2Realms.com: The Christian, The Church, and The World From a Lutheran Perspective.

Personal tools
You are here: Home Contributors GW Bynum Who was Martin Niemoller, and why does Congressman Ackerman think he's David Benke?

Who was Martin Niemoller, and why does Congressman Ackerman think he's David Benke?

Document Actions
Imagine if you will that one group of Christians, in order to fit in and to assimilate into the national political culture, decide to compromise their doctrine and practice in order to be more accessible and popular to the prevailing political winds. When the opportunity for confession is thrust upon them, they decide to come together in large mass gatherings, and pretend that their participation in this event does not compromise their individual confession, even after they have sworn to uphold the doctrine and practice of their Church. Now image another group of Christians, who are not willing to abondon the form or content of the historic faith, who resist efforts by the state and the popular culture to change their doctrine and practice, and who insist that those who belong to their Church also support the Church's doctrine. Could this be Nazi Germany, or the old Soviet Russia? Perhaps, but both groups today are in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, and thanks to the wonderful alchemy of modern liberal rhetoric, the first group accuses the second group of being Nazis. But history tells us that these new advocates of accommodating state ideology into the church are definitely in the Twilight Zone.

For those who are on a certain side of the political and cultural divide in the United States, there is a magical quality about the word "Nazi". There must be, because they delight in applying the word so often to those who disagree with them. Along with the other popular accusation of the left, "Hate Speech", "Nazi" is used to silence the inconvenient opinions of those who, for example, believe in due process and equal treatment of individuals, oppose special rights for special groups, believe that citizens and democratically elected assemblies should decide the laws and shape of our common society and not judges, and hold to the idea that the US Constitution guarantees both liberty and responsibility for the actions of citizens, and not radical individual autonomy which allows individuals and minorities the right to overturn and tyrannize majorities. In other words, the vast majority of the American people are considered "Nazis" by many on the left, if we are to take them at their word.

Those who observe this trend have seen it for some years in the American Academy and in the cultural debates. It would be sadly ironic if not for the fact that those who use the word are often successful in crushing any opposition to their radical programs, and are able to subvert or ignore the democratic process, common decency and ethics to discredit or destroy those who disagree. This is not, of course, new in human history, because the same things have happened before. The terms change, but the process remains the same. Some of the greatest practitioners of this art of propaganda were, in fact, the Nazis and Adolf Hitler, those people whom the left believes bear no resemblance to themselves, but to everyone who disagrees with them.

It appears that U.S. Congressman Gary Ackerman (5th Congressional District, New York) seems to think the Lutherans who fought and then migrated from the oppressive power of the German States and the German State Churches are Nazis because they ask Rev. David Benke to uphold the teaching and practice of his Church. The congressman was, evidently, unaware of Rev. Benke's own statement of 1998 October 22 in which he pledged to uphold that same doctrine and practice after his lapse of 1998 September 9 which strangely resembled what he did at the "Prayer for America" event in Yankee Stadium in 2001. The congressman addressed his remarks to a rally held July 11, 2002, in support of Rev. Benke, which was also attended by the President of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, Gerald Kieschnick.

In fairness to the congressman, the news accounts quote him as comparing Rev. Benke to Martin Niemoller, for the explicit reason that Niemoller "stood up" against the Nazis. It would be good for the congressman to clarify whom he thinks are the nazis to Rev. Benke's Niemoller. Those attending the rally, however, got the point, as well as the major media of the New York Metropolitan area. ABC's Channel 7 led the 11 o'clock news with a an explanation of Rev. Wallace Schulz's decision suspending Rev. Benke for his actions. To use Congressman Ackerman's terminology, Channel 7 would have made Joseph Goebbels (Adolf Hitler's propaganda minister) proud, failing to mention Rev. Benke's earlier statement, and distorting Rev. Schulz's decision in order to positively portray Rev. Benke's conflation of state and church at Yankee Stadium. To extend the congressman's terms, the other members of the Ministry of Truth, normally so eager to root out any trace of religion in the public square, dutifully reported similar stories throughout the national media largely supportive of Rev. Benke's experiment in civil religion. Das Reich was unavailable for comment (having gone out of business in 1944), but the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal would eventually carry comments and letters on the matter, generally reinforcing the initial opinion.

This is, of course, a little too easy, and the reader can object that Channel 7, and the other segments of the media mentioned above, would object to this characterization. If that is the case, we might also suspect that those whom congressman Ackerman describes as Nazis would also object. Both cases would have some validity, but the second case has history in its favor. In order to understand why, it is necessary to know the actual facts and history about Martin Niemoller, the Lutheran Church, and those who are so intent on supporting Rev. Benke.

