PART 9 OF 12
Nonviolence and Hitler
BY HERB MONTGOMERY
He that leads others into captivity shall go into captivity himself: he that kills with the sword, will be killed with the sword. Here is the patience and the faith of the saints. (Revelation 13.10)
We are nearing the end of our series on the active non-violence of Jesus. We have gotten such good feedback from so many of you for whom this series has been a beautiful journey. For some of you, it’s been a journey of discovery, and for each of you, I’m stoked about how this series has blessed you. I want to remind us at the very beginning of this week of the danger of binary thinking on this issue. Again, binary thinking only sees two options. Too often when others encounter the peace teachings of Jesus, the response is, “So you are just going to sit back and do nothing?” As if there are only two options: Violence or Do Nothing. This binary thinking does not take into account the myriad of other creative, non-violent ways in which followers of Jesus’ teachings are called to set world change in motion. This is also a great place to mention again that Christian pacifism can be very different from other forms of pacifism. Those who follow Jesus’ teachings and example are always willing to lay down their own lives for world change, but are simply not willing to take life for world change. But doing nothing is never an option. This will be important to remember as we discuss our topic this week.
I had planned this week on discussing two questions that come up whenever the peace teachings of Jesus are beginning to be taken seriously. But I’ve decided each one deserves its own week for the sake of space and time, so we’ll take them one at a time.
This week, we are going to be addressing the question, “Well, Jesus’ peace teachings are well and good, but sometimes we have to be pragmatic! I mean, what about World War II with the Allied forces against Hitler and the Nazis?”
So much has been and could be said about Hitler and the Allied forces, but this week, there are three very important elements to Jesus’ peace teachings that we must not forget. Let’s start with the easiest one first.
1)Jesus’ teachings are not necessarily universal principles about how governments should handle their affairs, but simply how HIS followers are called to live.
As I have said before in this series, Jesus never concerned himself with how Caesar ran Rome. Jesus was not interested in reforming political policy. His reforms went much deeper, striking at the root of that which governments only seek to control the fruit of. Therefore, Jesus’ peace teachings were not focused on how any kingdom of this world should behave. Jesus’ peace teachings were not and are not a call to governments to become more peaceful. On the contrary, Jesus’ peace teachings were directed at those desiring to be followers of Jesus Himself and how those who bear His name could live radically peaceful, but subversive lives bringing and end to all kingdoms of this world and the establishment of a Kingdom which would never end. This series has simply been a call to Christians to repentance, to turn around and change the direction we are moving. The Christian religion has too often been fixated on others outside its borders and their need for repentance, while simultaneously being very opposed to looking at any need within its own borders for repentance. This series is a call to those who bear Jesus’ name (“CHRIST”ian), asking those who claim to follow Jesus to begin taking more seriously what their Jesus actually taught. For the first three hundred years, those who claimed to follow this Jesus were therefore pacifists. Beginning in the fourth century, the Christian religion began adopting exceptions to Jesus’ teachings and then to embrace those exceptions to the degree that today Jesus’ teachings in regard to how His followers should behave are seen as something that in a fallen world can never really be lived out. All the exceptions have become the norm, and Jesus’ teachings have become the exception. Today we have a stark difference between what the Christian religion teaches on this subject and what Jesus Himself actually taught. Today, because of whatever justification it embraces for abandoning Jesus’ peace teaching, the Christian religion is virtually saying, “I am a Christian, however in this regard, the actual teachings of Jesus do not work, and we need to discard Jesus’ teachings in this matter. Given certain situations, the teachings of Jesus fail us.” This is the Justified Violence or Justified War theory in essence. Today, Christians end up submitting Jesus, actually marginalizing Jesus, to follow in His place a very different, pragmatic, goal-oriented point of view. Again, I want to be clear: Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence are not given in an effort to tell governments to become more peaceful. Jesus’ teachings are about us, as Christ’s followers, and whether we will partner with that government in the use of violence. Today, 87% of the members of the religious right in America are not only open to and supportive of, but are actually participating with America in going into other countries and killing others, claiming that America is “going to war in Jesus’ name.” This is nothing short of heresy. (The only difference is, pacifists won’t kill others for spreading heresy. But they will call it by its name.) Again, this is not an issue of whether America, or any nation, for that matter, should go to war. Rather, it IS an issue when the leader of any government claims to be a brother (or sister) in Christ and then claims to be taking that specific nation into war in “Jesus’ name” (as a President of the United States did recently).
