I’m reading my way through Eric Metaxas’ book Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy which is a biography of the well known Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As most people familiar with Bonhoeffer’s life know, Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and pastor who was executed by the Nazi’s on April 9, 1945 for his participation in an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler.
I only know of the atrocities committed by the Nazis through history books, yet I do not know of any words which adequately describe the depths of depravity it took for the Holocaust to happen across Europe. However, as a Christian preacher and minister, I do wonder how the Nazi party was able to convince a nation of professing Christians to support their political agenda. After all, whatever we think about the ethics of Christian participation in state politics, it is clear that the Nazi agenda was evil, oppressive, and anti-Gospel. So how could professing Christians by in to such a program?
The answer to that question is huge and probably cannot be fully explained in a few simple paragraphs. One thing that is clear to me, as I read through this biography, is how much ignorance there was among Germans when it came to the Bible, theological understanding, and knowing their history as Christians. This ignorance, coupled with a largely nominal faith, allowed the Nazis to co-opt German Christianity into a nationalistic faith serving the Nazi agenda.
As Metaxas notes, “The Nazis were anti-Christian, but they would pretend to be Christians as long as it served their purposes of getting theologically ignorant Germans on their side against the Jews” (p. 94). This included using the anti-Semitic writings of a very old and, perhaps, mentally unsound, Martin Luther on the unsuspecting Germans who were unfamiliar with the earlier writings of Luther that were very sympathetic to the Jewish people. This is all worth noting because, as the maxim goes, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.
Is such history repeating itself in the United States of America? Most likely not with the same depraved results of Nazi Fascism but I do suspect that Christianity in America is quickly evolving into a nationalistic faith, if it has not already (and I’m not alone in that suspicion). Further more, the repetition of history appears to be for the very same reasons: a growing biblical, theological, and historical ignorance. In fact, it’s not uncommon for me to hear apathetic attitudes by Christians towards any study of theology and church history. On top of this, there are more and more professing Christians who’s faith is increasingly nominal.
Added to this is the plenty of politicians, both liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, who’s agenda is nationalistic rather than that of Jesus’ Christ…the Gospel, the Kingdom of God. Like the Nazis, such politicians express enough Christian sentiments in order to gain our support of their cause. The real question is at what cost?
There is more I want to say about the trend toward nationalism as the nation begins another election year. For now, I just want to point this out for two reasons. First, this is, in my judgment, the biggest problem facing Christianity in America. Secondly, I also want to stress the need for teaching the Bible, as well as Christian theology and church history among churches. We can learn from what happened in Germany that both nationalism as well as biblical, theological, and historical ignorance are cancers to the Christian faith as well as cancers to society.