John Whitehead's Commentary
We Have No God But Caesar
"My kingdom is not of this world."--Jesus Christ"Hail, Caesar! We who are about to die salute you!" The gladiators of first century Rome raised their right hands straight out, signifying full allegiance. Thousands assembled in the crowded Roman Coliseum cheered, voicing their total commitment to the man-god Caesar while a large band played a rousing march. The same vibrant salute was repeated much later in history by thousands of goose-stepping soldiers proclaiming, "Heil, Hitler!" Thus, the leaders of Rome and the Third Reich both claimed to be divine.
The religious fervor of the gladiator salute "Hail, Caesar!" finds its counterpart in today's political scene. Candidates in modern election campaigns present themselves as heroes whose election will mark the advent of a new society. More and more, even in the United States, they claim that the state will provide all the answers to our woes. (Consider the present administration's assertion that the government can now heal our marriages, cure our health problems and take care of us from cradle to grave, as well as save us from terrorists.)
Yet while politicians are not--and never will be--the saviors of the world, this truth is rarely grasped by those religious citizens who place much of their hopes in politics. For example, as American Christians have become increasingly involved in the political arena, their candidates--such as George W. Bush--have all too often been characterized as "the" hope for a new America and a new world.
The danger in this type of thinking lies in the fact that, for the believer, Jesus Christ is supposedly the only true hope. Unfortunately, the fervor with which many Christians pursue politics and certain candidates seems to ignore this truth. As Tim LaHaye, of the Left Behind series, recently said on 60 Minutes: "I think if you cut us, Jerry and I would bleed red, white and blue. We believe that God has raised up America to be the tool in the last days, to get the Gospel to the innermost parts of the earth."
Yet as Professor Alan Johnson once wrote: "A Christianity tied too closely to the civil authorities soon finds itself being used as a tool to sanction the particular policies and acts of a government which uses the church to win citizen approval." In other words, believers must avoid becoming merged with the state or politics, or else they risk becoming partners in the government's ultimate goals.
Theologian Francis A. Schaeffer, whom many consider the philosophical father of the Christian Right, echoed this sentiment: "It must be taught that patriotic loyalty must not be identified with Christianity. We must not make our country and Christianity to be synonymous."
Religious believers should only approach government with skepticism and great caution--this includes laws, goals, policies, promises and the like. If not, modern believers are likely to repeat the grave mistakes of the past.
For example, in pre-Nazi Germany, there was ample German readiness to accept the existing political order without criticism and to grant unqualified obedience to the state. As the historian J. S. Conway recognized:
The illusions entertained by churchmen about their Nazi rulers, even after the horrifying consequences and the overrunning of neighboring countries, can be explained--if not explained away--by the traditional acceptance that "the powers that be are ordained of God." The German Church was not equipped with the theology adequate to sustain any critical attack upon the actions of its political rulers, and for that reason, even at the end of the Nazi era there was no more than reluctant resistance.
Some German churchmen cooperated with the Nazis in the German state's call for a renewal of the nation and a revival of the "spiritual" life. Unlike Protestant churches, the Catholic Church committed itself to a policy of official opposition to the Nazi Party. Nonetheless, the Catholic Students Union endorsed the Nazi effort and issued the following proclamation on July 15, 1933:
The Catholic Students Union hails the National Socialist revolution as the great spiritual breakthrough of our time. It is the destiny and the will of the Catholic Students Union to embody and disseminate the idea of the Third Reich and therefore the Catholic Students Union will be led in the National Socialist spirit. Only the powerful National Socialist state, rising out of the Revolution, can bring about for us the re-Christianization of our culture. Long live the Catholic Students Union! Long live the Greater German Reich! Heil to our FÃ¼hrer, Adolf Hitler.
This type of rhetoric calls for the state to do what religious believers fail to do--that is, bring about a spiritual revival. By shifting their hopes for revival from the local churches to the state, Christians were forced to identify closely with the state and German nationalism, making it much easier for Hitler to manipulate Christians and, therefore, German society in general.
Also, as author Peter Matheson notes, the German churches' "basically conservative outlook...led them to accept without question the claim of Nazism to be the only alternative to communism." In other words, because Nazism appeared to be conservative, Christians leaned in its direction.
This same danger is posed, for example, to American Christians who espouse a conservative politicism cloaked in a claimed biblical theology. However, mere labeling of a philosophy as "conservative" does not necessarily mean it has any real relationship to true Christianity. And, as Schaeffer points out, the danger is that the "church will tend to make peace with the establishment and identify itself with it."
For these basic reasons, the German church, in general, failed to stem the Nazi tide. Through its lack of resistance, the church, as it became entwined with the state, became as silent as a tomb. Thus, it would not interfere or protest acts of the state. Tragedies such as the holocaust inevitably followed.