Acts 5:17-32

Ten days ago in Atlanta, during the General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, I attended the screening of a new movie titled, “Theologians Under Hitler.”  The film is a documentary based on the book by the same name.  It tells the story of three prominent German Christian theologians who supported Hitler and the Nazis during the 1930’s and the Second World War.  Two of the theologians I was only vaguely familiar with, but the third is well-known to me and to just about every seminary student in the last fifty years.  His name was Gerhard Kittel, and he is remembered as the editor of one of the most important theological reference works of the 20th century.  His legacy is a massive ten-volume set called The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.  More popularly, it is simply known as “Kittel.”  I used to own the ten-volume “Kittel.”  It was one of the prizes of my theological library.  Whenever I had my picture taken in my office, I would stand in front of the bookshelf with the “Kittels” behind me.  After our church building burned and all my books went up in smoke, I lost my “Kittels.”  Because they were so expensive to replace, I purchased instead the abridged, one-volume Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, popularly known as the “Little Kittel.”  Actually, Jo Reiter gave me this copy of the “Little Kittel” which I treasure.  But as much as I appreciate the work, I did not know the story of the man behind this book.

Gerhard Kittel was one of the most brilliant German biblical scholars of the 20th century.  His Theological Dictionary remains the definitive reference work for defining and explaining the most important Greek words in the New Testament.  But in 1933 Gerhard Kittel gave a lecture called “The Jewish Question.”  In the lecture he raised concerns about the influence of Jews on German society, and what could be done about it.  The lecture was later published, and his ideas prompted the Nazis to make Kittel one of their consultants on “the Jewish question.”  In the documentary the author of the book, Theologians Under Hitler, Robert Ericksen, history professor at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, said this about Kittel:   “He became one of the most viciously anti-Semitic leaders in the Christian church in support of the Nazi ideology.”  After his lecture on “The Jewish Question” was published, one of Kittel’s colleagues at Cambridge University in England sent him a letter.  In the letter the friend wrote: 

            No one in England, Jew or Christian, troubles about the views of Nazi
professors who have given themselves to Hitler and sinned against the light.
            But about you we are troubled and grieved because we reckoned you
            to be on the side of the angels. [emphasis added]

Gerhard Kittel and two other of the German church’s greatest teachers gave their full support to the Nazis and Adolf Hitler.  Along with the larger academic community, the church in Germany, with only a few notable exceptions, did not raise much resistance to the rise of the Nazi state.  Indeed, in the aftermath of Germany’s humiliating defeat in the First World War, Adolf Hitler became almost a savior figure to the German people.  Many began to equate faith in God with faith in Hitler.  The Third Reich was viewed as God’s plan to resurrect the German nation.  Many in Germany began to identify themselves as God’s chosen people, and they viewed Hitler as chosen by God to lead them to the Promised Land. 

So, through their support for the Nazis, these prominent Christian theologians contributed to the Holocaust, the murder of six-million Jews, and the slaughter of millions of other undesirables, including Gypsies, homosexuals, and the mentally ill.  How could such a thing happen in Germany—for centuries “a Christian nation,” the motherland of Martin Luther, the cradle of the Protestant Reformation?  The short answer is that there was an unholy alliance of church and state.  Many in the German church gave their blessing to what the state was doing.  One of the most disturbing images in the documentary for me was seeing the Nazi flag with the swastika draped across church altars.  Only a few Christian leaders, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, dared to challenge or even question the German government.  And Bonhoeffer paid a price for his defiance.  He was executed in a Nazi prison camp shortly before the War’s end.

In our scripture text for this morning, the apostles paid a price for their defiance of the Jewish authorities.  They were preaching about Jesus and those in authority didn’t like it.  The high priest and the Sadducees had the apostles arrested and thrown into prison.  But during the night the prison doors were opened by an angel of the Lord.  You would think that Peter and the other apostles would have fled for their lives.  Instead, at daybreak, they were back in the temple continuing their teaching.  Once again Peter and the other apostles were apprehended, this time without violence, for the authorities were afraid of a popular uprising.  Once again they were hauled before the council and the high priest reminded the apostles that he had given them strict orders not to teach about Jesus.  Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” 

This week we celebrate our nation’s birthday.  It could be argued that this nation was founded on the same principle:  we must obey God rather than any human authority.  Remember that this country began with defiance of the British government.  In the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson wrote:

            We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,
            that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,
            that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.— …
            That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends,
            it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new   Government

Actually Jefferson’s original words were:  “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.”  When Jefferson submitted his rough draft to John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, they proposed a few changes.  Whatever the reason for the change in wording, the founding fathers of our nation chose to obey God rather than human authority.  All of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were declared traitors to the king.  They risked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. 

Today we honor America, but we do not worship America.  We recognize that this nation, or any nation, is not the kingdom of God.  We acknowledge that our ultimate loyalty is to God, and that ultimately we must obey God rather than any human authority.  Because we must obey God, and because we love America, at times we must question and even criticize our government.  That’s why the separation of church and state is so important.  Look at the countries in the world today where religion and government have become intertwined—Saudi Arabia, Iran, even Iraq and Afghanistan.  Look at what happened in Germany when the church and the state became intertwined.  The church must remain separate from the state to keep the state honest.  The church must remain separate from the state to preserve its own integrity.  But the genius of America is genuine religious liberty, and its corollary, the separation of church and state.  Every religion is protected, and no religion receives preferential treatment.  That is America’s great legacy to the world.

I am proud to be an American precisely because freedom of conscience is the centerpiece of American values.  Most Americans are proud to be Americans.  The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago did a study of citizens in 33 countries.  They asked people to respond to the following statement:  “I would rather be a citizen of my country than a citizen of any other.”  Among Americans over 75% strongly agreed with that statement.  In contrast, only 21% of Germans, 34% of French, and 21% of Spanish strongly agreed that they would rather be citizens of their country than any other.  Americans are a proud and optimistic people, deeply patriotic, with strong religious values.  Is it just coincidence that genuine religious freedom is the hallmark of our way of life?

Today we honor America, but we do not worship America.  We worship God.  We recognize that where kingdoms are in conflict, we must obey God rather than any human authority.  Today we celebrate freedom, not only the political freedoms that we enjoy as Americans, but even more the spiritual freedom that is ours through our faith in Christ.  Every time we eat the bread and drink the cup we remember—Christ died to make us free.

Bruce Salmon, Pastor,
Baptist Church, Bowie, Maryland

July 2, 2006

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