Yesterday I wrote about the lack of empathy among conservative American Christians and I drew some comparisons to the German Christians of the 1920s and 1930s who despite their reservations supported ultra-right wing parties and later the Nazi Party. As I mentioned yesterday this was brought about by the fear and hate propagated by those who had lost their favored status after the collapse of the Kaiser Reich, and especially the fear of what many Christians believed was the threat of atheistic Socialists and Communists. Their brief experiment with democracy which was devastated by political battles amid the 1919-1920 Weimar Inflation which destroyed the financial security of most Germans as well as the Stock Market Crash of 1929 which brought about the Great Depression made many receptive to the “Nazi Gospel.”
I think that conservative American Christians are going the same direction as they get swept up in the climate of fear, hate, distrust and perceived persecution at the hands of liberals, atheists, socialists and their own government. As I noted yesterday much of this stems not from actual persecution but from the loss of their privileged position as the dominant force in society.
I love the film Judgment at Nuremberg, because I think that it really does reflect how many prominent Germans who should have known better followed Hitler, and reflects how many conservative Christians see the political right as their standard bearers.. In the film Burt Lancaster plays a prominent German legal scholar and jurist named Ernst Janning.
“There was a fever over the land. A fever of disgrace, of indignity, of hunger. We had a democracy, yes, but it was torn by elements within. Above all, there was fear. Fear of today, fear of tomorrow, fear of our neighbors, and fear of ourselves. Only when you understand that – can you understand what Hitler meant to us. Because he said to us: ‘Lift your heads! Be proud to be German! There are devils among us. Communists, Liberals, Jews, Gypsies! Once these devils will be destroyed, your misery will be destroyed.’ It was the old, old story of the sacrificial lamb. What about those of us who knew better? We who knew the words were lies and worse than lies? Why did we sit silent? Why did we take part? Because we loved our country! What difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights? What difference does it make if a few racial minorities lose their rights? It is only a passing phase. It is only a stage we are going through. It will be discarded sooner or later. Hitler himself will be discarded… sooner or later. The country is in danger. We will march out of the shadows. We will go forward. Forward is the great password. And history tells how well we succeeded, your honor. We succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. The very elements of hate and power about Hitler that mesmerized Germany, mesmerized the world! We found ourselves with sudden powerful allies. Things that had been denied to us as a democracy were open to us now. The world said ‘go ahead, take it, take it! Take Sudetenland, take the Rhineland – remilitarize it – take all of Austria, take it! And then one day we looked around and found that we were in an even more terrible danger. The ritual began in this courtoom swept over the land like a raging, roaring disease. What was going to be a passing phase had become the way of life. Your honor, I was content to sit silent during this trial. I was content to tend my roses. I was even content to let counsel try to save my name, until I realized that in order to save it, he would have to raise the specter again. You have seen him do it – he has done it here in this courtroom. He has suggested that the Third Reich worked for the benefit of people. He has suggested that we sterilized men for the welfare of the country. He has suggested that perhaps the old Jew did sleep with the sixteen year old girl, after all. Once more it is being done for love of country. It is not easy to tell the truth; but if there is to be any salvation for Germany, we who know our guilt must admit it… whatever the pain and humiliation.”
Hannah Arendt talked about this in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, her treatment of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the mid-level Nazi officers who sent millions of people to their deaths. In describing Eichmann and other ordinary people Arendt said:
“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”
At the end of the movie Judgment at Nuremberg Spencer Tracy as Presiding Judge Dan Haywood concluded his sentencing remarks with this statement. It is perhaps one of the most powerful statement and something to remember as the Unholy Trinity of Politicians, Pundits and Preachers urge us to hate one another and those different than us. It is something that is especially needed in times of great societal stress as well as real and perceived dangers from without and within.
“Janning, to be sure, is a tragic figure. We believe he loathed the evil he did. But compassion for the present torture of his soul must not beget forgetfulness of the torture and the death of millions by the Government of which he was a part. Janning’s record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial: If he and all of the other defendants had been degraded perverts, if all of the leaders of the Third Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake, or any other natural catastrophe.
But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary – men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination. No one who has sat through the trial can ever forget them: men sterilized because of political belief; a mockery made of friendship and faith; the murder of children. How easily it can happen. There are those in our own country too who today speak of the “protection of country” – of ‘survival’. A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient – to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is ‘survival as what’? A country isn’t a rock. It’s not an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.”
This is an unsettling subject and people on the political right and left in this country are apt to compare their opponents to those that were tried at Nuremberg and those that led them. This has been an increasingly disturbing trend in the case of hyper-partisan Right Wing and so called Conservative Christians who blatantly demonize those who they hate and urge the use of the police powers of the state to enforce their political-religious agenda. For all intents and purposes they no longer care about “Justice, truth, or the value of a single human being” especially if those human beings are not Christians. That may seem harsh, but sadly it is all too often the truth.
The terrible truth is that it is possible that any parties in any society, including ours, when divided by fear, hate and the desire for power can behave exactly as the industrialists, financiers, doctors, soldiers, jurists, civil servants, pastors and educators who oversaw the heinous crimes committed by the Third Reich.
Again, I am not calling anyone, even the people that I am criticizing today Nazis. I am only trying to show the logical end of the thinking that permeates much of the political right, particularly conservative Christians who are following a path that is destructive to the church and for the world. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: “if you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.” By selling their birthright to right wing radical politicians and special interest groups who only seek to exploit them for their own power, conservative Christians, like those in the Weimar Republic have boarded the wrong train, and unless they get off that train they will find that they have no redemptive value in society.
Sadly, I doubt that Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Michelle Bachmann, Tony Perkins or any of the myriad of pundits, politicians and preachers driving conservative Christians off the rails will ever understand this. Thinking themselves wise, they became fools. Fools who in their quest for temporal power destroyed more lives and souls than they ever could have imagined.
Unlike Janning, I doubt if any of them have the capacity to reflect upon their words and actions and realize what they did and are doing are morally, ethically and by every measure of humanity are wrong, and are evil masquerading as righteousness, and thus doubly worthy of condemnation, for if they are Christians they should know better. I only hope that the vast number of conservative Christians who have not completely fallen for their hateful propaganda; men and women who have doubts about the message of such leaders are able to discern the truth will pause for just a moment, and like Bonhoeffer and others like him stand for justice, truth, or the value of a single human being.
Those who stood trial at Nuremberg were all people that should have known better, as should we, especially those who claim the name of Christ and presume to be bearing his good news. I think I will be continuing this line of thought through much of the coming week, although there may be a detour into baseball or Gettysburg; so I will stop for now.