Lessons From the Reich Church (Part 6 of 6)
The 1930s and 40s in Germany are remembered as a particularly dark time for humanity, as millions of lives- Jews, the mentally retarded, and other so-called undesirables- were lost to the twisted ethos of National Socialism. One aspect that is difficult to understand today is the way that many common citizens, including the German Evangelical Church, were complicit in the Nazis’ rise- from pledging allegiance to Hitler to adopting the Aryan Paragraph and the Nuremberg Laws. Today we are posting the conclusion to a series of articles considering five mistakes made by the German Christians in the years leading up to World War II.
1. Willing Blindness and Timidity
The actions of German Christians during this period were at best willful ignorance and at worst complicity. The root of this is disobedience to the commandment that Jesus gave to the twelve disciples when he sent them out to heal and teach in his name:
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matt 10:16)
In other words, the German Christians maintained their innocence at the expense of their wisdom. Bonhoeffer wrote about those who preferred to maintain private virtuousness while remaining blind to the evil around them:
“Such people neither steal, nor murder, nor commit adultery, but do good according to their abilities. But…they must close their eyes and ears to the injustice around them. Only at the cost of self-deception can they keep their private blamelessness clean from the stains of responsible action in the world. In all that they do, what they fail to do will not let them rest. They will either be destroyed by this unrest, or they will become the most hypocritical of all Pharisees.”
One manifestation of this attitude was attempts by German Christians to convert key members of the Reich government, and by parts of the Confessing Church to engage in dialogue with Hitler and the Reich Church. Now, it is always a good idea to pray for your leaders, and to share the Gospel with them if given the opportunity. But the actions of these well-meaning German Christians were based on ignorance of the evil of National Socialism, and a watering-down of the Gospel to make it more palatable by preaching hatred against Jews. Bonhoeffer commented on this in an essay written to the Confessing Church:
“Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you (Matt. 7:6). The promise of grace is not to be squandered; it needs to be protected from the godless. There are those who are not worthy of the sanctuary. The proclamation of grace has its limits. Grace may not be proclaimed to anyone who does not recognize or distinguish or desire it…The preaching of grace can only be protected by the preaching of repentance.”
I have selected willful blindness, caused by timidity, as the number one mistake of the German Church because it is what led to the other problems: because they were not willing to boldly face the truth of what the Nazis were doing, and the truth of what the Bible commanded, they diluted their theology. They forsook their knowledge about what is right and conformed to what society was doing.
Jesus demands much of his followers; more than moral lives, more than regular church attendance, and more than sound theology. He demands obedience, and lives devoted to him. To try to remain separate from the world ignores the example of Jesus, who left his heavenly throne to walk with sinners and tax collectors.
Straddling the line between engagement and separation, wisdom and innocence, is one of the most difficult challenges of the Christian life. May we redeem the mistakes of the German Christians by avoiding the same temptations that caused them to fall. One final word from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
“Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” is a saying of Jesus. As with all of his sayings, it is he himself who interprets it. No one can look at God and at the reality of the world with undivided gaze as long as God and the world are torn apart. Despite all efforts to prevent it the eyes still wander from one to the other. Only because there is one place where God and the reality of the world are reconciled with each other, at which God and humanity have become one, is it possible there and there alone to fix one’s eyes on God and the world together at the same time. This place…lies in Jesus Christ the reconciler of the world.”