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Karl Barth visits three prisons

(This isn’t a short story.)

From 1958 to 1964, the great theologian visited Basel Prison in Switzerland and preached to the inmates almost 30 times. When Barth visited the United States in 1962, he appeared on the cover of Time, but he also went to three prisons as a visitor. In a really fascinating essay in Karl Barth and the Making of Evangelical Theology (Eerdmans, 2015), Jessica DeCou describes Barth’s journey and explores its deep implications for human solidarity.

In Chicago, Karl Barth visited the Second City comedy troupe; the Museum of Science and Industry; his son, Markus; Billy Graham and other religious leaders; and what was then the tallest building in Chicago: One Prudential Plaza. As elsewhere, Barth delivered lectures.

He also visited the Bridewell, which housed many who could not pay fines or bail and was “less a jail than a poorhouse for men, women, and even children who did not have the resources to obtain legal counsel,” DeCou writes. The jail was a stone fortress. One inmate said that it was “a nightmarish, filth-ridden hell-hole.” Barth described it as “Dante’s inferno on Earth.”

A week later, speaking in Washington, D.C., Barth used his experience at the Bridewell to respond to a charge by Reinhold Niebuhr. In 1957, Niebuhr had criticized Barth’s “silence” after the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Niebuhr did not accuse Barth of Communism. Instead, he alleged that Barth’s theology had been “too ‘eschatological’ and too transcendent to offer any guidance for the discriminating choices that political responsibility challenges us to.”

Barth’s insistence on “looking at every event afresh in the light of the Word of God” meant that the Swiss theologian disdained any inexact historical analogy that would let him make sense of the messiness of world events.[1]

Niebuhr had claimed that Barth spoke from a uselessly high “altitude.” Barth responded from cold reality, asking, “Why is Reinhold Niebuhr silent about American prisons?” Idolatry was possible on both sides of the Atlantic.

Barth then went to the Lincoln Memorial, met government officials, and proceeded to Gettysburg and other Civil War battlefields. He shot a musket at a Virginia fort and hit a handkerchief at 100 feet “to the honor of the Swiss army,” as he put it.

Barth was a keen student of the Civil War. He later wanted to write about Gettysburg but did not want to praise Confederate valor in a time of racial injustice. Barth had noticed the inequality of Chicago’s South Side and likely also noticed that the Bridewell’s inmates were 70 percent African-American.

Barth then flew to San Francisco. He visited San Quentin State Prison. This was no Bridewell. It was sanitary. There were educational programs, a drama group, and a jazz band composed of musicians who’d been convicted of drug charges.

There was also a gas chamber. Another great theologian would visit San Quentin seven years later and see that it wasn’t a calm and settled place at all. In 1969, at a live concert there, Johnny Cash sang:

San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell.
May your walls fall and may I live to tell.
May all the world forget you ever stood.
And may all the world regret you did no good.

San Quentin, you’ve been livin’ hell to me.

The prisoners cheered. Cash performed the song two times in a row.

We don’t exactly know what Barth thought of San Quentin. DeCou notes that Barth may have noticed the gas chamber. He did not believe in retributive punishment; for him, the death penalty had to be a Grenzfall, an extreme case. DeCou also notes that prison chaplains were not meant to criticize the system and says the chaplains were even seen as informants. Barth would have recognized this as an infringement on the “unconditional solidarity” that the pastor should have with the criminal.

Barth went to the Grand Canyon, then headed back East to New York City, where he saw The Night of the Iguana, took a tour of East Harlem with William Stringfellow, visited the United Nations, and took the Staten Island Ferry.

But, following his established pattern, he also visited Rikers Island. Barth noticed that in the regular cellblocks, a prisoner “can at least see the sky and heavens.” He visited a public high school for incarcerated youths. He saw cottages in which adolescent inmates could move freely and even form “close-knit communities.”

“This is a good idea,” Barth said. When Barth and the commissioner of corrections took the ferry back to Manhattan, he had many “questions and theories about prison rehabilitation.”

DeCou notes that for Barth, what was important was that, even if the prisoners had violated human law, the Church must be conscious of itself as a community entirely made up of convicted sinners who were only saved by the grace of God. Thus, the Church must be able to extend solidarity to all, not seeing a person “as a good citizen or a convict, as the representative of a conviction or party that they find agreeable or painful, as a Christian or a non-Christian” (Church Dogmatics IV/4, 269).

In a 1957 sermon at Basel Prison, focused on Luke 23:33, Barth had pronounced, “The two criminals were the first certain Christian community.”

This has nothing to do with what the criminals had done.

We do not know their names. We know nothing about their lives, of their misdoings and crimes. We do not know whether they could plead attenuating circumstances, or whether their guilt was even greater than we may think.

One acknowledged Christ; one even cruelly mocked him. But what is important is “the promise given so clearly, so urgently to both of them, indeed without distinction.”

We should not protest that we are not like criminals. In a certain way we must be. Barth says about Christ’s promise, offered to all, “Those receive the promise who regard themselves as neither so exalted nor so debased that they cannot ‘get in line behind’ the two criminals who were first on Golgotha.”

Thus, Barth counsels solidarity with those in Bridewell, San Quentin, Rikers — or the Basel Prison.

The question that Barth’s trip and DeCou’s fascinating essay about it raise is whether it has become much easier in America to go to the highest building in Chicago (now the Willis Tower) and the Grand Canyon and a Tennessee Williams play without even thinking about prisons at all.

Neil Dhingra, a Roman Catholic layman, is a doctoral student in education at the University of Maryland. His other posts are here

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, “Why is Barth Silent on Hungary?” (1957). Essays in Applied Christianity. Ed. D.B. Robertson. New York: Meridian, 1959, 183-190: 184, 186.


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