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1984: Orwell and Barmen

by Robert McAfee Brown

Robert McAfee Brown, whose name is symbolic for engaged theologian and ethicist, is perhaps best known for being able to write clearly, for example, in Theology in a New Key: Responding to Liberation Theology and Saying Yes and Saying No: On Rendering to God and Caesar. His article is adapted from a Christian Century lecture delivered in Seattle in April, 1984. This article appeared in the Christian Century August 15-22, 1984, p.  770. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


When George Orwell published a novel about totalitarianism in 1948, he arrived at its title by simply reversing the last two digits of that year, so that the date became 1984. Ever since, 1984 has been more than just a date; it has been a symbol. Orwell’s book describes a hideous world of thought control, informers and torture. The essential government propaganda industries, Newspeak and Doublespeak, exist to make syntactical and logical sense out of three slogans that dominate the book and the world it describes: “WAR IS PEACE,” “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY,” “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”

Many people believe that 1984 describes life in the Soviet Union, and Big Brother does bear a resemblance to Uncle Joe Stalin. Others see it as a description of the German Third Reich, defeated by the Allied armies even as the book was germinating in the author’s mind. Still others, myself included, view it apprehensively as an exaggerated version of tendencies that are further advanced in our own society than we want to believe.

But if the year 1984 is an Orwellian symbol, for those of us within the Christian family it is a symbol of a different kind as well. As we have recently been reminded in a variety of commemorative celebrations, 1984 is also the 50th anniversary of the Confessing Church in Germany’s Barmen Declaration, issued in May 1934, well into Hitler’s second year in power. This declaration was one of the very few corporate challenges to Hitler and to what the Nazis were doing in Germany.

The juxtaposition of Orwell’s book and the Barmen anniversary is important, for if we are to stand against those evidences of the Orwellian world that we already see, important resources for doing so will be found in the stance, Conviction and courage of the creators of Barmen. If we affirm Barmen, we will be forced to challenge almost every aspect of the Orwellian universe. If we are concerned about the possibility of drifting into a 1984 world, then Barmen provides a timely warning, for its tragedy was that it came too late. Hitler had by that time so consolidated his power that the only witness against him still possible in Germany was that of martyrdom. The telltale signs had not been taken seriously enough soon enough. That we are not yet living within the crudely totalitarian and oppressive atmosphere of Orwell’s world, but are aware of some subtle signs that we may be moving in its direction, makes it vital that we reflect on the meaning of Barmen, in order to learn to speak and act while there is still time.

By 1934, Hitler’s increasing control had made Germany look very much like Orwell’s society. In the face of that control, most of Germany had capitulated: the business communities, the universities, the cultural groups and the churches had almost without exception bought into the Nazi vision. Some Christians continued to resist -- Franz Jaegerstetter, Martin Niemöller, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bishop Lichtenberg and Father Alfred Delp, to name a few -- but the church itself was increasingly taken over by the “German Christians,” a group that affirmed Hitler as a new Messiah, accepted Nazism’s anti-Semitism. and was willing to follow the dictates of the Nazi Party. It was largely in reaction to the excesses of the “German Christians” that another group, called the Bekenntnis Kirche (the Confessing Church), was formed, chiefly out of the Lutheran and Reformed churches. The Barmen Declaration was the work of this group, written at its initial synod in Barmen in May 1934. The fine hand of Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian who was still teaching in Bonn at the time, is evident throughout, and the document is a good case study of Barth’s contention that theology and politics go hand in hand.

On first reading, however, the declaration seems neither political nor ‘‘dangerous.’’ It seems strongly theological, massively biblical and centered in concern for the church. Such a reading, however. is wide of the mark. In the Germany of 1934, there was no way to make the kind of theological affirmations contained in the document without being extremely political. We can see this clearly by considering the two sides of the initial proposition: its affirmation and consequent negation. The affirmation read, “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.”

This is good, solid Christian doctrine, doctrine that most church people could easily affirm, with no expectation that it would get them into trouble. But we must notice the strength of the verbs, and their cumulative force. The affirmation’s power is meant to move people beyond hearing to trust, and trusting is taking what is heard with sufficient seriousness to bank one’s life on it, to make an act of faith. Trusting means remaining faithful even when the evidence goes the other way. It includes the need to obey, which involves not only an inner commitment but an outer deportment. To obey is to follow through on trust, being willing to take the consequences. The signers of the Barmen Declaration knew that the costs might be high. Realizing that this was not a fair-weather agreement they acknowledged the need to hear, trust and obey “in life and in death.” To “hear, trust and obey” is to put one’s life on the line.

