Isaiah 13:6–7


Otto Dibelius is Bishop of the Evangelical Church diocese of Berlin/Brandenburg which includes both Lutheran and Reformed congregations. Born in Berlin in 1880, he studied at the Universities of Berlin and Edinburgh, then ministered to parishes in Prussia and Pomerania. A former President of the World Council of Churches, he denounces Communism as he once did Nazism. This sermon, abridged by permission from his book Call to a Divided City, was translated by Prof. J. W. Winterhager.


Howl ye; for the day of the LORD is at hand; it shall come as a destruction from the Almighty. Therefore shall all hands be faint, and every man’s heart shall melt.


This is the first sermon in a series in which CHRISTIANITY TODAY presents messages by notable preachers of God’s Word in Britain and on the Continent. Plans for future issues include sermons by Professor James S. Stewart of Edinburgh; Professor Jean Cadier of Montpellier, France; the Rev. J. R. W. Stott of London; Professor G. C. Berkouwer of Amsterdam; Dr. Leon Morris of Cambridge, and Dr. Charles Duthie of the Scottish Congregational College.

Every prominent visitor to Berlin has said that he marvels at the bravery of the Berliners.

A Berliner naturally likes to hear this. But a question mark remains. Indeed, there are brave people on this side and the other. I salute all those who during the vacation period were in West Germany and had the opportunity, which may never recur, to stay in the West—but did not stay. They went back to the East Zone and do not know when they will ever again be able to leave it. I greet the parents who sent their children to Western schools and had to decide whether to take them to the East or move themselves to the West in order to stay together—and then have decided, in the face of a separation of indefinite duration, that the children shall remain in their Western schools, come what may.

There certainly are brave people among us in Berlin! There are others too. More than one has sat in my room completely filled with doubts, completely broken down. And I know how many there are in the Zone or in East Berlin with whom I cannot meet under present circumstances and who look into the future with the worst doubts and fears. Where, however, fear arises and where courage is lost, there all is lost.

In our text the prophet Isaiah has a word about the destruction of Babylon by the hosts of the Lord; in the light of that passage, I would like to say a word against cowardice. One kind of cowardice is a natural fear against which one can scarcely do anything. That begins in childhood. There are children who cannot sleep alone. There are others, perhaps their own brothers and sisters, who are quite different. There are singers who can hardly utter a note when they first stand up in public. That is part of our make-up.

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Some of these inborn fears are found in every man. If anything is characteristic of our times, it is that today fear plays a very great role in our thinking and feelings. Anyone who has seen Sartre’s Flies knows how uneasily the whole theater audience is made to tremble. The classical drama with which I grew up seldom or never mentioned fear. Today a system of philosophy like that of Heidegger views fear as the “basic condition” of human life.

The Carrot And The Whip

Is it a coincidence that just at this time the totalitarian states have come into being, all of them operating with fear and exploiting the cowardice of human beings? Every totalitarian state proclaims night and day: “Enemies all around! If we don’t employ our ultimate strength in our defense, we shall be lost the day after tomorrow.”

In reality it is nonsense that enemies lie in ambush all around. But the propaganda machine needs that: men should be afraid. The state must use this fear, in their cowardice people will do everything the state demands. They will make every sacrifice, intensify their labors—everything for the deity of the state whose power they regard as their only protection.

Then the carrot is added to the whip. The carrot is the eschatological gospel of the glorious paradise which unfortunately lies in the unattainable future. But first the whip! The whip of fear.

And then the individual is approached. Our totalitarian state has huge, carefully-maintained index files containing all names known in any connection. A notation is made on everyone concerning any aspects in his past which are regarded as shady. One day they come and say: “If you don’t do what we demand, then we will dig that up, and then you will go to court.” Then people grow afraid and, cowards as they are, they yield. That is the method: Just keep every individual in a state of fear!

I know that from my own experience: The Eastern attorney-general starts an investigation procedure. He does nothing further, but—they say this quite openly—it is good to have such a weapon in hand for pressure. Therefore, watch out! They succeed with many people. With others, thank God, they don’t succeed.

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When a police patrol walks through a restaurant in a country under totalitarian rule, all conversations cease. No one is aware of having committed an unlawful act, of having spoken any critical words against the regime. But so what? Someone might have denounced him anyway. Terror is always effective where it meets with cowardice. Thus fear is systematically cultivated.

Anxiety can attack a man like a robber from an ambush. But it can also be overcome—not just “repressed” as the modern psychologists put it, but overcome through the ultimate depths of faith. The reports of the New Testament tell us that in unmistakable language. The inborn fearfulness of the first disciples is frankly admitted. They were afraid in the storm. They were afraid of arrest. They were afraid of death. But when the faith of Easter came over them, their fears were wiped away. At first not entirely. But ultimately courage and joyfulness determined their entire lives.

Lack Of Moral Courage

But there are other types of cowardice. There is a cowardice of character, which can be bound up with a bravery under certain peculiar circumstances. Bismarck often said of his German countrymen: “They are characteristically brave in the attack. What they lack, however, is moral courage.” Moral courage, the courage of one’s convictions, is the heart of the matter! Men reveal themselves as soon as they see pressure being brought against them.

