WE MUST OBEY GOD
Ten days ago in Atlanta,
during the General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, I
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
during the 1930’s and the Second World War.
Two of the theologians I was only vaguely familiar with, but the
is well-known to me and to just about every seminary student in the
years. His name was Gerhard Kittel, and
he is remembered as the editor of one of the most important theological
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
library. Whenever I had my picture taken
in my office, I would stand in front of the bookshelf with the
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
scholars of the 20th century.
His Theological Dictionary
remains the definitive reference work for defining and explaining the
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
question.” In the documentary the author
of the book, Theologians Under Hitler,
Robert Ericksen, history professor at Pacific
in Tacoma, Washington, said this about Kittel: “He became
one of the most viciously anti-Semitic leaders in the Christian church
support of the Nazi ideology.” After his
lecture on “The Jewish Question” was published, one of Kittel’s
colleagues at Cambridge University
sent him a letter. In the letter the
No one in England,
Christian, troubles about the views of Nazi
who have given themselves to Hitler and sinned against the light.
about you we are troubled and grieved
because we reckoned you
the side of the angels. [emphasis added]
Gerhard Kittel and two other of the German
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
of the Nazi state. Indeed, in the
aftermath of Germany’s
humiliating defeat in the First World War, Adolf Hitler became almost a
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
to identify themselves as God’s chosen people, and they viewed Hitler
by God to lead them to the Promised Land.
So, through their support for the Nazis, these
Christian theologians contributed to the Holocaust, the murder of
Jews, and the slaughter of millions of other undesirables, including
homosexuals, and the mentally ill. How
could such a thing happen in Germany—for
centuries “a Christian nation,” the motherland of Martin Luther, the
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
the swastika draped across church altars.
Only a few Christian leaders, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, dared
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
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
orders not to teach about Jesus. Peter
and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human
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:
these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,
are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,
these are Life, Liberty
and the pursuit of Happiness.— …
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
original words were: “we hold these
truths to be sacred and undeniable.”
When Jefferson submitted his
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
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
even Iraq and Afghanistan. Look at what happened in Germany
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
state to preserve its own integrity. But
the genius of America
is genuine religious liberty, and its corollary, the separation of
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
conscience is the centerpiece of American values. Most
Americans are proud to be
Americans. The National
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
of their country than any other.
Americans are a proud and optimistic people, deeply patriotic,
strong religious values. Is it just
coincidence that genuine religious freedom is the hallmark of our way
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
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,
Church, Bowie, Maryland
July 2, 2006
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