How so? Because to affirm certain things means to deny Certain others. The declaration’s negation, following immediately upon its affirmation, makes this clear: “We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and beside the one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.”

That still doesn’t sound very “dangerous.” The word “Hitler” occurs nowhere in the statement, nor in the entire Barmen Declaration. But nobody living in Germany in 1934 could fail to see that the reality of Hitler had called forth the entire document. What Hitler had claimed and gotten from the German people was precisely the acknowledgment that the truth for them was found “apart from and beside the one Word of God” -- in the Nazi Party -- and that it was in “other events and powers, figures and truths” -- in the Nazi ideology, rise to power and leaders -- that Germany’s salvation was located. “Blood and soil,” racial purity and anti-Semitism were to be accepted as truths. Consequently, to say yes to Jesus Christ (as the affirmation does) meant to say no to Adolf Hitler and all that he represented (as the negation does).

The same point is succinctly made by the title that Martin Niemöller gave to a book of sermons published during this period. He called it Christus ist Mein Führer, Christ is my “Führer” or leader. The use of the word “Führer” was not inadvertent, since everybody in Germany referred to Hitler by that title. To say that “Christ is my Führer” was also to say “Hitler is not my Führer.” The consequence for Niemöller was seven years in Dachau.

Theologians frequently resort to foreign phrases to make a point (a sin to which I am about to succumb). They call the kind of time that brought forth the Barmen Declaration a status confessionis, a ‘‘confessional situation,” in which the church, in order to be true to itself and its message, must distinguish as clearly as possible between truth and error. There are many times, particularly if public policy is concerned, when Christians may disagree. But there are some issues so fateful that no dissimulation or compromise is possible. The signatories of the Barmen Declaration clearly felt that they were living in a time when no one and no church could any longer say, “We affirm both Christ and Hitler.” They had to proclaim, in effect, “The discussion about supporting Hitler is now closed. We have rendered our verdict. There is no longer a basis for negotiation.’’ Either/or, not both/and.

It can be argued that situations of such clarity are rare and should not be prematurely or artificially invoked, for they can lead to terrible acts of spiritual judgment and pride. But there has been another status confessionis in the church since the time of Hitler. The issue has been apartheid, the forced separation of the races in South Africa. Until 1982, members of the various Reformed Churches in South Africa had managed to take all sides of the issue. Many argued that apartheid was consistent with the Christian gospel; others declared that it was not. Some said that the issue wasn’t clear, and the rest said that the debate was none of the church’s business. But the injustice and destructiveness of apartheid finally became so obvious that, at the urging of South African churches that are members of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the latter body, meeting in Ottawa in August 1982, formally declared apartheid a heresy. As a result, it is no longer possible to affirm both the Christian faith as proclaimed by the Reformed Churches and apartheid as well. It is another instance of a status confessionis. A clear either/or was reached: either Christ or apartheid, but not both.

As we confront what is happening in our own nation today, we must remember that ours is a religiously pluralistic country, quite different from the Germany of 50 years ago. During the Vietnam years a number of us gathered to explore the possibility of creating a kind of “confessing church” in our own land and issuing our own counterpart to the Barmen Declaration, expressing the need to say an unequivocal No to our government’s foreign policy. We decided not to do so, largely because we were already working closely with many people in the Jewish community. Rendering our witness in the christological terms of Barmen would have cut us off from them, and that was a price we were not willing to pay.

Today, as we explore the possibility that a status confessionis may be approaching for us, in which a Yes to Jesus Christ would mean a No to many of our government’s policies, we must find ways to work in concert with Jews who share our concerns, rather than apart from them. When Christians say that “Jesus Christ is Lord,” meaning that since nothing else can command our total allegiance, the state and the government are not Lord, they are saying what Jews declare when they give assent to the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” We must find ways in the public forum to close ranks with Jews -- and indeed with all other persons of good will -- to speak unitedly about our common concerns. It is one of the shortcomings of the Barmen Declaration that its creators did not see clearly what was already happening to Jews in Germany, and thus failed to address the most obscene of all of Hitler’s policies.

Is there a status confessionis for us today? Probably many would support the notion that in extremely perilous times -- Orwell’s 1984, the Germany of the 1930s and the South Africa of the 1980s -- when issues of right and wrong emerge with stunning clarity, there is a place for unequivocal stands. But far fewer would agree that we are even remotely close to such extreme times in the United States today.

Because Christians disagree about our domestic and foreign policies, the notion that we could take any one position along a spectrum of points of view and either baptize or anathematize it would strike most people as theological imperialism of the worst sort. I might privately believe that my position was the “only” truly Christian one, and I might publicly do all I could to persuade people of its truth, but I would be unjustified in seeking to unchurch or to deny the name of Christian to those who disagree with me.

