Baptists didn’t talk about the Holocaust. Germans in general didn’t talk about it after World War II, and Christians weren’t any different. It didn’t come up in churches, and even pastors and theologians didn’t discuss what had happened.
“There was no ‘theology after Auschwitz’ until the 1970s or ’80s,” said Dirk Sager, an Old Testament professor at a Baptist theological seminary outside of Berlin. “It was a black hole.”
The Baptists missed an opportunity to confront the truth, Sager thinks. They didn’t take a stand against the antisemitism that had swept the country into Nazi horror. They didn’t lead the way to a reckoning with the nation’s sins.
“Baptists weren’t much different than normal Germans,” he said. “They repressed these memories or really didn’t see their own guilt.”
Today, Baptists and other evangelicals have made a range of efforts to oppose antisemitism, including “Israel Sundays,” formal confessions, official statements condemning antisemitism, theological reflections on the relationship between Jews and Christians, and educational events.
Many German Christians are concerned, though, that they need to do more. A new government report indicates that a small percentage of the rising number of antisemitic attacks in 2020 were committed because of Christlicher Fundamentalismus, or “Christian fundamentalism.”
Twenty-eight percent of attacks are committed by far-right extremists, some of whom invoke Christian imagery and claim to be fighting for family values. But a small portion is committed by people with no connection to nationalist groups, who act “based on their loyalty to the Bible and/or on church traditions,” according to an official report. In the conservative state of Bavaria, the government found these Christians were responsible for as many antisemitic incidents as people claiming Islam were.
Last year’s attack in the eastern city of Halle, where a gunman killed two people outside a synagogue during the observance of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, was a stark reminder that even one incident can be horrific. The German government tallied 410 in the first half of 2020. The data point to a worrying resurgence of antisemitism across the country.
“Christian belief isn’t a pure protection from this stuff,” said Jochen Birkenmeier, director of Luther House culture center and museum in Eisenach, the city where Martin Luther translated the New Testament.
The museum, with funding from the state-sanctioned Lutheran church, has a new exhibit on the “Dejudaization Institute” that was established in the heartland of the German Reformation during the reign of National Socialism. The institute, officially called the Institute for the Study and Elimination of Jewish Influence on German Church Life, was established by a theology professor in 1939, for the purposes of purging Christianity of anything deemed “Jewish” and establishing a new, “heroic Christianity.”
Many devout believers—raised reading Martin Luther’s Bible and learning about the importance of salvation by faith alone—embraced the “German Christian” movement, which sought to show how Christianity was anti-Jewish at its core. The group believed the faith had been corrupted and Jesus was really an Aryan.
The history “vividly demonstrates that not even Christian churches are immune to the lure of radical ideologies,” Birkenmeier said. “All Christians should know this happened and could happen so easily again.”
Not all Christians in Germany were taken with the concept of “German Christianity,” of course. There was a robust resistance to the movement, known as the “Confessing Church,” which included pastors Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemöller, and Karl Barth. Only about 20 percent of Protestant pastors joined the Confessing Church, though. The German Christians took over presbyteries and synods in almost all of the country.
Birkenmeier’s fear is that antisemitic attitudes will fester in Christian communities again. “When conspiracy theories, pseudosciences, and racial hatred are regaining ground, we have to do something,” he said.
Volker Stolle, retired New Testament professor at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Oberursel, said “ethnic thinking” has been widespread in both liberal and conservative Protestant churches and is still in an issue in Christian theology today.
“The New Testament knows a Christian community only in close connection with Judaism,” Stolle said. “And yet our theology does not seem to take into account the fact that Jesus was a Jew and that he did not lose his Jewishness through death and resurrection.”
Messianic Jews in Germany make this connection to evangelicals explicit, said pastor Hanna Rucks, who studied Messianic congregations. They don’t call themselves Christians, because the word evokes memories of persecution. They are Jewish believers in Yeshua, who died and was raised again as a Jew.
About 1,000 people belong to 20 Messianic Jewish congregations in Germany, according to Rucks. Most are immigrants from Russia. Some have experienced antisemitism in Germany, but they’ve been welcomed with open arms by evangelicals.
For some evangelicals in Germany, taking a stand against antisemitism has become a central part of their identity and a core religious mission. At Tübinger Offensive Stadtmission (Tübingen Offensive City Mission), an independent charismatic church, church leaders decided about 15 years ago that the congregation should learn and pray about their individual and collective histories of antisemitism.
“We tried to find out what our grandfathers and great-grandfathers did, and we discovered shocking truths,” said Markus Kalb, a worship leader at the church. “We felt a strong need to repent, to ask forgiveness.”
Today, the church fosters an ongoing relationship with Israel through programs such as its annual March of Life against antisemitism. It also intentionally integrates what it calls “Jewish elements” into its liturgy, teaching, preaching, and music, such as including regular readings from the Torah, using a menorah in worship, and praying with Hebrew terms such as Adonai. They want to repudiate the de-Judification projects of the “German Christians.”
Not all Jews welcome these efforts to combat antisemitism, however. Manfred Levy, director of education at the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt, said overcorrecting for past antisemitism with philosemitism, love for all things seen as Jewish, makes him uncomfortable.
“I get goose bumps when someone says, ‘I like Jews, Jews are clever.’ These are generalizations that don’t exist in real life. Jews can be bad people. Just like normal people,” Levy said.
Levy said he thinks German evangelicals’ philosemitism is well-intentioned but a mistake nonetheless. He wants Christians to see that Jews are not just victims but are fully rounded humans. Christians should get to know some of the estimated 200,000 Jews who live in the country today and not just associate them with German guilt for past and present antisemitism.
At the Baptist seminary, Sager agrees that German evangelicals have too few personal contacts with Jews. He sees this as one of the greatest challenges to combating antisemitism today.
“There is the chance for more relationships, but it still seems strange,” he said. “This is a problem. If we have the possibility of contact with Jewish people, then we should, but do so without being too demanding of Jewish congregations.”
Sager’s church, in the northern city of Oldenburg, held a special service with Jews and other Christians from the community at the site of a local synagogue that was burned down in 1938 during Kristallnacht, a spree of violence against Jewish families and businesses that happened on Luther’s birthday.
“We held a ceremony to help us remember, confront, and discuss antisemitism out in the open,” Sager said. “The intention is to learn about how we have to respect the Jewish community and Israel.”
Ken Chitwood is a writer and scholar of global religion living in Germany.
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