Sunday, April 20, 2008

Paul Schneider: A Chestnut Tree and the Confessing Church

Pastor Paul Schneider at the funeral of a child “denounced the web of pagan mythology that for political reasons was being superimposed upon the Christian concept of the hereafter.” He, like other members of the Confessing Churches had denounced the attempt by various groups and people in Germany to de-Christianize the Churches.

In a letter to Hitler some of the Confessing Church members had complained that, among other acts against the Christian faith: “Other members of the Reich Government have, under the cloak of positive Christianity, divested of their confessional character categorical conceptions of the Christian Faith, such as belief, love, eternity, prayer, resurrection, and have given a new, purely worldly, psychological interpretation.” (emphasis mine)

In the book The Shame and the Sacrifice: The Life and Martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Schneider is mentioned as the first Confessing Pastor to die in a concentration camp. Always outspoken and courageous, when he was banished from his two Churches he refused to leave them and was arrested. Schneider was beaten many times both for preaching the gospel and for standing up for other prisoners. He died when a prison doctor gave him poison rather than medicine.

In the book on Bonhoeffer another small book is mentioned which was circulated privately in Germany during the time of Schneider and Bonhoeffer and their imprisonment. Dying We Live was translated into English in the fifties in a small paperback book. It contains letters from many prisoners of the Nazi’s.

Most of Schneider’s letters, featured in Dying We Live, are written to his wife and children while he awaited his trial which would lead to Buchenwald and death. In the letters, he often refers to an old chestnut tree in the prison grounds and uses it as a picture of the Church. As Schneider writes of the Lord, the Church and the times he lives in, his words carry meaning for other eras. Here is one letter dated November 7, 1937:

“You ask me what I do all day long. Above all I am a student of the word of God, and want to go on being that. …

Once again the chestnut tree is preaching a sermon to me. Its bare black branches reach out to me so promisingly the small brown buds for next spring. I can see them close to the window and also in the top branches. They were already there even when the yellow foliage was still hiding them. Should we be so thankless and of so little faith that we deliberately overlook among the falling, withered leaves of the church the buds that here too cling tenaciously to trunk and branches?

Dear wife, I believe we know enough out of our own inner experience to speak and to believe for our communities too. … The Confessional church—it is truly that—is the tree with the buds; the secret congregations within the congregations are the buds of the church. Wherever a pastor is ready to assume a ministry that no longer is a ‘ministry,’ that continues to exist even without the assurance of state support (because a ‘position’ thus supported would no longer be a religious post), while all calculations and considerations of church politics are at an end, there the spiritual eye sees even now the coming church and its spring. Of course the world and the faithless churchmen see the bare tree stripped of its cultural and public significance and judge that, since the world and the state withhold recognition, it will soon die and serve only for firewood. They take refuge in the tangled vine of the false church and state religion, rankly overgrowing the duly doomed tree of a godless, self-glorifying and self-complacent world—a vine that will collapse and be burned with the tree of such a transient world.

But we abide in the branches of the poor, bare, despised, and defamed church that reaches its buds out to us with so much promise that the gates of hell will not prevail against it. In it only can we live in safety, ‘secure in all our ways’; only in that faith which is the indestructible strength of its life and its burgeoning can true freedom and happiness be found. Let us go on holding to this faith, live by it and act by it, as the richly ‘comforted,’ because this faith alone represents the victory over the prison of this world and its lethal power. ‘Then let the world with its vain reward dissolve. Faith perseveres, the Cross will lead to the crown.’”

There is an excellent article about Paul Schneider, with pictures,


Anonymous said...

Not sure why the emphasis on resurrection. Don't you think love and prayer are equally important?

It seems that within the context (the NAZI cult of death, fear and hatred) they might even be more important.

Carl Hahn

Viola said...

I have several reasons for emphasizing resurrection. The first is how I started this posting with Paul Schneider protesting the pagan mythology on the afterlife being touted by the German Christians. Since they, the German Christians, reached back to the old Teutonic myths they undoubtedly didn’t believe in a bodily resurrection nor the need for a redemptive Christ either.

