Rescue Those Being Led Away to Death
Of human passions and the actions that follow from them, Aristotle wrote the following famous words:
Fear and confidence and appetite and anger and pity and in general pleasure and pain may be felt both too much and too little, and in both cases not well; but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way … this is characteristic of virtue.
The five books under consideration in this review essay tell the story of a time not so long ago when the churches of Jesus Christ failed this Aristotelian test of virtue. When Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany, initiated his anti-Jewish policies, launched World War II, decided on extermination as the Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe, and pursued this policy without mercy for four long years at the cost of six million Jewish lives, the churches failed the moral test this escalating calamity imposed. In general and with notable exceptions, the churches felt too little anger and too little pity; directed that anger and pity too weakly and too late, with mixed motives, and without adequate courage and vigor. The failure of the Church (and the churches) continues today in its inadequately strenuous reckoning with what happened from 1933 to 1945. These five books attempt to offer that historical reckoning, and generally do so well.
One of the besetting difficulties of writing or teaching about the Nazi era is that the Holocaust tends to be the filter through which all data are interpreted. Every moment of the period, from the days of Hitler's rise to power until his death in 1945, is viewed with an awareness of Auschwitz, gas chambers, mass murder. This is perhaps inevitable. It certainly reflects an appropriate moral revulsion.
Those of us on the other side of the Holocaust find it extraordinarily difficult to imagine a world in which Auschwitz did not yet exist. We follow the historical trajectory knowing that it ends in the gas chambers. But the people and institutions whose actions we are studying did not, of course, know at the time that the story would culminate in factories of mass murder.
If we would seek to understand and evaluate the actions of Christians and church leaders in Germany and around the world in 1929 or 1933 or even 1941, we must attempt to reenter their pre-Holocaust world. We must try to imagine Hitler, and perceptions of Hitler, before he became the paradigm of human evil. We also must undertake the arduous task of understanding German and European political, cultural, and religious conditions.
Wolfgang Gerlach offers an excellent account of these conditions as they existed in Germany in his important book And the Witnesses Were Silent, focusing on the response of the German Evangelical Church to Nazism. Some of the same ground is covered in essays collected by Robert Ericksen and Susannah Heschel in their work, Betrayal. It is also the background for The Popes and the Jews, David Kertzer's book on the Vatican stance toward the Jews from 1814 until World War II.
The story begins at the end of the eighteenth century, with the tentative flowering of an Enlightenment-inspired tolerance toward Jews in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. After centuries of religiously inspired anti-Judaism, and the expression of that anti-Judaism through the political and social subordination and isolation of the Jews, many European nations slowly made provision for the emancipation of Jews and their participation in civil society.
Freed from both social and metaphorical ghettoization, some of the emancipated Jews of Germany and other nations joined vigorously in the creation of what became the modern world. In philosophy and the arts, business and government, Jews contributed energetically and quite visibly to the secularized liberal culture of the modernizing Western nations, including Germany.
A social change of this magnitude perhaps inevitably creates a backlash. Indeed, that very backlash, in the form of antimodernism, antiliberalism, and antisecularism, is with us to this day. It characterizes much Christian public rhetoric. The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw this backlash begin and later intensify. It took a variety of forms, both traditional and strangely modern. Traditional antimodernism yearned for the return of an earlier day of cultural and religious homogeneity, and was spearheaded especially by Christian leaders alarmed by growing secularization. But at the same time, a modern antimodernism rooted in pseudoscientific racism began to flourish, offering Social Darwinian theories asserting the superiority of "Aryans" over other races. The focus of these theories, the primary racial enemy, was the newly emancipated Jews.
