If I were to do it all over, I would have begun again at the beginning. While the Karl Barth Pastor’s Conference was great, I should have attended the full week of dialogue, paper presentations, and interactions with some of the more gifted theological minds our Protestant Christian tradition has to offer. (Also, I would have received this bag as a gift versus lucky leftover.) Instead, I settled for live feeds of the likes of Moltmann and Migliore and headed to Princeton Theological Seminary for the tail-end of what some referred to as “Barth Camp for Pastors."
Still, I was not disappointed.
I was also right where I needed to be.
As the tragic events of Mother Emmanuel AME continued to occupy the hearts, minds, and prayers of attendees, we were reminded by Dr. Willie Jennings that Barth’s work must refuse to remain as mere rhetoric for disengaged and irrelevant theologians. Instead, pastors and preachers must engage Church Dogmatics as means to resist the racial disorder of the world. Jennings remarked, “Christian faith should create an alternative vision to current racial divisions…The issue is not do you hope but it is from where do you hope and who do you join in hope.”
While society likes to tout progress, frequently synonymous to the innovation in technology, increase in productivity, and advancements in mechanisms for national defense, we are actually underdeveloped in our racial relations. Hatred is perpetuated by historical and cultural symbols; powers intended to protect often prioritize the privileged through profiling and prejudice; sameness remains the preferred method for gatherings in social, political, and religious arenas; solidarity is often offered from a safe distance. Dr. Jennings challenged this cultural cowardice, “We cannot hope within a community of homogeneity. We need to hope within communities of despair….The problem- we believe we are coherent in communities of homogeneity.”
These prophetic challenges, delivered to a gathering of preachers and teachers of the Christian faith, are rooted in the contributions of Karl Barth who dared us to link arms with both near and distant neighbors (Church Dogmatics III.4). The Swiss theologian, who more often than not took on the role as advocate and activist in the midst of Nazi Germany, refuted national and racial idolatry that frequently breeds oppression and injustice.
“In this respect, too, [the Christian] cannot return to the prison and stronghold of his own national [or racial] limitation. As he holds his near neighbours with the one hand, he reaches out to the distant with the other. And so the concept of his own people is extended and opened out in this respect too. It is true that he belongs wholly and utterly to his own people. But it is equally true that the horizon by which it exists as his people is humanity. It is equally true that he himself belongs wholly and utterly to humanity” (Church Dogmatics III.4, 298).
There was so much wisdom gleaned from those who gathered at Princeton to reflect on Karl Barth’s contributions to Christian theology. I will save such musings for another time and place. For now, both Barth and Jennings remind us we must return over and again to the beginning question Jesus posed to his earliest disciples: who is my neighbor?
More frequently than not, we will discover our neighbor is revealed in persons and communities of diversity and difference with whom we are called to join hands in hope amidst great despair.
I pray this call would claim more space in religious, political, and casual rhetoric as we wrestle with the ongoing reality of racial divisions further exposed in the recent events in our nation and Christian churches. After all, we belong wholly to one another and all of humanity.
**Grateful for time spent with Rev. Dr. Will Willimon at #KBPC2015**