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Barth and the primacy of the family

Thanks to Melissa for sending this gem from Karl Barth my way:

If along the third main line of the texts in question we have to do with the overcoming, proclaimed with the incursion of the kingdom of God, of the false separation between man and man revealed in the friend-foe relationship and concretely expressing itself in the exercise of force, along a fourth line we have, conversely, the dissolution of self-evident attachments between man and man. It is a matter of what in popular usage, although not in that of the Bible, is usually described as the family. The relationships between husband and wife, parents and children, brothers and sisters, etc., are not questioned as such. Man would not be man if he did not stand in these relationships. What is questioned is the impulsive intensity with which he allows himself to be enfolded by, and thinks that he himself should enfold, those who stand to him in these relationships. What is questioned is his self-sufficiency in the warmth of these relationships, the resolving of their problems and the sphere of their joys and sorrows. What is questioned is his imprisonment in them, in which he is no less a captive than in other respects he may be to possessions or fame. The message of liberation comes to him in this captivity to the clan. Thus the excuse of the invited guest: ” I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come ” (Lk. 14:20), is seen to be on exactly the same level as those of others who had bought land or oxen which claimed their prior interest. And in the same connection Jesus gives the remarkable reply to the man who was ready to be a disciple but first wanted to bury his father: ” Let the dead bury their dead but go thou and preach the kingdom of God ” (Lk. 9:59f.). To the same series belong all the provocative sayings of Jesus about the leaving (apheinai), dividing (dichazein), disuniting (diamerizein) and even hating (misein) which are involved in the discipleship of Jesus – not destroying the relationships as such, but certainly dissolving the connections which continually arise and obtain in them. According to Mk, 10:29 we have not only to leave house and lands but even brother or sister, mother or father or children (the ” or ” shows us that we are dealing with individual cases), for His sake and for the sake of the Gospel. Jesus also warns us against the view that He has come to bring peace on earth (Mt. 10:34f.). He has not come to bring peace, but a sword. And if a man loves father or mother, son or daughter, more than Him, he is not worthy of Him. Or, according to the parallel passage in Lk. 12:52 : ” For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three.” The strangest possible expression is used in Lk. 14:26 : ” If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” Hate ? It is not the persons that are to be hated, for why should they be excluded from the command to love our neighbors ? It is the hold which these persons have and by which they themselves are also gripped. It is the concentration of neighborly love on these persons, which really means its denial. It is the indolent peace of a clannish warmth in relation to these persons, with its necessary implication of cold war against all others. The coming of the kingdom of God means an end of the absolute of family no less than that of possession and fame. Again, there is no general rule. No new law has been set up in competition with that of the world, which points so powerfully in the opposite direction. But there is proclaimed the freedom of the disciple from the general law as it is given to him, and has to be exercised by him, in a particular situation (by the particular direction which he receives). There can be no doubt that in its fear of the bogy of monasticism Protestantism has very radically ignored this proclamation of Jesus Christ, as also that of other freedoms. To a very large extent it has acted as though Jesus had done the very opposite and proclaimed this attachment – the absolute of family. Can we really imagine a single one of the prophets or apostles in the role of the happy father, or grandfather, or even uncle, as it has found self-evident sanctification in the famous Evangelical parsonage or manse ? They may well have occupied this role. But in the function in which they are seen by us they stand outside these connections. In this respect, too, no one is asked to undertake arbitrary adventures. But again, no one who really regards himself as called by Jesus to discipleship can evade the question whether he might not be asked for inner and outer obedience along these lines. The life of the new creature is something rather different from a healthy and worthy continuation of the old. When the order is given to express this, we must not refuse it an obedience which is no less concrete than the command.

~ Karl Barth, CD IV/2 549-550



  1. Evan wrote:

    I’ve never really understood these sorts of strong words against “the primacy of the family”. I can see the legitimate critique of certain rather saccharine theories of kinship… as far as that goes the critique is of course helpful. But I just don’t see how the portrait painted here is really reflected in life experiences. Family, I take it, is a pretty radically de-centering situation.

    I mean, does anyone who has a spouse or children really feel like the family situation very often expresses itself as an “indolent peace of a clannish warmth”? This just seems bizarre to me, and I doubt it describes most families, even today’s quiverfulls or the families of various retroactively constructed golden ages. My four-month old son wakes up every two hours at night. We spent 20 minutes wrestling a coat and a pair of galoshes on my… er… strong-spirited daughter just so we could get out of the apartment this morning. Family life is a wonderful gift from God, but I don’t understand where this idea of it being indolently peaceful comes from.

