Preaching in the Basel Prison

The following is a new English translation of Martin Schwartz’s Karl Barth in der Strafanstalt detailing Barth’s ministry preaching in the Basel prison from 1954-1964. This excerpt provides a glimpse into the profound pastoral care that Barth had for the individuals in the Basel prison and his unwavering commitment to preach the gospel of God’s Yes to humanity.

Karl Barth in the Penitentiary (footnote: from the Basel penitentiary’s yearly report of 1968)

In 1954–1964 Karl Barth held 27 preaching services in the Basel Penitentiary. Of these services, he held 5 during Advent and Christmas, 5 on New Year’s Eve, 2 on Good Friday, 4 on Easter, 1 on Ascension Day, 1 on Pentecost, and 9 on Sundays. In 16 services, he conducted the Lord’s Supper with the prisoners. The sermons were based on 13 OT and 14 NT texts. 24 sermon texts were limited to one Bible verse each, and 3 to two Bible verses each.

The 27 sermons and accompanying prayers are available in two volumes, both typeset and printed in the printery of the Basel Penitentiary by the prisoners who were employed in this business, and published by the Evangelischer Verlag Zurich [TN: if you want to give this an approximate English translation rather than leave it, you would say “Protestant Publishing House Zurich”]. The first of these sermon volumes, “Den Gefangenen Befreiung” (“Liberation for the Prisoners/Captives”), was published in 1959 and contains the 15 sermons from the years 1954–1959; the second volume, “Rufe mich an” (“Call on Me”), was published in 1965 and contains the 12 other sermons. One of the 27 sermons is recorded on a gramophone record, which was also released by the Evangelischer Verlag Zurich. The record conveys, along with the sermon, the whole service held by Karl Barth.

Another preaching service, held by Karl Barth on Christmas Eve 1963, was broadcast by Süddeutscher Rundfunk [TN: Southern German Broadcast Radio] and Schweizerischer Rundspruch [TN: Swiss Radio] and could be heard, directly transmitted from the penitentiary, over the radio stations of Stuttgart and Beromünster. Long before the first volume of his prison sermons appeared in bookstores during Christmas 1959, it had already become widely known that Karl Barth occasionally held services and preached to the prisoners in the Basel Penitentiary. After his first sermons there in 1954, the news had spread by word of mouth and in writing. It was known inside and outside the churches in the West and East of Europe, but also in the North and South of Africa and America, in India and Japan, Indonesia and Australia. Everyone who heard about it, Christian or non-Christian, was astonished and amazed or joyfully surprised. There certainly were people who remained perplexed or found it questionable that the old Karl Barth had chosen such a place and such a congregation for his sermons and, as it was said, loved it. There were also people who more or less mischievously and seriously wondered and asked how they could become delinquents in the cantonal territory of Basel in order to be able to hear Karl Barth preach. Of course, most of those who heard about it understood immediately why Karl Barth was preaching precisely at this place and to this congregation.

Karl Barth always preached during his academic teaching career. His readiness to do so was always characteristic of him and his theology. There have been attempts to interpret and explain this by saying that Karl Barth wanted to test his theology in the sermon in front of the congregation for its proof and validity. But what is characteristic about his sermons and his willingness to do so must be seen in the fact that his theology drove and compelled him to preach to the concrete congregation. Since in his theology he knew himself called and compelled by the Gospel to preach and proclaim, he never stopped preaching. This is also the angle from which we must understand the equally characteristic fact for Karl Barth and his theology that from 1954 to 1964, i.e. for ten years, he preached almost exclusively in the services of a congregation in a prison or correctional facility. Even his reaction to the request addressed to him for the first of his prison sermons was characteristic of him. The request was submitted to Karl Barth with the brief remark and the brief justification that he would be able to say to the people in prison, who were critical but extremely alert and attentive listeners to sermons, just what they needed and could understand. I reminded him of his own words, which he had given me in a letter (11 Aug 1950) at the beginning of my work “as a pastor of those who have been judicially declared suspect or guilty and subject to punishment, who are probably not even the worst among the rest of us, and it is a good thing in any case to know that we stand in solidarity with them.” In response to the request for a sermon in the penitentiary, Karl Barth evidently reacted at that time with reservation, by no means excitedly and readily. Without making a commitment, he left the answer open. And yet the request must have struck him and never let go. In any case, a few hours later he asked whether he could participate in the Sunday service in the penitentiary the next day. In the early morning of that Sunday he came and sat behind the prisoners during the service. He could be heard singing the songs loudly and audibly, but he could also be heard breathing strongly and deeply occasionally during the sermon, just as he used to do when listening to a conversation or a lecture, if he did not agree with what was said and had to air his discomfort. So it was hardly the sermon he heard, but much more the direct fellowship with the small preaching congregation that caused him after the service to spontaneously and joyfully agree to a first sermon on the following Sunday. After the first preaching service that Karl Barth held for the prisoners, it was and remained characteristic that he never had to be asked again, but himself asked each time if and when he could come again and preach to the prisoners. What drove him again and again to come and preach to this congregation? Did he come only because he knew that none of those who came outside to hear the famous Karl Barth would come to the service? He was glad to know this, but it was not the decisive reason for his coming and preaching. It was rather because it was precisely in this place of preaching that he became conscious of and clear about the solidarity of the Gospel with what it is to be human.