The other reason is that many progressives today do not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ or of that to come for Christians. I am thinking of one pastor in particular who denies the bodily resurrection, yet equates the German Christians with Evangelicals today and the Confessing Church of Germany with the Progressives of today. He has no idea of the true history of those movements.

Viola said...

I just realized I didn't completely answer your question. Of course I think love and prayer are equally important and especially in the context of the Nazi cult of death, fear and hatred." But as I said above there were other reasons for emphasizing the resurrection.

will said...

Also - the New Testament prioritizes the resurrection in some ways. (Among other things, if the dead are not raised, our faith is called vain. I would take that to mean that prayer would be equally vain - at least in a Christian context - as we would be praying in the name of a person who was not what we believed.)

There is a tendency to reduce the gospel to love, but this is not really the gospel - as important as it is. Great commandment and second, or golden rule is not the whole of the Gospel.

The question is raised for the Christian of the possibility of agape consistently demonstrated apart from the Gospel - i.e. without resurrection. It turns into a kind of generic moralizing that establishes an ideal only, and it can be used and interpreted to mean a host of different things to different people.

(This opens another can of worms, because 'love' is a 'feel good' word - and many things that aren't love are labeled that way by us when we seek to justify ourselves. In this case, the kind of love commended to Christians as a 'more excellent way' is described - by itself (without description) it is still a little vague as a guide to action. I'm not sure, in the absense of resurrection - in the absense of the other areas of the Gospel that are often ignored (in the Reich as in other venues) that the descriptions provided by the religion (which these falsified) would have any real worthwhile thing to say about agape either.)

In Christian thought, love is a fruit of the Holy Spirit - not something Christians do by our own will and effort. That is not to say there is not effort, but that the effort by itself is without effective result.

will said...

Viola - I'm not persuaded that those who advance that argument (equating Evangelicals with the German Christians) do so out of mere ignorance. In many cases, they have and understand the facts. Instead these are often lying - plain and simple - in order to 1) deceive their genuinely ill-informed hearers, 2) score cheap rhetorical points, and 3) more effectively slander those with whom they disagree.

There is an element of malice in this practice - knowingly misrepresenting the past - that cannot be regarded as a mistake, as much as an active choice to practice evil.

Viola said...

I have to partly agree with you—but I do believe there is a lot of ignorance about the subject of the Confessing Church and the German Christians. And I would rather take the high road and believe it is ignorance not malice. Anyway, time will tell of that I am sure.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Viola,

I am not sure I understand exactly what you are saying. I hope you are not trying to draw a parallel between today's progressives and the German Lutheran Church leading up to WWII.

Lots of people do not believe in the Resurrection, including the millions of Jews the Nazi's killed. It doesn't make them in any way prone to supporting Nationalism or Militarism or the vengeful pursuit of a scapegoat within society, or invading other countries.

Even though some of the anti Islamic rhetoric I hear today gives me pause, and America's own nationalistic and militaristic pride is scary at times, I'm not sure it is fair to equate anybody today to what was happening in Germany back then, either in the political arena or the religious. The Germans were a proud but defeated and humiliated people trying to get back on their feet. The Nazi's gave them back their pride and somebody to blame - for a little while at least. Not at all the American experience.

I think there is a lot to learn from what happened in Germany in the years leading up to WWII, and the confessing church movement did find it within itself to go against the grain and resist Nazi ideology, but I would be very very very slow to try to equate what happened to them with what is happening to us today, don't you agree?

Is that maybe what you are trying to say? About both sides of the progressive/conservative divide?

Will, you make an interesting point but I think the "love" that is in the Gospels is the same "love" that is in the Hebrew texts that Jesus quoted, and again, the Jews were not all known for their belief in the resurrection. But they did believe in the two great commandments that Jesus quoted from the old testament, right? In that context, love is also a duty. I.e. something you are required to DO as a matter of religious devotion.

The Gospel definitely expands on that theme, but it is not unique to the Gospel.


will said...

Carl - Thanks for the response / point.

You are, of course, correct that the commandments Jesus gave were (quite self-consciously) from the Hebrew Bible. These were in no way unique to Christianity (although some interpretation of the 'golden rule' is a little different in that Hillel's dictum is almost entirely about avoiding negative behaviors - where Jesus's version is more open ended).

