As we witness the downward spiral of our nation on nearly every level, and the loss of more and more of our freedoms, especially those of Christians who want to live out their faith, we can’t help but wonder how we can continue being an influence as the “salt” and “light” we are to be (cf Mt. 5:14-16). Whether it is in the public school classroom or in a business run by Christians who want to maintain their biblical world view in the work place, it is becoming harder and harder for believers to express and live their convictions without reprisal from governing authorities.
I recently read a very challenging, eye-opening book, When A Nation Forgets God, by Pastor Erwin Lutzer of the Moody Church. In his book he shares seven lessons we must learn from Nazi Germany. Most Christians thought that if they left Hitler alone, he would leave them alone, but they discovered that was not possible. Hitler put pressure on them to have their children indoctrinated in the state schools and, because of the cultural pressure, their churches were not equipping members to stand against the abuses that were developing around them. “Right from the beginning, Hitler sought to marginalize the church to guarantee that no Christian influence would be allowed to inform government policies. If religion was tolerated, it had to be secularized so that it would be compatible with the state’s commitment to the greater good of Germany.” Hitler’s real intentions were not immediately revealed. He was willing to give the churches freedom, he said, “as long as they did not do anything subversive to the state.” Of course his promise was based on his own definition of what might be subversive! The churches were impressed with Hitler’s frequent use of the words freedom and tolerance. He assured them that he was “just doing what was best for Germany.” Of course, what was “best” would be defined by him, not by the churches, and not by the Bible. (His ultimate goal was to obliterate the church and smash every vestige of Christianity.)
Among the few who stood up for their biblical convictions and were a voice for Christianity were Martin Niemoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They gained an audience with Hitler. After listening silently to Niemoller’s plea that the church cared about the welfare of the state and of the German people, Hitler said, “You confine yourself to the Church. I’ll take care of the German people.” Initially more than two thousand pastors stood with Niemoller and Bonhoeffer, but now they withdrew their support. They believed that appeasement was the best strategy. One eyewitness account of the rise of Nazism in Germany said: “I lived in Germany during the Nazi Holocaust. I considered myself a Christian. We heard stories of what was happening to the Jews, but we tried to distance ourselves from it, because, what could anyone do to stop it?” He went on to describe how the death trains could be heard on the tracks running behind their church. They could hear the cries coming from the train as it passed by on Sunday morning, taking Jews in cattle cars to a death camp. They were haunted by the screams, but just sang at the top of their voices to try to drown out the screams! The eyewitness said, “Years have passed and no one talks about it anymore. But I still hear that train whistle in my sleep. God forgive me; forgive all of us who called ourselves Christians yet did nothing to intervene.”
We might be critical of the church and the believers in Germany who allowed this to happen, but what would we have done in the face of such abuses? “What should we do when the state’s policy is evil? What train is rumbling past us today whose whistle we ignore?” The question is just as relevant today as it was in Nazi Germany. Just what is the role of the church in the face of governments that have purposefully excluded God from their policies? We are experiencing the greatest attacks against Christian freedoms and beliefs since the founding of our country. What should our role as Christians and as the church be?
“Hitler responded to the opposition of the church in the same way all hostile governments respond to those who would disagree with them: He created a flurry of new laws and then accused pastors and church leaders of breaking them. In one way or another, God had to be separated from government policies and ejected from the public square. The voice of courageous Christians had to be silenced. God had to be removed to make way for the National Socialist policies. Niemoller was later imprisoned for what we today call ‘hate speech.’ He was accused of ‘abuse of the pulpit,’ was sentenced to prison and then confined to concentration camps, ending up in Dachau where he remained until liberated by Allied troops.” The role of the church was minimized by privatizing faith and instituting laws about what could be or could not be said from a pulpit. Keep in mind that all of this happened under code words such as freedom, peace, and fairness. Secular values were imposed on society in the name of “freedom.”
Niemoller has a word for us who live in America. He was thinking of German Christians when he spoke this, but it applies to us today, here in the United States of America. From his pulpit in the Berlin suburb of Dahlem, he declared God’s purpose in the trials that faced the German church: “It is testing time, and God is giving Satan a free hand, so he may shake us up and so that it may be seen what manner of men we are!” God definitely has a way of separating the wheat from the chaff! Bonhoeffer was right when he said, “We will never be a victorious church until we see suffering as a divine gift.”
The Apostle Paul wrote similarly to the Philippian church: “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake” (Phil. 1:29). God sends persecution to both purify the church and to sharpen her Christian witness. The darker it becomes, the more our light should shine. One of the most appropriate books of the New Testament “for such a time as this,” is Peter’s first epistle, written specifically to believers living in a hostile, pagan culture. They had no representative in government to plead their case and couldn’t vote as we do in America. They didn’t have courts to get a fair hearing. There was just persecution, intimidation, and deprivation–and often death! Here’s what Peter said (good words for us today in America): “that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ…Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” ( I Pet. 1:7; 4:12,13).
Believers world-wide are having their faith tested. The church is undergoing great persecution. We Christians here in the good ole U.S.A. are part of that church and are not exempt. It is time for us to awaken from our sleep, and as Paul exhorted: “Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15,16).
P.S. I highly recommend that you get a copy of When A Nation Forgets God by Erwin Lutzer (Moody Publishers) and read it