Like many people, I have become intrigued with the question of how an entire national church – the Lutheran church in Germany – went along with the political agenda of Adolf Hitler.
A few years ago I picked up a book by New York author Eric Metaxas titled Bonhoeffer – Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a very young German theologian who began to sound warnings in the early 1930s about Hitler – long before concentration camps and gas chambers.
An early pressure point was the State’s insistence that the church adopt the so-called Aryan clause to exclude people of Jewish background in positions of authority.
This included a ban on Jewish converts becoming Lutheran ministers.
Bonhoeffer was aghast and began challenging the Lutheran church to again become Christian in more than name only and to reject the Aryan clause.
Metaxas writes that no one took Bonhoeffer seriously.
When the Lutheran national synod convened in September 1934, 80 per cent of the delegates were wearing the Brown Shirts of the Nazi party.
By year’s end the Lutheran church’s capitulation was complete with it caving in to Hitler’s wish to affiliate with the Nazis and became the Reich Church. Swastikas were displayed in churches.
National Socialism of course was extremely popular in Germany – it energised the nation. It was a cultural phenomenon.
So why this history lesson?
Isn’t it dangerous to draw comparisons with the Nazis? It is often said that whoever invokes Hitler first in an argument loses.
That may be so but as I read about Bonhoeffer, I can’t help but be struck by the similarities between then and now.
I’m certainly not suggesting we are about to be overrun by men in jackboots marching the innocent off to death camps.
Nonetheless, many of us are sensing there is a political and cultural pushback to being a serious Christian in the public square.
A Catholic Archbishop, Julian Porteous, is currently before the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commission for distributing a very respectful booklet about marriage.
This has come as a shock.
But I am concerned about some of today’s cultural and political trends and the silence from us as Christians.
Sadly when Bonhoeffer urged the church to speak it rejected him.
This motivated him to say:
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Two weeks before World War II ended, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged on the orders of Hitler.
Soon after World War II leaders of the evangelical church in Germany met at Stuttgart and did some serious soul searching.
The result was a document called the Stuttgart Declaration which said “it is our self-indictment that we have not made a more courageous confession.”
We are not facing a crisis in the magnitude of national socialism but we are facing a crisis nonetheless as the social order for children is re-engineered.
The pressure to remain silent on a range of issues is enormous.
If we learn the lessons of history and rediscover the church’s role as conscience for the nation, we can be salt and light and help build a more just and compassionate society.
Let’s not be writing our own Stuttgart Declaration in 10 years’ time.