that man is made responsible to all those who are poor and wretched in his eyes, that he is summoned on his part to espouse the cause of those who suffer wrong. Why? Because in them it is manifested to him what he himself is in the sight of God; because the living, gracious, merciful action of God towards him consists in the fact that God Himself in His own righteousness procures rights for him, the poor and wretched; because he and all men stand in the presence of God as those for whom right can be procured only by God Himself…Just because He is righteous God has mercy, condescending sympathetically to succor those who are utterly in need of His help, who without it would in fact be lost. God is righteous in Himself, doing what befits Him and is worthy of Him, defending and glorifying His divine being, in the fact that He is our righteousness, that he procures right for those who in themselves have no righteousness, yet who He does not leave to themselves, to whom rather He gives Himself in His own divine righteousness” (CD II/1, 387).

I think my reaction to this passage summarizes quite nicely my ambivalence to Church Dogmatics. I feel as if some of the things he says are more or less theologically correct, but I often disagree with his justifications. Of course, Barth is correct that the Gospel of Luke depicts Jesus continually siding and comforting those who are oppressed and marginalized. Jesus sees in the poor and outcasts the members of the Kingdom. Luke 4:20-22 reads:

20 Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.

This is part of Luke’s slightly different version of the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew’s gospel. Two questions must be raised. First, why should man also be in solidarity with the poor actively serving them? According to Barth, man should serve the poor because by serving the poor man can perceive dimly just how wretched man appears from God’s perspective. Second, why does God choose the poor as opposed to the rich? Unsurprisingly, Barth believes that by extending His mercy to the oppressed, God’s mercy only serves to expand and glorify His being. This is part of the Reformed tradition that I have a difficult time stomaching. Essentially, God’s reason for doing anything is always that it manifests His infinite glory. As much as Barth wants us to convince us that God desires to glorify Himself and reconcile Himself to man through the God-man, one question that keeps plaguing me is why does Jesus’ ministry oppose this very notion of lordship and glory? Continually, Jesus subverts people’s attempt to glorify Him by crowning him with special titles such as Messiah. Good teacher? Hell no, no one is good but God. The incarnation however destroys any notion of God other than Jesus. As Altizer would remind us, it’s not that Jesus is God, but rather that God is Jesus. Jesus goes so far as to disrobe himself and wash the feet of his disciples. This is such a humbling and baffling act. God Himself wants to wash our filth. Is this some underhanded attempt to assert his glory or does it have to do with God’s overwhelming love for humanity? The humbled shall be exalted. Why? Because God loves man, and Tillich was right when he said, “[j]ustice is the backbone of love. Without justice, love is just sentimental”. So God is love, but God’s love demands that social and economic justice are served so man can be free to demonstrate the love of God by loving his neighbor. Levinas was right that when we look to God, God merely deflects our vertical gaze and points horizontally back to our neighbor who needs our love and attention.

God’s solidarity with the excluded is of course what the cross demonstrates. God’s desire for justice is a desire for man’s liberation from evil forces, oppression, and sin. If this demonstrates God’s glory well then that’s great. But, to think that God merely suffered (through Jesus of Nazareth) to exhibit his glory seems to me miss the whole damn point of the incarnation. I know some might think that I’m assuming a sharp disjunction between glory and love that need not be assumed. However, for me it ultimately goes back to motivation. God’s love is such that He desires man to be free and liberated to celebrate and enjoy this life and strive after the Kingdom and fellowship with Him. This is ultimately glorifying of God. But, God does not side with the poor simply because He somehow this makes God even more glorious.

I somewhat appreciate Barth’s point about the reason we should serve the poor. While it’s important to remember that to God, all man is enslaved and impoverished. This should remind us that anytime we want to create some hierarchy, in God’s eyes, we are all shit (as Luther would describe so poetically). However, I’m very uneasy with giving someone a reason to serve the poor. Why should we serve the ostracized? Because that’s who Jesus Christ loved and served.


2 Responses to “Barth on the Poor and Oppressed”

  1. Troy Polidori Says:

    I always kind of felt that everything from I/1 to II/1 needs to be rethought in light of the doctrine of election in II/2 (and Barth himself does this somewhat in Vol. IV).

    In regards to your criticism, I can’t help but think that the reason behind the need for the Reformed “argumentum ad glorium” is the supposed freedom of God before and without creation (and the logos asarkos, as well). If, as I see with Calvin, the most important attribute of God is his sovereignty, and if that sovereignty is blemished by any sort of identity-forming relationship with creation, then I can fully understand why all of God’s actions must in the end be reduced to the fulfillment of glory. However, if one considers Barth’s election, then any sort of doctrine of God without redemption and reconciliation (i.e. without the world) is nonsensical. There is no God without Jesus, and there is no Jesus without the flesh and bones. I would also like to see this idea in conversation with Altizer’s comments above.

  2. Jeremy Says:

    I think that’s helpful and I’ll be sure to be posting more II/2 as I begin reading it next week. Altizer’s feelings toward Barth are mixed, but I know that he was especially fond of Barth’s radical doctrine of election. I’ve actually done a book review of Altizer’s entitled Genesis and Apocalypse in which Altizer dedicates a chapter to Barth’s apocalyptic Christ.

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