“By the very nature of the Christian Church there is only one task, to make the Confession heard in the sphere of the world as well….There must be translation, for example, into the language of the newspaper. What we have to do is to say in the common language of the world the same thing we say in the forms of Church language.” — Karl Barth
What is the relationship between the Gospel and ‘social justice’? I’ve been wrestling again with the question over the past week, as I prepare for a set of lectures out at Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute
in two weeks. Evangelicals are anxious about the category, yet have done little (by my lights) to offer a countervailing understanding of justice that would respond to a wide range of contemporary attitudes and questions. I am only going to be able to sketch an account, and I have little doubt it will be wildly imperfect; but, well, fools rush in and all that. (Prayers, please.)
I have, naturally, been thinking about Karl Barth in relation to the question. While Barth is most notorious for resisting both natural theology and any sort of ‘apologetics’ on behalf of Christianity, in the quote above he issues a strong affirmation of the need to translate the grammar of Christian faith into the idioms and discourses of the world around us. In a line that mimics Lewis’ suggestion that anyone who cannot teach a doctrine to nine-year-olds does not understand it, Barth proposes that anyone who cannot speak ‘unedifyingly’ to the world should consider “whether he really knows how to speak edifyingly even in the Church.”
Barth’s censure on the failure of the Evangelical churches of his day to translate is sweeping, and damning: it allowed the Nazi’s to triumph. The “faith and confession of the German Church” in 1933 “remained embedded in the language of the church, and did not translate what was being excellently said in the language of the Church into the political attitude demanded at the time.” Doing so would have made it clear that the “evangelical Church had to say ‘No’ to National Socialism, ‘No’ from its very roots.” (This is a deeply un-Hauerwasian note in Barth’s thought, for those keeping score at home.)
In other words, the Church has a responsibility to address the world with the truth of God’s grace about the world’s particular, specific problems—and to do so in language which the world can recognize. This is not quite apologetics, mind you: it is instead a recognition that the fixing of the frontiers between the Church and the world is a distraction from its task, which is to ignore the putative boundaries the state would put upon it (or which would be self-imposed) and instead address the social and political questions at hand. The effort to carefully or clearly delineate the lines and boundaries of the church’s task has its place. But it can also serve to defer or delay the church from taking responsibility for the world around it—and worse, cause the church to fail to speak effectively against horrendous evils.
This task, though, is also retrospective. Barth gives this lecture shortly after the second World War concludes, and suggests that the failure to reflect upon the origins of the events would be a gross failure. A church that “prepared to keep silence” about the “question of guilt with regard to the events from which we have issued, which was unwilling to listen to this question which must be answered honestly for the sake of the future, would a priori condemn itself to unfruitfulness.” The Church’s responsibility is not only to give Christian instruction directly—to proclaim the Gospel with doctrinal purity, we might say—but to make this “Christian instruction known in words which grapple with the problems of the day”. To avoid this and remain comfortable in the “snail’s shell” of faith is to fail, even, to “have come to believe!” “If our faith is real, it must encroach upon our life”—including, dare we say it, our political, economic, and social life.
One is tempted to say from this that for Barth the Gospel demands an active pursuit of 'social justice,’ even one that uses the 'unedifying’ language of the newspapers to make clear what God requires of the world. Beneath this idea is the reality that the Church which has heard and responded to the Gospel exists not only as the redeemed community, but as the community of people who are for the world—who live and die for the sake of the world, as our Savior did.
But which 'social justice’? That is, dare I say, a separate and critically important question.