Guess what, friends? I will be with Professor Moltmann in Atlanta in TWO DAYS! Next Monday I’ll share thoughts from his lecture at Candler School of Theology, and hopefully post photos, too. Some other Moltmanniacs will be there, and I look forward to seeing them!
Today’s excerpt comes from Moltmann’s book of sermons, The Power of the Powerless. It’s a sermon entitled “The Consequences of Discipleship” based on Luke 12. I cannot believe how timely it is, how important it is for us to hear and heed as the church in America at this exact moment in time. I wanted to bold and underline the whole passage, but refrained myself to a few key sentences and phrases.
The consequences of forgotten, denied and rejected discipleship really are the torments of hell. They show themselves in this world in the faith that has become unsure, in the guilty fears of conscience, and in the moral backbone broken forever…
Let me remind you of the inconceivable silence of the churches and the great majority of Christians in Germany forty years ago, when the synagogues went up in flames and the mass murder of Jewish witnesses to the righteousness of God began. I remind you of this as someone touched by the consequences of that silence, not as accuser…
But what Reinhold Schneider wrote is true: ‘On the day when the synagogues were attacked, the churches should have stood beside the synagogues as their brothers. The fact that they did not do so is crucial.’
We have not just to accuse ourselves, and confess our guilt because what should have been done then was not done. What is more important is to struggle, even today, with the appalling results of non-discipleship during those years: with the continual unconscious repression of that failure, with the continual unconscious compensating of guilty fear through an obtrusive self-righteousness, and with lost credibility, a lost assurance of faith and our own self-confidence in that faith… The consequences of non-discipleship– the consequences of truth repudiated, justice shattered, humanity betrayed– are catastrophic, both in our church and in our nation. Repudiated truth and betrayed humanity leave behind them people who are open to blackmail, opportunist and without principle– people who no longer know themselves for what they are…If I deny the truth, if I permit injustice, if I take no notice of the people who are being persecuted- then my family and I will get along the better for it; but the torments of hell begin at the same time- the torments of a broken backbone and unforgivable guilt.
If I confess the truth, if I fight for righteousness, if I put myself on the side of the persecuted, then I myself shall be isolated. I shall have to put up with slights, and my children will have to suffer for it too; but we shall have the infinite joy of being able to walk upright and hold our heads high. We have to choose. And we choose every minute. So let us be clear about the question: what have we to fear more, the consequences of discipleship or the consequences of non-discipleship?
It’s important for us to remember that Hitler’s rise to power in Germany came as a result of Christian silence. Churches colluded with power, sided with prestige and position, and consequently lost their credibility and many of them their faith entirely. They made political calculations to follow the leadership of Hitler, despite warnings, despite red flags, despite rumors and his use of dangerous rhetoric. That is a difficult pill to swallow, that the mass murder of millions of people came in large part because of a silent Christianity.
But that is not the worst of it. Behind that silence is something more difficult to face, which is the reality that years of non-discipleship leading up to Hitler’s rise to power made it possible for these Christians to be led astray. Whatever churches were preaching from their pulpits, it did not bear the fruit of justice, of righteousness, of faithfulness, when a time of danger and crisis arose. What happened instead is that Christians fell in line easily behind a vicious, violent, hateful dictator, and they all got blood on their hands. I believe it’s time American Christianity took a sobering look at our own theology and asked why it is bearing the kind of fruit we are seeing- and not seeing.
I remember reading a book a number of years ago about Nazi Germany, where the author argued that Hitler was not a surprise at all, not a long-shot, even, because Germany at the time was ripe for the very kind of ideology that Hitler espoused. It was everyday people who bought so easily into his rhetoric that explains what happened in World War II. It was not a hidden campaign, but an open one, one that most Germans were more than happy to go along with. Hitler simply put into words and put on display the prejudice and hatred that was already there. It was one of the most terrifying and sobering books I believe I’ve ever read.
Moltmann is making this same point when he says that the lack of proper Christian discipleship allowed Hitler to come to power, allowed and even encouraged churches to stay silent during that dark time. Christianity was not just silent. It was a big, big part of the problem. Christians became opportunistic and without principle, choosing the comfort and safety of their own families and their own social standing over the difficult call of the gospel. But though it may have been easier at the beginning, in the end such non-discipleship did nothing but produce the torments of hell.
When I was a chaplain at a retirement community, I spent many many hours with a woman who grew up in Nazi Germany. She did not like to talk about it at all, but one day she opened up to me in a deeply vulnerable way. She told me she was mostly silent, and looked to her own safety and interests, even when she was alarmed by what she heard and saw. The room became almost thick with sadness, and she looked at me with these hollowed-out eyes of grief and terror and said, “I will never, ever be able to forgive myself for that. I will never be able to make that right.” I have never forgotten the look in her eyes- it shook me to the core. Torments of hell is not an inaccurate way of describing what I saw her feeling.
Following Jesus is hard. But the consequence of discipleship is a far lighter weight to bear. If we speak out against police brutality and speak up for black men and women being killed unjustly, we may make people angry or uncomfortable or lose Facebook friends. But we will hold within us the joy of knowing we are sticking to a path we believe in- the dignity of human life and the indignity of racism and violence. If we speak out against sexual assault against women, someone may call us names or make snide and ugly comments. But we will know that we sought a community of belovedness, where violence does not override consent. If we speak out in support of our Muslim brothers and sisters who are unfairly targeted as terrorists, we may make things uncomfortable for our Thanksgiving dinner, but we will know that the lesson of millions of slaughtered Jews at the hands of Christian silence is a lesson we have learned, and one we refuse to repeat. If we stay silent when threats or demeaning comments are made to any group of people, we are complicit in rejecting our own Christian discipleship.
I hope American Christianity learns from the mistakes of history and does not repeat them. Every few days I see someone tweet or post this quote by Father Richard Rohr: “The evangelical support of Trump will be an indictment against its validity as a Christian movement for generations to come.” And the saddest thing is that even those of us who do not call ourselves evangelicals will share the burden of that lost credibility.
Moltmann put it to us this way, and I think it’s a question worth asking ourselves: What have we to fear more, the consequences of discipleship, or the consequences of non-discipleship?