What follows is the devotional reflections of a friend, Bill Guerrant, on the living example of August Landmesser, an opponent of the Nazis. You can read Bill's other excellent writings at his blog: Practicing Resurrection. You can visit the website for his wonderful farm: White Flint Farm. You can buy a copy of his recently released book at: Organic Wesley.
“God has ordained the two governments: the spiritual, which by the Holy Spirit under Christ makes Christians and pious people; and the secular, which restrains the unchristian and wicked so that they are obliged to keep the peace outwardly.” Martin Luther, 1523.
Consider this photograph, taken at the launching of a German warship in 1936.
There are many such photographs from the Nazi era in Germany, and they are chilling.
In the first half of the 20th century Germany was the intellectual center of Western civilization. Germany was also the birthplace of Martin Luther, and therefore of Protestant Christianity. The world’s leading theologians were German and many of those who weren’t German by birth were educated in German universities.
Yet the German people embraced fascism, a political philosophy rooted in racism and militarism. Millions of good, honest German people would dutifully go to church on Sunday, and then become cogs in an evil machine on Monday. Their state manufactured machines of war and violence, and the people responded with cheers and salutes. Their state planned for war and oppression, and the people responded with patriotism and national pride.
We owe a great debt to Martin Luther for exposing the corruption of the church of his day, but his notion that we live in “two kingdoms”—one being God’s kingdom and the other being the secular state (or one “visible” and the other “invisible”)—was ultimately to be a source of great evil in the world. The notion that the state exists to keep order and that it is fundamentally distinct from the Kingdom of God led to the so-called “good German” syndrome, characterized by loyal, patriotic German Christians, like those in the photo above, cheering and saluting the launching of a Nazi warship.
But should we divide our loyalties this way? How many kings should we serve?
It is easy to be critical of the Germans of that day, but what if we took a hard look at our own culture? What do we cheer and applaud? What do we salute? How different are we from those German citizens cheering their warship?
Every Thursday evening at Grace and Main we come together for a community meal, following which many of us participate in a Bible or book study. Lately we’ve been reading and discussing Brian McLaren’s wonderful book The Secret Message of Jesus. In the book McLaren explores Jesus’ radical proclamation that “the kingdom of God is at hand.” (Mark 1: 15) McLaren challenges the idea that we can separate parts of our lives and existences from the kingdom of God, convincingly showing that Jesus calls us to “see, seek, receive, and enter a new political and social and spiritual reality he calls the kingdom of God.” (emphasis mine) In other words, we should not live in a “spiritual” kingdom that is distinct and inconsistent with our “political” or “social” kingdoms.
We’ve had some great discussions as we work through the book and consider what living out the kingdom of God should look like in our world. It is clear, to me at least, that God has ordained only one kingdom, not two. And as citizens of that kingdom, the kingdom of God, we should give our loyalty and support only to things that further that kingdom, and not to things, such as the launching of warships, that do not.
Now take a closer look at the photograph.
The man with his arms crossed, refusing to salute the ship, is August Landmesser, a shipyard worker who had been persecuted for having a relationship with a Jewish woman. Amid all those cheering and saluting the warship, August Landmesser courageously refused.
When I look at that photograph I see in that box a little piece of the Kingdom of God.
I don’t know what August Landmesser was thinking as he stood there that morning, but I’d like to think he had these words in mind: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by a renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12: 2)