My intended point was not that these were unique to Christianity, but that, while very important to Christianity, they were NOT the Gospel. They were a pre-existing requirement, if you will. (Thus the commandment language). The question (to me) becomes whether people are able to follow these commands - duty or not. In Christianity, as I understand it, Christians believe they are "brought to God" by the act of Jesus Christ, find "repentance and forgiveness for sins in the name of Jesus", and are given new life and growth through the Holy Spirit - of which we were incapable in our earlier state.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not minimizing the importance of love both to Christianity, and to the world. I just question the possibility of attaining it in a consistant fashion, and I'm fairly certain Chrsitianity doesn't teach this as a possibility for the flesh. (In the context of the fruit of the Spirit, the reader is told, "since we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.")

will said...

Carl - I don't think Viola is drawing a parallel in the strict sense - i.e. in the sense of suggesting that 'progressivism causes Nazism'. That would be overly simplistic and rather inaccurate.

Nazism involved (as you point out) a rather unique convergence of events - though certain Nazi views are affirmed by various groups today. These occur on the right and left politically; as well as among a number of disparate philosophies. There is also a rather large distinction between the beliefs that permitted Nazism to take hold in Germany and the beliefs of the Nazis themselves. It would be, IMO irresponsible to suggest that either conservatism or liberalism OR that progressivism or evangelicalism somehow leads to Nazism.

I think in her various thoughtful posts on the topic, Viola is pointing out what the Confessing Church actually had that enabled it to effectively resist Nazism that the Reich Kirk did not have. It was the Confessing Church itself that made that distinction.

will said...

Viola - I guess I'm cynical tonight. Keep taking the high road, though ... there is no reason to automatically assume this is a product of active malice. (It just seems to me a little implausible that one could comment on the topic and have no historical information at hand.)

Viola said...

Lots of interesting things could be said here and I do appreciate your point of view. All of the biblical terms, resurrection, love, eternity, etc. are important to this conversation. But it seems we might both be going off the wrong direction—I am just not sure because I don’t know where you are coming from.

For instance, you write, “I hope you are not trying to draw a parallel between today’s progressives and the German Lutheran Church leading up to WWII.” But more than the Lutheran Church was involved in the rise of the German Christians—two hundred years of developing heresy was involved as well as both Reformed and Lutheran theologians.

And Karl Barth was one of the Confessing theologians who so clearly pointed out the heresy of those two hundred years.

But nothing is ever exactly the same. The “German Christians” were liberal and nationalist. They rejected the deity of Christ, the sinfulness of humanity, the need for Christ’s death on the cross and the bodily resurrection. They added the Glory of Germany, the supposedly glorious event of Hitler leading the German people and Jesus as a heroic person. They vilified the Jewish people. The more extreme German Christians elevated German paganism into the mix.

Contemporary progressives are liberal and not nationalists. Many reject all of the biblical doctrines of the Church as did the German Christians. There is a rising anti-semitism on the part of some progressives. It is growing fast enough that both Christians and the Jewish people are concerned about it. All of the mainline denominations are infected with it. That is where the sameness is and that is where it ends. Hopefully.

However my main reason for posting this was to add to others knowledge about a historical person who was a devout Christian, and to allow others to read his understanding of the hidden Church of that time. I think it is always a blessing to read about devout Christians from the past.

Viola said...

I also want to add that what really got my attention with the story of Paul Schneider is his understanding of the Church at that time. “The Confessional church—it is truly that—is the tree with the buds; the secret congregations within the congregations are the buds of the church.”

Historically we tend to think of a Confessing Church on one side and a German Christian Church on the other side. But rather often it was a Confessing Church ensconced within a church that was more or less given over to the German Church. Or often it was a Confessing Church operating within a synod that was mostly made up of German Christians. That was a very hard time in many ways.

will said...

Viola - You point to one of the reasons I am interested in this topic. I am very well aware of the rise of antisemitism in some progressive circles. (I think we had come to expect it among fringe 'right' groups - but have been astonished at its rapid ascendancy on the left). That this applies to those who self-identify as "Christians" is very disturbing. (Obviously the history of Christian antisemtism is too broad a topic for the comment section of a blog ... but it has a strong bearing on our current circumstance).

