By Angela Winter
This month, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, our Jewish friends and neighbors memorialize those who died in the Nazi genocide. As Christians, we might ask if that has anything to do with us, and if it does, how might we show support to the Jewish community. To answer those questions, we will have to address the degree of Christian responsibility for the Nazi genocide.
In the past, evangelicals discussing the Holocaust have tended to distance Christianity by noting that not all German Christians were complicit, or by emphasizing differences between Christian antisemitism and Nazi antisemitism. Both approaches contain a sliver of truth; at the same time, they serve to separate Christians from the hard truth that both Christian people and historic Christian theological antisemitism did help to make the Holocaust possible. Nearly all German Christians—including those who claimed a personal relationship with Jesus and read their Bibles daily—initially supported the Nazi regime. Though it is true some Christian clergy who at first approved anti-Jewish measures later protested when the deportations began, these protesters were few in number. Had you and I lived then, we would have been onlookers watching as our former neighbors were rounded up and killed. Statistically speaking, it is likely we would have been collaborators, not rescuers.
Heartbreakingly, during the Nazi regime, Christians often pointed to the tenets of their faith as justification for evil actions against Jews. By misinterpreting Scripture, traditional Christian theology taught that the offense of murdering Jesus was passed down through the ages upon all Jewish people. In turn, the Nazis employed this “deicide” charge to justify any maltreatment of the Jews. As believers today, Christians need to acknowledge, without caveat, the overwhelming moral failure of Christian churches during the Holocaust: they did not heed their Messiah’s commands to love and serve others; moreover, some historic Christian theology actually fostered this tragic failure. We must resist comforting ourselves with stories of courageous rescuers. Yes, the rescuers give us hope and heroic figures to emulate, but the truth is, those righteous Christians are but pinpricks in a vast and dark silence.
This month then, as our Jewish friends and neighbors mourn, we might begin to demonstrate solidarity with them by educating ourselves about this painful history, and sharing what we learn with other Christians. Notable works which evaluate the complicity of the German Confessing Church include Bystanders: Conscience and Complicity During the Holocaust by Victoria J. Barnett; Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust by Robert P. Ericksen and Susannah Heschel; and The Confessing Church, Conservative Elites, and the Nazi State by Shelley Baranowski. William S. Skiles’ analysis of Protestant sermons in Nazi Germany details the effects of the deicide charge in causing many pastors to justify antisemitism (“Preaching to Nazi Germany: The Confessing Church on National Socialism, the Jews, and the Question of Opposition”).
True support also means a willingness to stand with, and suffer with, the Jewish people, who once again are under attack. Between 2015 and 2018, the U.S. saw a doubling of antisemitic incidents, including those by anti-Zionists whose obsessive hostility with the Jewish state increasingly morphs into hatred of all Jews. Not for the first time, Christian churches tend to stay silent. Genuine support for those in harm’s way would mean expressing solidarity in concrete ways.
As individuals we might, for example, wear the Star of David to show public support.
We can prepare ourselves to object any time we hear the plight of Palestinians being used to demonize all Israelis or all Jews.
As Christian congregations, we can send identifiable groups to the next Jewish march organized to counter antisemitism.
As pastors, we can consistently denounce antisemitism as a not only the racist evil that it is but a complete rejection of the biblical concept of God’s particular love for “the apple of his eye” (Zech 2:8).
Christian educators and clergy can teach a proper view of the Jewish people based on a careful reading of New Testament texts.
This month, some Jewish community centers and synagogues will be holding Holocaust memorial services that are open to the public. We Christians can attend and invite other Christians to go with us. We can go and grieve over the evil done in the name of our Savior. We can go and mourn with the Jewish people to whom we are linked by their preservation of the Hebrew Bible, the family through whom God was pleased to send the Messiah. And then, going forward, we can show genuine Christian love to every Jew we encounter, vowing to defend them as God’s beloved children.
Angela Winter, CMJ USA board member, is a former features reporter with The Baltimore Sun who teaches classes in churches about the history of Christian antisemitism. She writes about Jewish-Christian relations, Protestant Christian theology, and the Holocaust.
Mother Basilea Schlink was asked “So for how long are you going to repent” for Christian antisemitism and the Holocaust? “So long as a Jewish heart is grieving, we will continue to express our grief for what happened.”