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Words at the Memorial Celebration for Karl Barth by Helmut Gollwitzer translated by Peter Krey

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Words at the Memorial Celebration for Karl Barth on December 14th 1968 in the “Münster” in Basel

by Helmut Gollwitzer

“I’m for you, I am your friend” – that’s how he summed it all up one time, that’s how he heard the voice coming out of eternity, from out of a place in time, from the human being Jesus, from out of the “ineffable reality of Jesus Christ,” as he once wrote. That’s what he heard the living Jesus saying and in him the living God, and so he passed it on, saying it to others. It gave him material to think about, as soon as he understood the opposition that the friendship of God for human beings ran against the voices of the abyss, of death, loneliness; and against the voices of wrath, of conscience, of guilt. It threw a light of great compassion and mercy into the darkest places of the earth, gave the impulse for friendship and friendliness [needed] for living in unfriendly times; and gave material for thick books, countless essays, booklets, and sermons, inexhaustibly until the last evening of his life, for this bottomless, not to be thought out Immanuel: “I’m for you, I am your friend,” whom he has now finally reached.

“Where are we going?” is the way he persistently questioned visitors in his last years, in order to receive help from them for better understanding of the hope grounded for us in Immanuel and he himself answered from what he had heard out of the gospel: in the understanding of Immanuel, who in a moment quiets and fulfills everything, quiets the burning hunger for immortality and reconciles us fully with the limit, with the finitude of this, but once happening life, and fulfills the promises that have become ours, through the revelation of the one, who indeed had thought everything out well: the cross of his Son as well as the sufferings of Job, the loneliness experienced by an old Theology professor, like the dancing of each mosquito in the sunlight. There are no Auschwitz and no Vietnam, without what was suffered through and fought out on Golgotha in advance. What are we heading for? We are headed toward the revelation of the one, who in advance has made right what could never be undone and what could never be made right again: the children’s shoes of Auschwitz and the burned skin of the children of Vietnam and skeleton of the child from Biafra – which only through God and God’s own suffering could be made right again. From this already-in-advance, he was walking with Jesus Christ toward the day of revelation, and all his teaching in the Church was a teaching of the praxis of constantly beginning again on the way of this forward looking being on the way.

“The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11). That the Eternal Truth freely determines and openly declares itself to be the friend of human beings, that it does not want to be against human beings, but be unconditionally for them, – hardly one of the Christian theologians has dared to proclaim that in such an unqualified way, the Α and Ω, the atonement of all, so that all ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ of which the other theologians felt they had to remind before all, now only appeared in brackets before this unconditional: “Jesus lives – and with him also I”, [and] this world of humanity also with him.

Looking forward fifty years ago, who would have ever dared to say, that this one who from standing against any friendly attempt of making the cross of Christ inoffensive, proclaimed eternity to be the crisis of time, as the wrathful, vertical in-breaking of the cross from above, crossing up our possibilities; would become the great preacher of unconditional and insuppressible grace? Looking back, it now no longer appears like a break: in his early expressions, we already notice the Mozart-tones of thankfulness for the resurrection’s song of praise, and only where the contradiction of the ‘no’ was experienced, the deep ‘yes’ [planted] under the ‘no’ becomes the discovery that releases awe, which for him became the life-long ground, from which his theology emerged.

To hear the Gospel as the voice of the living God, as a friend’s voice, makes [a person] into a friend of people. The word “friend,” like hardly another, characterizes him, from whom we now take our leave “for a little while” (John 16:16). Standing under the friendship of God, he was allowed to experience a great deal of friendship in his life and turned to many with friendship. “Bergli” as a true place of friendship remains bound up with his name. We Germans were privileged to have experienced the friendship of his that had sprung out of the philanthropy of God; privileged, because he worked for 14 years with us as a professor in Göttingen, Münster, and Bonn, and that in his characteristic openness and resolve, immediately made our problems his own. He certainly could not count on being thanked from all sides in the face of the broad mentality in our country at that time, but now many in our country are with us in their thoughts with great thanks, for the one from whom we have gathered to take our leave. What he tried to introduce as Swiss experience, was often enough used as evidence to rid and reject his Swiss “inability to understand.” Finally through Schub he was ushered out, and even the Confessing Church, which was unthinkable without him, did not fight enough to keep him working with us. But where have we Germans, who like so much to circle around our own problems and illuminate the whole world with them, had a place in Switzerland or anywhere else in the world, like here in this book-filled room – first in Albanring, then in Pilgrim Street, and at last in Bruderholz – a place, in which we were so welcome, in which we were listened to so carefully, where our questions and concerns were so attentively [heard and] thought about with us?

He places the word with which I began, as a very peculiar and valid summation of the Gospel, beyond the scope of that time, into the mouth of Jesus Christ, as a gospel for the Germans. At that time, in that lecture, “The Germans and Us,” in January 1945, the first one that we Germans could read, there he was and he himself came again, ready to sacrifice and do without, bringing us material and spiritual gifts, giving the best proof of his friendship. The call of Jesus Christ: “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden!” he translated at the time for us: “Get over here you unsympathetic, you evil Hitler-rogues and Hitler-girls, you brutal SS-soldiers, you evil Gestapo scoundrels, you sad compromisers and collaborators, you people of the herd, you who so long and so patiently and stupidly ran behind your so-called ‘Führer.’ Get over here you guilty and you accomplices of the guilty, who now experience and have to experience what your deeds are worth! Get over here, I know you well, but I do not ask who you are and what you did. I only see that you are at your end and for good or evil, you have to start from the beginning all over again. I will revive you. Precisely with you, will I myself again, from your zero point, with you begin a-new. I am for you. I am your friend” (“For the Recovery of German Essence,” Stuttgart, 1945, p. 35 f.).

At the time he often spoke to us about the great opportunity the Germans now had because of the fact that they had failed so completely taking an evil way and now new possibilities stood open before us. What did we make of the offer given us? How seldom countries perceive God’s offer of grace in the hour of trial! That at least the Church would recognize, perceive, and accept the offer [of grace], for that he fought. But he himself was an offer [of grace] for the Church, this valiant man, and none of us know another to match him, this thorough going and complete Christian and theologian. They are not all theologians, to use a favorite expression of his, in a night in which all the cats are gray. There are chosen instruments among them, for whom the issue is not theological systems, directions, and differences of opinion, but who represent [another] chance for the Church, that can be grasped or failed, through whom a whole period of the way of the Church becomes decided. With the Barmen Declaration, written by him completely awake, while others slept, we have a formulation of such a decision, but it has to be carried out on a daily basis. We now cry after him like the forsaken Elisha: “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” “And he saw him no more”, it says there (2 Kings 2:12). We would have had more need of his counsel, his reproof, his criticism, his instruction, his encouragement, his heart-felt nature. He, however, our friend, thank God! with his Christomonist, Christological theology, in advance, had already pointed away from himself to the Resurrected One, who goes forward from victory to victory through the dark places of also this century and says to us: “I’m for you, I am your friend.”

(A Separate Printing from “Karl Barth, 1886-1968”, Zürich: EVZ-Verlag)

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Written by peterkrey

November 17, 2009 at 9:06 am

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