Karl Barth once said “the clasping of the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of this world.” In this two part essay I talk about Barth’s understanding of prayer as a form of Christian resistance. Part one described Barth’s understanding of Christianity as resistance. Part two will now describe how Barth understands prayer as a form of resistance.
Barth wrote over 500 pages on prayer alone. It has a significant place in every volume of his Dogmatics. It is also crucial to his ethics in that Barth roots human freedom in the practice of prayer. Prayer is the human action that declares God’s freedom as primary and human freedom as a response to God. Prayer is how we enter into God’s freedom and follow it into the world. When we pray we take up a posture that reveals our true humanity, uniting what we do with who we are. Barth’s makes the forceful claim that “prayer is literally the archetypal form of all human acts of freedom in the Church, and as such it must be continually repeated in all other acts of freedom.”1
Prayer in other words reveals the core of Barth’s understanding of proper order: the human with open (or clasped!) hands symbolizes the openness for identity, redemption, reconciliation, and guidance. In prayer the self is curved outward. Prayer does not ignore the world or replace it with something else, rather prayer repositions the world and re-places it where it belongs—under God’s lordship and sovereign care.
For Barth prayer is primarily corporate prayer. It is the primary work of the Church, which as a communion of saints functions as a “fellowship of prayer.”2 The prayer of Christians must be united in their calling upon God because they must be continually reminded and in the presence of and conversing with the One who has united them.
However, God remains the constant object of prayer. God “summons us to make His purposes and aims the object of our desire.”3 Prayer situates our human desires and by that rearranges all relationships formed by that desire. Barth always insists that prayer is not about the self but about God. We are not the ones we have been waiting for!
When the Church gathers to pray the “Our Father” we also acknowledge that the “we” of that prayer unites not only our individual and corporate lives, our private and public prayers, but it also unites us with the One who prays with and for them: “The distinctive value and importance of the ‘Our Father’ . . . consists in the fact that in it Jesus ranges Himself alongside his disciples, or His disciples alongside Himself, taking them up with Him into His own prayer.”4
It is crucial to Barth’s understanding of prayer that it is “primarily and predominantly action” which is a basic element in “the whole action of the whole community.” Barth interjects here that even the church’s theological work (also a form of action) is “inconceivable and impossible” without prayer: “All the gulfs and contradictions which occur in it have their final cause in the fact that it is not everywhere carried through in the fellowship of prayer. And what is true of theology is equally true of all other functions of the Church’s ministry.”5
Petition and asking are prayer’s most central features. However, if prayer is to be an “uprising against the disorder of the world” it has to be more than just a conversation! Barth writes at the beginning of The Christian Life that prayer is not “just contemplative or waiting or passive. It goes to work. It intervenes. It commits and exposes itself. It helps, and since it does so totally, it saves.”6
Most importantly for Barth, as he moves into these final reflections of his life and work, he insists “the life of Christians is to be understood in its totality as a life in invocation of God.”7 This invocation is grounded in a “very definite and special passion” that is distinctive to Christians. Christians are of course moved by all the passions that every other human being possesses, and yet, Barth insists that the unique Christian passion is “zeal for the honor of God.”8 This zeal is evident in the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer with the first petition to “hallow” God’s name.
To pray the second petition “thy kingdom come” is to join with God in resistance to human disorder. “God, resists the torrent of human injustice and evil, and therefore . . . (Christians) cannot cease to oppose it as well in their own place and manner.”9 God acts in “the kingdom” in an unexpected and inconceivable manner, inaugurating a new history and bringing it to its goal.
For Barth praying “thy kingdom come” becomes inevitably self-involving, committed the praying Christian to the movement of which the prayer is a part: “Praying the second petition bravely means following this movement and turning, having no other choice but to look ahead and also to live and think and speak and act ahead, to run from the beginning, the history of Jesus Christ first revealed in his resurrection, to the goal, its final manifestation, the coming kingdom of God.”10
If this prayer is a brave prayer then those who pray it will be “claimed for a corresponding inner and outer action which is also brave.” They will be neither idle, acquiescent with disorder, adjusted to the status quo, nor filled with gloomy skepticism. Instead “they wait and hasten towards the dawn of God’s day.”11
So to briefly summarize some of what Barth says on prayer: we have to understand prayer not merely as a ritual practice characteristic of those concerned with religious devotion. Prayer is the archetypal human activity. It is the unique and distinctive human action, an event in which what we do conforms to who we really are. It is the fundamental act of human freedom.
The object of prayer is God and the fundamental nature of that prayer is found in asking and in petition. When we engage in prayer we do not pray alone but rather enter into prayer with Jesus, the true God-human, who intercedes for us and with us. Prayer repositions our selves and our world in its proper dependent relation with God.
Finally, prayer is a form of action that leads to further actions. Prayer pulls us from the sanctuary (and the seminary) into the streets where we join in solidarity with the neighbor whose dilemma has become apparent to us through prayer. This is not a solidarity of self-righteousness but a solidarity of grace carried out in a manner that not only flows from prayer but is shaped by it and conforms to its archetypal pattern.
I doubt Barth is being read as extensively among the Christian anarchists as perhaps he should be. His book on the Lord’s Prayer, titled, Prayer, might be a good start. Clasping the hands in prayer is a rebellious and revolutionary act in the midst of a disordered world. It is also the first and fundamental action of an uprising against that world – a revolt that will attempt to actualize a repositioning of humanity in relationship to the action of God through the event of Jesus Christ. It is an action of human freedom for human freedom made possible by divine freedom.