Sunday, August 23, 2020

The Message

I've long been interested in the intersection of politics and religion. It was particularly on display this past week at the Democratic National Convention, where each session opened and ended with one or more member of the clergy leading a prayer. As with all American political events, every major speech ended with some variation of "May God bless the United States of America." The final night, in its video biography of Joe Biden, went into some detail on his personal Catholic faith and showed his interactions with pastors from other faith traditions.

And, of course, the Democratic party is widely considered the less religious of the two major parties. I fully expect that the Republican convention next week will contain considerably more religiously-charged language throughout the event.

It's somewhat fortuitous that these events fell while I finished a book about another, far more intense relationship between politics and religious: the role of the Christian church in Nazi Germany. More than a year ago my dad recommended the book Preaching in Hitler's Shadow. Edited by Dean G. Stroud and published in 2013, this is an amazing book that focuses on the sermons preached by members of the Confessing Church and other antifascist German pastors during the time between the 1932 elections (when the Nazi party won a plurality of votes) and the end of WW2.

There is a fairly long and very well-written introduction introducing the historical context of the situation in Germany at the time. Stroud had initially intended to write a book about the sermons, but eventually decided to focus on the sermons themselves; fortunately, he presents all of his research in a very coherent and thoughtful way. I had only a very vague understanding of what was happening in the German church: I had seen photos of churches with swastikas surrounding altars and pulpits, knew that the Pope Pius has been criticized for failing to speak out against Hitler, and was familiar with Bonhoeffer's role in the Confessing Church.

As one might expect, there was a huge range of responses to the Nazis. The dominant group at the time was a group called the German Christian movement; Stroud notes the confusion of the name and reserves "German Christian" for that faction while saying "Christians in Germany" or other phrases for the broader church. The German Christians were heavily influenced by anti-semitic and pro-Aryan thoughts, well in advance of Hitler's chancellorship but even more so afterwards. They "modernized" Christian theology by eliminating the Old Testament and Paul's epistles to expunge Jewish influences from the Bible. In the remaining New Testament, Jewish people are cast as the villains, oppressing an Aryan Jesus; in the present day, they believed, they could finally avenge Jesus's death and create a pure Germanic Christianity. (This theology bears some eerie similarities to the Levitican theology in Neal Stephenson's "Fall": Jesus's sacrifice is a weakness, and Jesus must be strong, so the central tenet of Christianity is discarded, and a new faith is declared built around power.)

(Oh, and one other tie-in to recent reading: It wasn't until the appendix that I realized that German pastors actually had their salary paid by the state. That was surprising to me, and made me rethink a lot about their situation. It reminded me of trifunctional societies, as presented by Thomas Piketty in Capital & Ideology, where there's a balance between the warrior aristocracy class and the scholarly clergy class: in Germany, clergy (clerics / clerks) performed some administrative functions for the state, including recording births, deaths, and so on. As usual, I find that my American upbringing can make me kind of blind to how common it was to not have a separation between church and state.)

The German Christian movement went to great lengths to ingratiate itself to Hitler, seeking to unify all of the disparate Protestant churches under a single, powerful, "positive" umbrella, and going so far as requiring all pastors to swear a loyalty oath to Hitler. Ironically, Hitler didn't seem to care about this at all: for all the GC's fawning and obsequiousness, Hitler only had contempt for Christianity, whether German or otherwise. He paid some lip service to Christian traditions and values in the first year after his election, as he consolidated political support and power, but for the most part he didn't believe the church was a threat to worry about or an asset worth controlling.

Fortunately, plenty of other pastors within Germany disagreed, and the bulk of the book is devoted to their words: entire sermons, translated from the German, preached at great personal risk to flocks under the watchful eye of the authoritarian Nazi state. These pastors were variously interrogated, beaten, exiled, thrown into concentration camps, or murdered by the state. The courage of these people alone is inspiring, as merely speaking out carried enormous risk. But they didn't "merely speak out": they spoke with incredibly strong, prophetic words, with great care and skill, battling for the soul of their nation.