Or is that too benign a scenario? Are we actually facing, or close to facing, a status confessionis? I believe that there are at least two kinds of issues forcing Americans closer and closer to the kind of decision demanded of Germans during the 1930s: when saying Yes to God forces one to say No to certain policies and demands of one’s nation and its leaders.

The first of these is the issue of nuclear weapons. I sometimes fear that just as Germans today look back on the early 1930s and say, “How could we have been so blind as not to have seen the peril of Hitler?,” so people of a later generation (if, indeed, there is one) will look back on us and say, “How could they have been so blind as not to have seen the peril of nuclear weapons?”

The Roman Catholic bishops have given us a starting point in their recent pastoral letter, which contains an implicit logic that all of us together need to push even further. They argue that there is no situation in which the use of nuclear weapons could be morally permissible. But if to use such weapons is wrong, it must also be wrong to possess them, since possession tempts powerfully toward use -- whether by deliberate decision, technological accident or human error. And if it is wrong to use nuclear weapons and wrong to possess them, it must also be wrong to manufacture them, since manufacture inevitably means possession, and possession almost inevitably means use. The bishops’ letter does not push that argument to its conclusion, reasoning that, for the moment, possession may be provisionally justified if it is used as a basis for sincere negotiations to reduce and finally eliminate all nuclear weapons. If such acts of good faith are not soon forthcoming, however, the bishops might be forced to press the argument all the way, arriving at a status confessionis requiring an unequivocal No to nuclear weapons in the light of our faith.

The World Council of Churches, at its 1983 Vancouver Assembly, approved a report on “Confronting Threats to Peace and Survival” that does seem to push the logic all the way and declare a status confessionis. The report is “commended to the churches for study and appropriate action,” without in any sense binding them. But the very structure of the section on “nuclear arms, doctrines and disarmament” recapitulates the structure of the Barmen Declaration -- first an affirmation of Jesus Christ and then a consequent negation. The first lines of the section follow:

It would be an intolerably evil contradiction of the Sixth Assembly’s theme, “Jesus Christ -- the Life of the World,” to support the nuclear weapons and doctrines which threaten the survival of the world. . . .

We believe that the time has come when the churches must unequivocally declare that the production and deployment as well as the use of nuclear weapons are a crime against humanity and that such activities must be condemned on ethical and theological grounds.

Nuclear deterrence, as the strategic doctrine which has justified nuclear weapons in the name of security and war prevention, must now be categorically rejected as contrary to our faith in Jesus Christ who is our life and peace. Nuclear deterrence is morally unacceptable because it relies on the credibility of the intention to use nuclear weapons: we believe that any intention to use weapons of mass destruction is an utterly inhuman violation of the mind and spirit of Christ which should be in us . . . [David Gill, editor, Gathered for Life (Eerdmans, l984), p. 75].

Such an unequivocal stance is risky. But the Confessing Church’s 1934 stand was also risky. Risk is part of the authentic Christian vocabulary and lifestyle.

But we have not yet finished with Barmen’s challenge to us, for there are other things happening today requiring our response. And we have not yet arrived at Orwell’s 1984, but certain present trends could, if left unchecked, slowly but inexorably lead us into such a world. The Barmen Declaration came too late; we must not replicate that tardiness.

The signs and portents indicating that we may be on our way to an Orwellian society cluster around our doctrine of national security. Already, in many other parts of the world, in the name of “national security’’ all acts of dissent or challenge are summarily dealt with, their perpetrators tortured, imprisoned or killed. Let us use the Orwellian slogans cited above as a way of indicating items on the horizon that, if unchecked, could gradually assume center stage.

Recent events in the United States remind us of 1984’s slogan that “WAR IS PEACE.” When the United States recently engaged in the military invasion of another country, Grenada, our president repeatedly called it not an invasion, but a “rescue mission.” He emphatically insisted on this distinction during a news conference, chastising reporters who had been so short-sighted as to describe it as an act of war. No, he insisted, it was a rescue of medical students, an act of peace and charity (even though, as we discovered when the government-imposed censorship was lifted, the medical students had been in no danger).

Similarly, we are constantly told that we are not engaging in war in Central America, or taking any part in the fighting there, even though our own CIA has mined harbors in international waters -- an act of war (and a violation of international law) if ever there was one. The government’s rhetoric is no more convincing in this case than in its dubbing of missiles of first-strike nuclear capability as “Peacekeepers.” All this is Orwellian doublespeak. Our nation is beginning to tell us that war is peace.