I know children from superb home backgrounds who did not know what a lie was until they were six years old. And then they go to school and learn to tell lies. They lie because of lack of civil courage.

We know the fearful superior who, if something happens for which he himself is at fault, has an uncanny capacity to transfer the blame to some subordinate.

Often there is also fear of the future. This plays a prominent role on the current scene. “What will become of me?” a poor, half-crippled pastor’s wife from the East said to me. “As long as the ties existed with the West, my parents could still help me. I cannot carry on my tasks alone. And now I am cut off from every help!”

This was the answer of men and women in thousands of cases even in the time of the Confessing Church’s war against the Nazi tyranny: “I would gladly work with and be a member of the Confessing Church. But—I fear they will cut off my pension.” Similarly with the war against the so-called Youth Consecration, the Communist substitute for Confirmation. The youth want a Christian Confirmation. Their parents ring their hands: “What will happen? You’ll get no decent employment. You won’t be accepted for advanced schooling or university. You can’t spend your whole life as a road maintenance workman or in the lowest grade white collar employment!”—Fear of the future!

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Lack of moral courage is a characteristic weakness of the German people. Since the Second World War we have enjoyed closer relations with the Anglo-Saxon peoples than ever before. The flood of help which we have continued to receive from America has made a deep impression upon the inner life of the German people. But we have not yet learned from them what they have by way of inner human freedom and powerful response which they assert against other men who threaten their condition. We will learn this when fresh impetus in the Christian faith overcomes the efficient and fundamental atheism which we all have to face. But this new impetus will not come before the totalitarian system which surrounds us is overcome.

For cowardice is no harmless character weakness. It ruins the inner life through and through. He who is fearful also lies. He who fears will be ineffective in every genuine contribution toward a great cause. The totalitarian state knows this. Hitler often said that the state “needs only two types of man: a small minority who rule as dictators, and the great majority who unconditionally obey.” Individuality in the masses is only a hindrance to the state. The Christian conscience is too consistent and must be suppressed. Obey—that’s all!

It requires superhuman efforts to oppose this ideology. It cannot be straightened out by moral suasion. The lever which is applied must really be superhuman, unconditional, and transforming. Only when Christian faith completely takes hold of an individual as the sole driving force in his or her life, can cowardice be overcome as a selfish trait. It is simply inconceivable that the majority of German teachers and philosophers still have no antennae for these simple truths—after thirty years of experience with the totalitarian state. To cite Adolf Hitler once more; he often said that one could “achieve everything with systematic terror, once it had been applied long enough and effectively enough.” He knew the Germans. But we know them too. We know that the Church of Christ has taken roots in our people, and we know that genuine Christian faith cannot be broken, not even by terror. We know it after many experiences in Germany.

Even in our German nation, in which there is such a lack of moral courage, there is bravery. I am not now referring to shallow foolhardiness. Nor to the person who says: ‘Whatever will be will be.” That is not bravery. And if someone puts a chip on his shoulder and says: “I dare anyone to tell me what I can do and cannot do,” that is foolish insolence.

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But there is bravery. We now have several churches and fellowship halls in Berlin which bear the name of Paul Schneider. I knew Paul Schneider, the young Reformed pastor, who was murdered in bestial fashion in a concentration camp. When he saw a group of prisoners marched by his window, he did not hesitate. He called out a Bible-saying to them, although knowing full well each time that he would be terribly beaten for it. He persisted until his death. I must also mention our friend Provost Grueber, who became known in his concentration camp because he shared whatever was sent him from home, even though such brotherly sharing was forbidden by the camp authorities. I must mention Martin Niemöller—not actually because of his detention in a concentration camp, where he was kept under wholly different circumstances, but rather because of his verbal exchange with Adolf Hitler, in which he expressed his concern frankly and openly and thereby became Hitler’s personal enemy and later his personal prisoner. He would never say, “I was brave.” No Christian says that. On the contrary! He afterwards blamed himself for having talked only about his concern for Germany and not having seized the opportunity to confront him with the essence of the Christian message. But brave he was, nonetheless.

There are superiors in Germany who, when some irresponsible act is committed, will say, “I take the blame,” in order to protect the others. I here are youths of upright character in our churches out there in the East Zone who shy away from nothing. According to press reports there was a young girl who, when she went for the first time to her class on composition, was assigned to write a special theme on the subject, “Why I do not go to the Communist Youth Consecration.” She related why she did not go to that Communist ritual and went on to write down “… and as for you, teacher, I regard it as a vile thing that you would assign such a theme, knowing full well what I would write and what consequences would come therefrom.” There are brave Christian men and women!