    The family man of the parable of the great banquet forfeits a banquet hosted by a human, presumably of some means and power. If we are to read him as a literal family man, as Barth does, should we also read the banquet host as a literal man of means? Is the point to loosen our grip on family in order to tighten our grip on principalities and powers? Surely not. So why would Luke 14:20 speak to the primacy of the family within human relations as a problem? Jesus, presumably, is the true banquet host. In which case I’m pretty confident that my wife and kids would be invited to the banquet along with me (unlike various school or work related events, where we have to make an actual choice between family and other social engagements).

    The family man of Luke 9:59 is similar. When the Lord of Glory comes in the flesh and asks me to follow him, family ties surely shouldn’t delay me. But until that day (and that day will come), I can’t ignore Matt. 25:40 and presume that my father imposes any less of a call on me than others outside of my family. The dead burying their own dead in that passage refer to the dead of spirit. Jesus doesn’t have any problems with tending to the burial of the cadavers of our loved ones. In the case of Lazarus he actually delayed his work of resurrection so that a family could go through these motions.

    Wednesday, April 6, 2011 at 12:22 pm | Permalink
  2. Sarah Jane wrote:

    Some time ago, my husband and I were discussing schooling options for our [as yet hypothetical] children, and we mentioned to my dad that our first choice would ALWAYS be public schools. We both have firsthand experience in public schools, and we certainly have no illusions about the safety, ease, or effectiveness of public education. What we do have is a strong sense that if the wealthy and well-educated members of a community pull their children (and therefore their emotional and financial investments) out of public schools, then the rest of the community suffers greatly. Whatever resources we might have put into private schooling could just as easily be funneled into programming, materials, etc. for a public school — and would benefit not only our own children, but also the children of our neighbors who many not have those resources to spend.

    My dad, upon hearing this, absolutely flew off the handle. He couldn’t BELIEVE that we would knowingly send our children to anything less than the best school we could possibly afford for them. He suggested that we would be terrible and irresponsible parents if we did not place the interests of our own children above all else, including the well-being of other children in our community.

    THAT is what I think Barth is warning against — the “clannishness” that suggests our only obligation is to protect our own, and that everyone else can go to hell.

    Wednesday, April 6, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Permalink
  3. Evan wrote:

    I appreciate this extension of one’s sense of “family” beyond the biological family, but I’m not sure that’s what Barth is talking about. The section that the quote is pulled from is a discussion of Jesus’ call of discipleship, so I think that it’s reasonable to assume that the call of Christ v. the call of family is really the choice that’s being set before us. The choice to invest in one’s public school system is certainly a virtuous one to make, but it strikes me as a matter of citizenship more so than discipleship. Any good Democrat (present presidents excepted!) can prioritize a public school system. I’m not sure what Jesus has to do with that, though. Which is, again, why I question Barth’s use of the banquet parable. Is the heart of the issue really about prioritizing family over other social structures? Or is it about the priority of the call of Christ (in this sense, the would-be disciple who insists on burying his father is more to the point, although I think I stand by my previous hand-wringing concerning its over-literal interpretation).

    I’d also add another thought on public schools and the specter of “clannishness”. I grew up in the public school system until going to college (where I’ve been to two private schools), but it wasn’t just any public school system. The Arlington public school system in Virginia is comparable to fancy private schools elsewhere– we weren’t lacking at all for being public school kids. Or rather, North Arlington had a stellar school system. South Arlington, though not as problematic as elsewhere in our country, had many of the financial and safety issues that you mention concerning public school systems, at least in comparison to our schools. The county is pretty substantially segregated along lines of ethnicity and affluence, so that taking part in our public school system on the northern side didn’t necessarily mean that those on the southern side benefited much from our community ethic. Extended a bit further, public schools in Washington DC just five or ten miles away were in an even worse situation. As were schools a few hundred miles away in Virginia’s rural Appalachian regions.

    This isn’t to dismiss public schooling or other community efforts as genuine work towards the rejection of “clannishness”, but simply to emphasize that social clans preventing us from a universal embrace of fellow humanity are not unique to the nuclear family, nor do they stop at the nuclear family. Indeed, even those social theories that prioritize the family unit do so not to present a dichotomy between family and non-family, but to present the family as a basic unit of wider social circles such as the polis or the state. We should be careful, then, to insist that any critique of the clannishness of the family won’t simply diagnose a problem of family (with a solution of extra-familial sociality as such), but rather a broader problem of clannishness as such (so, Barth’s critique of the European tribal gods must go hand in hand with his critique of the family here if his thoughts on the family are going to be meaningful).

