(photo: Wikipedia, public domain)
Christian and Nazis
In Part 1, we talked about how Hitler and the Nazis tried to hijack Christianity and turn it into a new pagan religion that saw the bold, daring Adolf as the messianic figure instead of the meek, turning the other cheek Yeshua. But how did Christians respond to this? In three ways:
1. Join with the Nazis.
2. Don’t get involved in politics.
3. Protect the innocent and fight back.
Before we describe these three responses, you have to understand Martin Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms. It was on this doctrine that Christians felt that God would not have them resist Nazism. The two kingdoms doctrine held that the kingdom of State and the kingdom of God represent different modes of God’s care for human beings. And that one kingdom should not meddle in the realm of the other.” Luther “argued that Christ governs and expands his kingdom through the ministry of the Word by the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, he does so in such a way as not to nullify … the institutions that God has created to govern that order [such as] civil government.” There is certainly much truth in this doctrine, but Luther developed it in an effort to keep the Catholic Church out of state affairs. He did not answer the question of dealing with a tyrannical, genocidal State regime such as the Nazis.
The German Christian Movement
“Within the German Evangelical Church, the pro-Nazi ‘German Christian’ (Deutsche Christen) movement emerged in the early 1930s. It attempted to fuse Christianity and National Socialism and promoted a ‘racially-pure’ Church by attacking Jewish influences on Christianity.” One study says, “forty percent of the pastors were, at least for some time during the Third Reich, oriented toward the German Christian movement.” This movement “attracted between a quarter and a third of Protestant church members.” They would pervert the doctrine of the two kingdoms.
We wrote about this movement previously, so I won’t go into detail here. (Click here to read Hitler vs. Jesus Part 1.)
The Confessing Church
This movement “developed during the 1930s from their resistance to Adolf Hitler’s attempt to make the churches an instrument of National Socialist (Nazi) propaganda and politics.” They understood Martin Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms as forbidding them from resisting the State but also protested Hitler’s attempt to enter the Church. “Despite their opposition to the German Christian movement, the Confessing Church did not object to most elements of Nazism, and some people within the movement were Nazi Party members;” they just didn’t want Nazism in the Church.
In fact, two top bishops who appealed to Hitler in 1934, along with Martin Niemöller, ended up signing “a statement of unconditional loyalty to Hitler; Niemöller did not.” It is important to note that not only were German Christians not political, but they left social work up to the State. “They assigned the institutionalized church the task of proclaiming God’s Word within the four walls of the church and claimed that social work should not be done by the church.”
Germany was ill-equipped theologically to deal with Hitler. There was no doctrine for moving against the State. “German tradition had no room for political resistance from a theological perspective because, for more than four hundred years, the evangelical churches in Germany had been closely tied to the state for protection.” A third group of pastors arose from within the Confessing Church to actively resist the Nazis and seek to rescue the vulnerable.
As the Nazis grew in power, many Christians struggled with their racism and intrusion into the Church. “What is often called ‘the Church struggle’ (Kirchenkampf) refers broadly to the situation of the Christian churches in Germany from Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 to the end of the Second World War in 1945.”
From Communist Romania, where more than 5,000 priests were imprisoned, to Communist China, where the true believers resisted the government-sponsored “Three Self Church,” there have been those who have said with the apostles, “As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). So too, a minority of brave leaders took a stand against Hitler.
Barth and Schneider
Theologian Karl Barth “reacted not only against the political apathy of Evangelical Christians,” he “issued a call to arms against the German Christian movement and against any marriage of Christianity with Nazism.” Pastor Paul Schneider urged his congregation to resist Nazism and to obey God rather than man. It was too much for his flock to handle. “Less than a month after he preached this sermon, Schneider was forced out of the pulpit and reassigned to the churches of Dickenshied and Womrath, where the congregations were more supportive of the Confessing Church.” Schneider became the first evangelical pastor to die in a concentration camp.
German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s response to Nazism has been one of the most hotly contested and discussed topics since his death at the hands of the Nazis in 1945. Because he didn’t survive the war, biographers have been seeking to piece his life together for almost 80 years. We, too, will take a modest stab at it. Some have painted him a liberal pacifist, some claim he became an atheist (which is ridiculous), and others see him as a model for American right-wing activism. One thing is for sure, he is the most significant name when it comes to Christian resistance to Adolf Hitler and his final solution.
Being Lutheran, Bonhoeffer did not immediately develop his theories on civil disobedience. He was, like most theologians and pastors of his day, non-political. Nevertheless, he would soon find his voice on the matter. He spoke against the Nazis and called the Church to choose sides. He advocated for helping the Jews. He taught: “The Church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community.” (emphasis added)
Bonhoeffer began “to flesh out his ideas on how the Church should engage a State that was destroying the innocent. Many Christians simply did not know what to do. They did not know what they could do or even what they should do. Bonhoeffer offered three radical responses to the injustice that would place Christians in real danger from the State if they were to take the side of the Jewish victims.” It appears that Bonhoeffer began to oppose Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms at this time (even if not outright) by suggesting that first, we must “question state injustice and call the state to responsibility; the second was to help the victims of injustice, whether they were church members or not. Ultimately, however, the Church might find itself called ‘not only to help the victims who have fallen under the wheel but to fall into the spokes of the wheel itself in order to halt the machinery of injustice.’” Better translated, “the Church has to throw itself between the spokes of the wheel in order to stop it! (emphasis added).” He would grow further away from the idea that the Christian must pledge loyalty to the State. “Four years later … he would begin to criticize the Two Kingdoms Theory harshly.”
Later, in Ethics, which was published posthumously, Bonhoeffer passionately wrote: “The Church … was silent when it should have cried out because the blood of the innocent was crying aloud to heaven.… It has stood by while violence and wrong were being done under cover of … the name of Jesus Christ.… The Church confesses that it has witnessed the lawless application of brute force, the physical and spiritual suffering of countless innocent people, oppression, hatred, and murder and that it has not found ways to hasten their aid.”
Sadly, the vast majority of evangelical Christian ministers living in Germany and the surrounding European nations rejected Bonhoeffer’s call to action. Some actually believed that it was their duty as a Christian to submit to the government of Hitler. Others went much further and actively sought the favor of the Fuhrer.
Bad theology has bad consequences. I have been critical of Palestinian theologians who have developed their liberation theology in the shadow of what they would call oppression (Of course, Liberation theology removes the gospel). I’ve said you can’t create theology with your emotions. But on the other hand, that is exactly what the German theologians did. They divorced themselves from the emotional impact of genocide. If the Germans had allowed what was happening around them to touch their emotions, they would not have been so hard-hearted.
I’ve come to see that our emotions should play a role in developing good theology, as long as our emotions are submitted to the Word of God. If we allow our emotions to be affected, it will cause us to ask questions—hard questions. I don’t believe God is afraid of hard questions.
Don’t assume that everything you believe is biblical just because it is how you were raised in the faith. The Germans believed that it was their duty to submit to Hitler because that is what Lutherans had embraced for 400 years. Those of us looking at it today would say that’s ridiculous. The question for us is, what doctrines are we holding onto that 100 years from now, people will be shocked that we believe them?