During the first third of the twentieth century, Gerlach shows, German Protestant leaders were susceptible to both religious anti-Judaism and modern anti-Semitism, though the former rather than the latter held greater sway. Christian anti-Judaism had a very long history.1 The essay by Shelley Baranowski in Betrayal shows that antimodernist anti-Judaism, which blamed Jews for their contribution to deleterious social changes in the secularizing Germany of the era, was an important theme in mainstream Protestant thought during the Weimar era. It dovetailed nicely with this older religious anti-Judaism and proved deeply appealing in German church life. Gerlach documents the expression of anti-Judaism in the German Protestant press during this period, demonstrating that egregious expression of anti-Jewish sentiment was quite common in the widely read Sunday papers as well as sermons and other popular outlets. A section of a sermon by Basel theology professor Dr. Adolf Köberle captures the mood quite well:
The secular, areligious Jew … has followed the path of outrage against God to its final consequence. In his heart, he has bid farewell to the last bits of faith and reverence before God. His ideal is the spirit of the French revolution, the spirit of liberalism and materialism, Marxism and Bolshevism, but also, when possible, the spirit of unprincipled Mammonism and the unbridled greed of a Caesar-like world domination. He is everywhere where there is something to subvert … whether it be marriage and family, love for the Fatherland or the church, discipline and order, chastity and decency, wherever there is something to gain.
Discussing the Köberle sermon, Gerlach incisively concludes: "As the struggle of the German Evangelical Church with the Nazi regime began, such attitudes were widespread in the churches. These prejudices would make any genuine Christian activism on behalf of the Jews virtually impossible."
It was not only Hitler's anti-Semitism that struck a chord in the churches. The Nazi Party positioned itself in the 1920s and early 1930s as the only force standing between Germany and utter social collapse. The chaos of the tottering Weimar Republic is well-known, as is the economic crisis that helped Hitler's rise to power. Hitler and the Nazis promised to reestablish a strong central authority and bring order, restoring Germany's honor after the double humiliation of defeat and a punitively imposed peace, rebuilding the German military, preventing Soviet-style communism from prevailing in Germany, and feeding a hungry people. The Nazis also—and this is often overlooked—promised a return to traditional values, proclaimed a strengthening of Germany's fragmented sense of national community, and demanded the suppression of enemies who undermined these bulwarks of traditional German identity. Nationalism, militarism, community, prosperity, law and order, tradition, authority, anti-communism: not only in Germany have culturally conservative Christians found these themes attractive.
But it would be grossly unfair, as well as historically false, to suggest that Christians in Germany simply welcomed Nazism with open arms. Some did, to be sure, but many did not. The failure of the German church cannot be attributed solely to its own weakness. On the contrary: from their beginnings, the Nazis regarded the church—Protestant and Catholic—as a formidable obstacle to achieving their goals. Gerlach and other scholars tend to downplay or ignore this part of the story, which is illumined by documents from the Nazi era recently posted on the website of the Rutgers Journal of Law and Religion under the auspices of the Nuremberg Project. Compiled and edited by Rutgers law student Julie Seltzer Mandel, whose grandmother survived Auschwitz, the documents reveal that "the destruction of Christianity was explicitly recognized as a purpose of the National Socialist Movement."2 Only the need to consolidate power on the way to totalitarian rule kept the Nazis from openly attacking the church at the outset.
To acknowledge this is not in any way to excuse the ultimate failure of the church in Germany (with some notable exceptions). At a time of great testing, it buckled. But as we look back on the contest between those Christians and a brutal, implacable foe, we have no cause to feel complacent.
The testing of the German church began with the rise of the Nazis in the 1920s, but it began in earnest in 1933. On January 30 of that year, Adolf Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany. Within six months, he had dismantled the parliamentary democracy and was ruling the nation with near-dictatorial power. And within another year, by the end of the summer of 1934, he had assumed total control.
In 1933, under Nazi pressure, an already existing federation of Protestant churches became the German Evangelical Church, a body that the Nazis intended to control and manipulate just as they hoped to coopt the Catholic Church in Germany. There are two primary stories to be told concerning the interaction of the German Evangelical Church and the Hitler regime. One story concerns the church's response to the Nazi government's ever-increasing harassment and persecution of the Jews. The other has to do with the church's effort to protect its interests and discern its duties in relation to the new regime. The stories are deeply interwoven, but not identical, and emphasis must rest on the latter, for that is precisely where the church placed its own emphasis.