    Wednesday, April 6, 2011 at 6:57 pm | Permalink
  4. Evan wrote:

    It strikes me that talk of being unequally yoked in 2 Cor 6:14 (which Halden discussed back in January) might also be relevant here. Relevant, that is, to the matter of the call of the family as it conflicts with the call of Jesus. A major reason for the Pauline injunction against unequal yoking was probably to avoid a situation where the call of Jesus would take one away from husband, wife, parent, or child.

    To read Christ as really, literally, wanting to split up families strikes me as a bit of a stretch except in certain exceptional cases (which prove the contrary rule). In the days of the calling of the first disciples as related in the Gospels the problem may have been more prominent, simply because the families of the disciples pre-existed Jesus’ ministry and there was no guarantee that whole families would submit to His call together. But within the context of the church community, it makes sense that instructions concerning unequal yoking have been put in place… precisely because the lived faith of the community should be such that the call of discipleship does not tear apart the community already existing, which in fact was formed as a result of the original call of Jesus. The community should be one of disciples who can answer Jesus’ call in unity and without tearing apart families. For later converts into this community, 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 seems more relevant (and may serve to nuance Jesus’ own rather abrupt call simply to leave husband or wife? Worth thinking about).

    Wednesday, April 6, 2011 at 7:17 pm | Permalink
  5. Pat wrote:

    I can’t help but wonder if Barth asked Charlotte von K. to proofread this passage… It seems more exculpatory, and less prophetic – unfortunately.

    Wednesday, April 6, 2011 at 8:13 pm | Permalink
  6. Tim McGee wrote:

    I think it is important to catch Barth’s repetitious use of “clan” terminology and to read Barth as responding to the bio-politics that operated in Nazi Germany. The production of a proper family unit is part of the (re)production of the racial people: not just biological purity but also educational. Barth is bringing the lordship of Christ down to the levels where power structures our intimate relations (who can I love, who can I marry, what social values will our children embody). “The family” unit becomes an idol that operates in connection to clannish/volkish ideology: the idealized happiness is part of a mythology that justifies this political production of the racial state. Everyone knows that the reality does not measure up to this “familial warmth;” the important political point is that this ideal justifies a kind of internalized policing of our intimacy (the “responsibility” to produce the kind of family unit capable of aspiring to and representing such social ideals).

    I share Pat’s sentiment but don’t want us to miss how Barth is already theologically disrupting something that Foucault will theorize a few decades later, the way state power operates in the spheres of intimacy and at the level of the body to manage the population and ensure the development of the community’s life.

    Thursday, April 7, 2011 at 7:20 am | Permalink
  7. Evan wrote:

    To the extent that this is the case, would you say that Barth’s critique here is inapplicable to certain current views such as the supposed “idolatry of marriage and family” that Halden brought up recently?

    As I see it, the “family values” types are doing something quite different than the Nazi biopolitics you mention here… in fact they’re doing exactly the opposite. As I brought up above, there is more of an Aristotelian sense of the family as the basic social unit that informs all others: the polis, the state, the Church, etc. The larger social unit is being determined by the more basic one. In a totalitarian situation things are determined in the other direction. Certain mythologies of the family are imposed upon families in order to further state ideology.

    That’s not to say that one can’t critique an Aristotelian or “family values” conservatism of the family. It is to say, however, that the critique of this sort of conception of the family should (in my mind) be distinguished from the critique of Nazi or other power structures, and that a critique of the powers such as the one you identify here doesn’t really succeed in addressing family-values conservatism (or whatever you want to call it).

    Now, I’ll qualify by saying that I read Halden’s present post in light of recent ones he’s done on the family, and that’s largely the stance from which I read Barth as missing the mark. Halden may have had no intention of addressing the same sort of “primacy of the family” that he did in previous posts, though. As he hasn’t elaborated at all on what exactly he finds relevant about the Barth quote, I wouldn’t want to presume too much.

    Thursday, April 7, 2011 at 9:47 pm | Permalink
  8. Tim McGee wrote:

    What Foucault draws out is that totalitarian state power does not originate from a center that then distributes power downward towards more basic social categories. The production of these seemingly “basic” or “fundamental” social realities (relation to my body, the family unit, the clan, the racial people) are themselves products of this social power. So, the very idea that the larger nation state, totalitarian or otherwise, reflects or naturally grows out of the original more primary social unit (the family, the Volk) is part of a mythology that justifies the kinds of social policies that the Nazi state brought to dramatic completion. If the state is supposed to grow out of or reflect the proper family unit, then the (re)production of the familial unit is precisely at issue in a state that functions to produce and preserve bios, life. “Family values conservatism” is precisely another reiteration of this bio-power; the concern is the health of the social body–the ecclesial/national body–and this concern plays out through an education of desires (both policing sexual desires and trying to educate, or form, the proper subject of these desires). Focus on the family–because the life of the people (the nation, the church) is at stake, and, more generally, the security of all human life depends on the life of this people.