Martin Niemoller is famous today for his criticism of the National Socialist government of Germany. He was arrested for treason, and was eventually jailed at Dachau. Niemoller, who served as a U-Boat captain in World War I, was emblematic of the many patriotic Germans who became disillusioned with the Third Reich. Unlike many of them, however, Niemoller had both friends in the foreign press, and was willing to speak up and take the consequences for his criticism. His essays and preaching distinguished between Positive Christianity and Negative Christianity, of which Niemoller was an advocate of the latter. Positive Christianity was popular with the National Socialists (Nazis) because it held that there was some positive trait inherent in the German people, and hence in German Christianity. This was agreeable to the pagan and mythic ideology of German Nazism, which stressed the uniqueness of the German blood and soil, but had to contend with the fact that, unlike the nazis, the majority of Germans considered themselves Christians.

Niemoller's defense of Negative Christianity was indeed courageous. Neimoller believed (along with the historic Lutheran Church and other churches) that all people, regardless of their race, were guilty of sin and in need of repentance. Interestingly, Niemoller believed that the rejection of Jesus Christ as Messiah by the Jewish people was due to their own version of Positive Christianity, which trusted in its own status and race as a people instead of turning in repentance to God's true Messiah. Both the Jews of Jesus' time and the Third Reich of Niemoller's turned away Negative Christianity, which Jesus offered them, because they believed in the blood and race of their nation. For this, they both bear a curse. Positive Christianity was also, in his view, a rejection of the true religion of God for a false political religion. These positions were very courageous for a German to espouse in print in the 1920's and 30's.

After the fall of the Third Reich, Niemoller advocated a rigorous pacifism, and later became one of the presidents of the World Council of Churches. Niemoller's stance against nuclear weapons, and his willingness to attempt reconciliation between the Western and Eastern Blocs, was not universally popular, and some criticized his efforts as morally equivocating Soviet Communism and Western Democracy, as well as being an unwitting tool of Eastern Bloc espionage and propaganda. These criticisms, however, do not diminish Niemoller's courage and character during the 1930's and 40's.

The church in which Niemoller served as pastor was a state church, sometimes referred to as the "Lutheran Reformed Church", and was the product of centuries of encroachment of the German States on the churches of Germany. Following the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, many of the Lutheran princes and electors of Germany found the confession of the Lutheran Church politically inexpedient, and sought to alter and change that confession, often to include Reformed (Calvinist) and other confessions. The reasoning of the political leaders was sometimes one of political calculus, and sometimes one of survival. Initially they were faced with the threat of the Holy Roman Empire, which threatened their extinction, and the extinction of their faith. Later political events, such as the rise of Prussia and the threat of Napoleon, inspired increasing interference with the confession of the churches in Germany.

Often acting in concert with the other cultural, intellectual and religious forces of the time (rationalism, pietism, higher criticism and theological liberalism, to name a few), the German political leaders systematically weakened the confession of the German Lutheran churches. Given the reality of a state church system, this clash and its resolution may have been inevitable. The combination of the civil, political and religious institutions of the state dictated that civic religion was always in danger of being more civic than religion. Ironically, various Acts of Toleration would sometimes precede the state's coercion of its churches. Perhaps like our modern situation, where nice sounding terms like toleration and prohibition of Hate Speech are used to express intolerance and hatred of traditional religion and morality, the German political leaders of the 17th through the 19th Centuries would issue an Edict of Toleration only to follow it up some years later with an outright ban on the expression of politically and religiously incorrect speech. Ultimately, the power of the states in Germany (in Brandenburg specifically and mirrored elsewhere) would forbid ordination according to the Lutheran Confessions (1656), prohibit the Lutheran liturgy (1736), and transfer authority for the churches away from church leaders to the state (1808). By 1922 the German Evangelical Church Federation was established, and by 1933 the German Evangelical Church was formed out of this federation. This historical development culminated in Niemoller's time with the German Christians and other groups determined to co-opt the German churches entirely to the ideology of the Third Reich.