These two stories should have been nearly identical. The Protestant churches should have been able to discern that the attack on the Jews in German society—through the street violence of Nazi hooligans, the media violence of Nazi propaganda, and the paper violence of Nazi bureaucrats—posed the primary threat to the interests and the integrity of established German Protestantism. What kind of Christianity stands by, fearful or complicit, and allows such evil to go unchallenged?
Unfortunately, not a single German church leader, with the arguable exception of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, saw that "the Jewish Question" was the defining issue of the era as the era actually unfolded, beginning in 1933. The leading clerics and theologians in German Protestantism who opposed Nazism in any way spent their time battling on two other fronts: the preservation of the institutional independence of the German Evangelical Church, and the maintenance of German Protestant theological integrity. The increasingly constricted civil status of Jews was viewed as a peripheral issue when compared to these more immediate problems—if it was noticed at all.
The "Jewish Question" at first intersected with these two other fronts primarily through Nazi efforts to turn Germans with some degree of "Jewish blood" into second-class citizens (before turning them into noncitizens, and finally into dead bodies). The "Aryan paragraph" legislation of April 1933 forced the dismissal of all "non-Aryan" civil servants from their posts. While the Aryan paragraph did not in these early days apply to clergy or theological faculty, some churchmen argued that the churches and theological schools should voluntarily and patriotically apply the paragraph to themselves—thus dismissing any ministers or professors whom the state would define as non-Aryan.
Of course, if a church or seminary dismissed a competent leader because of an unbiblical racial category defined by the state, grave issues of institutional independence and ecclesial integrity would be raised. Or if the state required church leaders or faculty members to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler; or if the state (or churchmen fiercely loyal to the state) required Christians of Jewish descent to attend separate churches, or to sit in separate sections, or finally to stop attending church at all; or if Christian doctrines would be altered so as to conform to the spirit of the age—all would raise critical institutional and theological issues.
These were in fact the very battles that preoccupied the most insightful of Germany's Protestant leaders during much of the Nazi era. The Confessing Church, that section of German Protestantism that for a time offered some opposition to Nazism, fought most of its battles precisely over the institutional independence and doctrinal purity of the Church. A close reading of the well-known Barmen Declaration of May 1934 clearly shows the centrality of these two themes. That resistance, as well as the ham-handedness of the so-called German Christians (Christians attempting to accommodate Nazism and Protestantism), led Hitler to wash his hands of Protestant church politics, eventually backing off from attempting a total cooptation of the church by the state. So the Confessing Church can fairly be said to have preserved more independence and integrity, at least for a time, than almost any other sector of German society was able to do as the Nazi steamroller "synchronized" all aspects of German life.
There were certainly extraordinary theological battles to be fought. Most casual students of recent church history are unaware of the heretical depths to which nazified Protestantism sank. Some Protestant theologians went so far as to proclaim Hitler as God's "gift" and "miracle, " and fundamental elements of Christian doctrine were compromised.
The nadir of Protestant nazification is documented by Susannah Heschel in her chapter on the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Religious Life. The institute, which opened in 1939, was led by a New Testament scholar, Walter Grundmann, whose work is still quoted occasionally today. Grundmann, along with some other learned biblical scholars, made the argument that Jesus was not Jewish, but instead an "Aryan" who was Judaism's greatest critic and in fact sought its destruction. The institute also published a New Testament (the Old Testament, illegitimate by definition, was simply abandoned), a catechism, and a hymnbook, all scrubbed clean of any "Jewish elements."
It was surely providential that in such a time German Protestantism was favored with a few leaders like Karl Barth, a man who knew heresy when he saw it and named it as such without hesitation. Thus nazified Protestantism did not permanently corrupt Christian doctrine in Germany, despite the profound theological confusion and outright capitulation to Nazism of many distinguished clerics and theologians. For saying a clear no at this point, we can thank the Confessing Church.
And yet, one reason for any limited success the Confessing Church was able to achieve was its decision to remain largely silent about the ever-worsening Jewish plight in Germany. With rare exceptions, voices were raised on behalf of Jewish Christians but not, to coin a phrase, on behalf of Jewish Jews. Indeed, Gerlach argues that whatever unity the divided Confessing Church enjoyed would have been impossible if opposition to Nazi anti-Jewish policies had been made central and explicit.
