Thursday, 7 April 2011


At the Birmingham District Synod of the Methodist Church last weekend we were presented with a motion in support of the UK UNCUT protestors who were arrested at the TUC demonstration the other week. The motion wanted to make a distinction between the nonviolent direct action of the UK UNCUT group and the violent activities of a smaller number of protesters and to condemn the mistreatment of the former by the police and courts. The motion was carried by a significant majority.

The most interesting part of the discussion was perhaps unrelated to the motion’s subject. The only 'objection' raised was by one of our brethren of the Hauerwasian persuasion who chided the motion’s proposers because of its lack of theological content. We needed, he said, to proclaim as the Barmen Declaration had done 'the Lordship of Christ'in our resistance. Whilst I agreed with the sentiment and the frustration - that much of what passes for liberation theology on the Christian Left in the UK is unfortunately often indistinguishable from a secular left wing opinion column in the Guardian, Peace News or the Socialist Worker - I was not so enamoured with my brother's recruiting of the founding statement of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany to this cause.

This is often done in Church circles and the idea of both the declaration and the Confessing Church as a model of theological resistance to the Nazis is a myth that lives strongly, particularly in post evangelical and counter cultural Christian movements as well as some more fundamentalist reactionary tendencies with whom I have less sympathy. However, the truth about Barmen and the Confessing Church is not so noble.

The Barmen Declaration was solely concerned with the Church's right to control its own polity and to protect the right of baptised 'Jewish Christians' within it. As Alice Eckardt has pointed out in her analysis of what is often termed 'the Church Struggle' in Nazi Germany,

Essentially it was a struggle by the institutional churches to preserve for themselves an area that was separate from the state and national life, an area in the sacraments, and care for those in need of solace...The churches and their hierarchies did not raise objections…to the government's repudiation of democracy, persecution of Communists and Socialists, the concentration camps, the multitude of anti-Jewish decrees and violent actions, the wars of aggression, oppressive occupation policies, use of foreign slave labour or the "Final Solution" itself. (1)

The Barmen Declaration and the Confessing Church were deeply problematic for two reasons.

Firstly a Lutheran two kingdoms theology dominated the churches and had led to a deep subservience to the political authority of the state and the church's submission to it as long as it had authority in things 'spiritual'.

Secondly, the Barmen declaration and The Confessing Church were deeply embedded in a culture of antisemitism which Christian theology had given birth to and continued to support. Even on the theological 'Left' of the Church, in 1933 the year before the declaration - Dietrich Bonhoeffer - a modern Christian saint to many because of his later direct resistance to the Nazi regime - was writing on "The Church and The Jewish Question" in a way that has led Post Holocaust Christian theologian Clark Williamson to reflect

Hitler and Bonhoeffer were united in seeking a world without Jews. One would extinguish them physically, the other would convert them - eliminate them religiously. The choice was between spiritual and physical genocide. (2)

The Barmen Declaration does not then show us how to resist unjust powers and proclaim the 'Lordship of Christ' in our times, it demonstrates to us how deeply implicated the Church has been - and IS - in the structures of power and oppression not least the evil of anti-Semitism and anti- Judaism - which is the hatred, seeking the theological or physical obliteration or casual dismissal of the right to particularity; of the Jewish peoples.

1) Alice L Eckardt, The Holocaust, the Church Struggle, and Some Christian Reflections" in Faith and Freedom: A Tribute to Franklin H Littell Edited by Richard Libowitz ( Pergamon 1987) quoted in Stephen R Haynes, The Bonhoeffer Legacy - Post Holocaust Reflections (Fortress 2006) p13-14 (2) Clark Williamson, Has God Rejected His People? Anti-Judaism in the Christian Church (Abingdon 1983) quoted in Haynes p44