Too many people – even Christians – who have grown up in comfortable, safe and democratic countries, have seemingly little sympathy for those who must make difficult choices under much less accommodating circumstances.
It seems easy, and can even be romanticised in the imagination, to stand bravely against the government when one has a belly full of food, a comfortable armchair, and when one lives under a government loathe to use the force of arms against its own citizenry. It is altogether another matter, however, when a person’s defiance is likely to result in arrest, a dark torture cell, and execution.
During the worst times in Church history, Christians have been backed against the wall and given only two choices: to blaspheme and deny Christ thus saving their own lives, or to face their own Calvary experience of beatings, torment, and death. The Roman Empire was merciless toward Christians during its intervals of persecution. Indeed, ancient writers record how the early Christians would be doused in incendiary fluids and burned alive, torn to pieces by wild animals, or exiled and impoverished. It makes the victory of the Christian Church over a pagan continent all the more remarkable given the tremendous pressure brought to bear to extirpate their faith in Jesus of Nazareth.
A wise Christian ought to consider the suffering endured by other saints. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is a good place to start. This text ought to sit on the shelf of every serious Christian’s bookshelf, in the same way that it once, deservedly, was one of two essential household books in Protestant England (the other being the Bible). Deeply moving accounts of saints being burned, racked, drowned and so on, are useful for nourishing our faith, growing in compassion and understanding, as well as preparing ourselves for potential persecution of our own.
Compassion is the key. And this should be our first principle when considering how Christians ought to have lived out their Christianity within the context of German Nazism. Compassion with a large serving of generosity of spirit. It is well to recall that to date, we have been spared the rigours of living under tyrannical government. In gratitude, as much as possible, we ought to avoid glib judgements.
For one such example, consider what Francis Schaeffer wrote:
A true Christian in Hitler’s Germany and in the occupied countries should have defied the false and counterfeit state and hidden his Jewish neighbours from the German SS Troops. The government had abrogated its authority, and it had no right to make any demands.
But is it ever so straightforward? What of the Christian father who knows he is obligated to protect his wife and children; perhaps even friends and relatives – should he run the risk of imperilling his family for the sake of strangers? To whom is his obligation greater? How selfless is it possible for a man to be before the virtue turns into a self-destructive vice? But then, am I not my brother’s keeper?
One might argue that God would surely bless and reward any effort to preserve life, and the heavenly reward for such lavish, gracious actions would last for all eternity. That is doubtless true. Even so, hopefully we can agree that these are not easy issues. The answer as to what a person ought to do is highly contingent on circumstances and individuals.
What may seem to be cowardice from a white-bread, middle-class vantage point in 2016 , may not have seemed so to those who were living with the sound of air-raid sirens, and blasts of propaganda assuring them that the Third Reich was going to last a thousand years and that Hitler’s legions were winning the war.
I therefore disagree with Scheffer’s first premise – at least, in these terms: we would be foolish and arrogant to prescribe what others ought to do in rigid terms with regard to circumstances about which we have no firsthand experience and can hardly possibly imagine. Simplistic nostrums and formulas about what the “true Christian” should have done regarding the Jewish issue within the Nazi regimen, are almost unfair, I think.
On the other hand, Schaeffer’s point about the lack of legitimacy of the Nazi regime carries weight and merit, although perhaps a little overblown. Still, this is a pivotal consideration. Because we are speaking of Nazism, we are therefore speaking of a political and cultural entity. And since we are speaking of such an entity, we are necessarily compelled to consider the legitimacy of Nazi governance and how much a Christian ought to cooperate with any government intent on extreme wickedness.
At this juncture, St. Paul provides us with the clearest teaching on the Christian’s relationship to government in the entire Bible:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.
Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgement on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.
For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. (Romans 13:1-5).
This seems very absolute. The Christian must always obey the authorities and never rebel against them. Both Paul and Peter are crystal clear that Christianity does not breed political revolutionaries, or create anarchists who grant to themselves absolution from the need to obey the law of the land.
Nonetheless, the scriptures also provide us with righteous examples of defiance against authority that would impose some important qualifications to the (inerrant and infallible) words of Paul.
Firstly, there is the example of Moses’ mother who defied the edict of Pharaoh, that her son might live (not to mention the midwives, who told a righteous lie to Pharaoh in order to protect Hebrew infants). Secondly, Elijah defies Jezebel. Thirdly, the wise men defy Herod, having been instructed in a dream not to inform Herod where the Christ was born. Fourthly, the Apostles function in ceaseless defiance of the order given to them by the Sanhedrin not to preach in the name of Christ. Indeed, no sooner were they released, and the Apostles put their disregard for this command into immediate effect.
If we unpack the examples above, some important themes emerge:
- Defiance of authority – up to, and even including outright lying – is righteous when it involves preserving human life from being unjustly and cruelly destroyed or taken
- Defiance of authority is righteous when it involves working against a ruler who is actively trying to corrupt God’s people – his Church – through false theology and false worship. Combating any such efforts of religious corruption by the state is an act of righteous defiance.
- Defiance of authority is righteous when God issues a command contrary to those of an unrighteous, ungodly ruler.
- Defiance of authority is righteous when any man would attempt to impede the proclamation of the gospel.
Since Nazism attempted to do all of these things, a Christian would have been entirely justified in disregarding any commands and edicts that pertained to these matters. However, there must be an important qualification added here. For although the Apostles defied authorities regarding some matters, they clearly preached obedience to authorities regarding others. On this issue, it is worthwhile remembering that ancient Rome was not entirely unlike the latter Nazi state in its cruelty and violence. And yet, despite this, compliance with laws that facilitated good and proper relations between members of the community was not only exhorted, but commanded.
A Christian in 1930’s and 1940’s Germany would not, therefore, have been justified in rebelling against neutral commandments, regulations and rules (i.e. traffic regulations) – no, not even in a Nazi state. Schaeffer is therefore right to say that the Nazi state could be legitimately and righteously defied, but not in all things. For even a Nazi state could only have come into existence with the permission of God (although God, of course, never condones, orchestrates, prompts, or causes evil in any form).