We are also increasingly reminded of 1984’s slogan that “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY.” We are told that if we speak too much, debate too much and question too much, those very expressions of freedom will make us vulnerable to the enemy, and will thus lead to our enslavement. Consequently, such freedoms must be held in check. A good example of this is a 1983 piece of White House-initiated legislation mandating that all public officials who have had access to classified materials and who want to comment on public affairs, either now or in the future, must obtain governmental clearance for their remarks ahead of time. The provision applies not only while they are in office, but for the rest of their lives. This gives a powerful new weapon to those in public office who want to forestall informed, knowledgeable criticism of their acts. What could be more threatening than such a law to the healthy discussion and critique that should characterize a democracy? And even though the public outcry against it caused enforcement of the legislation to be put on hold, it was not rescinded, and thousands of public officials have already agreed to abide by it.

The 1984 slogan that “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” also finds echoes in our time. We, too, are told that a government must not let its people know too much or they will be in danger of losing their dominance in the world. One of the most disturbing recent examples of this attitude has been the Reagan administration’s unprecedented refusal to let the press cover the invasion of Grenada. For four days we experienced total news management and governmental censorship. Only after a free press was finally admitted to Grenada did we learn that many of the statements issued by the White House during those four days had been incorrect. News favorable to the administration’s position was shared, news unfavorable was either suppressed or falsely reported. The censorship made it impossible for citizens to assess, criticize or support the administration’s actions from an informed standpoint. Those four days gave us a preview of the kind of society Orwell envisioned. I am still amazed at the relative lack of public outcry in the face of such manipulation. Furthermore, the tactic portends a scary future: since it “worked” so well this time, the administration may well reason, why not four weeks of censorship the next time we might decide to engage in a ‘‘rescue mission” -- perhaps in Nicaragua?

As I was drawing the above parallels I stopped to ask myself, “Isn’t this all rather paranoid? Aren’t these parallels overdrawn and even slightly hysterical?” But just when I had almost persuaded myself that some blue penciling was in order, another sequence of events occurred that convinced me that my tone, rather than being more muted, should indeed become more bold.

This course of events began with an address by President Reagan at Georgetown University. The president complained about the way Congress was meddling in his attempts to carry out foreign policy, challenging his decisions publicly and even withholding funds from activities he thought were essential. While he conceded that there should be debate before decisions were made, he felt that once the administration had embarked on a policy, everyone should close ranks behind him. No more criticism, in other words. Then, a high-ranking State Department official proposed that if members of Congress disagreed with the administration’s policy, they could send private letters to the White House or State Department, but should not voice their criticism publicly.

Shortly after this, it became public knowledge that our government was directly involved in the mining of Nicaraguan harbors, that the president had personally endorsed the project, and that it had been carried out without proper notification to the congressional committees that are entitled to be informed. All this had been happening while Reagan and his spokespersons were insisting that there should be no public disagreement with administration policy. The actions being undertaken were illegal, but no one was to object.

Finally, when the facts were known and Nicaragua quite appropriately filed a brief with the World Court, where there could be a judicial hearing under international auspices, the administration responded by announcing that for a period of two years it would refuse to recognize the jurisdiction of the World Court in any matters pertaining to Central America.

Such a posture is the beginning of what appears to be growing rapidly into a totalitarian mentality that says, “We are above the law. We are not accountable to our own government or to a world court. We need not tell people what we do, and we will accuse those who challenge us, even in Congress, of making us weak and destroying our ability to stand tall. Give us a blank check.”

In the face of all this, we come back to the Barmen Declaration. Barmen’s claim is that there is only “one Word of God which we have to hear, and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.” For Christians, that Word is Jesus Christ. For Jews it is the God of Sinai, the God of the prophets, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. Jews and Christians can affirm that they are calling upon the name of the same God. And in the name of that God, we must protest today, as the signers of the Barmen Declaration did yesterday, when the leaders of a government begin to say, “Hear, trust and obey us. We’ll tell you what to think. We’ll decide what information you should have. If we withhold information, it is for your own good. If our public arguments don’t make sense, be assured that there are reasons behind them that we can’t really share with you.” When government officials begin to say such things, as ours clearly have, then that is the time for challenge, because when a government does that, it is beginning to play God over our lives, and the taste of such identification is a very heady thing. It is becoming identified with what Barmen calls the “other events and powers, figures and truths” that are trying to elicit unquestioning and docile loyalty.

As that begins to happen in our time, our response, like the Barmen response, must be No, because we have already said Yes to the one Word of God whom we have to hear, trust and obey, in life and in death.


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