This was the case for several reasons, Gerlach contends, all of them instructive. One was that even Confessing Church leaders were generally deeply in the grip of the same theological and cultural anti-Judaism that prevailed throughout German society. Further, Confessing Church leaders fell prey to what must now clearly be viewed as a misunderstanding of the relationship between church and state, according to which the state is viewed as fully autonomous in its sphere and patriotic Christians are called to submit loyally and uncritically to government and its policies. Finally, Gerlach says, Protestant academics and other leaders were too insulated, excessively focused on churchly self-interest and an ivory-tower confessional purity. Writing theological statements and arguing about church order came much more naturally to these men than expressing and acting on a real-world concern for victimized human beings.
There were, however, a few who mobilized individual and institutional efforts on behalf of all Jews in need. Marga Meusel, who served as director of the Protestant social welfare office in the Berlin area, pleaded as early as 1935 that the Confessing Church must resist Nazi racial distinctions and meet the material needs of increasingly impoverished Jews in Germany. Gerlach's lengthy quotation from the 1935 "Meusel Memorandum" is worth the price of the book. One example:
We are seized with cold dread when there can be people in the Confessing Church who dare to believe that they are justified, even called, to proclaim to the Jews that God's judgment and grace are present in the current historical events and in the suffering that we have brought on them. Since when does the evildoer have the right to pass off his crime as the will of God? … Let us take care that we do not hide the outrage of our sins behind the holy shrine of the will of God.
Not surprisingly, Meusel channeled her outrage into determined efforts at meeting the practical needs of Jews, including rescue efforts when that time came. She was not alone. Gerlach offers extensive discussion of the Protestant relief efforts that took place both before and during the war. The most extensive operation was the so-called Grüber office in Berlin, established by the Confessing Church as its central relief operation.
Under the leadership of Pastor Heinrich Grüber, this office undertook significant relief efforts, first legally and finally illegally, and ultimately, Gerlach says, at the cost of the lives of many of its 55 staff, many of them remarkably courageous women. The office helped with legal emigration efforts, offered social assistance and legal support, undertook education for Jewish children barred from public schools, provided food and medicine, and so on. Once the deadly threat of deportation and death loomed, the office turned to illegal efforts including passport and document forgery and all manner of rescue work. The office was shut down by the Nazis in late 1940, but this just sent the effort underground. Rescue continued till the very end of the war. Grüber's efforts, and those of other documented rescuers from the Confessing Church, have earned their designation as "Righteous Gentiles" by Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum and memorial. And yet, like putting a finger into a leaking dike, the Grüber office and related efforts saved but a small number of lives amid the torrent of death that flooded Germany during the Holocaust. It was not enough to efface the failure of German Protestantism's all-too-silent witnesses.
The books by David Kertzer, Michael
Phayer, and Susan Zuccotti explore essentially the same terrain, this time on the Catholic side. Kertzer traces Vatican attitudes toward Jews primarily from 1814 to 1939. Phayer attempts to cover the overall approach of the Catholic Church toward the Jews from 1930 until Vatican II, and Zuccotti offers a detailed account of Pope Pius XII's response to anti-Jewish policies, and finally the Holocaust itself, as these events unfolded in Italy. Guenther Lewy also offers a valuable review of the overall response of the Catholic Church to Nazism in a chapter in Betrayal. Together the discussions make a significant contribution to our understanding of what has become a highly controversial issue.
For these books do not enter a vacuum. The context in which they are offered is the so-called Pius XII debate, which shows few signs of slowing after several years of white-hot historiography and polemic. Stimulated afresh in 1999 with the release of John Cornwell's deeply flawed but widely publicized Hitler's Pope, the debate primarily concerns how to evaluate the wartime action and/or inaction of the worldwide leader of the Roman Catholic Church. This debate cannot be regarded as resolved, or even resolvable, in part because the Vatican has refused to open its archives fully for historical inspection. Yet Phayer and Zuccotti, both of whom take stances largely critiquing Pius XII, believe that the documents currently available are sufficient to offer at least a provisional accounting. I will attempt here to draw distinctions between those issues that can be regarded as settled and those that remain most intensely disputed.