(As an aside, this is another reason why there is truly no such thing as a “Christian” government or nation. “Christian” originally meant “one who follows the teachings of Jesus.” Any government or nation that takes seriously Jesus’ teachings, even peace teachings alone, would eventually cease to exist.)
2)Second, I want to share with you a statement I shared months ago on Facebook and Twitter. It is the words of John Stoner from his 1984’s modest proposal for peace.
“Let the Christians of the world agree that they will not kill each other.”
Stuart Murray recounts his own experience with how others have responded to this statement:
“Responses to this proposal have been interesting, as I have tested it out in many contexts. Quite often it takes a while for people to appreciate its disturbing significance and the way its implications ripple out. Most agree that they should not kill other members of their own congregation. They then extend this to other congregations in their own denomination and beyond it. But what about Christians from other nations in war zones or Christian combatants in opposing armies? And how do we know who are the Christian soldiers or civilians in war zones? And why should we give preferential treatment to Christians? Gradually the challenge of this ‘modest proposal’ dawns on us.” (Stuart Murray. The Naked Anabaptist )
The point is this: The most Christianized nation in the world during the time when Hitler rose to power was not America. It was Germany, the birthplace of the reformation. Hitler even viewed himself as a faithful “Christian.”
“My feelings as a Christian point me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter . . . . Jesus was greater, not as a sufferer, but as a fighter! In boundless love, as a Christian, and as a man, I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders . . . . As a Christian, I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for Truth and Justice . . . . And if there is anything which could demonstrate that we are acting rightly, it is the distress that daily grows.” (Adolf Hitler, speech from April 12, 1922, published in My New Order.)
Far from Jesus’ peace teaching permitting Hitler to take over the world, if the Protestant and Catholic Germans had placed following Jesus above their patriotism and identity as Germans and had taken Jesus peace teachings seriously, Hitler would have never had an army to begin with. Christians who follow Jesus’ peace teachings would not have allowed Hitler to take over the world; they would have, on the contrary, kept Hitler and the Nazi party from even getting off the ground in Germany. But what about secondarily, once someone like a Hitler does get off the ground? Then what? This leads me to number three.
3)I want us to consider Dietrich Bonheoffer’s (a pacifist who did take Jesus’ peace teachings seriously and was a German, living in Germany during the time of Hitler) own story.
You see, binary thinking (two options: Use violence or do nothing) is built on assumptions that may not be necessarily correct. Binary thinking assumes that with violence you will win and your enemy will lose, and that without violence your enemy will win and you will lose. But this is not even remotely a statistical truth. Bonheoffer, seeing the atrocities committed by the Nazi’s and Hitler, embraced using violence to try and stop Hitler. He did not abandon his pacifism. He never said what he was doing was right. I can at least respect him for this. He said that his using violence was evil (he actually called it a sin), but he compared it to Abraham killing Isaac while later the Ten Commandments clearly would say, “Thou shalt not kill.” Bonheoffer said it was wrong, but it was the lesser of two wrongs, and he felt God was calling him to go against the teachings of Jesus in much the way Abraham was called to go against what would later be written in the Ten Commandments. (Interesting logic, to say the least.)
But here is how the story turned out. In an interview with Hitler’s secretary, she states that Hitler was at a breaking point. He was seriously questioning his own extermination program of the Jews. He was considering closing the extermination camps and focusing his energies on winning the war. Then one day, there was a briefcase placed in Hitler’s office (the bomb the team Bonheoffer was a part of had an insider in place). Hitler hit the briefcase with his knee when taking his seat behind his desk, and the briefcase was moved only five feet away. When the bomb went off, everyone in the room was fatally wounded except Hitler, who was sitting behind the desk and therefore protected. Hitler walked away while everyone else in the room died. Hitler then interpreted this as a “Divine Sign” that he was on the right track and that God had miraculously protected his life for the purpose he was pursuing. He took up his extermination of the Jews with renewed vigor, and Bonheoffer was later arrested with others and eventually executed for his crimes against Hitler.