What did Karl Barth have to say in his sermons to people who had been convicted of crimes, who had been sentenced to prison and penitentiary, who were alienated from the church? Each time he prepared himself meticulously for what he had to say to them in his sermons. And yet each time he came to the service worried whether his sermon would share the Gospel in such a way that the good news could be heard and understood. He never confronted his listeners with their unchurchedness or unbelief, but always and only with the statement and promise of the Gospel, that is, with what God has done through Jesus Christ for the world, human beings, even for them, the convicted and condemned, and which applies for each and every one of them. In his sermons, Karl Barth proclaimed the Gospel in such a realistic, pastoral, encouraging, and liberating way that each one, in his personal situation and in his human circumstances, was confronted with the promise and the offer of the Gospel and was drawn in by it. How Karl Barth’s sermons were received by and resonated among the prisoners was evident not only in the listening during the service, but just as clearly afterwards: in the conversation of the prisoners among themselves during their walk or at the weekly group discussion evenings with the prison pastor or even in conversation with relatives during the visiting hours or in letters that the prisoners wrote home or even to Karl Barth himself, or, as it also happened, in the fact that long-time prisoners visited Karl Barth at home or in the hospital on their vacation day or after their release. It has already been mentioned that those who listen to sermons in a prison congregation are critical and at the same time awake and alert. Critical, because in such a place one rejects everything that is unreal, untrue, half-true, or cheaply comforting. And awake and alert, so that one is able to distinguish between real and fake, between naked truth and euphemistic lies, between real consolation and empty reassurance. For the real and true, even if it may be hard, one is open and receptive, one says yes to it, acknowledges it, accepts it. This was the case with Karl Barth’s sermons. They were accepted because people realized: here nothing is being glossed over or excused, there are no reproaches, no cheap admonitions, here one is not being preached at, but rather one is confronted with the truth of the gospel, with the forgiveness of guilt, with humanity and fellow human beings, and here one is allowed to become human and a fellow human being. So it was with the sermons of Karl Barth. But so too it was with his praying before and after each of his sermons. When it came to the prayers, one was not simply prayed at, rather one was taken into them and could pray along with them. Of these prayers before and after the sermons, Karl Barth himself says in his preface to the first volume of sermons that the prayers were at least as important to him in preparing and conducting the services as the sermons themselves.

Karl Barth did not come to the penitentiary only to preach. He also came to group discussion evenings, where he answered questions the prisoners addressed to him in writing and orally. In the process, he would reach behind the individual questions, so to speak, and place the questioners with their question in front of the question posed to them by the Gospel itself. As with the sermon, so it was with Karl Barth’s answering the questions: each one knew that he had been directly addressed and encountered, but also understood and encouraged. There were years in which Karl Barth went to the penitentiary during the vacation season to visit certain long-time prisoners in their cell. He did this quite spontaneously in each case. Just as spontaneously, he then reported in letters about his visits and the conversations he heard and had during them, and the impressions and experiences he had. From these letters the following is quoted here:

1 Aug 1955. “I really like to go there, feel somehow in solidarity with these men, am moved as I listen to them [TN, or: enthusiastically listen to them] and if I can say something to one or the other that is helpful to him, that is also fine for me. So yesterday, Sunday morning I went straight to P. Perhaps I also met him at a particularly good hour: in any case, he greeted me with obviously sincere joy, then immediately began, not without demonstrating his knowledge of the Bible, to talk about the Lord’s Supper, and then went into an extensive report, sustained by strong emotions, about the story of his life up to that shooting, and beyond that, about his experiences with x, but at the end he became really cheerful again, so that I actually did not recognize the man who acted so despairingly on Easter morning, although he explicitly came back to that incident. Maybe I actually have become something like an optimist or even a walking representation of the false doctrine of the apokatastasis panton, so that I have not yet been able to leave any of these men simply shaking my head and saddened, but rather I have thought that I have seen something in each of them that has encouraged and gladdened me? Am I listening to too much Mozart? But Mozart was not an optimist. Oh well, these are probably useless reflections!”

19 July 1957. “In the meantime, I have been on Infirmary Street [original name: Spitalstraße] as your vicar: a whole morning long. K. and P. were the most somber encounters, K. from the beginning, P. after a short brightness at the beginning, as soon as he came to talk about his problem. But K.’s is also a sad case: a real victim of his origin, and quite helpless on top of that. Here everything seems so imposed that one feels really powerless. On the other hand, I had a good impression of J. and a quite positive one of R. and T., if only because both seem to know how to deal meaningfully with their punishment. For my part, I mainly listened to what all 6 wanted to say and tell me, tossed in a few comments and further questions in between, and finally gave each of them a fat cigar; to P. for a new start in his smoking career, after he had recently destroyed all his smoking equipment (pipe included) out of anger against X.”

1 Aug 1958. “I wanted to report to you that I spent Tuesday and Wednesday morning as your admittedly very dilettantish vicar on Infirmary Street [Spitalstraße]: directed from below by the very willing guards through the various floors and corridors from one cell to another. I was also able to ascertain that the sermon from July 20 made a special impression on this curious [TN: in the sense “odd”] congregation. Otherwise, they all seemed to be really pleased that someone visited them, and they spoke and talked diligently and willingly. I found B., who is so ecumenically active, especially illuminating on a human level, as I did the two, T. the penitent and S. the unrepentant bank robber; very remarkable was Kr. with his newly discovered talent for painting (image of Christ) and melancholy contemplation, and not disagreeable was Sch., who showed me the 108 letters, at least the outside of them, that he has received up until now from his wife. Incidentally, they are all able to speak extraordinarily descriptively, a precious gift of God, despite all the evident abuse, for which one could envy them. I would have liked to make tape recordings of all of them, especially when, as happened without exception, they talked about the sermons. Especially impressive to me this time was our friend P. He apparently had a relatively better hour, received me with the invitation to a cup of tea, which I accepted with pleasure, lectured me in detail about the reason for the daily new complete balding of his head (symbol of his freedom nevertheless!), viewed and discussed himself not without a certain humor (request at a Protestant requests concert: the aria of the Queen of the Night in the Magic Flute “der Hölle Rache kommt in meinem Busen” [“hell’s vengeance comes in my bosom”]) and met me like an old acquaintance through and through.”

3 Aug 1962. “I read with great interest about the last successful jailbreak on Infirmary Street [Spitalstraße]. But this Italian obviously heard neither your nor my sermons. Yes, and then G. S.! Wasn’t he a sexton with you for a while? In any case, I remember visiting him once in his cell in Basel. You really have an extremely lively congregation!”

So much for Karl Barth’s own statements about his visits to the penitentiary. I think it is obvious from his words how sharply and critically observant, how earnestly and at the same time cheerfully and full of humor, and above all how very intimately and supportively he encountered the prisoners in the service and when visiting them in their cells.

But what was the response of the prisoners to their encounter with Karl Barth, to all that he brought and gave them with his sermons and his cell visits? The answer was sincere joyful gratitude. In those years when Karl Barth came to the prison, there were many who said in their own way: now they had experienced and learned what it means to give thanks. The gratitude was for Karl Barth, but at the same time it was for what he preached.

— Martin Schwartz. Basel.

This English translation is made available by Dr. Joseph Longarino. Do not distribute this translation without prior express permission from the translator.