Kertzer's book offers a devastating description of Vatican attitudes and actions toward Jews for the 120 or so years that preceded the rise of fascist anti-Semitism in Europe. Drawing on many Vatican documents previously unavailable to researchers, and quoting them freely and to astonishing effect, Kertzer essentially demonstrates what his title suggests: that the popes were with rare exceptions simply "against the Jews" from 1814 until the Holocaust period itself.
As to why this was the case, Kertzer's argument tracks quite closely with that of Gerlach. The short answer is simply that Jews were viewed as the adversaries of a Christian civilization that was collapsing under the pressure of modernity. In its longing for a return to a vanishing world, the church—both Catholic and Protestant—heaped opprobrium on the Jews, who were seen as the primary beneficiaries of the new order. In its deep desire to return to "the good old days," the church both retrieved and manufactured a range of nasty anti-Jewish smears in hopes of winning the fight for Western (Christian) civilization.
Perhaps the most significant contribution of Kertzer's book is to challenge the distinction between theological anti-Judaism and racial anti-Semitism. Many Christians who have become aware of the painful history of Christian hatred of Jews have sought to defend the church by claiming that Nazi anti-Semitism was a modern brew that bore little resemblance to Christian anti-Jewish polemic, which was not racist but theological.
However, Kertzer shows from Catholic documents of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that nearly every anti-Semitic theme the Nazis used in the 1920s and 1930s could be found in the Catholic press (including journals and papers very close to the Vatican) either during the same period or just before. In Kertzer's summary, these included the following:
There is a secret Jewish conspiracy; the Jews seek to conquer the world; Jews are an evil sect who seek to do Christians harm; Jews are by nature immoral; Jews care only for money and will do anything to get it; Jews control the press; Jews control the banks and are responsible for the ruination of untold numbers of Christian families; Jews are responsible for communism; Judaism commands its adherents to murder defenseless Christian children and drink their blood; Jews seek to destroy the Christian religion; Jews are unpatriotic, ever ready to sell their country out to the enemy … Jews must be segregated and their rights limited.
Further, Kertzer is able to document the appearance of racial anti-Semitism—the idea that Jews are biologically inferior due to their inborn racial makeup—in the Catholic press. Reading the documents Kertzer so amply quotes, it seems that the only real differences between Catholic anti-Semitic literature of the period and that of "secular" anti-Semites was that the former rejected violence and murder, held out hope for conversion, and sought to protect the rights of ethnically Jewish Catholics. Those differences are not negligible, but there can be no doubt that Catholics—like their Protestant counterparts—contributed to the toxic brew of hatred that reached its logical conclusion in the Holocaust.
Phayer and Zuccotti show that Rome's stance during the war on "the Jewish Question" was deeply shaped not only by theology and this heritage of anti-Semitism but also by the unique political status of the Vatican. It is often forgotten today that the Vatican is actually a state and is treated as such in international law. The Vatican's self-understanding and role in the world are deeply affected by its political identity as a religious mini-state (which had once been a larger and more influential collection of Papal States), and this was especially true in the chaotic and frightening days of the 1930s and 1940s. The Vatican during this period was concerned with its own political interests as well as international Catholic interests; in a very real and deeply ingrained sense, it also viewed itself as the trustee of historic Christian civilization.
Pope Pius XII, who took office in 1939 on the eve of World War II, was profoundly steeped in a geopolitical understanding of the Vatican and the papacy. His ascent up the ranks of the Vatican hierarchy was undertaken through the Vatican Foreign Office, including twelve years as a papal nuncio in Germany (1917-29) and then as Vatican Secretary of State, the role which he held for over nine years until he was elected pope. Pius XII enjoyed the life of the diplomat and was perceived by many of his peers as consummately skilled in the work. Perhaps fatefully, he also came to love Germany and had many German aides.
