“The followers of Christ have been called to peace. . . . And they must not only have peace but also make it. And to that end they renounce all violence and tumult. In the cause of Christ nothing is to be gained by such methods. . . . His disciples keep the peace by choosing to endure suffering themselves rather than inflict it on others. They maintain fellowship where others would break it off. They renounce hatred and wrong. In so doing they over-come evil with good, and establish the peace of God in the midst of a world of war and hate.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
“We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.”The Barmen Declaration Article Three.
I have become amazed at the penchant for many Christians to sublimate the Gospel to their political ideology. This is not a new phenomena at all, in fact since the Christian faith was legalized by the Emperor Constantine and made the State religion of the Roman Empire Christians have often done this with a great deal of gusto. There is a terrible tendency for Christians to turn the Gospel on its head by using it to justify their political, social and even military goals. Frankly as a Priest and a historian I find this troubling especially when I see Christians all around me doing this not only blessing the leaders they support but many taking the lead in the often vile and hateful campaigns against those that they and their political benefactors oppose all while claiming to be “Biblical.”
We are now in what the Liturgical year is called Ordinary time. It is a time of focus on the Christian life and our relationships with family, neighbors, other Christians and those that come across our paths, especially aliens, prisoners, the poor, the disenfranchised and those persecuted by the powerful regardless of their social class, race, citizenship or religious or political affiliation. In fact the term “Ordinary time” is often interpreted to mean less important than the rest of the liturgical year. However such an interpretation is dismissive of the importance of the season which lasts from Pentecost until the Sunday before Advent, Christ the King. In fact Ordinary time actually focuses on the “doing” aspects of the Christian life.
Unfortunately for some it will be a time of misplaced activity, not activity centered on prayer, good works and giving voice to the least, the lost and the lonely even as we renew our faith in the Crucified One. Instead for many, especially in the preliminary stages of a Presidential election cycle the focus in not this at all but rather in transitory political, social and ideological agendas advanced by people with no other goal than seeing the triumph of their ideology which often has little to do with the Gospel.
Herman Maas was another Evangelical Pastor. Unlike Niemöller, Maas was a active participant in the ecumenical movement, built bridges to the Jewish community and defended the rights of Jews as German citizens. He received a fair amount of criticism for his attendance of Reichspräsident Friedrich Ebert’s funeral. Ebert was both a Socialist and avowed atheist. Maas too was active in the Pfarrernotbund and the Confessing church, and unlike Niemöller maintained his opposition to anti-Semitism and the Nazi policies against the Jews. He would help draft the Barmen declaration. He too would be imprisoned and survive the war. Maas was the first non-Jewish German to be officially invited to the newly formed state of Israel in 1950. In July 1964 Yad Vashem recognized the Maas as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.
Ideologues love times of crisis and turmoil because they are able to turn them to their advantage and co-opt people of faith by appearing to be their worldly saviors from their “ungodly” opponents. Even the most faithful Christians can be lured in and deceived by such “saviors.” Martin Niemöller a leader in the German Evangelical church noted how he was taken in by Hitler.
“I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while. I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me.”
Like Niemöller well meaning Christians have been seduced into the false promises of ideologues of various persuasions that have no real interest in the Gospel but political or economic power be they conservative or liberal, capitalist or socialist. In fact one of the most heinous genocides of the late 20th Century was carried out by the good Christians of Rwanda’s Hutu and Tutsi tribes days after they worshiped together to celebrate Easter. In many cases church leaders were complicit in mass murder.
The seductiveness of these ideologies appeals to the passion and emotion of people stoking the fires of fear with the fuel of hatred. This is often true regardless of people’s political or religious persuasions when become enamored with ideology and reinterpret life, faith and relationships to fit the ideology. When this happens to Christians this can lead to twisting Scripture and Tradition to fit the ideology much as did the theologians, pastors and lay people in German churches in the late 1920s and 1930s.
When two powerful ideologies collide as did Communism and National Socialism in Germany, Socialism and Gaullism is France or contemporary Liberalism and Conservatism in the United States the conflict often spills out and over into Churches and other religious institutions. Well meaning people sublimate their faith beneath the ideology and political ethos that they most agree with and ideology overrides faith. As fear and hatred is stoked the leaders of religious institutions and individuals within them conform their faith not to Christ crucified but to ideologies which are antithetical to the Gospel.
It really does not matter if the ideology is “liberal” or “conservative” because ultimately these poisonous ideologies now defended by pastors and theologians and “baptized” with Scripture are often set against the Gospel and seek to use the Church, Christians and others simply as pawns to sacrifice in their quest for total unadulterated political, social or economic power.
