German churches’ wartime declaration both inspires and chastens today

By staff writers
May 29, 2009

The actions of a group of German church members in 1934 in resisting the Nazi regime still serve as a powerful model for churches today, according to the General Secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC).

Sunday 31 May 2009 marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of a statement by the group that has come to be known as the “Barmen Declaration.”

Clergy, theologians and church members who disagreed with the leadership of the German church which was willing to follow the orders of the Reich government, gathered in the city of Barmen to prepare a declaration which said that only the Christ of the scriptures has authority over the church.

“That at a critical and dangerous time in history, the Confessing Churches in Germany took a courageous stand for justice and life has left its mark on the world forever,” Setri Nyomi says from Geneva where WARC’s executive committee is meeting.

Some of the founding members of the group paid with their lives for their adherence to its principles.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian who joined the Confessing Church, was executed for his role in plotting to overthrow the Reich. Others met clandestinely and at great risk to study and pray.

Nyomi celebrates the impact on the Reformed church movement of the group of Reformed, United and Lutheran churches who called themselves the Confessing Churches.

But there is also a historical memory and sense of repentance that the vast majority of Christians in Germany went along with, or were deceived by, the development of Nazism, as in the so-called Reich Church which sought the patronage of the Fuhrer.

There is also controversy over the extent to which Catholics were implicated in the horrors of the regime. Pope Pius XII has come under sustained criticism for alleged appeasement or lack of courage in relation to Hitler. Many Catholics died in opposition to Nazism, though Hitler himself was nominally a Catholic.

His ideology promulgated a cocktail of beliefs, including the idea of the super-human race, a religion of power and aggression, and distortions of Germanic myth.

These days, religious and anti-religious lobbyists try to blame religion or atheism for Nazi ideology. In truth all were implicated and those who resisted were in the minority.

“We in WARC are grateful for the theologians and churches who offered this gift to the world. The Barmen Declaration has inspired WARC in the stands it has taken against apartheid and against the dominant world economic order which harms vulnerable people and the environment.”

The Barmen Declaration, drafted by the Swiss Reformed church theologian Karl Barth, calls upon Christians to accept a list of six “confessions” in opposition to the growing influence of the government over senior church leaders.

“A ‘confession’ fixes what counts for a church in a particular context”, says theologian Peter Bukowski of the German Reformed Alliance.

“It declares what the church believes, not individuals. By adopting a ‘confession’ of beliefs in reaction to a concrete situation the Confessing Churches in Germany were saying in effect that if you couldn’t agree to this confession then you didn’t belong in that church.”

In 1986 members of WARC were inspired by the model of the Barmen Declaration in issuing the Belhar Confession in reaction to the apartheid regime in South Africa. In it, the churches declare that apartheid is not just a political or social question but that it contradicts the fundamentals of Christian belief and as such is a sin.

“This means”, says Bukowski, “that it is not possible to belong to WARC and say apartheid is alright.”

There is still one church in South Africa unable to accept the Belhar Confession. Recent negotiations between church leaders and senior WARC leaders failed to resolve the issue. For now the church’s membership in WARC has been suspended.

In 2004 at meetings in Ghana, WARC’s global general assembly endorsed the “Accra Confession” which declares that economic and social systems which condemn people to poverty and marginalization and imperil the earth’s natural environment, are a sin.

Member churches continue to debate whether this is in fact a “confession” and thus a pre-requisite to membership in the organization or whether it is a “faith stance” in which beliefs are articulated which are not binding.

Bukowski believes that there are elements of the Accra Confession which state fundamental beliefs and are not open to discussion.

“Social justice has substantially to do with our Christian faith,” he states. “But how to fight against what some call ‘neo-liberalism’, this is open to discussion.”

For now Bukowski says it is good that these discussions continue. “Confessing didn’t just happen in the 16th century,” the theologian says. “Confessing challenges us at all times.”

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