Spirit Quest on prayer and action

Spirit Quest

Prayer is the first step in acting for a better world

By The Rev. Dr. Hanns F. Skoutajan
True North Perspective

  Image: Detail of photo of Karl Barth
  Image: Detail of photo of Karl Barth, photographed by Hans Lachmann in 1956, via Wikipedia.
“To clasp one’s hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorders of the world.” So wrote the late Karl Barth, the eminent Swiss Reformed theologian. Time magazine placed his picture on the cover of their weekly news magazine on April 20, 1962 and referred to him as the most important theologian of the 20th century.

Barth was born in Switzerland in 1886 and died there in 1968. He taught theology in several German universities including Muenster where I did postgraduate studies, albeit long after his time. His magnum opus: Church Dogmatics (13 large volumes) was required reading for any theological student in Germany.

But Barth was no mere academic he was also deeply involved in the political situation of his time. He is said to have insisted that the preacher mount the pulpit with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. He is well known to have called upon prewar German Christians to give allegiance to God rather than the state, which of course annoyed Hitler and his followers and made him a marked man. He was deeply involved in the formation of the Confessing Church along with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a movement that stood against the fascist ideology of the time.

In 1935 Barth left Germany for his native Switzerland. Many theological students from around the world both before and after the war came to him to sit at his feet. He was quite open to students, indeed, a friend of mine, a great admirer of Barth, visited him in Basel. Quite unannounced he found his home, knocked on the door and spent a goodly hour with him discussing theology. After the war he also lectured in American universities.

Image: Detail of bookshelf in Karl Barth's office in Basil, Switzerland.
Image: Detail of bookshelf in Karl Barth's office in Basil, Switzerland. Image via Wikipedia.
While professor in Basel he was a frequent preacher in the prison chapel in that city. His collected sermons were called Liberty to the Captives. To read them helps one to understand his theology from a very practical point of view.

“The Disorders of the Time” were well known to him. Prayer, however, was no mere pleading with God to change the world but a call  to those who dare to clasp their hands in ritual to involve themselves in the uprising as Barth had dared to do in prewar Germany.

These disorders are of course still visible in every part of the globe, on every continent . To pray, therefore, means to be involved in the struggle against what the Apostle Paul called “the principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness.” Ephesians 6:12

In a letter published in the Guardian UK (April 10, 2014) Bishop Desmond Tutu calls upon Christians and others to stand against those who would despoil the environment for profit. He begins his letter, “Twenty five years ago people could be excused for not knowing much, or doing much about climate change. Today we have no excuse. No more can it be excused as science fiction, we are already feeling its effects.” He continues, “Throughout my life I have believed that the only just response to injustice is what Mahatma Gandhi  termed ‘passive resistance.’”

The hands clasped in prayer are to be employed in an uprising that is non violent but nevertheless powerful as it was in India in the later 40s, and in the struggle against Apartheid in the 90s.

To dare to clasp ones hands in prayer, therefore, means to stand in solidarity with the poor, the disenfranchised, the least of these, the exploited of the world. In our own country it certainly means to stand with the aboriginals, the first people of this land.

When the preacher on Sunday announces “Let us pray” what is demanded are no mere pleas for God to intercede on our behalf but to seek to understand what is God’s will and to become involved  in the struggle against the disorders of our time.