This history is, of course, incomplete, and it does not mention those figures - often heroic - who fought this process, and attempted to hold to the confession of the Church, often in very, very difficult times. The Silesian Lutheran Church, among others, fought the growing power of Brandenburg-Prussia to retain its worship and confessions in the 1830's. While Niemoller was particularly courageous, his own church had, over the centuries, been reduced to an arm of the state, and a combination of Lutheran and Reformed doctrine that seemed unable to speak vigorously against the Nazis. This is partly why Niemoller and others such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer formed groups such as the Confessing Church and the Pastors Emergency League. The German Church had indeed achieved the ecumenical dream of uniting the churches in Germany. Unfortunately, the liberal theology which made this ecumenical dream possible did so by accommodating Nazi neo-paganism, and the slogan "One People, One Reich, One Faith". This adaptation of the Nazi motto "Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer" came with a program, and the new ecumenical church began to entertain resolutions to abandon the Old Testament, revise the New Testament in the light of National Socialism, exclude Jewish converts, and require pastors to take an oath to Hitler.

Throughout this long process, there were individuals and churches who, like Martin Niemoller, dared to challenge the political, civic and cultural forces that constantly sought to silence the confession of the faith. Many of them emigrated - by choice or force - to the United States, where their stories were much like other emigrants. They sought a place where they could both support their new country with their words, deeds and prayers, but also retain their worship, faith, confession, doctrine and practice. They sought a land where they might serve both their Church and their Country, instead of the compulsion to obey a combination of the two which was neither genuine to the true State or Church. They came to the United States because their history had taught them how unique and precious it was to live in a land where their particular confession would not be crushed by the state, or overwhelmed by cultural, social or civic dreams of false ecumenism, or other utopian and liberal ideas of what religion should be. They came for religious freedom, which they did not have where they were.

One of these groups and one of these churches is the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, the first members of which emigrated to the United States in the 19th Century.

These are the people, and this is the church, that Congressman Ackerman evidently believes are the Nazis to Rev. Benke's Niemoller.

The congressman is, of course, entitled to his opinion, and who knows, he might be a nice guy (at least to his non-Nazi constituents). But if the history above doesn't reveal him to be in error on this point, perhaps some modern comparisons to the actual positions of National Socialism might help. As it turns out, we can compare the voting record of Congressman Ackerman's party (the Democratic Party) on significant issues to the actual positions taken by the Nazis. We can then compare these to the positions taken by the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. So let's look at actual votes in the United States Congress.

Many people are aware that the Nazis instituted sterilization laws in Germany in the 1930's (1933 July 25). Less well known (or perhaps conveniently forgotten by the modern mind) is that the Nazis also legalized abortion at this time. Unlike the weakened state churches of the time, the Roman Catholic Church protested, and suffered the consequences. The Catholic Youth League was dissolved, and many priests and nuns were arrested. This may be the historical background behind Niemoller's famous quote, ("First they came for the Catholics..."). So it can be safely said that the Third Reich favored abortion, and made it legal.

The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has taken a firm position against abortion.

You would think that Congressman Ackerman's party would be in the forefront condemning this barbaric Nazi practice. Sadly, he voted in favor of allowing military hospitals to perform abortions at taxpayer expense by voting for House Resolution (HR) 1588 (Roll Call 215). Adolf Hitler, we may assume, was closer to the position of Congressman Ackerman's party than to that of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.

On July 15, 2003, the congressman had the opportunity to distance himself from the Nazi ethic of death by voting to uphold the long-standing ban on US taxpayer funds for international population organizations that promote abortions. Sadly, the congressman chose to ignore the position of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, which, for a group of Nazis (as the congressman calls them), sure doesn't seem to follow the National Socialist Party line. Instead, the congressman followed his party, which seems to have taken a page out of Mein Kampf on this issue. Congressman Ackerman voted against upholding this ban in House Resolution 1950 (HR 1950, Roll Call 362).

But surely the congressman would distinguish himself by siding with the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod on the horrific practice of partial birth abortion, which that Church has condemned. Alas, congressman Ackermann listened to his party, rather than that Church, and voted against banning partial birth abortion on October 2, 2003 (Roll Call 530). Lest we think this is a fluke, it should be noted that the congressman also voted against banning partial birth abortions in 2002 (HR 4965, Roll Call 343).

Human cloning, along with eugenics, was long a dream of the Nazi regime, and would appear to be another litmus test. The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod opposes it. Congressman Ackerman was absent when the most recent bill to ban human cloning came before the House of Representatives (House Resolution 534, Roll Call 37). He did, however, vote against a ban for ten years on human cloning to begin pregnancy, but which would have allowed the cloning of embryos for medical research. It could be charitably said that this is not exactly the same position as that of Joseph Mengele, but it certainly puts the congressman's party closer to "the Angel of Death" than the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.

