What Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the most segregated hour in America” described my childhood church in the 90s in Wilmington, NC. The day a Black family showed up to worship at First Baptist Church, one of the wealthy members of our congregation complained to the pastor. While our pastor confronted this racist publicly, I imagine the congregation I left in disgust two decades ago isn’t a hotbed of support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
In “the war of northern aggression” – as many of my teachers called it – the steeple that I used to play in was used as a lookout by Confederate troops. The adjacent building where I attended Sunday School was used in 1898 as the rallying point for a violent white mob as well as the repository for the weapons used during their violent coup d’etat. They murdered dozens if not hundreds of African Americans in a successful effort to re-establish white supremacy. (This was part of the same backlash to Reconstruction that inspired most Confederate monuments across the south.) I often wonder how many of that violent mob worshiped in the same church I did. I wonder how many were submerged in the same baptismal. I wonder how many thought God was on their side.
On Sundays, we received not only communion but also confirmation that our community was on the good team in the culture wars. Most of the role models I looked up to and people I knew are now part of Trump’s loyal base, the 81% of white evangelical Christians who voted for him. They see Trump as flawed, but like King Cyrus in the book of Isaiah, his rough edges are forgiven because he’s doing “God’s work.”
The first time I thought about Christian Resistance was in my fundamentalist days. I came across a family secret when I found a book, written by a Catholic nun who helped to smuggle contraband into Dachau for the Catholic prisoners there. I was shocked to read that my deceased great grandfather was the accountant at Dachau, Nazi Germany’s first concentration camp. Apparently he aided the nun for a brief period, which I suspect had something to do with the removal of his name from a war crimes indictment after the war.
How could I – an American and a Christian – be related to a Nazi war criminal? I spent years talking to family members, visiting concentration camps, digging through Army war crimes trial documents, and reading about the rise and fall of the Third Reich. I became an amateur scholar of fascist movements as I studied my ancestor’s involvement. Could it happen here, or is America uniquely safe from fascism?
I disagree with direct comparisons between the Shoah (or Holocaust) and any other historical event. The atrocities from 1941 to 1945 are unparalleled in their unimaginable scope and scale. However, I believe it is fair and necessary to make a comparison between the disintegration of German democracy to our precarious democracy today. The analogy makes itself when Trump openly floats the idea of postponing an election. Democracy is under attack. Fragile norms are being shredded and strong institutions weakened. Hate is on the rise: what used to be subtly dog-whistled is now being shouted at the bully pulpit. We are one Tweet away from the president encouraging well-armed supporters to take matters into their own hands. If this seems unlikely, recall that a heavily armed group used the threat of violence to halt legislative business in the Michigan state legislature without being confronted by the police. Imagine what such unchallenged militias could do before, during, and after election day. Our laws, institutions, and norms are more fragile than they appear.
In confronting my ancestor’s involvement in the Third Reich I slowly began to realize that certain factors can lead any democracy into fascism. I also stumbled upon a paradox that is surprisingly relevant to saving our democracy today. On one hand, in Germany the Christian church utterly failed to confront the Nazis. Yet, on the other hand, many of those rare Germans who did resist were directly inspired by their Christian faith. What does one make of that paradox? How can the same faith lead some to courageous resistance yet so many others to complicity, compliance, and complacency? This same paradox is familiar to any student of American history: how is the same faith that perpetuated slavery and white supremacy also the same faith that inspired both the abolition and Civil Rights movements? Are both sides following the same Jewish rabbi?
This paradox has troubled me even more over the past few years. People with whom I used to worship – white evangelical Christians – are suspiciously silent as migrant children are ripped from their parents’ arms and put in cages. Non violent protesters are being detained and “disappeared” off the street without cause, explanation, or due process. Recently, Trump used the military to clear out a peaceful protest in Washington, DC – using methods prohibited under international law – in order to stage a cynical photo op in front of a church he does not attend, holding a Bible whose teachings he does not follow. Where is the Christian outrage against the government tyranny that we were warned about from the pulpit over the past few decades? With a few exceptions, the response from mainstream American Christianity has been silence.
