As Americans tune into impeachment hearings this month, one year from a consequential election, we cannot deny that our federal government – and perhaps our democracy – is in crisis. In addition to lack of accountability, over the last three years we have witnessed migrant children detained in cages, the scapegoating of immigrants as criminals, the refusal of our government to address epidemics of gun violence or mass incarceration, and the proliferation of false and divisive news. The response of Baptist churches (of all sorts) to these crises has largely been to ignore them, issue calls for “civility” that only work to maintain the status quo or turn inward to our own crises of membership, finances and survival.
What does our Baptist heritage and history reveal about how we respond to political crisis or engage in politics more generally? I want to draw on one example to suggest that we may need to reexamine the ways our Baptist faith leads us to respond in times of crisis. Though I don’t intend to draw too close of a parallel between our present context and that of Nazi Germany, I do think there are several important lessons we can learn from our Baptist forebears in their response to the Third Reich. (For a more detailed analysis, see my article, “Relevance & Resistance: Baptist Political Engagement, Lessons Then and Now,” in the American Baptist Quarterly.)
At the 1934 Baptist World Alliance gathering in Berlin, a year after Hitler assumed power, a German pastor praised the Führer from the conference floor, claiming that he had accomplished what German churches failed to do by stopping the Bolshevik (Communist) threat. Paul Schmidt, director of the German Baptist Union, declared that the hand of God had raised up Hitler to save the nation.
As German culture had grown more socially progressive during the Weimar years, many Baptists joined Nazi criticism of the Republic and determined that they could achieve greater religious liberty under a Christian authoritarian state. The small Baptist minority in Germany had long suffered ostracization and denigration from the dominant Lutheran and Reformed churches. They were considered socially “unseemly,” coming from lower economic classes, and were accused of being “unGerman,” suspected as a “foreign sect” because of their close relations with global Baptists.
“Attending to our own American context reveals a similar legacy of church-sanctioned racism and nationalism and a similar history of Baptist quests for relevance and power.”
With the rise of German nationalism, Baptists recognized an opportunity to achieve a cultural relevancy they had never enjoyed in Germany through loyalty to the Nazi state. They offered gestures of goodwill toward the government and assured the regime that they would remain out of politics. They gained respect as “faithfully German” by identifying a common enemy with the new regime – communism. In exchange for their neutrality, abstention from political affairs and silence on Nazi racial policies, the government respected the church autonomy that Baptists cherished at all costs.
As a minority denomination floundering in the midst of rising secularism in Europe, experiencing a drop in church attendance and facing public disrespect as suspiciously “unGerman,” Baptists turned to nationalism as a cure for their decline.
This temptation of cultural and political relevancy is not limited to 1930s Germany or other moments of political crisis. It is perennial, though it takes different forms in different contexts. Attending to our own American context reveals a similar legacy of church-sanctioned racism and nationalism and a similar history of Baptist quests for relevance and power. Our current moment reveals another context in which church attendance falters in nearly all Baptist denominations, while rapidly changing ethnic demographics trigger a public, white resentment and renewal of white nationalism.
In both contexts, racism and nationalism are never far apart, and both continue to tempt the church to look the other way, to prioritize civility or neutrality, to shore up its own interests and to prove its patriotism/nationalism – and thus to choose political relevancy over political resistance for the sake of power. The failure of resistance reveals itself in measured statements and false equivalencies – or even silence – in response to racially motivated immigration and refugee policies or the scapegoating of Muslims or Central American immigrants. Time and again, Baptists have succumbed to these temptations of empire, only for our own cultural or political gain.
One of the lessons we should learn from this history is the need to reexamine what it means to be church, and a Baptist church more specifically. We must interrogate what aspects of Baptist theology tempt us toward self-protection or opportunities for power over the Gospel imperatives to seek justice for the marginalized and oppose the powers that oppress. Taking a cue from Christian ethicist Traci West, who argues that Christian ethics should be a disruptive ethics, I believe the Baptist church is meant to be a disruptive church. But this means, first, disrupting a theology that leads us to prioritize relevance over resistance.
Our fundamental tenets are not immune from this disruption. From our origins, Baptists have emphasized soul freedom as one of our “fragile freedoms.” This tenet originally emphasized the right of non-coercion in faith. Yet as Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, claims, this has underscored an internal freedom of the soul that neglects the outward struggle for social and political freedom. This was evident in Baptist responses to the civil rights movement and current justice movements (not to mention Baptists in the Third Reich), when individual “freedom” became a cover for self-interest at the expense of vulnerable others.
Baptists must also allow our churches to be disrupted by others, to learn from the world around us and attend to its needs. Baptist theologian Ryan Newson presses churches to give up the “idol of identity protection” and take the risk of listening to others, especially the most vulnerable, and allow their voices to shape our concerns and practice. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote just a year before his arrest (and subsequent execution) for resistance against the Nazis, the church must begin to see reality “from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed and reviled.”
“With the rise of German nationalism, Baptists recognized an opportunity to achieve a cultural relevancy they had never enjoyed in Germany through loyalty to the Nazi state.”
Finally, the church must become a disruptor through acts of resistance. Like Bonhoeffer wrote in the same letter, with words applicable to German Baptists in the 1930s and to many American Baptist congregations standing on the sidelines today: “Inactive waiting and dully looking on are not Christian responses. Christians are called to action and sympathy not through their own firsthand experiences but by the immediate experience of their brothers [and sisters], for whose sake Christ suffered.”
This disruptive theology radically reorients the church into one that does not seek to protect its identity, power or relevancy at all costs. Rather, its identity is deepened by sustained attention to the world around it. It responds to the needs in the world by disrupting the injustices of the world, even through political resistance.
This may seem like a radical call, one that makes the church “too political” or one that deters from preaching the Gospel. Yet, as our Gospels teach us, while Jesus often sat down at the table with the powerful and the tax collectors who were exploiting the poor, he was known to overturn a few tables too.