Barth on Nonviolent Resistance


I just completed CD III/4 and wanted to make a final post on Barth’s comments on nonviolent resistance in §55. Also check out the solid discussion here and Austin’s solid critiques of Yoder’s POJ.

“Tolstoy, Gandhi and others who share their understanding of this direction for serves are certainly right in wishing it to be accepted and taken more seriously in its literal form than has usually been the case even in Christian circles which are supposed to be loyal to the Bible. But they are wrong in understanding it as a law rather than a direction for service, and in thus refusing to leave room for the living God to give man direct instructions as well, in the same sense and with the same intention as the direction, but not necessarily in the precise verbal form. To be sure, one can know the spirit of God’s command only from the scriptural letter. Hence in matters of the order and direction of what God wills or does not will as regards self-defence we should undoubtedly keep to what we are show in the New Testament. Nevertheless, we are not apply the letter in such a way to stifle the spirit, but rather in order that we may seek from the Spirit who is the freely commanding Spirit of the Lord. It is as we do this that the exception arises” (CD III/4, 433).

I think Barth is in many senses right. Sometimes I worry that absolute pacifism is an excuse for laziness/irresponsibility. It completely foreclose the conversation of a possible violent response. Also it flattens out the differences between different sorts of violence. As somebody who used to work on a crises line for battered women I found it really difficult to advocate the organization’s commitment to absolute non-violence. Can we really say that a woman fighting back and hitting her abusive partner is wrong? Especially when I found that sometimes the complete impotence (in never getting to lash back physically) rendered these survivors helpless and often led to further psychological disturbances. Many women (and men) who were able to physically fight back often seemed to more quickly move beyond the trauma of domestic abuse.

I find it so odd that so many critics of liberation theology get so nervous that these theologians might actually advocate violence. As if the very possibility of violence is unthinkable. I think here one really ought to applaud Bonhoeffer’s decision especially when it’s almost certain he actually thought himself in the wrong for trying to assassinate Hitler. The key for me is that he actually took complete responsibility and made a decision. Absolute pacifism just doesn’t stop to consider whether or not violence is the worst option available. There’s simply no decision to be made. This gets to the heart of Barth’s reservation. The ethical response is contingent on being attentive to the Word of God and open to the possibility that exceptions might arise when a different response might be necessary.

Finally, I still think we run into problems when we try and abstract ethical absolutes from Jesus’ teachings. While there’s much to be learned from his teachings, I always find it extremely interesting which commands are neglected. Tolstoy in The Kingdom of God is Within You makes a similar critique of conservatives who emphasize sexual purity in the Sermon on the Mount but turn a blind eye to Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence, the family, or economics. Anyway I welcome the critiques.


7 Responses to “Barth on Nonviolent Resistance”

  1. Austin Says:

    “The ethical response is contingent on being attentive to the Word of God and open to the possibility that exceptions might arise when a different response might be necessary.”

    I think that’s the key right there…

    Thanks for the engagement.

  2. david cl driedger Says:

    Do you read Yoder as an absolute pacifist? I am not sure I am aware of any theologians that would fall into your description. Here is a great opening quote from Yoder from the edited volume The Gift of Difference that I referred to at the other discussion.
    The Niebuhrian or the Sartrian has no corner on clean hands. The question is not whether one can have clean hands but which kind of complicity in which kind of inevitable evil is preferable.
    I would not read absolutism there!

  3. Jeremy Says:

    I’ve only read two of Yoder’s books. I remember watching a talk with Shane Claiborne (who has strong Yoderian leanings) and he criticizes Bonhoeffer’s attempt to assassinate Hitler because Christians never ever have an excuse to inflict violence on others. That’s the sort of absolutism I’m talking about. Not sure if it applies to Yoder as I’m certainly not a scholar of his work.

  4. dbarber Says:

    This is a really interesting question. Some uncoordinated thoughts:

    1. I’m suspicious of framing this in terms of absolutism/anti-absolutism. To relativize nonviolence is to enter more deeply into an absolutism of the Word, for instance — why make the former relative and the latter absolute?

    2. The letter/spirit dichotomy seems uncompelling as it invokes a kind of transcendence of the immaterial — note the (to my mind untenable) distinction Barth draws between an invariant “intention” and variant verbal forms. As a theory of language this seems, after Wittgenstein, Derrida, etc., impossible to hold.

    3. Not to get too overdeterminate about cultural politics,but one has to ask about an incipient anti-Judiasm and anti-Islam that would be involved when Barth tells us that its about the spirit and not the letter. This is a familiar trope of Christian arrogance.

    4. I prefer a strategy that avoids speaking of a “position” of nonviolence. It seems better, to my mind, to ask how the concept of nonviolence functions in whatever context one finds it. This means, among other things, that nonviolence can be read, in the context of Yoder, as part of strategy of delinking from the state, of refusing to affirm territorial boundaries or the expansion thereof. Which is to say that nonviolence is posed primarily as resistance to state violence, and not as obviously as resistance to subversive militancy.


  5. dbarber Says:

    (Guess I wasn’t sure about my “last” point!)

  6. Jeremy Says:

    1) I think you’re right about the framing of the debate. I think Barth’s dogmatic commitment to the Word is simply unteable. Personally it would never be my guiding thread in devising any sort of theology.

    2) Again this an astute point. I think it’s completely untenable to talk about the intention of the author after the likes of Derrida, Foucault, Barthes.

    3) It’s certainly fair to give Barth both of those labels. Given that many of his teachers were Lutherans perhaps here we catch a glimpse of the Law/Gospel distinction in a different form. Again as we’ve already discussed elsewhere the revelation/religion dichotomy is something that I find to be entirely problematic since Christ ends up winning in the and (and by proxy Christianity). Perhaps it’s just one big Lutheran hangover.

    4) Thanks for putting this back into concrete question of how. By the way wasn’t your dissertation on Yoder/Deleuze? Any chance that’s gonna be published anytime in the future?

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