You do well to point out some parallels; yet there are also a number of differences (which you clearly recognize). What I (just my opinion) want to avoid is a setup where these parallels are used as simplistic insults. This is clearly not your intent - and you have devoted far too much time and thought to the issues for it to be that. However, I also know some have a mental block or some impediment to actually examining what you are saying. I'm not sure how to get past that.

I just find the spread of this in the 'mainline' denominations to be a cause for alarm.

Viola said...

Last year I had to struggle to find a Presbyterian Church that would show a film, "Ever Again," offered by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. (I had been asked if I would try.) What so bothered me was the two Jewish persons who came to facilitate the event--they carried about with them a real sadness because of the rage toward the Jewish people that is happening in the world and the attitude that is rising among those who should be their friends. Hopefully we were some comfort to them.

Anonymous said...

Viola and Will,

Interesting comments by the both of ya. Your point, Will, about being weary of simplistic insults is very important. Certain references illicit an immunological response even if made in passing and only tangentially. A wise blogger would be well advised to avoid them if they do not serve the intent of the post.

I looked up the film “ever again” on Amazon. The reviews are very positive, but one reviewer said something that probably has something to do with why some churches may be reluctant to show it.

“However, this documentary steps on uneven ground when it tries to draw links between academics and extremist Islam. There is nothing more irritating than being called an anti-Semite when criticizing Israel. Israel is a country. It is a political entity. To equate Israel to the Jewish people worldwide is erroneous and nationalistic in scope. If I criticize the Chinese government am I anti-Chinese? If I disagree with the policies of the Russian government in Chechnya does that mean I hate Russians?

"Ever Again" falters horribly when it tries to equate legitimate criticism of Israel by academics with the virulent, racially-charged anti-Semitism of Al Qaeda and neo-Nazism.”

If that is true, I can understand why some churches would be reluctant to endorse it.

Many view my own church as progressive, but for years we shared our facilities with a synagogue and every year we invite a Rabbi to give a four-week class where we discuss the issues of our day and of the past vis a vis our common spiritual/theological roots. The only folks I have seen having a problem with our hospitality have been on the conservative side of the spectrum. Now, it is true that many Jews adopt the position that to criticize Israel is anti-Semitic, but not all Jews agree. Some do not think Israel should even exist. Some ultra conservative/orthodox Jewish groups feel that Israel is supposed to remain a nation in Diaspora without territorial borders. Kinda’ like Christians actually.

I don’t think Progressives are showing anything like the anti-Semitism of the Christian past and I really doubt you can correlate any kind of modern day anti-Semitism with being either liberal or conservative.

I agree with Viola that it is really good to read about devout Christians of the past, but it is also important to let them speak in their own voice and in their own context. If we change the context we are actually changing the content of what they did and making it ours instead of theirs.

That is why I originally questioned Viola's emphasis on resurrection. She was changing the context and therefore potentially the content of what Paul Schneider actually said and did, and maybe even inadvertently diminishing it. Possibly.


Viola said...

“But one reviewer,” what did the other positive reviewers say? I have watched this film several times. My only complaint is that a lot of the information rather than being spoken is in small text boxes which is hard for some people to see. To my mind the anti-semitism attributed to academics was not out of place.

Let me give you an example of anti-semitism in my denominations just last year. This is from a paper I wrote for Presbyweb.

"Under “Presbyterians at Work Around the World,” on the Presbyterian web site, there was the statement, ‘Excellent aids for celebrating the Week of Prayer and Witness have been created for you by the offices of the General Assembly Council that relate to our Christian partners in the Middle East in collaboration with volunteers from the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).’ Clicking on the above “Week of Prayer and Witness,” among the resources is a listing of resources for children and young people. In that list is a Movie entitled ‘Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land: U.S. Media and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.’
In the video, besides the one-sided view of the conflict in that region, is the tired old view that the Media in the United States is being manipulated by those, “beyond the United States” reaching to the “Middle East” which of course means Israel which is a nation of Jewish people.
Included in the above scenario is a suggested system of news filters consisting of first the US media firms, which reach to the Middle East, then political elites, next the Israeli government public relations campaign which includes its various American consulates, and finally “rightwing” watchdog groups including Jews for Jesus! In other words, according to the makers of this film, “All leading news agencies in America are Jew-controlled.”

