Wednesday, April 2, 2014
Who were Jesus’ Good Soldiers?
You must not follow a crowd in doing evil things. (Exod 23:2)
I have been involved in a discussion with Christians I otherwise highly respect in regard to the defense given by the soldiers who killed the Jews in the concentration camps. After forty years of believing that “I was just following orders” was morally invalid, I find myself listening to seminary-trained Christian leaders saying that the only people guilty of the Holocaust were those at the top who issued the orders – the people who actually did the killing were innocent because they were indeed just following orders.
I can’t just dismiss their argument out of hand. I have recently read Treblinka, the autobiography of Chil Rajchman, one of the few Jews to escape the Treblinka death camp. He was able to survive by deceiving the Germans into thinking he was a barber, and so spent his days of captivity shearing naked women before they were stuffed into the gas chambers. When there were no women to shear, he helped dispose of corpses. While the physical and emotional agony drove most of Rajchman’s co-workers to suicide, he lasted months, escaped during the revolt, and managed to stay hidden until the war was over.
If I consider it OK for Rajchman to become a barber to survive the Holocaust, why should I condemn Calvinists and other German evangelicals for donning the uniform of the Reich as a survival strategy? After all, Rajchman was just following orders. And if I don’t condemn Rajchman, why do I hassle US evangelicals for joining Uncle Sam’s army and fighting his wars?
The best I can do is to say that the soldiers were being paid; Rajchman was running as fast as he could to escape the Grim Reaper, so he incurred no guilt. Therefore, to the degree the soldiers were conscripts, they were also staying out of range of the Reaper.
But I don’t find even that satisfactory. There were non-Jewish Germans who refused to join the Wehrmacht: Jehovah’s Witnesses. Rather than following the crowd to do evil, they were suffering for what they would call their Christian faith. Maybe there were Calvinist guards who treated the doomed Jews with some sort of unusual courtesy – I can’t even imagine what that would mean – but I can’t imagine Rajchman saying that he regarded them more highly than he did the Witnesses who were interned.
So I ask you: is Jesus more pleased with those who endured suffering rather than participating in evil, or is he more pleased with those who were “just following orders”?
“Well,” I hear you say, “to the degree that the Calvinists truly trusted Christ they were saved, and Jehovah’s Witnesses are lost because they don’t believe that Jesus is God, so yes, he was more pleased with the Calvinists. They were obeying Romans 13 by just following orders. You don’t believe that Rajchman was saved, do you?”
OK, you’ve got me there: salvation, reconciliation with God, comes through Christ alone. So if Rajchman has rejected Jesus, he is not saved; his sins against God are worse than the Nazis’ sins against him, and even the suffering he endured at Treblinka cannot wash those sins away. While I seriously question the wholesale writing off of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I’ll assume for the sake of argument here that they are not saved either. Whether guilty or not, God’s people are instrumental in the progress of evil while his enemies suffer it. Are you happy now?
For that matter, given that paradigm, should we even call the Holocaust evil? I’ve never yet heard a Christian deny that God was working out his eternal purposes through the Holocaust, so if God is working out his purposes, is it really evil? If “the king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord like channels of water; he turns it wherever he wants” (Prov 21:1), then government leaders are themselves “just following orders,” are they not? If the soldiers who actually did the dirty work have not incurred guilt because they were “just following orders,” how can even the government leaders have incurred guilt? If there is no human guilt, and God is by definition good and therefore innocent of guilt, then who is guilty? If no one is guilty, then how can the Holocaust be evil? Can we not only say that it just was, like the death of krill eaten by a whale?
Maybe you can live in that kind of universe, but I can’t.
On the other hand, if every person is always a moral agent who will “be paid back according to what he has done while in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor 5:10), we cannot follow the crowd to do evil and then claim innocence because we were “just following orders.” We have to evaluate the morality of every decree of those with power over us and decide whether or not we need to “obey God rather than people” (Acts 5:29).
The only government decree I remember hearing any Christians say they could not obey is some variant of “deny Jesus,” like “say, ‘Caesar is lord’” or “don’t preach Christ.” But according to my seminary-trained interlocutors stuffing naked Jews into gas chambers is OK for soldiers because doing so is “just following orders.” It wouldn’t be OK for private citizens to do this, of course, but following the order of a lawful authority is OK.
My response is that if God has not commanded us in the Bible to kill people – that is, the likes of murderers and kidnappers (let’s pass on the question of sexual deviants for now) – we incur guilt by killing them. It’s that simple. Nowhere in Scripture are we admonished to round up Jews, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or anyone else who otherwise respects their neighbors’ bodies and property and imprison them, let alone kill them. To do so is to disobey God to obey man – to proclaim Hitler as lord more loudly than by uttering the words. It would be better to suffer with the oppressed, as Corrie ten Boom’s family did. If our first priority is the spread of the gospel, it is to such as they – not to the thousands (I’m guessing here) of Calvinist Wehrmacht soldiers – we can point today as evidence that our God is good.
When it comes to today’s evangelical church in the US, to whom will our grandchildren point to support their claims that God is good? Will they point to the thousands of soldiers who put themselves at the beck and call of a man who called the Constitution he swore to uphold “a piece of g*dd*m paper”? Who appointed the Supreme Court Chief Justice who gave us ObamaCare? Who bailed out the richest people in the world at the expense of the rest of us? And another who arrogated to himself the task of killing his own subjects with no judicial oversight? Will they look back and be glad that today’s Calvinists not only followed the orders issued by these men but prayed for them as well (see Rom 1:32)?
Or will they wonder why there were so few Micaiahs and Jeremiahs who questioned the morality of the policies those men promoted and warned the church to stay away from them?