Just a note in case anyone shows up who hasn't read here before: I'm a Christian. I say all this as a Christian. Additional note for anyone who just had the phrase "but is she a real Christian" pop into their head: I believe Jesus died for my sins.
Good, we've got that out of the way.
So this is a debate you run into on the internet over and over. Atheist: religion is terrible, Christians committed the Crusades and the Inquisition and the Holocaust, Hitler was a Christian. Christian: Those people were not real Christians especially Hitler.
The problem with this debate is that both sides are wrong.
First off, Hitler wasn't a Christian. He pretended to be one sometimes at politically convenient moments, but in private he explicitly despised Christianity, calling it meek and flabby, a deliberate lie, and the heaviest blow that ever struck humanity. The Nazis in general, though--that's a more complicated question. There was a lot of strange spiritual stuff going on with the Nazis, from Neo-Paganism to new Christian-themed movements which I absolutely consider (and so would any traditional Christian) to be heretical. I mean, as a sample, there was the movement they called Positive Christianity, encouraged by Hitler and embraced by some Nazis as a sort of reboot of the faith, which up till now had been way too "negative." (For context to that
notion--humility was negative. Triumphant arrogance was positive. And
Jesus was a Nordic hero who fought against Judaism. Yeah. It was a heresy all right. But its people thought of themselves as Christians. I made my Gestapo villain one of them, in my upcoming novel.) If you had to pin down Nazi religion as a whole, the
best description might be a cult with both Christian and pagan elements,
and the paganism was probably stronger at the higher levels--especially
in the SS. And yet--some leading Nazis self-identified as Christians, and are we positive that they were all provably astray from the most basic orthodoxy? Well, I hope they were (and even if they weren't I consider their Christianity perverted in spirit) but I certainly can't prove it.
But even if I could, the atheist is right about this: Christians did it.
The Nazis didn't commit the Holocaust alone. They led and organized it. It was a huge endeavor requiring the participation of many, many people--ordinary soldiers, ordinary police, ordinary citizens. There is simply no question, historically, that masses of these participating people were Protestants and Catholics; they made up the vast majority of the population. And further masses turned a blind eye, out of terror or plain fear or self-interest or indifference, or outright anti-Semitism. Europe was full of Christians at the time, much fuller than it is now--and let's not kid ourselves, Europe had an old tradition of anti-Semitism that defined itself as Christians versus Jews. It's not something that feels at all familiar to American Protestants, and it's easy for us to dismiss it as the Catholics' fault, but it's part of our roots too--and most ordinary Protestants don't come off looking too good in this story either. Bonhoeffer and his friends were amazing people, but they were in the minority.
Europe was full of Protestants and Catholics, and many of them participated, some willingly, some not. And really--by what measure can we define those people as "not Christians"?
Well, I know of two measures. I've seen them used, and they're both wrong.
One is theology: these were people from "dead" churches who had this and this and this wrong with their theology, and if I wouldn't consider them real Christians if I met them today, why do I have to claim them as
Christians after they've committed this heinous crime? If you find
yourself agreeing with this--and believe me I get it--please stop and
consider just how hollow this claim sounds to an outsider. We're talking
about people who claimed the name of Jesus, called themselves
Christian, whose religious roots and history were all in
Christianity--excuse me, what on earth is a Jew supposed to identify
them as? Atheists? Imagine if a Muslim friend said to you, No, Muslims didn't carry out those terrorist attacks. No, the Islamic State, see, they're not real Muslims, they're absolutely not, because there's this and this and this wrong with their theology, I can detail to you how they've departed from the true and original faith of Islam...
What would we say to that guy? What would we expect from him? We would want him to say: Yes, Muslims did that. They are bad Muslims. They are doing it wrong. I oppose them and all their works.
I'll come back to this.
Is this true? Is it? Have you ever ignored the voice of Jesus? I have.
Deep inside this instinctive reaction is the belief that what you do
defines you. Does it? It's a profound question. There are two answers.
The atheist's response to this reaction is simple: No True Scotsman. For those who don't know, it's a logical fallacy by which you can "prove" no Scotsman would ever do X, because if he did he's not a true Scotsman. No true Christian would turn his neighbor in to the Gestapo; thus we "prove" Christians never did so. That's not right, of course.
And yet, so close, just on the other side of the fine line, is the saying of Jesus: By their fruits you shall know them. Here's the thing, though: wasn't talking about who was out and who was in--who was a true Christian or Jew or disciple or Scotsman--he wasn't talking about group membership or who claims who. He was talking about something much more urgent: who is a true prophet? In other words--a question as urgent today, in our internet world of rumors, as it was then among the competing messiahs--who do I listen to? A tree is known by its fruit, he says. Look at their actions; look at their effects.
Does the good or evil a person does define him? It doesn't define his membership in a group. Whether he's a Christian, a Muslim, an Arab or a Jew. It doesn't define whether he's linked to us, whether he claims the same name and holds the same traditions. But it defines, urgently, the response we must make to him. Follow. Or flee. Or fight.
Hitler understood this. He didn't persecute Christians for being Christians. That would have been a suicidal move. He persecuted only those Christians who acted like Jesus.
By their fruits you shall know them.
There's a reason for our wish to deny that real Christians had anything to do with the Holocaust. Fundamentally, it is very simple: my community cannot commit atrocities. My community is righteous. We are the good guys.
This is not true.
We are not the good guys; Jesus is the good guy. We do not acquire goodness simply by saying his name; only Christianity. They are not the same thing. Assuming they are is a trap, an open grave: many Germans fell into it when they heard Hitler claim Jesus' name. He promised an era of spiritual renewal for Germany, and many believed him. He sounded like one of us. People just like us followed him, and every one that did made it possible for the next one to assume he was not so bad.
Friends, let us not judge people's goodness by whether they are one of us. Jesus has told us not to. Let us judge by whether they love their neighbors, whether they do them good or harm. When we fail to do that, when we assume that this prophet or that leader must be good because he is one of us, and all of us are good--then we raise the specter of evil. Then we should not be surprised if we see fear in our neighbor's eyes.
What do we say as Christians to our neighbor, our atheist neighbor or our Jewish neighbor, about the specter of the past? The same thing we want our Muslim neighbor to say to us. Yes, my people did those things. My people participated. They were bad Christians. They were doing it wrong. I oppose them and all their works. It must never happen again. I never forget.
That's what I have to say on the matter. If you have something to say, I will gladly listen and discuss.