Phayer argues that Pius XII's understanding of geopolitics and of himself as a diplomat tragically misshaped his priorities during World War II. For much of the war, Pius appears to have nurtured the hope of playing a pivotal diplomatic role in brokering peace between the warring parties and preserving a remnant of Christian Europe (the very role his predecessor Benedict XV undertook during World War I), and in general placed a strong emphasis on behind-the-scenes diplomacy. He believed his task was to remain neutral so that all parties could turn to him as an honest broker. The pope's ardent anti-communism, Phayer argues, also played a major part in his approach to decision making before and during World War II, leading him consistently to downplay the danger of German Nazism vis-a-vis that posed by Soviet communism—a claim that pro-Pius historians reject.
As leader of the worldwide Catholic Church, one of Pius XII's priorities was to protect the church's political interests and rights wherever he perceived them as threatened. Here he was in complete continuity with his predecessors. This, according to Phayer, made him reluctant to critique the anti-Jewish collaboration, and sometimes deadly indigenous anti-Semitism, of Catholic-led states such as Croatia, Slovakia, and Vichy France. It also contributed to his reticence to press German Catholics to resist Hitler. Phayer argues that he feared weakening the Catholic Church in Germany or provoking a crisis of conscience for German Catholics.
Finally, Phayer shows, as does Zuccotti, that when the war came to Italy, Pius XII was deeply concerned about the possible destruction of the Vatican and its treasures, and maneuvered carefully to preserve at least the appearance of neutrality and thus avoid giving the Nazis any pretense for overrunning Vatican City, the symbolic and temporal capital of Roman Catholicism. Pro-Pius historians emphasize that Hitler considered several plans to do exactly what Pius feared, including schemes involving the pope's abduction or assassination, and that Pius was warned about such deliberations.
Both Phayer and Zuccotti show that few people in the world had better information than the pope did about the annihilation of European Jewry as it was happening. Both argue that the pope never offered a clear public word of condemnation of this butchery. Pro-Pius historians argue to the contrary that on several occasions Pius decried mass killings on the basis of nationality and race, and that in doing so Pius was clearly speaking on behalf of the Jews while (admittedly) never naming them specifically—and that the Germans certainly understood what he was talking about at the time, as did the international press in its reports. Moreover, some historians argue that nothing in the Vatican's institutional history or the pope's personal background served to foster the kind of very specific, morally outraged public protests the pope's critics so ardently wish for. This was simply not the way the papacy operated.
According to Phayer, Pius did nothing to disseminate the information about the Holocaust that he did have, so that others might intervene even if he himself did not. He neither publicly nor privately directed Catholic clergy or laypeople to resist the Nazis and rescue Jews. Neither did he direct German, Croatian, French, Italian, Slovakian, or other Catholics to refuse to carry out mass killings or participate in any way in the killing apparatus. Zuccotti argues that the pope appears to have permitted rescue to occur in his diocese, even in Vatican City, but not to have encouraged it either there or anywhere, even when directly asked his opinion. This issue continues to be bitterly disputed, as pro-Pius historians argue that the pope at least encouraged rescue and perhaps can be said to have been a rescuer himself, given the indisputable presence of Jews in hiding on Vatican properties.
Phayer and Zuccotti both fault the engagement of the pope and his representatives with Germany and collaborating nations. They argue that while papal representatives approached Nazi and collaborationist governments from time to time with protests against various particular anti-Jewish measures, these overtures were in general dilatory and half-hearted, almost always lacking the passion that would have been even remotely fitting to the gravity of events. Defenders of Pius read the historical record differently, commenting in particular on the Third Reich's perception of the Vatican as one of the staunchest public and diplomatic critics of Nazi anti-Jewish policy.
Phayer and Zuccotti offer inspiring tales of rescue efforts undertaken by thousands of Catholic laypeople and clerics in Italy. This record is commendable, and it is good to see the depth and breadth of Catholic rescue. Yet these authors differ from papal defenders in concluding that the rescuers acted without any explicit authorization or even exhortation from their leader, dismissing purported evidence to the contrary as not credible.
