This blog post is a follow-up to a previous post, “the complicity of moderates.” It apparently offended a small number of self-disclosed moderates on Facebook who felt that my intention was to shame them. That was not my intention. Some claimed that they actually took stands as needed, but then their stand would have been necessarily toward one extreme or another, to the right or to the left, because there is no clearly defined middle way to respond to evil.

As a response, I will use an example from my first book.[1] It has to do with the Protestant Church in Nazi Germany, a nation of about 60 million people. In the early 1930s, two-thirds of the population was Protestant (about 40 million members) and the remaining third was Roman Catholic (about 20 million). Less than 1 percent (600,000) were Jewish.

Because the modern state of Germany was created from of a number of small independent principalities and kingdoms in the late nineteenth century, the Lutheran and Reformed (Calvinist) Protestant churches of Germany remained separated as 28 independent regional bodies reflecting their origins as small state-sponsored churches (Landeskirchen) with the local ruler as head. In 1922, they formed a loose federation to participate jointly in mission activities, but they did not come together as one unified church until April 1933 when the German Evangelical Church (Deutsche Evangelische Kirche) was created under the direction of Adolf Hitler.

Only months earlier, in January 1933, German President Paul von Hindenburg (1847–1934) had appointed Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) as Chancellor of Germany. When Hindenburg died the following year, Hitler combined the offices of chancellor and president and became the nation’s dictator. Many Christians in Germany openly welcomed Hitler’s National Socialist (Nazi) party to power as a historic moment of Christ’s work on earth for and through the Aryan Volk (German for people).

As it rose to power in the 1930s, the Nazi message was that in spite of their God-given destiny, the nation was threatened from within by the insidious presence of Communists, Jews, and liberals in their midst. Hitler told the nation that their duty was to purify themselves of these influences to prepare for their divine vocation as God’s anointed nation. His message was that he would make Germany great again.

The newly-formed German Evangelical Church was founded under the strong influence of an anti-Semitic faction called the German Christians (Deutsche Christen) who were proponents of the Nazi party and its belief that the nation could only fulfill its destiny by absolute obedience to a strong leader (Führer). This faction, representing about one out of six Protestant clergy, was not alone in its prejudice against Jews. Anti-Semitism had long been a characteristic of many Christians since the Middle Ages, especially in Northern Europe.

In September 1933, Ludwig Müller (1883–1945), a leader of the German Christian faction, was appointed by Adolf Hitler as Reich Bishop (Reichsbischof) of the newly unified church. Müller’s task was to bring the church under the absolute control of the Third Reich and its Führer. Hitler believed that religion, along with other cultural elements, needed to be brought in line with the Nazi vision. He ordered members of the Nazi party to demonstrate a powerful religious presence by filling the pews of Christian churches in uniform every Sunday.

Reichsbischof Müller supported a revisionist view of the historical Jesus which proposed that Jesus had been a member of the Aryan race and was not Jewish at all. The German Christian faction envisioned a more “heroic” and “positive” interpretation of Jesus, who was seen as one who battled against corrupt Jewish influences in his society. Müller and others favored a plan to purify Christianity of “Jewish corruption,” including eliminating large parts of the Old Testament from the Bible, and focusing only on a revised New Testament. They rewrote the gospels, calling the region of Judea “Jewland” and suggesting that the people of Jesus’ native Galilee were of Aryan descent. Under Müller, the church implemented the “Aryan paragraph” of the Nazi-sponsored 1933 Civil Service Law that purged people of Jewish descent and those married to non-Aryan spouses from further participation in government-funded positions. This included clergy of the state-supported Protestant churches who were considered to be employees and representatives of the state. Non-Aryan clergy were dismissed from their positions.

In May 1934, Protestant Christians opposed to the Nazi vision and infuriated by the Aryan Clause, met at the industrial city of Barmen in the Rhineland region of Germany. Known as the Confessing Church (Bekennende Kirche), the defiant pastors denounced Müller and his leadership and declared that they and their congregations constituted the true Evangelical Church of Germany. They opposed the theological ideas of the German Christian faction and affirmed that the church owed its ultimate allegiance to God and not to the leader of any state. They protested that the church was not an organ of the state and needed to be independent of political ideologies to be true to its calling. They declared that no person and no nation could be above the law of God. However, to their discredit, the Confessing Church only protested state manipulation of religious affairs. They did not take up defense of the Jews.

During the first six years of Hitler’s dictatorship, from 1933 until the outbreak of war in 1939, Jewish citizens felt the effects of more than 400 decrees and regulations that restricted all aspects of their public and private lives. In September 1935, Nazi leaders announced the Nuremberg Laws that excluded German Jews from Reich citizenship and prohibited them from marrying or having sexual relations with persons of German or German-related blood. They were deprived of most political rights, denied the right to vote, and not allowed to hold public office.

It is estimated that there were about 18,000 Protestant clergy in Germany at this time, ministering to 40 million church members. About 3,000 pastors were part of the German Christian faction and about 3,000 participated in the Confessing Church movement. That left the vast majority, about 12,000 pastors, who remained in the Nazi-controlled church and, not voicing strong opinions either way, simply went along to get along. To a great extent, they believed that their calling was a purely spiritual one and thus took an apolitical stance. And so they remained silent in the face of increasing tyranny. For a time, this seemed like a very safe position, but ultimately it was destructive to the life of the church.

These 12,000 pastors considered themselves faithful moderates and centrists. They, in turn, represented the majority of church-going Protestants, who likewise believed in the historic creeds and Lutheran confessions but remained silent about changes in the political climate. Only a small minority of Christians in Germany ever spoke out against the growing evil as Nazi ideology overtook their land, infiltrating their schools, churches, and institutions.

Historian, civil rights leader, and peace activist Howard Zinn (1922–2010) titled his autobiography You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train. He meant that, at any given time, history is moving along a clear and observable path.  The context of one’s life is not a still point in time but a vector—a course or direction with velocity. Opting for the status quo is not a choice to avoid taking responsibility for historical consequences; it means one is moving along with the popular direction of one’s time. To be neutral is not neutrality at all. It is to make a decision, to take a side, to support a direction, often a direction that can potentially lead to great evil and repression of people at the margins of society.



[1] Kurt Struckmeyer, A Conspiracy of Love: Following Jesus in a Postmodern World, (Wipf and Stock: 2016), Chapter 10: “Bonhoeffer’s Vision.”