The Guilt in Our Silence: Lessons from a Former Nazi

Photo by Bettmann/CORBIS
Silence in the face of injustice is as evil as the injustice itself. In the near future, Christians and particularly Christian leaders, will be faced with religious liberty violations and other injustices attacking the conscience. This inevitable reality along with the many injustices related to race, abortion, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and countless others that continue to ravage America and much of the world will provide Christian leaders with ample opportunity to either stand and speak or sit in silence. If pastors fail to speak to these issues of injustice and more, their flocks will be ill-prepared to face them in the work place and in their own lives.

In fifty years we will all be judged not only for whether we partook in various injustices or not, but also for whether we spoke against these injustices or sat on our hands with our mouths bolted shut. Though some contend that we should not be known “for what we are against, but for what we are for,” when faced with the death of millions of unborn babies or the prejudiced attitudes and discrimination against African-Americans or the mounting evidence of domestic violence we must adamantly communicate what we are against. The gospel demands this. How will Christians ever be able to effectively or genuinely share a gospel with those suffering injustice whom we have ignored?

Inaction will leave us guilty. And as I often dream of where God will lead me in ministry, I pray that no matter where I am, whether in Laurel County, St. Louis, or Saudi Arabia, I would speak and act for those who have been left without a voice.

Help from a Former Nazi

I recently finished reading Valkyrie: An Insider’s Account of the Plot to Kill Hitler by co-conspirator, Hans Bernd Gisevius. Valkyrie is the abridgment of Gisevius’ classic work, To the Bitter End. When I have more time, I hope to read the full version. Gisevius played a vital role in the most famous and last of multiple plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He wrote this work soon after the end of World War II. In it Gisevius gives thorough details the groups of officers and civilians who organized to oppose and plot to kill Hitler. He then describes the events of the July 20th, 1944 plot itself carefully and passionately. Finally, Gisevius describes his escape from Nazi Germany.

The entire account is unsurprisingly fascinating and exhilarating, especially once Gisevius begins to tell the story of the unfolding of the failed assassination. However, what I found to be most intriguing was Gisevius’ epilogue. In the epilogue, Gisevius addresses the guilt the entire of Germany and every individual in it faces now that the war is done. He postulates how a nation filled with “moral and honorable men of the highest quality” could “permit themselves to be overrun by the Nazi usurpers without offering resistance” (244). We have all asked this question when we learn about the terror of Nazi Germany. How could the German people allow the Nazis to come to power without raising a voice or a finger?

Gisevius was among a minority of officers and civilians that actively opposed Hitler and the Third Reich, but he doesn’t use this opportunity to point fingers and say, “We were there. Where were you?” Instead, he humbly wrote,

“The ‘success’ of our oppositional efforts proves that we should have done much more…Of myself I can only say that every page of this book has given me cause to reflect on how frequently I thought wrongly or acted wrongly. I know that I am responsible for these mistakes, and that is why, out of my experience with twelve years of Nazism, I cannot help maintaining that German guilt does exist; it is a reality” (246-47).

But what brought on such “German guilt?” Why did Gisevius attempt to convince his fellow Germans of their guilt and what lesson does he have for us in our day and the injustices we face? There is one excerpt from Gisevius’ epilogue that is incredibly powerful and surgical for both Germans in the 1950s and Christians in the 21st century.

When such a disaster takes place, there must have been something wrong with those who were led or misled.

What is that thing? One of the vital lessons that we must learn from the German disaster is the ease with which a people can be sucked down into the morass of inaction; let them as individuals fall prey to overcleverness, opportunism, or cowardliness and they are irrevocably lost. In this mass epoch it is by no means a settled thing that acts alone make for guilt. Passive acceptance, intellectual subservience, or, in religious terms, failure to pray against the evil, may constitute a kind of silent support for authoritarian rule. Once the system of terror has been installed, however, there is only one course remaining to each individual and to all individuals collectively: to fight the terrorists with the same courage and tenacity, with the same willingness to take risks, that they employ in wartime under ‘orders’ when they fight against the ‘enemy'” (246).

A Voice for the Voiceless

There is a word here not only for political involvement and social action, but for Christian engagement in the public square. While desiring to submit to governmental authorities, when these authorities propose and enforce injustices, we must humbly, yet clearly speak and act against them. We must guard our hearts against “passive acceptance, intellectual subservience, or failure to pray against evil” or else we will fall into silent support of ideas and realities that are designed to snuff out, keep down, or in some cases kill some of the most vulnerable people in our nation and world.

Neglecting to address various issues of injustice in our churches will lead to the kind of passive acceptance and widespread silent support that occurred in Nazi Germany over 70 years ago. The gospel demands our voices, votes, and in some cases our protests. May Christian leaders not be silent when it comes to injustices. Instead, may we have the resolve of the few courageous souls in Germany who opposed Hitler, like Deitrich Bonhoeffer and Hans Bernd Gisevius, to speak and act against injustice in careful, tactful, and appropriate ways.

In the end, may our desire always be to magnify the compassion of Christ by extending merciful cries against injustice as voices for the voiceless.

396110_519885398036913_1852978654_nMathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s