Happy to Be Potential Nazis: Political Resistance and Spiritual Formation

I want to follow up on my post about the witness of the Jehovah's Witnesses during Nazi Germany, who were sent to the concentration camps and wore a purple triangle. 

Specifically, how can your church and denomination earn the honor of getting your own colored triangle in the Nazi concentration camps?

The issue here is one of spiritual formation and political resistance. When things get hard and sacrificial, like being sent to a Nazi concentration camp, willpower is just too anemic a resource to reliably guide you to the light. Political resistance isn't a snap decision, it's a product of spiritual formation, habits of identity, thinking, and behavior so deeply ingrained that when the hurricane winds start to blow you're so deeply grounded and rooted you're able to stay upright. Add to this how, when a community stands collectively together, it makes it easier for members of the group to stand. We help each other resist. 

We also know that spiritual formation is rooted in practices. Habits and shared patterns of life. So, what form did the Jehovah's Witnesses' spiritual formation take that enabled their resistance to Hitler? The Jehovah's Witnesses had, and have, four practices:

1. Do not vote in elections.

2. Do not pledge allegiance to the flag or nation.

3. Do not run for or hold any political office.

4. Do not serve in the military.

Looking at this list, you can see how the Jehovah's Witnesses' practices of spiritual formation enabled their resistance to Hitler. 

And this raises a question.

Specifically, what is your church or denomination doing to prepare your people for political resistance? What's your list of practices?

Yes, I think we're all very happy that the prospect of a Hitler isn't on our horizon. So perhaps we can dispense with this work. We're contented to live in churches who would have made excellent Nazis, thanking God that we--fingers crossed!--will never have to watch that happen. We're reconciled to the fact that we are okay living as potential Nazis.  

I'm not exaggerating this. This was the exact situation of the German church before the rise of Hitler. Those Christians weren't Nazis, not yet. But they were all potential Nazis, Nazis in embryo. And likely so are we. 

So, yeah, maybe a Hitler isn't on our horizon. But the moral questions are still real and acute. Are we the Christians we think we are? Does our church have the moral capacities to resist nationalism and patriotism, especially in times of war? 

And all this without even commenting on how vast swaths of evangelicalism are already given over to nationalism and patriotism. 

Which brings me back to the list above--no voting, no pledging allegiance, no holding political office, and no serving in the military. Clearly, these spiritual formation practices allowed the Jehovah's Witnesses to stand against Hitler. And my assumption is that any church with these practices would continue to posses the capacity to resist Hitler, now and forever. Basically, we know these practices work.

And yet, this list is extraordinarily controversial. I doubt many churches would sign up for any one of the list, let alone all four. 

Fine. And if that's the case, then let me ask you this: So what's your replacement list? 

If the spiritual formation practices of the Jehovah's Witness are too radical, what's your replacement list that would allow your church to resist Hitler? How is your church going to be able to earn its own colored triangle in the Nazi concentration camps? 

My sense is that there are no replacement lists. It's just not on anyone's radar screen. We wax on and on about the failure of Christianity during Nazi Germany, lamenting it as the great moral failure of Christianity in modern times. And yet, we simply don't care about attending to this very issue--political resistance--in our own churches. We all want to be Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but never put in the work. We're such huge hypocrites. I've spoken in hundreds of churches, and I've never been in a church that has devoted a part of its mission to spiritually forming its people for political resistance. We are, by and large, content to be potential Nazis, hoping that we'll never have to face a political crisis like the German Christians faced with the rise of Hitler. Rather than forming our people, we hope to get lucky. We pray we can make it to our graves with a clear conscience, never having to face an arrest or concentration camp, reaching our deaths able to see ourselves as beautiful, loving, tolerant people, the farthest thing from a Nazi as you can imagine. But we're not any better than those German Christians. We just got lucky. We never had to face the ultimate test.

But maybe, just maybe, you do care about this. Maybe you don't want to attend a church full of potential Nazis. Maybe you don't want to be a potential Nazi. Great! Then let's return to the pressing question: What's your list? What is your church doing by way of spiritual formation that would enable your political resistance to the siren songs of nationalism and patriotism? To be clear, I'm not talking about what sorts of sermons you preach or hear in your church. I'm talking about political habits. Let me spell it out: P-o-l-i-t-i-c-a-l   h-a-b-i-t-s. Make a list of those habits. Show us some action or behavior that demonstrates some degree of political nonconformity. How your church is politically weird, even offensive. Show us some practiced habit that instills in your people the capacity to give a political "No!" to the nation when your neighbors are waving the flag and screaming "Yes!"

Listen, we might not like the Jehovah's Witness list. It might ruffle our feathers. Make us angry. We might think it a fine thing to vote or serve in the military. Okay. Then what's our alternative list? Because if there isn't a list, and my own church doesn't have such a list, then let's just be honest and own the fact we aren't going to earn a colored triangle in the concentration camps. No list, no resistance. We would have saluted the Swastika and cheered "Heil, Hitler!"

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