Now let’s be clear. This story doesn’t prove that nonviolence always works and violence always fails. Sometimes it’s quite the opposite. What this story proves is that binary thinking is based on assumptions that are not true. Violence doesn’t always work. Many times (more times than not), it backfires. Violence can, and often does, make things worse than they would have been had a nonviolent solution been sought. But pass or fail, we do not live the life of nonviolence because it always works. Remember, followers of Jesus live a life of nonviolence simply because, whether it works or fails, it’s the way Jesus Himself taught and demonstrated with His own life that his followers are to live. To the objection that those who embrace nonviolence will die, Jesus said, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword” too! Yes, you may die by not carrying a sword, but you’ll die by carrying one as well. The point it: You can die either way. The question is how you chose to die: 1) following Jesus or 2) following something or someone else. It was how the early church died, “dying well” that made the movement of Christianity unstoppable until the fourth century.
I want to also stop at this point this week and ask the question again with which we started this series. Can a pacifist honor someone who believes in justified war? You bet ya! Honor and acceptance does not mean agreement. I can honor those who were willing to risk their life for a cause they believed in on that basis alone, whether or not I agree that we should ever take life for a cause we believe in. The fact that someone would embrace a cause so passionately as to give his or her own life for it, if he or she is doing this conscientiously to the best of his or her understanding of what the scriptures teach, is honorable. The disagreement is not about whether we should ever be willing to die for a cause. The issue under discussion is whether we should ever be willing to kill for a cause.
It really depends on what your picture of God is. If God looks like Jesus, then you have a God who not only teaches, but commands and even demonstrates by example, a life of nonviolence and pacifism. If God doesn’t look like Jesus, but something else, then if by whatever standard you define your God you believe in a violent God, it produces a loophole that we will always exploit to find a way to ignore the teachings of Jesus and embrace and use violence ourselves.
The question really isn’t about violence or non-violence at all. The question is, was Jesus really God?
If not, then we must look elsewhere for our definition of what God is. If Jesus was right, and I believe He was, when he said, “if you have seen Me you have seen the Father” (John 14.9), then that changes everything. And really, that was the whole intention of the coming of God to us in the human form of Jesus to begin with. The revelation of God in Jesus was for the purpose of changing everything!
Much to ponder, for sure. At the very minimum, even non-Christians agree that Jesus taught the way of nonviolence. The questions that remain are 1) how to apply Jesus’ teaching of nonviolence to our lives as followers of Jesus, and 2) how does this radically redefine who and what God really is?
No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. – John 1.18
It is also well to remember that when Jesus gave these teachings, Caesar was a kind of Hitler. (Nero Caesar definitely was.) Neither Jesus nor the early church chose the way of violence to bring about Caesar’s overthrow. They exemplified and taught the way of peace and nonviolence as the way to bring about a better Kingdom, an eternal, nonviolent one. Peace by peaceful means.
In 1941, after a period of neutrality, Bulgaria allied itself with Nazi Germany. This was a decision partly motivated by the Bulgarian government’s wish to regain neighboring territories that it had lost in previous wars. Early in 1943, the government in Sofia signed a secret agreement with the Nazis to deport 20,000 Jews. The deportations started with Jews in the annexed territories.
Between March 4 and March 11 of that year, soldiers rounded up thousands of Jews and prepared boxcars to take them to the Treblinka extermination camp in occupied Poland, where approximately 850,000 people almost all Jews perished in World War II.