One of my favorite things about this book is how it focuses on language: in the introduction and the footnotes, Stroud draws attention to not merely what the pastors were saying but how they were saying it. They were operating in an incredibly charged linguistic atmosphere: Nazi theorists and propagandists took language very seriously, and intentionally bent words and phrases to shape the minds and actions of the German people. Pastors, and particularly those who follow expository preaching, seem to be in a uniquely strong position to counter this threat of the Nazification of the German language, minds, culture and society. I walked away from this book with an image of these pastors doing rhetorical battle against the poisonous words of the Nazis, using their own words to draw distinctions between the Gospel and National Socialism, or to ironically comment on Nazi obsessions, or just make people think about what they heard and said.

One way Stroud does this is by keeping particularly charged words untranslated in the text: throughout the sermons, he notes where pastors used words like Volk or Reich, which carried enormous weight in Nazi propaganda. Depending on the context, pastors sometimes subverted these Nazi thoughts, as when they noted that the Jewish people are also a Volk, or when they draw attention to the Reich of heaven. Some of the footnotes could be distracting, but those in-line notations are especially welcome.

The earliest sermons are from some of the most familiar names: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth and Martin Niemoller. I recognized the name Karl Barth but didn't really know anything specific about him; fortunately, each sermon has a brief introduction that introduces the pastor's biography and theology and what they were doing in Nazi Germany. Barth was a very important figure in founding the Confessing Church, and long after the war was one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century. Throughout his career he was a proponent of what was called "neo-orthodoxy", which was a reaction against liberal theology and sought to refocus attention on the actual text of scripture. Reading his biography and sermon reminded me that my left/right division isn't very useful. Nazis were a very right-wing movement, and neo-orthodoxy seems like a conservative (even, in a non-pejorative sense, reactionary) movement; but these movements weren't at all aligned with one another. It's awesome to see how the strong convictions of neo-orthodoxy gave its proponents a strong spine in resisting Nazism, a spine that was often missing from people without strong convictions.

My single favorite sermon in the collection is probably "A Sermon about Kristallnacht" that was preached by Helmut Gollwitzer on the Sunday after Kristallnacht. Mere days before the Nazis had led a pogrom across all of Germany, smashing the windows of Jewish stores, destroying synagogues, ransacking and looting houses, beating and murdering Jews. His sermon opens on page 118 with "Who then on this of all days still has a right to preach? Who then should be preaching repentance on such a day?  Have not our mouths been muzzled on this very day? Can we do anything but fall silent? What good has all the preaching and the hearing of sermons done us and our people and our church? ... What do we expect God to do, if we come to him now singing, reading our Bibles, praying, preaching, and confessing our sins as if we can really count on his being here and on all this being more than empty religious activity? Our impertinance and presumption must make him sick. Why don't we at least just keep our mouths shut? Yes, that might be the right thing to do. What if we just sat here for an entire hour without saying a word, no singing, no speaking, just preparing ourselves silently for God's punishment, which we have already earned?"

(Transcribed by hand, please excuse typos.)

The whole thing is great, but to just pick out another passage on 122, he continues with "It is inside us all; this truth that upright men and women can turn into horrible beasts is an indication of what lies hidden within each of us to a greater or lesser degree. All of us have done our part in this: one by being a coward, another by comfortably stepping out of everyone's way, by passing by, by being silent, by closing our eyes, by laziness of heart that only notices another's need when it is openly apparent, by the damnable caution that lets itself be prevented from every good deed, by every disapproving glance and every threatening consequence, by the stupid hope that everything will get better on its own without our having to become courageously involved ourselves."

