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Friday, November 19, 2010

Christian Responses to Hitler: Obeying Civil Authority

I am not an expert on history. But I am a Sunday School teacher. This week's Sunday School lesson, in our church, includes Paul's statements, to the Romans, about what sort of attitude they should have towards government. I quote Romans 13:1-7, from the WEB, which is public domain:
13:1 Let every soul be in subjection to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those who exist are ordained by God. 2 Therefore he who resists the authority, withstands the ordinance of God; and those who withstand will receive to themselves judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. Do you desire to have no fear of the authority? Do that which is good, and you will have praise from the same, 4 for he is a servant of God to you for good. But if you do that which is evil, be afraid, for he doesn’t bear the sword in vain; for he is a servant of God, an avenger for wrath to him who does evil. 5 Therefore you need to be in subjection, not only because of the wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. 6 For this reason you also pay taxes, for they are servants of God’s service, attending continually on this very thing. 7 Give therefore to everyone what you owe: taxes to whom taxes are due; customs to whom customs; respect to whom respect; honor to whom honor.

My wife, who is in my class, asked me how this related to Hitler. That's a good question. This is my attempt to answer that. The quotation above seems to be saying that Hitler, for one, was ordained by God, and shouldn't have been resisted, at least not by Christians in Germany. In the first place, this principle, namely to submit to authority, was not absolute, even for Paul. In Acts 16, Paul refused to leave prison until the rulers had come personally to apologize to him. (They had arrested him in violation of his rights as a Roman citizen.) With this act, he resisted the order to have him released quietly. Why did Paul say this? We don't know. It is possible that he was acting in his own behalf, and wanted to get back at the authorities because they had violated his rights. It is also possible that he wanted to show, for the sake of the new Christians (the jailer and his household had been converted and baptized) that Christianity was respectable, or that Christ was above earthly authority. We don't know.

In Acts 23, Paul reprimanded the high priest:
23:1 Paul, looking steadfastly at the council, said, “Brothers, I have lived before God in all good conscience until this day.” 2 The high priest, Ananias, commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth. 3 Then Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! Do you sit to judge me according to the law, and command me to be struck contrary to the law?” 4 Those who stood by said, “Do you malign God’s high priest?” 5 Paul said, “I didn’t know, brothers, that he was high priest. For it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’” [The Old Testament reference is to Exodus 22:28]
The NIV Study Bible has a text note on verse 5, suggesting that it is possible that Paul's eyesight was poor, and he couldn't tell that it was the high priest, or that someone else was presiding, sitting in the place of the high priest, or that Paul was being sarcastic, or that he refused to recognized the high priest's authority. It seems to me that there is another possibility, and one that also could have occurred in Acts 16. That is that Paul might have sinned -- he wasn't supposed to react to the authorities as he did. In that case, he would have had to confess and repent of his actions. The Bible doesn't indicate the reasons for Paul's actions in either case.

So what was going on here? Does the New Testament contradict itself? I don't think so.

First, I believe that there is a Biblical principle, which is that we should respect and obey those in authority. But that principle is not as important as other moral principles in the Bible, for example the Ten Commandments. Nor is it above the two great commandments from the Old Testament, which Jesus re-affirmed in the New Testament, in Mark 12:28-34, and Matthew 22:34-40. Nor is it above the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." (Matthew 7:12)

Second, God's authority is over any human authority. If a human authority commands me to do something I shouldn't, for example to commit murder, or to deny Christ as Lord, I should refuse. As Peter said, "We must obey God rather than men." (Acts 5:29)

These two points are different aspects of the same thing.

However, we usually aren't asked, by human authorities, to do something that violates a higher Biblical principle, or that puts human authority above God's. We should prayerfully consider, before refusing to obey a human authority. We should be careful that we aren't wanting to disobey because it would be to our own selfish advantage to do so (for example by cheating on our taxes). We should also be careful that we don't assume, for no good reason, that a political position we don't like is opposed to God's desires.

Third, violent resistance seems to be always, or nearly always, contrary to God's plan for Christians.

So what about Hitler? The rule of Hitler, and the Nazis, seems to have produced situations where Christians had legitimate reasons for refusing to obey civil authority.

Although there is disagreement about Hitler's religious views, mostly because Hitler made statements that seem to be contradictory, it seems likely that Hitler, and the Nazis, wanted to destroy Christianity entirely. Holocaust deniers to the contrary, Hitler and the Nazis did try, and nearly succeeded, in eliminating all the Jews from Germany, and other countries that they conquered. There were Christians, and others, who resisted this. Corrie ten Boom, with other members of her family, deceived the Germans who occupied the Netherlands, in various ways, such as by obtaining ration cards by fraudulent means. They did not carry out violent protest. In this way, they, and other citizens of the Netherlands, were able to get many Jews out of the country. Anne Frank and her family were also kept hidden, and helped, by non-Jewish citizens of the Netherlands, which was against the edicts of the occupying Nazis. Oskar Schindler, and many other people, also helped the Jews, in defiance of Nazi demands. As far as I know, Schindler was not a Christian.

Not all Christians, or those who claimed to be Christians, were opposed to the Nazis. There was a group, known as German Christians, who supported Hitler. This source claims that one reason for this support was that these Christians were opposed to homosexual practices, and to communism, and the Nazis, were, too. Homosexuals and communists (and other groups) were persecuted, and executed, by the Nazis.

There was also a Confessing Church, which was primarily opposed to the theological claims of Nazism, rather than to the Holocaust. The theological claims should have been opposed. Here is one such outrageous claim: "Dr. Zoellner ... has tried to tell me that Christianity consists in faith in Christ as the Son of God. That makes me laugh ... Christianity is not dependent upon the Apostle's Creed .... [but] is represented by the Party .... the German people are now called ... by the Führer to a real Christianity .... The Führer is the herald of a new revelation." (See here. Zoellner was a leader of the Confessing Church.) Karl Barth was also one of its leaders. (Here is an article on Barth's thought, during the early days of the Nazi regime.)

Another leader of the Confessing Church was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer is the author of several works, translated into English, including The Cost of Discipleship and Ethics, both of them probably among the dozen or so most influential works on Christianity written during the previous century. Bonhoeffer came to believe that active resistance against Hitler was called for. He joined a group that planned to assassinate Hitler. This group did not succeed, and Bonhoeffer was executed, before he reached his 40th birthday. Bonhoeffer realized that he was acting in a way that seemed contrary to his faith, but said that he felt he had to act as he did, and trust God's grace for forgiveness. (See the Wikipedia article on Bonhoeffer for more.)

The Nazi treatment of the Confessing Church, and the error of the German Christians, are instructive. One lesson is that the Church should always keep the State at arms length. In the U.S., there is a danger that conservative churches will become arms of the Republicans, or the Tea Party, and that liberal churches may become arms of the Democrats. Both of these tendencies must and should be opposed. The state, or a political movement, may seem to have goals compatible with a church, but becoming too close together seems to always mean that the church, not the state, compromises its core principles and beliefs. No political party, and few, if any, political movements, have been fully compatible with Christianity.

More on Politics. Ken Schenck, Religion professor at Indiana Wesleyan University, has posted a compilation of Bible verses about social justice.

I have previously mused on the source of political authority in the U. S.

I have posted on what the New Testament says about what Christian attitudes toward government should be.

Summary: We should honor the state, and civil authority, except in extreme circumstances. But we must always put God's moral demands first. For example, we should obey traffic laws, except in emergencies. Poor planning, such as not starting out early enough, does not constitute an emergency.

Thanks for reading.

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