Here’s my contribution to our new biweekly newsletter, Crackers and Grape Juice+. If you like what you see, consider subscribing.
Sadly, with Republican leaders forgetting the momentary bout of moral courage they mustered after the insurrection and traveling this week to Mar a Lago in order to kiss the ring of the disgraced former president— a kind of Trumpian prima nocta, it’s clear what Karl Barth intended by referring to the empirical, phenomenal history of the world as “So-Called History.” In Romans, Barth posits So-called history, the history to which the Marjorie Taylor Greens and Sean Hannitys and Matt Gaetzs of the world contribute, as the history of the world that lives under the judgment of Sin and Death. “The history of the world,” Barth writes, “is the judgement of the world.” Barth, in Romans, contrasts So-Called History with Real History. While the former is the lie with which the Enemy tempted Christ in the wilderness, the latter is the true story of the world as it has been narrated for us by the Word made flesh and vindicated by God having raised him from the dead.
Reviewers at the time noted how Barth struck a far angrier tone in the second edition of Romans than in his the initial volume. Published amidst the unprecedented violence of World War, brutality executed with cool, modern industrial efficiency, the second edition of Romans reveals Barth aghast at the moral compromises his fellow Christians had offered at at the altars of nation, race, and party. Their sinful self-justifications should be seen as tragically pathetic, Barth believed, for they were brokered in pursuit of what, at best, could only ever be considered So-Called History.
The Law, Barth writes in Romans, belongs not to So-Called History but to Real History. Even more so than accusing us for our shortcomings, killing us in our self-righteous smugness, and laying bare our need for a savior, the Law, Barth writes, points forward to that new world made real in Jesus Christ. Of course, the Law reveals how we’ve all fallen short of the glory of God but it does so precisely because it’s a harbinger of the world to come where we will actually love mercy and walk humbly with God. No, the Law cannot produce in us the power to perform what it commands; nevertheless, what the Law commands does indeed harken to a true and better world on its way. I may not be able to love my enemies, for example, and I may lie more than I intend, but this does not alter the fact that enemy-love and speaking the truth comport with the in-breaking Kingdom of God. The simul iustus et peccator that graciously marks all of our lives in So-Called History will cease when Real History is, in the fullness of time, our only history.
“Wherever there are men and women who are found who say yes to the Yes which has been spoken to them in Christ,” Barth writes in Romans, “there is now Real History.” For Barth, the primary way we say yes to the Yes spoken to us in Christ is obedience. This is why Barth modified Martin Luther’s famous dictum and insisted that the article upon which the church stands or falls is not justification but the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Because Jesus is Lord, Barth writes, any account of faith that is distinct from obedience is mere sentimentality.
Even worse, it’s religion.
That is, it’s human projection and wish fulfillment in service of bourgeois coping and comfort.
We are created for more than belief.
“Faith,” says Barth a few years later in the Gottingen Dogmatics, “cannot be merely a matter of being justified and believing. With faith there arises the need for repentance, for obedience, for the Christian life. We cannot accept God’s answer without placing ourselves under the question that is put to us. We cannot recognize God without accepting God’s authority. We cannot have knowledge in relation to God without action.”
Reading Jeff Chu’s report this week that Q-Anon Congresswoman from Georgia, Marjorie Taylor Green, is a (recently baptized) member of North Point Community Church, the megachurch in the Atlanta suburbs, I thought again of Barth’s own righteous anger in Romans. To shrug our shoulders over someone like Green and say “we’re all sinners” is the sort of religious gesture Barth railed against. “I’m not perfect; I’m forgiven” doesn’t seem to lift the luggage when you consider how Christian imagery and speech so suffused the seditious riot at the Capitol that, to those who participated in it, it was a Christian insurrection, or that this week the FBI warned about the danger Christian nationalists pose as a domestic terror threat. All fueled by the Big Lie, told most enthusiastically by evangelical Christians and the Trumpist sycophants they elect.
It’s true that God justifies the ungodly, but their gratuitous justification does not make their ungodliness good.
It’s the Gospel that’s good.
If obedience is the primary way we make Christ’s Lordship intelligible, it appears the Church is somewhat bereft of means to name the bounds of such faithfulness. For example, the first centuries of the Church were given to establishing the bounds of correct Christian belief, and for understandable reasons. The ancient Church’s discernment has bequeathed us the creeds, which provide us the contours of our confession. The ancient Church’s resultant debates have identified for us heresies, those beliefs which fall beyond our right praise of God. But the creeds reflect the time and place and uncertainties of the Church which gave them to us. Is Christ God or man? Is God One or three? From whom does the Spirit come?
Reading the newspaper in one hand and Karl Barth’s Romans in the other, I can’t help but think we could use a creed for our time and place— one that defines orthopraxy with the same degree of precision as the Nicene creed unpacks what constitutes orthodoxy. We could use a new creed that could help us, who are so preoccupied with policing beliefs, name heresies of Christian (in)action with the same sort of specificity the Donatist heresy spelled out wrong belief. What would an orthopraxis creed for our fraught place and time look like? We believe someone who perpetrates a serial lie is not an obedient subject of the Lord.
What about someone glorifies violence?
Surely everything sans belief in Christ isn’t up for grabs, left to be shaded according to one’s personal political hue. What would it look like if the same sort of consensus on praxis was demanded across Christ’s Body that was once demanded on dogma? Yes, it would take long to hammer out such consensus— it did then. And yes, it would be painful and costly— it was then. But that Christians would risk picking such a fight with each other would signal to the world that the baptized belong to a better one, to a different history.
Around the time he was working on the first draft of Romans, Barth said in an address to political activists, “Christian hope is revolutionary unrest with the present world (So Called History). We should expect more from God.”
Likewise, we should expect more of those who’ve said yes to the Yes spoken to them by God in Jesus Christ.
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