Phayer also depicts the pope's postwar activities as blameworthy. He claims that the pope sought clemency for some convicted German war criminals and proved uncooperative in extraditing war criminals actually hiding out on Vatican properties. He appointed Nazi and Croatian fascist sympathizers to Vatican positions, where they were able to aid and abet war criminals in escaping prosecution. Pius criticized the denazification process in Germany after the war, as well as the efforts of some Catholics to press for restitution and repentance by Germany and by Catholics in Germany. He refused to speak out on the continuing dangers of anti-Semitism when violence against Holocaust survivors was being perpetrated in largely Catholic Poland, and elsewhere, after the war. He opposed the birth of the state of Israel in 1948 and Jewish emigration to that state. And yet, pro-Pius historians remind us that during and after the war, and with a special outpouring at the time of his death in 1958, well-known Jews praised Pius XII for his actions on behalf of the Jewish people in their darkest hour.
I can recall few instances where the opinion of reputable historians has been as deeply divided as it is in this case. The Pius XII debate, narrowly considered, will have to be considered unresolved. Yet these books do show, so lamentably, that the role of Christian anti-Semitism in helping lay the foundation for the Holocaust is clearer than ever.
If we conclude that both the Protestant and Catholic churches helped prepare the way for the Holocaust and failed to offer adequate resistance to that mass slaughter as it occurred, have we done anything other than add another count to the overwhelming case for human and even Christian moral failure—as if more evidence for the doctrine of sin were needed?
Perhaps we will have done something valuable if somehow we can cross the historical divide and consider whether we are doing any better today in responding to the moral challenges facing us in our own time. Hindsight is notoriously 20/20. Getting it right at the actual moment of crisis is much more difficult, much more costly, and much more rare.
Consider two examples. In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention publicly repudiated the racism that contributed to its founding in 1845 and undermined the moral integrity of its witness from that day forward. As one who helped draft that resolution, I was pleased to play a small role in identifying the evil of racism for what it had been in the life of our denomination.
And yet the resolution was written in 1995. It was fairly easy to repudiate racism in 1995. To do so even as recently as 1955 or 1965 was much more difficult, let alone 1855. Those white Southern Baptists and others who actually did repudiate racism in 1965 frequently paid a very heavy price for it. But the denomination as a whole certainly did not speak the right word at the right time. We did not read "the signs of the times" and remained largely captive to racism. Only our "radicals" broke with racism; despised then, and only now honored, their moral witness indicts us.
By temperament I gravitate to an irenic evangelicalism willing to live with many differences without breaking fellowship over them. And yet just such a spirit was precisely the wrong spirit when the churches of Germany, and the Vatican itself, faced off against Hitler and the Nazis. Sometimes the effort to find common ground, to make peace, to try to see the good in your adversary and the truth of what he is saying, is exactly wrong. Sometimes you have to say a clear No and dig in your heels. You can't always split the difference. But how do we know when we face just such a situation, and when, on the other hand, we are overreacting?
A few clues can be discerned from the failures of the church during the Nazi era. It is clear that Christians must define reality in terms of a faithful and clearsighted reading of the biblical witness rather than allow the world's powers and principalities to set the terms by which we interpret events. The churches must guard against the kinds of mixed loyalties that leave us grasping for attention, approval, and even alliances with secular powers rather than striving for faithful obedience to Jesus alone as Lord. Church leaders must understand that their primary obligation is to bear both verbal and practical witness to the truth in their context rather than to protect narrowly understood ecclesial political interests. The churches must always be willing to confront the state when it radically violates its God-given mandate, even if that confrontation has the potential to produce martyrs among us. And Christian leaders must be willing to listen carefully to dissident prophetic voices whose discernment of the kairos may just be the right one.
To oppose Nazism with unmitigated passion as a vicious idolatry; to weep with sorrow over the humiliation and then the destruction of the Jews of Europe; to disobey Nazi laws and risk everything to "rescue those being led away to death"—these were the passions and the actions that the times demanded of the Christian churches from 1933 to 1945. We know that now. A very few knew it then. What will be known in 2050 about what we should have known and done in 2002?
David P. Gushee is Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust: A Christian Interpretation (Fortress).
1. See David P. Gushee, "All Things Jewish." Books & Culture, November/December 2000.
2. See "The Case Against the Nazis." The New York Times, January 13, 2002; see also www.camlaw.rutgers.edu/publications/law-religion.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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