In Steven Martin’s new film “Theologians Under Hitler,” we hear yet another series of gruesome tales in which a nation-state co-opted Christian faith for its purposes and left prominent Christians in the unenviable position of providing ideological fodder for one of the 20th century’s worst nightmares.
Those of a particular theological or political orientation will find plenty of ammunition in the film to indict those of contrary orientation: Martin’s film notes, for example, that the rise of Protestant Liberalism preceded the rise of Nazism. The suggestion seems to be that the Enlightenment “turn to the subject,” in which humans begin to look to themselves as the final arbiters of truth, in turn gives rise to a demonic social conservatism that sees the German Volk as all that is worth dying and killing for.
On the other hand, “Theologians Under Hitler” tells a story in which a flag-waving social conservatism greeted the democratic rise of Hitler in 1933 as the literal work of God, seeing in the new Fuhrer an agent of God’s purposes and will. For, after all, he was supportive of what we have dubbed in the U.S. “family values”–reproving pornography, alcohol, tobacco and red lipstick.
Thus the mainliner will find ample substance with which to lambaste, again, the right-winger; and the evangelical will find plenty material, again, with which to castigate, again, the liberal.
If this is as far as our interpretation of Martin’s film takes us, then it has not taken us far enough.
Getting stuck in that tired old endless and sometimes mindless debate keeps us from facing a more difficult reality: the social and theological milieu which allowed Hitler to have his way had existed for much longer than a century or two. It had been at work in the very fabric of Christendom for generation upon generation.
Consider, for example, when that paragon of medieval Christendom, Charlemagne, conquered the Saxons who, at that time, were located roughly where Germany is now.
Christian King of the Franks at the time, Charlemagne conquered the Saxons and offered them a very forthright baptismal settlement in the year 785: “If there is anyone of the Saxon people lurking among them unbaptized, and if he scorns to come to baptism and wishes to absent himself and stay a pagan, let him die.”
That is, you can let us baptize you, or we will kill you. The baptismal policy flows rather forthrightly from the initial plan made in 775, according to the Royal Frankish Annals, “to attack the treacherous and treaty-breaking tribe of the Saxons and to persist in this war until they were either defeated and forced to accept the Christian religion or entirely exterminated.”
Protestants, of course, have tended to think that the Reformation undid all things evil medieval, but have typically overlooked the fact that, in significant and numerous ways, the social stance of Christendom changed little.
That is, the Reformation did little to question our long-held assumption that it’s quite alright to employ the imperialistic power of empire or state on behalf of what we deem good.
We would just as soon forget Luther’s call that folks take up their weapons to stab, smite, and slay the peasants who had revolted because of their horrific economic conditions. Or that Calvin presided over the murder of Servetus.
Or that Zwingli is reported to have said: “Why should the Christian magistrate not destroy statues and abolish the Mass? … This does not mean that he has to cut the priests’ throats if it is possible to avoid such a cruel action. But if not, we would not hesitate to imitate even the harshest examples.”
In other words, the social and theological commitments that allowed Christians to sell their souls to the horror of the Nazi state have been around a long time. We’ve found numerous ways to set Jesus aside, to compartmentalize his teachings, to systematically specify why he couldn’t have meant what he said.
At least since Christianity became the “religion” of the Roman empire, we’ve allowed ourselves to be appropriated by imperial and state forces in the name of “Christianity,” or “good versus evil,” or “morality,” or “the survival of civilization,” and have obeyed Caesar rather than Lord Jesus.
We might be, and ought to be, horrified that the Nazi horror was perpetuated by a huge number of good church-going Christians. But, then again, I’m not so sure we should be surprised, given the painful facts of Christian history and theology.
Could it happen again? Who knows. A more important question for the church today, it seems to me, is this: in what ways are we forming disciples of Jesus so that we could resist such idolatrous claims ourselves?
Is our practice of baptism, for example, one in which we find ourselves inducted by God’s grace into a trans-national, trans-global entity that is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, bond nor free, American, Iraqi, nor German?
Or, does the picture on the front page of The Tennessean the Sunday following the 9/11 atrocities better represent American Christianity: a picture of a new convert being immersed in the baptistery of one of Nashville’s largest churches, with a huge American flag hung just behind those waters.
Are American churches raising disciples to new life in the Kingdom of God? Or are we raising them to pledge allegiance to a god of our own empire?
Lee C. Camp is associate professor of theology and ethics at LipscombUniversity. Click here to order his bookMere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World. He was a panelist at a recent screening of “Theologians under Hitler” sponsored by the BaptistsCenter for Ethics. Click here to order the “Theologians Under Hitler” film.
Professor of theology and ethics at Lipscomb University, host and creator of the world’s only long-running theological variety show, Tokens Show, and author of Scandalous Witness: A Little Political Manifesto for Christians (Eerdmans, 2020).