This is not different then the beginning of propaganda in most of Germany and yes, France in the early twenties of the last century. This is not an isolated event. The reason I was trying to get a Church to show “Ever Again,” was because our PBS channel had refused to show a Frontline program about anti-semitism. A program that almost all other PBS stations were airing. The reason was because some Church heads in Sacramento and the station manager had voted against it. With enough public outcry that was finally changed.

As far as changing the context of Paul Schneider’s story, I, as I stated, began it with his protest against the German Christians and the Nazi’s attempting to overlay a child’s funeral with Pagan mythology rather than the Christian hope of resurrection. I do not believe I changed either the context or what Paul Schneider was saying.

will said...

Carl - Your comment is fair enough: there does need to be pletny of room for legitimate criticism of Israeli policies. I fully acknowledge that.

However, I don't necessarily see a great disparity between the work of some academics and the Nazi phenomenon. That confluence of events was aided and abetted by German, French, Polish, even American academics. Yes, the propaganda of the late thirties was of a more extreme character, but earlier it was more of this kind.

The Nazis themselves had odd religious notions of race, but fashionable academia supported these notions with then current views on eugenics. And "the Jews" were, at the time, treated as a political unit - the equivalent of a nation in diaspora. Thus when various luminaries attacked "the Jews" they were speaking of a political unit in many ways. ('The Jews controlling governments', 'running the media', etc. were common charges - as was the idea that 'the Jews are clannish and stick together'.)

My point here is that yes, some academics today are manifesting antisemitism in the rather classical sense.

However, one cannot rightly treat Israel in an exceptional manner - as if it were somehow imune to criticism. Having said that, where there is disproportionate criticism, where Israel is held to a standard different from that of other nations - where it is treated in a unique manner this in an evidence of bias. That bias may or may not reflect anti-Judaic bias - but the fact that Israel is the singular Jewish state ought to give the holder of this bias pause.

More problematic are those criticisms where Israel is targeted, but the Jewish people generally bear the brunt of them. (Many criticisms of Israel today coming from the West - not from Al Qaeda or Neo-Nazis - assert negative character traits of Judaism and / or the Jewish people as a whole. This is, in fact, rather widespread.)

As for specifically Christian antisemitism - you're right in that we're not at historic levels yet. But we're moving in a direction that parallels those historic movements in some ways. For example - in the service of criticizing Israel, many Christians are employing explicitly Christian imagery to demonize Israel - that IS the very same imagery used in classical Christian antisemitism. It cannot be ignored in this specific case that the imagery in question when employed by Christians against the only Jewish state invokes a history - in which that imagery was used to justify Christian violence and horrific treatment of Jewish people.

So I guess what I'm saying is this: great care needs to be taken in criticizing Israel - so that these criticisms are just and accurate - because many of the overtones currently being seen are ones that have historically proven themselves very dangerous.

will said...

I need to also say here: many Christians in America who are concerned about Israel / Palestine ARE genuinely motivated by legitimate compassion and a desire for both peace and justice.

I recognize and acknowledge that. And for what it is worth, I share that desire.

In these cases, however, I'm concerned that good intentions don't always have good results. This particular situation is extremely complex - and as Christians we ought to first make sure what we do is actually helping - and does not cause harm (even inadvertantly).

Re: my prior comment. No we are not at the highest level of antisemtism, but I have seen and heard things recently being generally accepted - that I never thought I'd see in my lifetime. It seems to be a growing phenomenon.

Koala Gal said...

You are so knowledgeable on theology...

I'd like to send you an invitation to my blog as I've turned it to invited readers only for 6mths...

A very moving video for me:
the vitality of life from a 24-yr old who is born without limbs. It challenges me about the value of life. Glorification of life!

Different version of it, the best version is A
A) Be patient, it just takes some time to load it, don't bother with the Chi advert on the side.


Be inspired!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Viola said...

Koala Gal,
If you come back, I tried going on your blog and they said I was not invited. I will try again later.
Thanks for the invite.