As mentioned above, the Nazi control of churches (like the earlier German princes and electorates) largely silenced them on moral, ethical, and political matters. You would think that the congressman's party would be very supportive of the rights of religious organizations to engage in political speech. Sadly this is not the case. The congressman voted against the Religious Freedom bill (HR 2357, Roll Call 429) which would have restored the right of tax-exempt religious organizations to participate in politics, so long as such participation was not a substantial part of their work. The defeat of this bill allows the IRS to claim that they are "just following orders" when they threaten the tax exempt status of religious groups for speaking out on ethical, moral and civic matters which they define as political. Perhaps the congressman's party should do more to distance itself from the Third Reich on free speech and religious freedom.

Perhaps the congressman is looking for Martin Niemoller in the wrong places. If he truly wants to find such profiles in courage, perhaps he should look at members of his own political party who oppose abortion and human cloning, and who defend the rights of religious organizations to engage in debate in the public square without fear of retaliation.

We don't doubt that congressman Ackerman and the Lutheran members of the US House of Representatives who have addressed a letter of support to Rev. Benke mean well. They don't know any better, and they're trying to help. What is shocking is that the supporters of Rev. Benke are willing to use the political representatives of the state to accuse the faithful members of their own church of being Nazis. Two of the conspicuous organizations which support Rev. Benke, Day Star and Jesus First, have favorable reports of the congressman's words on their web sites.*
*As of this writing, at the urls www.day-star.net, and jesusfirst.net, where the incident seems to be a sort of "Horst-Wessel-Lied" for their movement.
The President of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, Gerald Kieschnick, spoke after the congressman at this event, and he has evidently made no effort to refute this horrible slur on his own Church.

It should also be noted that Rev. Kieschnick has been conspicuously silent about the treatment of Rev. Wallace Schulz. Rev. Schulz, the most direct target of the supporters of Rev. Benke, was fired from his position as Speaker of the Lutheran Hour for doing nothing more than his Church required, which was to come to a decision on the case given to him concerning Rev. Benke's actions. Rev. Kieschnick would have been a Martin Niemoller himself (or perhaps even a Dietrich Bonhoeffer) if he had stood up to those at the Lutheran Hour who fired Rev. Schulz and said, "I do not agree with his decision, but he had to make it, and for you to fire him for being faithful to his Church is wrong". The same could be said for Rev. Benke's other supporters. If they are unwilling to condemn such terrible tactics, perhaps they have become too fond of the "Will to Power".

This may be the salient point. The supporters of Rev. Benke appear willing to use and to be used in order to attack the historic position of their own Church, judging from their treatment of Rev. Schulz. They are, evidently, willing to be used as a tool by elements of the state, popular and political culture and to use these as their own tools to attack those who hold to the historic Lutheran position. Compare that to the initial target of their attempted putsch: Rev. Schulz suffers the loss of his job at the Lutheran Hour, and crucifixion by a public and a liberal and politically correct media that does not understand nor wish to comprehend the issues at hand. In spite of this, Rev. Schulz continues to do the right thing, and what his Church has asked of him.

If the supporters of Rev. Benke have their way, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod may become yet another church (like so many others) that sacrifices its own confession in order to be a tool of some segment of the popular and political culture. Like other churches in the United States, it is constantly being tempted to abandon the great Lutheran teaching on Law and Gospel, and take the easy road to the left or right, to theological liberalism or generic American Evangelicalism. If this happens, we should not count on Rev. Benke's supporters to have the courage of a Martin Niemoller. Those who are happy to wallow in shallow public opinion and popularity are happy to have the courage of other peoples' convictions, but rarely their own, and only when those convictions are popular. We should instead look for the Martin Niemollers among the people like Rev. Schulz.

Those who cheered congressman Ackerman's words might do well to read another document which has Martin Niemoller's signature, the Barmen Declaration. This confession, the work of Niemoller, Karl Barth and others, contains the words: We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.*
*The Theological Declaration of Barmen, 8:18.
Even though the Barmen Declaration did not sufficiently distinguish the Lutheran and Reformed confessions (according to Herman Sasse, who was also in attendance), it did make the incredibly brave assertion (in 1934) that the Church possesses something that is not its own, but rather the Church lives and proclaims a message and an order which it cannot change, even if - especially if - that message and order are no longer popular among many within the Church. The Church cannot hand over to the state, or to the prevailing ideology and politics, even the form of that message. Those who attempt to use the popular culture and the prevailing political winds to embarrass and pressure a Church to abandon historic positions they don't like ought to think long and hard about the ultimate outcome of their actions. As Martin Niemoller put it, Then they came for me -- and by that time no one was left to speak up.