In our contemporary American culture the loudest and most prominent voices are the political ideologues of the right and the left who inhabit talk radio and the various cable television news networks. Far too often well meaning Christians and others assume everything being spoken from lips of pundits, politicians and politically compromised preachers, the unholy Trinity is compatible with the faith. However just because Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, Keith Olberman, Chris Matthews or any other commentator on the airwaves claims that they are speaking for Christians does not mean that they are even when we agree with them. Likewise political party leaders and Presidential candidates who echo our passions and feed our fears about the other party does not mean that what they say is Christian or compatible with the Christian faith even and especially when those individuals claim the mantle of being a “Christian” leader.
The adoption and blessing of the often perverted theological ideas of media personalities, talking heads and politicians by individual Christians, Church leaders and denominations can only result in their enslavement by the individuals and organizations to which they give their blessing. The ideologues will readily support social or policy goals of the religious groups but only to gain their vote and those that think otherwise are sincerely deluded.
This is proven by history and experience. One only has to look at how German Christians of various traditions were seduced by the promises of Hitler and the Nazis. Germans had from November 1918 seen their society ripped apart by military defeat, economic humiliation, internal revolution and societal change which threatened the values that they held dear. In reaction to Nazi promises many sold themselves and their country to the devil. This type of thing has happened in other countries but is most glaringly seen in the transition from the WeimarRepublicto the Nazi era.
Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth was an outspoken opponent of the Nazis. He lectured about how ideology can become its own idol and the purveyors of ideology can themselves make it an idol from which they cannot separate themselves and to which they become willing accomplices. Their ideology becomes an absolute from which no deviation is allowed, even when deviation from them is more in line with the Gospel. As Barth so poignantly stated:
“[Ideology] comes about as [one] thinks he can and should ascribe to the presuppositions and sketches he has achieved by his remarkable ability, not just a provisional and transitory but a permanent normativity, not just one that is relative but one that is absolute, not just one that is human but one that is quasi-divine. His hypotheses become for him theses behind which he no longer ventures to go back with seeking, questioning, and researching. He thinks that they can be thought and formulated definitively as thoughts that are not merely useful but instrinsically true and therefore binding. His ideal becomes an idol. He thinks that he knows only unshakable principles and among them a basic principle in relation to which he must coordinate and develop them as a whole, combining them all, and with them his perceptions and concepts, into a system, making of his ideas an ideology. Here again the reins slip out of his hands. This creature of his, the ideology, seems to be so wonderfully glorious and exerts on him such a fascination that he thinks he should move and think and act more and more within its framework and under its direction, since salvation can be achieved only through the works of its law. This ideology becomes the object of his reflection, the backbone and norm of his disposition, the guiding star of his action. All his calculations, exertions, and efforts are now predestined by it. They roll towards its further confirmation and triumph like balls on a steep slope. Man’s whole loyalty is loyalty to the line demanded by it. He thinks that he possesses it, but in truth it already possesses him. In relation to it he is no longer the free man who thought he had found it in its glory and should help to put it on the throne. He now ventures to ask and answer only within its schema. He must now orient himself to it. He must represent it as its more or less authentic witness and go to work as its great or small priest and prophet. At root he no longer has anything of his own to say. He can only mouth the piece dictated to him as intelligibly as he can, and perhaps like a mere parrot. His own face threatens already to disappear behind the mask that he must wear as its representative. He already measures and evaluates others only from the standpoint of whether they are supporters of this ideology, or whether they might become such, or whether they might at least be useful to it even without their consent, or whether they must be fought as its enemies. Its glory has already become for him the solution not only to the personal problem of his own life but to each and all of the problems of the world.” ~ Karl Barth, The Christian Life: Church Dogmatics IV/4, Lecture Fragments, 225.
Barth saw good people surrender their faith to a hateful and destructive ideology. It is imperative during this season of Ordinary time that we should not take this danger lightly. This season is a time to acknowledge our need for the grace and mercy of God and find forgiveness for ourselves while extending the same grace, love and mercy shown to us to our neighbor, even the neighbor who does not agree with the ideologues that we prefer.
Our challenge in a time of turmoil and conflict is not to be seduced by the shameless appeals of ideologues but to return to faith in the God who comes to us, suffers for and with us and in himself provides the promise of redemption and the forgiveness of sins.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in a sermon on Second Corinthians 2:9:
“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.”
Unfortunately it seems that many of those leading the “Christian” parties of theUnited Stateshave forgotten that even those that proclaim their faith the loudest.