    Friday, April 8, 2011 at 5:46 am | Permalink
  9. Tim McGee wrote:

    sorry for not replying here–please read my reply below.

    Friday, April 8, 2011 at 5:47 am | Permalink
  10. Evan wrote:

    I was actually going to add a bit at the end of my last comment to the effect that “clannishness from above” and “clannishness from below” may be a distinction without a difference. I’m certainly willing to go a long way with Foucault on the inherent connection, although I’d want to hear more about where the Foucauldian point is made explicit in this passage ahead of time. There will also being varying assessments of what constitutes a proper priority of the family. Barth is willing to say, “Man would not be man if he did not stand in these relationships.” There’s a lot to flesh out there, and I think everything from family-values conservative to more radical critique of family relations has at least an initial conceivability as an explanation. I don’t see where this critique (Barth’s that is) successfully hits the mark Halden is presumably trying to aim for.

    Friday, April 8, 2011 at 6:07 am | Permalink
  11. Tim McGee wrote:

    Barth undercuts the “naturalness” of even the most “natural” relations, the family. As Christ’s lordship now mediates–stands between–familial ties, the reproductive logic that binds family, race (people), and nation is interrupted at a very basic level. The logic of the nation as a logic of the (re)production of the people is here clarified and redirected through an analysis of Christ’s lordship interrupting the most “natural” of human relations (intimacy, sexual desire, family life).

    Barth is careful to qualify that he is not speaking of an abolition of the family (which would then be another human manipulation of the “proper” social order) but of Christ’s lordship claiming power over any and all potential familial relationships. There are no “natural” relations to which Christ must defer in Christ’s lordship; and hence, any political or social program based on the inherent dignity, propriety, or power of a “natural” family unit is shown as idolatry: it places something prior to and hence over Christ’s reign.

    I think one can enter into this moment in Barth and provide a kind of queer theological reading of Barth. It certainly would not be “Barthian” in the usual sense (I’m not from Princeton, so I don’t care), but it would certainly draw on some of Barth’s deepest insights.

    Friday, April 8, 2011 at 8:07 am | Permalink
  12. Evan wrote:

    Right… I take it that this is an important reading of Barth. Rick Elgendy here at Chicago is working precisely on this Barth-Foucault connection.

    Again, though (and perhaps I’m expressing this awkwardly) it’s one thing to offer a theoretical critique of the naturalness of the family and quite another to agree on where exactly this touches ground in actual family relations, or what theories of the family are rightly identified as “natural” and what are not. Sarah Jane suggests that Barth’s point speaks to private schools (maybe home schools too?). You suggest that he is responding to Nazi family planning. These are the only really concrete family structures that have been brought up as potential targets of Barth’s critique. But if we queer Barth, is Barth’s own affirmation that “Man would not be man if he did not stand in these relationships” implicated in the same way that Mohler was by Halden a little while ago?

    All I’m saying is that it’s extremely unclear who exactly is being implicated in this critique. “The primacy of the family” doesn’t really mean much to me when it’s just thrown out there in a blog title and tied to Barth’s winding references to various Gospel parables. It’s not at all obvious what all this speaks to.

    Friday, April 8, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink
  13. Tim McGee wrote:

    Obviously this would need to be developed in different contexts, and Barth is careful to prevent any construction of a “knowledge of good and evil” that circumvents discipleship (we wait for when/if “the order is given”: it’s ethics situated in the context of obedience not the knowledge of the good). I don’t want to go down the long discussion of Barthian ethics (I find Bonhoeffer’s Ethics helpful). But to put it “on the ground” in one potential context: instead of speaking about the strategic role of the nuclear family in God’s mission (language my own church used in their bylaws despite my adamant protests), one can speak of God’s creative potential to use all our broken families to reveal God’s glory. You can preach out of this: instead of telling people how their families “ought to be,” you can ask tell them that Christ enters into all our families, not to create the ideal family, but to allow our broken families and busted lives to become moments where God’s love and grace are evident to all. Jesus breaks up our families, all families, even the most “natural” families and centers all of them, any of them, even the most broken of them, around his redeeming love.

    Friday, April 8, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

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