EKD Press Releases
George Hunsinger: "Those who live in faith bear political responsibility."
The winner of the Karl Barth Prize explained his opposition to any legitimation of torture
June 04, 2011
Only a few days after the 125th anniversary of the birth of the theological Karl Barth, the Union of Protestant Churches (UEK) in the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) awarded its Karl Barth Prize to the U.S. theologian George Hunsinger at a ceremony in Dresden. As Christiane Tietz, professor of theology at the University of Mainz and a member of the EKD Council, explained in her laudatory speech, the award did not aim to promote "clinging to the romantic notion of better times" but to make clear "the lasting relevance of Barth's theology."
She added that it was Hunsinger's great theological accomplishment to stir enthusiasm for the "beauty of Barth's theology" by opening up its linguistic and argumentative structure. She noted that Hunsinger was also able to bridge the gap between the religious factions within American Christianity in accordance with the principle that we, happily, do not need to choose between the evangelical truth and social justice. Hunsinger is the founder of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), which unites Christians, Jews, Muslims, and adherents of other religions in the aim of abolishing the use of torture. Tietz added that Hunsinger shared one of Barth's concerns in terms of upholding human dignity in the treatment of prisoners.
In his acceptance speech, Hunsinger criticized American political culture and practice as it has continued into the Obama presidency. He spoke of a "widespread culture of impunity in American politics", in which those responsible for environmental destruction, economic failure, and even those responsible for the use of torture during the Bush era have not been called to answer for their actions.
Hunsinger presented a summary of the different grounds for a ban on torture as founded in Reformed theology: In line with John Calvin, the understanding of being created in the image of God, as applied even to those who face us as our enemies, leads to the recognition that they also have an undeniable dignity. Martin Luther, for his part, connected God's gift of salvation, which people receive undeservedly, to the necessity of reaching out to others "freely, joyously and for nothing", serving them, and acting towards them "as God in Christ". Karl Barth followed the same logic, while expanding it to the realm of social and political responsibility.
Hunsinger invoked the ecumenical consensus to reject torture, whether from a Protestant or Catholic perspective. By contrast, he spoke of the dismaying findings that there is a more frequent willingness to justify torture among those who regularly attend church in the United States than among non-churchgoers: "The crisis of our national descent into torture is, for our churches, supremely a crisis of faith."
Every two years since 1986, the UEK has awarded the Karl Barth Prize, which includes 10,000 euros, for outstanding theological work or significant life witness in church and society. Past recipients of the prize have included former German President Johannes Rau, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, the theologian Eberhard Jüngel, and most recently the long-term President of the EKD Synod Jürgen Schmude.