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The church and political power, then and now

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Given the horrific events of the past weeks, pipe bombs sent to many of the outspoken opponents of the current Trump administration, including two former presidents, and the violent mass murder of the Hebrew community of faith in Pittsburgh acknowledged as the worst massacre of Jews in U.S. history, we, who call ourselves followers of the Prince of Peace cannot remain silent.

There are those within the progressive confessing church in the United States who sense that we are in the midst of a “Bonhoeffer Moment.” As a result, I have returned to my own review of the slow rise of Hitler to power and the German churches’ role in that tragic era of world history.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian during the early days of Hitler and his Third Reich. In the initial days of Hitler’s rise to power, Bonhoeffer recognized the subtle dangers in the ideas and actions of this man whom he believed to be a very real danger to the nation of Germany.

In 1933, Bonhoeffer began to speak out against Hitler and the dangers of his rhetoric and political moves, which he viewed as a threat to Germany and its people. This opposition cost Bonhoeffer his life.

The churches of Germany bought into the propaganda of the Third Reich and Hitler’s theme that “I will make Germany great again,” including his strong call for a new nationalistic pride. Most Sundays would find the pews of the churches filled with German SS officers and the pulpits draped in the flag of the Third Reich.

There were a handful of Christian resisters — Martin Niemoller, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth — but no one was listening. After all, the German pulpits were declaring the Nazi propaganda that Adolf Hitler was the fulfillment of the Protestant Reformation and that he should be embraced as such. Many churches accepted this and proclaimed Hitler God’s man for this era of German history.

Let’s not forget, when Hitler rose to power in 1933, many German politicians saw him as no more than a hopeful demagogue whom they could use for their own political purposes. Does this have a familiar ring to it?

Today, President Trump is devotedly followed by almost one-third of the U.S. population, which includes 80 percent of our nation’s Christian evangelicals. At the same time, we witness the dangerous rhetoric of anti-Semitism on the rise, racist slander on the comeback, the continuing degrading of our Native American population, the continued humiliation of our female population, the tragic and endless horrors of our immigration policies, the continuing rise in homophobia and the attacks on our population of Muslims and a sharp rise in the activity of white nationalists.

We are witnessing the use of fear, division and the clouding of what is the truth for the advancement of and holding onto political power.

Witness the silence of the U.S. church and the complicity of the majority of evangelical churches. In Germany, there was the silence of the churches that supported the National Socialists. Today it is the white evangelical churches of the United States that are supporting this current administration.

For the church of Germany and the Christians of Germany, there was no bottom, the moral conscience of the nation was in free fall.

Today, the real problem is not just our president. The problem is also the church, a church that celebrates and supports the current state of chaos and the failure of moral leadership. It is also the church that has fallen silent in the face of such evil.

Is there a “bottom” we, as a nation, must reach before the conscience of our citizens and the moral fiber of our churches are renewed before we stand up and speak out as followers of the Prince of Peace before we renew our commitment to a higher ethic?

How far will we let President Trump go? Silence is not an option.

Edward “Ned” Walsh of Princeton is a retired Baptist denominational worker who served as executive director of Johnston County Habitat for Humanity from 2004-08.