Despite my dour view of our civic predicament, I cling to a hope that just enough Christians might be Christ-like in this 11th hour of American democracy to make some difference. I cling to this hope because, while studying those brave few who resisted the Third Reich, I saw that frequently their resistance was based on their faith. How can we learn from this and amplify such resistance?
When I wonder “what would Jesus do?” to confront fascism, I can think of no better example than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was an otherwise run-of-the-mill theologian who became radicalized by his literal reading of the gospels to the point where he joined the “antifa” (i.e. anti-fascist) movement of his day. Just days after Hitler came to power, he went on radio warning that the new Führer would be a Verführer (“misleader” or “seducer”). He was central to the Confessing Church, which opposed the regime and its attempt to “Make Germany Great Again.” He even joined a plot against Hitler, knowingly risking his life. He was caught, imprisoned, and hanged just weeks before the end of the war. He paid the ultimate “cost of discipleship” and practiced what he called “costly grace.”
Much has been written about Bonhoeffer, but I can distill it into a simple Tweet-length sentence: Bonhoeffer took seriously what Jesus preached on the Sermon on the Mount. He was a fundamentalist in the one area Jesus said it matters. It was Bonhoeffer’s Christ-like example that helped me find a deeper meaning in Christ’s teachings than I ever knew as I walked out of the baptismal decades ago at First Baptist Church.
Today we live in dark times. Just as Bonhoeffer faced evil all around him, we face compliance, complicity, and complacency all around us, especially in evangelical circles. But that’s why it is so important to think about Christ’s unique message. The gospel according to Jesus is the opposite of the gospel according to Trump. Where Jesus preached confrontation with power, Trump calls for blind obedience to power and admiration of foreign dictators. Jesus warned about the corrosive nature of wealth; Trump worships at that altar. Jesus pointed towards a higher power and authority above and beyond Caesar; Trump and his frail ego demand unquestioning worship of him as Caesar. Jesus commanded his followers to love the least amongst us, to love the unlovable, and embrace the other; the gospel according to Trump channels fear, hatred, envy, and resentment towards the least amongst us, calling us to hate the other, and mock the weak. As Jesus said, you can not “serve two masters.” You can’t follow Trump and Jesus, you have to choose. You either build bridges or you build walls.
Today it takes little imagination to see things getting worse before they get better. Even if Trump is defeated in November (an uncertain outcome), he could still cause immeasurable and permanent harm to our democracy in the months before his departure. There is also ample work to do if he loses: many of Trump’s abuses are built upon a framework that existed for decades prior. There has never been a better time to imagine a Christian Resistance. What does it look like? What does it call us to do? What could it accomplish? At the national level, there are groups like Red Letter Christians and Christians Against Hate who are doing the hard work. But what about in our small daily spheres of influence? Can a little “grain of mustard seed” do anything to stop evil?
I believe we can move a mountain. I’m not saying you have to physically stand up to Nazis like clergy did at the 2017 “Unite the Right“ rally in Charlottesville, VA. I am saying our civic responsibility is larger than casting a vote. Maybe it means not being a bystander. Maybe it means disobeying an immoral order from those with power or protecting someone without. Maybe it means loving someone cast aside as “less than” by our hyper-individualistic and materialistic society. Maybe it means loving someone who had been on the receiving end of hate. Perhaps it simply means having difficult conversations in your daily life, or re-humanizing someone that society has dehumanized. If at any point you need inspiration, Jesus was no stranger to difficult conversations and radical empathy.
Christian Resistance will look different for each person, but what unifies it is the teachings of Jesus that so profoundly influenced Bonhoeffer. To be a real Christian is to carry the cross of being Christ-like. Like Bonhoeffer, we must be prepared to let love move us in bold, radical ways in the uncertain times ahead.