Aug 13, 2013

Karl Barth the Civil War buff

Karl Barth spent seven weeks in the US on a coast-to-coast tour in 1962. He was 75 at the time, recently retired and widely renowned.

He met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the trip. He publicly criticized the treatment of African Americans and made controversial statements about American prisons. He recoiled at the corporate sponsorship of TV programs. He got his picture on the cover of Time Magazine and saw two Edward Albee plays. He said the Statue of Liberty should inspire a theology of freedom, but that "That Lady needs certainly a little (or perhaps even a good bit) of demythologization!"

He lectured to crowded halls and received honorary doctorates and debated with other theologians.

And, also, he went down to the James River in Virginia and shot a Confederate Civil War rifle.


According to the Karl Barth Archive, this photo was taken near the river in May 1962. The gun was probably an 1853 Enfield, the smooth-bore musket that fired a .58 caliber slug, and was widely used by the rebel army.

It's an odd episode in the life of one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, and one that apparently even surprised those accompanying Barth on his American tour. Time Magazine reported that, "Oddly enough, Barth is as interested in seeing battlefields as debating with his fellow theologians .... he has insisted that his travels include a stop at Gettysburg." He not only visited Civil War battlefields during his trip, he was something of an expert on the conflict, and gave his hosts detailed accounts of the war, mentioning that, if he weren't a theologian, he would have liked to have been a historian.

Barth's son Markus, a professor at the University of Chicago who arranged the trip for his father, recalled that Barth was shooting at a coke bottle.

The younger Barth wrote: "He was not satisfied with visiting one after another of the Civil War battle fields and to astonish his guides by his acquaintance with the details of the battles; he also fired twice a confederate rifle, and his second shot did not miss the mark."

Little has been written about Barth's trip across America. Theologian Jessica DeCou is currently working on a book on the trip. She is raising funds for research on Kickstarter, where she writes that:
Barth arrived at a tumultuous moment in American history and found himself embroiled in some of the nation's fiercest conflicts: touring prisons and inner city neighborhoods and meeting with communist groups, State and Defense Department staff, civil rights activists, business leaders, and White House officials -- just to name a few ..... While Barth was a frequent critic of American culture and politics, his arrival was met with a degree of media fanfare unimaginable for a theologian today.
Time Magazine also noted the theologian's ambivalence about America. The US was a county, the newsweekly reported, "whose history he loves and whose way of life he professes to scorn."

Barth died six years later.