“Karl Barth and Prison Ministry”

Tags:  Karl Bart

Criminology and Theology

The name Karl Barth comes foremost to mind in discussions about theology and theologians today.  But many students of theology are not aware of Barth’s connection with criminology.

Karl Barth (1886-1968) is generally regarded as the most outstanding theologian of the twentieth century.  As the main author of The Barmen Confession he was the intellectual leader of the German Confessing Church that resisted the Third Reich of Adolph Hitler.  Barth taught theology for nearly five decades. After he was removed from his faculty position at Bonn by the Nazis in late 1934, Barth moved to Basel where he taught until 1962.

He is best known for his multi-volume work, Church Dogmatics, and his Commentary on Romans.  Karl Barth wrote many other books and essays in theological journals; and he can be credited for thousands more pages written about his theological contributions by scholars and students of theology.

Barth is less well known for his prison ministry.  While teaching at the University of Basel, Barth regularly visited and preached to the inmates at Basel Prison.  A collection of his prayers and sermons in the prison chapel in Basel between 1954 and 1959 have been compiled in Deliverance to the Captives.




One sermon resonated especially with me.  A sermon entitled “The Criminals With Him” was based on a single scripture verse: “They crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left” (Luke 23:33).

“They crucified him with the criminals.  Which is more amazing, to find Jesus in such bad company, or to find the criminals in such good company?  As a matter of fact, both are true!  One thing is certain: here they hang all three, Jesus and the criminals, one at the right and one at the left, all three exposed to the same public abuse, to the same interminable pain, to the same slow and irrevocable death throes.  Like Jesus, these two criminals had been arrested somewhere, locked up and sentenced by some judge in the course of the previous few days.  And now they hang on their crosses with him and find themselves in solidarity and fellowship with him.”  ….

“They crucified him with the criminals. Do you know what this implies?  Don’t be too surprised if I tell you that this was the first Christian fellowship, the first certain, indissoluble and indestructible Christian community.  Christian community is manifest wherever there is a group of people close to Jesus who are with him in such a way that they are directly and unambiguously affected by his promise and assurance. ….  To live by this promise is to be a Christian community.  The two criminals were the first certain Christian community” (Barth, Deliverance to the Captives, pp. 76-77).

This great theologian who wrote volumes on all of the doctrines of the Christian Church also declared the Word of God in simple, clear language to “the common man.”  Few of us would envy the day-to-day lives of those serving time in prison; but the residents of the Basel Prison sixty years ago were privileged to hear the gospel message proclaimed by one of the greatest preachers and theologians of the century.

God calls us all to minister to the hungry, the sick, and the imprisoned (Matthew 25:34-40).  Karl Barth knew his calling.  He put down his pen, left the university and declared the good news to prisoners in his “sermons in a Swiss prison.”  Barth’s prison ministry serves as an example for our own ministry to prisoners.

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