On the 80th anniversary of its signing, Dale Coulter looks back at the Barmen Declaration, a statement largely written by the theologian Karl Barth “on behalf of the German Evangelical Church, a federal union of Lutheran, Reformed, and United churches” that proffered a “resounding ‘no’ to the political agenda of the Third Reich.” One of its insights? Everybody worships something:
To frame everything in terms of acts of worship, as [the Barmen Declaration] does, places the situation squarely in terms of competing claims to lordship. As social animals, humans enter into a web of relations that make claims on their lives. In Augustinian terms, humans are made to love and whatever they do love functions authoritatively in their lives. Humans break the grip of one authority by finding another love, which is how conversions occur. Simply put, there is no neutral ground from which humans form moral and political judgments because such decisions embody an embrace of this authority or that authority. Since there is no freedom from authority, the question becomes what authority offers a genuine freedom—a freedom to live in the truth.Read the entire Barmen Declaration here.
In its structure, the Barmen Declaration proclaims that genuine freedom is found in the message of grace from Jesus Christ who is the Lord of the church. This message flows through Barmen’s movement between affirmations of the Lordship of Christ and denunciations of other claims to lordship. There can be only one Lord of life, one true lover of soul and society. The state oversteps its boundaries and encroaches upon human dignity when it seeks to extend its authority into all areas of human life in the same way that the church ceases to be true to its own commission when it becomes an organ of the state. In its own way, the Declaration argues for religious freedom as not simply entailing private acts of worship, but also the guarantee of a public space for the institutional expression of religious commitment. To guarantee religious freedom is to acknowledge the limitations of the authority of the state to define the lives of its citizens. Part of the proclamation of the gospel is that the state cannot be Lord of life without turning into the beast.