God’s Grace for the Wronged

Nelly Barth, Karl Barth, and a scandalous arrangement.

Ian Olson / 12.15.21

We rightly rejoice that in spite of how awful and godless our behavior has been (and in spite of how long it was indulged) the gospel promises complete forgiveness and a unearned righteous status in God’s sight.

But what is grace for those who have been wronged? Those who have not yet seen the years the locust ate restored? Is there not an unkindness in exulting in our forgiveness when there are wrongs we have inflicted that have not yet been made right? Is the gospel only grace for the most heinous of offenders, or is it grace for all who await the vindication of the God who justifies sinners without abandoning his own justice?

Christiane Tietz’s Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict explores the terrain upon which the theologian’s work and exploits were lived, highlighting the real costs of actions we might read about in surveys of modern theology: his break with liberalism, the rejection of natural theology, his resistance to the Third Reich, the Barmen Declaration, Barth’s opposition to nuclear armament and his insistence on forgiveness to Germany — so many notable moments that comprise a legendary aura around the Swiss doctor. But he was also acquainted with myopia, self-delusion, and motivated reasoning just the same as any of us are, and it wrought severe consequences for his family we are only now beginning to understand.

Admirers and detractors of Barth both have known for years the open secret that Barth had his assistant, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, move in with him and his family in an unusual arrangement that lasted four decades. Tietz draws upon correspondence that has recently been made public, letters that show how Karl and Charlotte came to love each other not as fellow pilgrims, but as partners in matrimony.

But, of course, Karl was already married. And because he was convinced that the mutual understanding and affection he and Charlotte shared for each other was a gift of a good God, Barth endeavored to protect the bond between them without forsaking his wife and his duties to her. Barth would not divorce his wife and felt he could not break off the untoward relationship with Charlotte. And so he created an arrangement that proved impossible, one which caused tremendous suffering to all three of them — particularly to his wife, Nelly. Karl’s heart was given most personally to Charlotte. If was Charlotte (not his wife Nelly) whom Karl would deem his helpmate. 

Somehow the arrangement endured and the Barths never divorced. It was only in Karl’s final years, when Charlotte had to be admitted into a psychiatric clinic due to the onset of dementia, that he and Nelly were able to “celebrate a most harmonious evening of life” (393). “[W]ith time,” Karl then wrote to his son Markus, “some things do indeed sort themselves out,” (392). But would Nelly have characterized it this way? Possibly, as she did evidence more enthusiasm for time with Karl and attended his speaking engagements. It is entirely likely, however, that she grasped at every opportunity now available for normalcy with her husband that had long been to denied her. Whether she ever forgave her husband is unknown.

Because Karl Barth is Karl Barth and Nelly Barth is, for most readers and students of theology, merely the wife about whom they can safely forget, it is sinfully simple to neglect the deep wound inflicted on her through Karl’s ridiculous attempt to split an impossible difference. Worse, we might exonerate him, making those ridiculous justifications for “great” men we would never apply to those we know personally. We are always ready to forgive our heroes, to relativize their wrongdoings in the face of the good they have accomplished.

When we do so we forget that we are also injured people, ignored or harmed by others and in need of vindication of our having been wronged. Without vindication, our souls sicken all the more. Hope shrivels, and those to whom we are bound suffer in their turn as we withdraw from the webs of relation in which we live. As Auden wrote: “Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return.”

There are some things that shock us with how perfect they seem, how when we find them we feel like we have been missing them all our life. I am not saying these things are only ever to be avoided. But when that thing would rupture the bonds of obligation to which you have joined yourself, then it doesn’t matter how good that thing might have been: it is not for us. This isn’t a guarantee that happiness awaits upon the rejection of that thing, as it could very well be that disappointment and exhaustion will still haunt our attempts to live. But the happiness it promises will be Pyrrhic at best, as we become something that cannot enjoy the good to which we’ve already committed ourselves. 

As much as Karl might have found eloquent words to justify himself, it was a problem of his own making. What he called a bond of love to which he felt obliged could just as easily be deemed a resistance to human finitude — the exchange of reality for a fantasy. What Barth deemed an obligation, namely his marriage, was also the gift he failed to see. He mistook the vine from which to grow for a shackle.

If grace permits us to call a thing what it is, it is indeed grace to insist, “This is wrong. You are wrong for doing this to me.” This is grace because it confronts the delusion that our sins are perpetrated out of freedom rather than slavery, that they will make us more ourselves rather than less. However enlightened we may present ourselves with regard to the Law we never truly escape — and never truly want to — a vital connection to the judgment of what is good and proper and what is not. the gospel doesn’t provide a magical escape hatch out of that obligation or a hall pass to ignore it and instead do whatever feels best at the moment. 

I shudder as I write these things because I, too, after having repressed my dissatisfaction for long enough that it felt normal and holy, and in the midst of alienation from myself and from the school where I was finishing a degree, similarly let myself become too attached to another and injured my marriage in the process. These things arise and take us unawares, threatening the lives we build with others and promising outcomes that remain unfulfillable in this present age. We must be honest with ourselves and those we love regarding what we desire, what we need, what we hope for, and how we have been disappointed, so that we can be prepared for counterfeits of these things and cope with how the present falls short. Because none of us are stable enough or strong enough in ourselves to withstand the offer of fulfillment when so many things seem wrong or as if they’re falling apart. We are most vulnerable to temptation when we ignore our own vulnerability.    

However displeased he was in his younger years that his friends and mother didn’t understand the arrangement, however he deluded himself during that time that his relationship with Charlotte was a gift from God to be protected, what Karl wanted at the end of his life was not approval but judgment and forgiveness. In a draft of an autobiography, he devoted an exposition to his great-grandfather, Karl Friedrich Sartorius, an ancestor the family preferred to try to forget. “There was sufficient reason and justice to be ashamed of him,” Karl wrote, and yet “the decisive thing that drew me to him and captured my focus for a fairly long time was only this, that in no sense was he a shining light… rather he only appeared to me to be the most obviously lacking, poorest, unhappy figure among my ancestors that I knew of.” And with the grace that reads history backwards he conjectured this was perhaps “in anticipation of the portrait of my own life” (3).

In reading Sartorius’s final sermon, “a final tortured howl of a man” despairing of his mistakes, Karl looked in vain for “the divine sympathy” which gives the gift of “forgiven guilt” (5). This was the same man who, in an early letter to Charlotte, wrote with sadness that he was very aware of “the incongruity between what I am saying and what I am” (182).

This is what Nelly wanted as well: the divine sympathy that would judge Karl’s foolishness and annihilate all that was agonizing and bleak and oblivious in it. But she wanted her husband out of it, restored, reconciled to her, and happy with her. This is the impossible possibility she could only petition God to bring to pass.

We now have a better idea of what Nelly Barth endured and for how long, and of the perseverance God gave her through years of depression and loneliness and jealousy. We can only hope that the consolation Nelly finds now in the presence of Jesus Christ satisfies the deepest longings she felt and overrules and fills the disappointments to which she was often subject, and that perhaps now she can embrace Karl the same way Esau, after everything, could fall upon Jacob’s neck, with kisses through many tears.

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