Where Faintheartedness Leads

It can be moving to see the struggle between bravery and the lack of courage of conviction. I was called to the office of the chief prosecuting attorney in 1937. I was informed that a criminal complaint was filed against me because I had attacked Nazi minister Hanns Kerrl in a widely-publicized letter by making certain “false observations.” I was speechless, because everything I had written was true to the last word, and I could prove it by a dozen witnesses! I sensed that the chief prosecuting attorney, deep down in his heart, was of the same opinion as I was, but he lacked the courage to throw out a complaint of a Nazi state minister. At the court hearing the chief prosecuting attorney made a speech in which he abused me in loud generalities along these lines: The Fuehrer has united the German people. But then a handful of pastors have broken down the fence with a “church war”—and so forth, just like the clichés of the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda. He demanded six months’ imprisonment. Lack of moral courage was manifest in every word.

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In contrast was the conduct of the presiding judge. He was drawn into the Nazi party in some way, so that he was considered politically safe. The press of the whole world had been called upon to report the punishment meted out to “Otto Dibelius, an enemy of the State.” Despite this the court set me free. The judge died shortly afterward as a result of a serious nervous breakdown, for he was dismissed from his post. The attempt of a totalitarian state—not then fully totalitarian—to subjugate what was clearly right was prevented by the conscience and endurance of that one Christian man.

And finally it is moving to see fear and conscience struggle with each other within a human heart.

I shall never forget that moment in the struggle of our Confessing Church when Nazi Minister Kerrl summoned the three Lutheran bishops (D. Marahrens of Hanover, D. Meiser of Munich and D. Wurm of Stuttgart) and said, “If you do not now announce that you are disassociating yourselves from the Confessing Church, I will send commissars into each of your regional churches. They will take the control out of the hands of the Church and make them fully conform to the National Socialist pattern.” After a grievous inner struggle, they signed. When I visited them in the evening of the same day [here in Berlin’s Wilhelm Street Hospice], they were sitting there together, deeply distressed that in this hour, at any rate, they had the feeling that they had failed. Theirs was the responsibility to see to it that their Churches remained free from the dictates of National Socialism. But the fact that they had signed and renounced the difficult struggle of the Confessing Church distressed them. But then there was creative faith to overcome that distress. All three found opportunity later to disavow their signatures. So these Lutheran bishops proved the courage of their convictions. There can be situations in every man’s life when the decision between faintheartedness and bravery nearly tears out one’s heart.

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In the first meeting of the Reichstag in 1933 Hitler pushed through his Statute of Authorization. This required a two-thirds majority. The Nazis did not have even a straight majority, so everything depended upon how the other parties would vote. Hitler calculated that once he had come to power, no one would have the civil courage to oppose him. His cunning calculation was almost correct, though not completely. The only ones who dared to place themselves in opposition were the Social Democrats. I am no Social Democrat, but I shall never forget that act of this party. The other boats were all capsized.

The leader of the then Conservative Party, Mr. A. Hugenberg, was considered a brave man by the entire world. One day after the voting he wrote to his friend Dr. Goerdeler (then Mayor of Leipzig, who came to be the spiritual leader of the July 20th plot against Hitler’s life in 1944), “You must come. I need your help. Yesterday I committed the greatest blunder of my life. I raised my hand for the worst demagogue in the history of the world and helped him push through his authorization statute.” Now, 24 hours later, he knew where his lack of endurance had led his people.

Firmness Of Heart By Grace

Bravery, the courage of our conviction, will be demanded of us if this, our divided city, is not to be destroyed like ancient Babel!

Perhaps bravery will not outwardly alter matters at this moment. But principally it will mean a rebirth of our faith; it will inwardly transform each of us. For brave resolve, even if it should later prove to be untenable, gives one freedom and strength within. Today, one of our large newspapers carried a headline “Total Mobilization of the Moral Courage of the German People.” This should not be merely a manner of speaking. Mobilize the moral courage of the German people! Do it in fact! There is only one way to move from cowardice to moral courage, that faith on which everything depends.

Count Moltke, who was hanged for his part in the July 20 plot against Hitler’s life, immediately before his death wrote a final letter to his wife in which he described the court proceedings before the dreaded Nazi judge: “The entire room could have roared like Judge Freisler, and all the walls could have trembled—it would have meant nothing to me. It was actually true what is said in Isaiah 43, When you pass through the waters, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire, you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, and I will be with you.” That was written in faith, and this is the only way to arouse courage of conviction in our people.

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It is written in Hebrews 13 that it is a precious thing that the heart be firm, “which happens through grace.” For the revival of that grace we can pray. Indeed, I see no way to help the people of our divided city to new moral courage in these decisive days except for someone to take the lead by setting the example and saying, “I pray.” This can only happen through grace. Therefore, I pray to God each day for grace in order that my own heart and the hearts of others may become firm and brave. Because I do this, I now call upon others to do this with me. If we pray together, a miracle can happen in this city. Then from an agitated people and a threatened city with a lack of courage of conviction can come a people and a city of which others can rightfully say, “You are brave people!” We could then answer, “We know not whether we are brave, but we realize that God has given us much grace.” I close with this thought tonight as I closed yesterday: Brethren and Sisters, pray, pray, pray! Amen.

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