Throughout the sermon, he doesn't just condemn the actions of the attackers and the silent complicity of all Germans: he calls to scripture, specifically John the Baptist, using gospel words to highlight the evil of what had transpired and was still happening. Near the end on page 124 he rhetorically asks "'What then should we do?' In answer John the Baptist places your neighbor right before your eyes just at the moment of forgiveness. The unwillingness to repent destroys the bridge leading to your neighbor. Repentance rebuilds this bridge. This neighbor does not excel in any way that would cause the world to find him worthy of help -- nowhere is it said that he deserves our help. Nowhere are we told that between him and you there is a common bond of race or a people (Volk) or special interests or class or sympathy. He can only point to one thing, and it is that one thing that makes that person your neighbor -- he lacks what you have. You have two cloaks, he has none; you have something to eat, he has nothing to eat; you have protection, he has lost all protection; you have honor, honor has been taken away from him; you have a family and friends, he is completely alone; you still have some money, his is all gone; you have a roof over your head, he is homeless. In addition to all this, he has been left to your mercy, left to your greed (see yourself in the example of the tax collector!), and left to your sense of power (see yourself today in the example of the soldier!)."

These pastors were not preaching into a vaccuum, either politically or theologically. On page 81, Paul Schneider comments during a sermon "Let us never say that this does not concern us, for the German Christian Faith Movement is now claiming to be the religion of all Germans."

That aisde really resonated with me. It feels very unfair to feel pressured to denounce people who others see as sharing your community who you don't agree with; think of the demands for Muslim politicians in America to denounce terror attacks carried out by ISIS, or for Christian churches to denounce Westboro Baptist. You naturally think, "Those people aren't like me, and I resent the implication that I'm responsible for them and being grouped together with them." But, I think it's important when the faction in question is in power or is ascendent. During my lifetime, the "Moral Majority" and other Christian groups in America have claimed to speak on behalf of all Christians, and presented a version of Christianity that is almost unrecognizable to me: pro-war, anti-love, embracing guns and vengeance instead of mercy and sacrifice. I think we can safely ignore the small fringe groups, but when someone claims to speak for all Christians and has a large megaphone, it's important for everyone's sake for other Christians to make clear that this is not true.

The pastors in this book choose many different ways to speak out. Many pastors strike at the overall Nazi ideology, or the heresies of the German Christian movement, pitting systems of ideas against one another. Other pastors speak out against specific actions, as with the urgent sermons in the aftermath of Kristallnacht and the invasion of Poland. They're biblical sermons, anchored in scripture, but they don't shy away from denouncing the particular offenses taken by the Third Reich. Reading these reminded me of how some churches in the United States during Christmas have erected nativity scenes with Jesus, Mary and Joseph encased in separate cages, bearing powerful witness to the atrocities we are committing at the border as we tear families apart. Lots of people in America in 2020 were outraged by these Nativity scenes, and talked about how churches should stay out of politics, which is all distressingly similar to how many Germans criticized anti-Nazi pastors in the 1930s who spoke out against the evils being done in their own country.

We have separation of church and state in America, which I think is a good thing that protects both institutions from each other. But being separate from the government does not mean being separate from the people or the nation. For some time now, many people have thought of religious speech as being diametrically opposed to secular action, talking as a replacement for doing. "Thoughts and prayers" is the common soporific in America, inviting people to divert their energies away from meaningful change and into useless navel-gazing. But, it doesn't have to be this way. Later in life Helmut Gollwitzer said of preaching that "In no other form of speech are things taken so seriously, is our whole existence so challenged, even put at risk. In no form of speech does our word itself so much take the form of action, of intervention in the history of hearers, as in this." (page 115). Think of the powerful sermons from people like Martin Luther King Jr. or Dr. William Barber. Their speech spark literal movements, and, as Helmut implies, are a form of action, a kind of pushing that demands response. To be sure, not every sermon or preacher rises to this level, but this form of speech is capable of it, a divine intervention into earthly affairs that can shock us out of our complacency and move us to do what we must do.

1 comment:

  1. Great precis of this important little volume, Chris. Thanks for taking the time to write it!