On March 10, boxcars were loaded with 8,500 Jews, including 1,500 from the city of Plovdiv. The bishop of Plovdiv, Metropolitan Kirill (later Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church), along with 300 church members, showed up at the station where the Jews were awaiting transport. The story is told by Tony Campolo in the documentary Prince of Peace, God of War (a low budget, but excellent nonetheless for it, documentary featuring many voices on both sides of this issue including someone I respect deeply for his influence in my life on this topic, Pastor Bruxy Cavey of The Meeting House.) Here is Tony’s retelling of the story:
“When they came with SS troopers to round up the Jews in Sofia, they got the Jews down at the train station, had them in a barbed wire enclosure. It was a rainy, misty night. Out the darkness, at 11:00 p.m., came Metropolitan Kirill, the leader of the orthodox church in Bulgaria. This seven foot four figure, with his long flowing white beard hanging over his black robes immerges out of the fog, then behind him came about three hundred of the members of his congregation. They say his gait was so quick, so fast, the other men had to run just to keep up with him. He came to the entrance of the barbed wire enclosure. The SS guards pointed their machine guns at him, and said, “You can’t go in there Father.” He laughed at them and brushed their machine guns aside and marched in among the Jews. They gathered around him seeing what the Christian leader of Bulgaria would have to say, in their moment of distress, in their moment of need. They were crying, some of them were hysterical. They knew they were heading for Auschwitz, unless something miraculous happened. And something miraculous did.
Metropolitan Kirill raised his arms and quoted one verse of scripture, and changed the destiny of a nation. Quoting from the book of Ruth, he said to the Jews, hysterical, knowing they were about to be carted off to their death:
“Whithersoever thou goest I will go. You’re people will be my people. Your God will be my God.”
The Jews cheered. The Christians who were outside the barbed wire enclosure cheered. The noise was so great the people came out of their houses and started coming down in increasing numbers to the train station. The hundreds grew to thousands. The SS soldiers knew there was no way they were going to get away with rounding up these Jews and carrying them off to Auschwitz. The train left without the Jews. And never returned again. Not a single Bulgarian Jew ever died in the concentration camps because the church of Jesus Christ boldly stood up, and said, “We’re not going to KILL the enemy. We are going to identify with those suffering, and we will suffer with them.”
This is Jesus’ way!”
This story affects me at such a deeply profound level. At the beginning of World War II, the Jewish population of Bulgaria was 48,000. At the end it was 50,000, making Bulgaria the only country under Nazi rule to end the war with more Jews than at the beginning.
Metropolitan Kirill died in 1971. In 2003, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem recognized him as Righteous Among the Nations.
I want to close this week acknowledging that I am fully aware that there are some out there who are really upset at me and Renewed Heart Ministries for endeavoring to take seriously Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence and embracing it in this way. I’ve heard your feed back. Some of you are so upset you don’t know how to respond. You are just really upset. I want to encourage you not to walk away, but please, let’s keep talking. I’m not trying to make following Jesus hard. No, no. I simply want to be honest about the teachings of Jesus that already are hard. The question is, will we allow ourselves to be challenged, as followers of Jesus, to creatively come up with ways in which we will be able to change the world through such a radical, life-changing, other-centered, self-sacrificial, passionate-for-peace approach to life? To do this in a way so that we become like our first forefathers? Not the American’s forefathers—I’m talking about our forefathers, the first century Christian forefathers, whose blood became the seed. And we see that that has the power to change the world. Constantine was a great counter-maneuver of the demonic powers. The only way to defeat Christianity in the fourth century, was not to crush it out, but to confuse everybody by causing Christians to lay down the cross as a way of life, and to pick the sword back up instead. Living nonviolently is radical, I know. But we must begin to wrestle with how we can turn the world upside down again as our true forefathers did.
This week, I want to encourage us to submit to Jesus not just as our Savior, but also as our Lord. The history of Christianity does not prove that the teachings of Jesus have been “tried and found wanting, but rather that the teachings of Jesus have been found hard and left untried.” (G.K. Chesterton)
This week, keep living in God’s extravagant love for you as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, and may we all embrace a way life characterized by loving as Christ does, even loving our enemies. And thereby, we will build the Kingdom.
If you, through this series, have come to embrace the peace teachings of Jesus, either for the first time or anew, I want to say this to you. There are churches out there that are following the peace teachings of Jesus (may have Anabaptist roots in principle if not literally). They are not following the “just war” theory that so many Christians embrace today. I want to encourage you to find one of these churches and begin talking with them wherever you are. (If you can’t find one, shoot me an e-mail and I’ll help you find one.) Many of them have years of experience with applying Jesus’ peace teachings in practical ways in real life, and they will be an invaluable resource to you as you seek to become a follower of Jesus more deeply.
Much love to each of you this week.
I really do love you guys,
I’ll see you next week.