What Evangelicals Can Learn from the Holocaust

April 2013

Yesterday, April 8th, was Holocaust Memorial Day here in Israel, which commemorates the murder of approximately six million Jews at the hands of the Nazis and their sympathizers.  It has been nearly 70 years since the end of World War II and the Nazi’s programmatic destruction of European Jewry, yet the shock and horror of the Holocaust still stains the world’s conscience and how we think about evil.  Whether dealing with the extermination of the Armenian people during World War I, the slaughter of Rwanda’s Tutsis in 1994, or the more recent massacres in Sudan’s Darfur region, genocide has become a greatly debated and politically sensitive topic in the 21stcentury.

The history of civilizations has recorded other genocides or crimes against humanity, but up until the mid-20th century, what was unique about the Holocaust of the Jewish people?  While Nazi Germany, like all oppressive regimes, sought to eradicate its perceived “enemies”—political dissidents, socialists, communists, homosexuals, gypsies, and clergymen among others, the Nazis specifically propagated a policy to seek out, find, and exterminate all Jewish people within their reach.  They called this systematic state-sponsored industrialized mass slaughter of the Jews the “Final Solution.”  Not only were all the bureaucratic departments of the German government united in this murderous endeavor, but many German societal institutions—businesses, clubs, schools, universities, legal firms, trades, and churches—were either active or complicit in the crime as well.

Roots of Anti-Semitism

This historic hate of the Jewish people is often called anti-Semitism.  From where did these seeds of ancient prejudice come which were ultimately harvested in the Holocaust?  In Raul Hilberg’s monumental tome, The Destruction of the European Jews, he traces the roots of the Holocaust back to the ascendency of the Roman Church in the 4th century AD.  When Christianity became the state religion under Constantine, it became politically empowered to pursue conversion of unbelievers.  Yet, the Church had little success in converting the Jewish people, and so, consequently, they became seen as "disobedient."

While the Papacy did not initially allow forced conversions to Christianity, the lack of success in converting many of the Jewish people over the following centuries sparked Church prohibitions against them and their practices.  An assortment of Church laws were directed against Jews at different points in history, and these anti-Jewish measures were also later used by the Nazi authorities with the beginning of their rule in the 1930’s.[1]

Post-Christian Europe’s Expulsion of the Jews

Exclusion and eventually expulsion of the Jews came to dominate later European political practice.  Hilberg writes,

…long after the separation of church and state, long after the state had ceased to carry out church policy, expulsion and exclusion remained the goal of anti-Jewish activity…The anti-Semites of the nineteenth century, who divorced themselves from religious aims, espoused the emigration of the Jews…the post-ecclesiastic enemies of Jewry also took the idea that the Jews could not be changed, that they could not be converted, that they could not be assimilated, that they were a finished product, inflexible in their ways, set in their notions, fixed in their beliefs.[2]

The Nazis, too, implemented this practice, almost culminating in the shipping of the Jews to the distant African island of Madagascar.  When the Madagascar plan fell through at the end of 1941, the Nazi rulers concocted a “Final Solution” for the Jewish question, the annihilation of European Jewry.

Martin Luther and the Jews

While Protestants and today’s Evangelicals have often denied any binding links to the Catholic Church, we should be slow to speak and quick to listen.  Martin Luther is unanimously acknowledged by “Bible-believers” as the leading voice for our “justification by faith”, the doctrine where God declares an unrighteous individual to be righteous through the work of Christ, by faith alone.  And yet, some of Luther’s words were an easy accomplice to the Nazis’ later atrocities.

In Luther’s early ministry, he believed the Jews had not come to Christ because of the impure gospel of the Catholic Church.  Yet, in the last decade of his life, Luther’s views toward them became more harsh and unmerciful.  In 1543, Luther published an anti-Jewish treatise proclaiming,

For such ruthless wrath of God is sufficient evidence that they assuredly have erred and gone astray. Even a child can comprehend this. For one dare not regard God as so cruel that he would punish his own people so long, so terribly, so unmercifully, and in addition keep silent, comforting them neither with words nor with deeds, and fixing no time limit and no end to it. Who would have faith, hope, or love toward such a God? Therefore this work of wrath is proof that the Jews, surely rejected by God, are no longer his people, and neither is he any longer their God.

On the Jews and Their Lies (1543), Martin Luther.  Translated by Martin H. Bertram

And more infamously, Luther would further assert that if the Jews would not accept Christ, then Christians should go on the offensive against them and their property.

What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct, now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming. If we do, we become sharers in their lies, cursing and blasphemy…. I shall give you my sincere advice:

First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom…

Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. For they pursue in them the same aims as in their synagogues. Instead they might be lodged under a roof or in a barn, like the gypsies. This will bring home to them that they are not masters in our country, as they boast, but that they are living in exile and in captivity, as they incessantly wail and lament about us before God.

Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.

Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb….

My essay, I hope, will furnish a Christian (who in any case has no desire to become a Jew) with enough material not only to defend himself against the blind, venomous Jews, but also to become the foe of the Jews’ malice, lying, and cursing, and to understand not only that their belief is false but that they are surely possessed by all devils. May Christ, our dear Lord, convert them mercifully and preserve us steadfastly and immovably in the knowledge of him, which is eternal life.  Amen.

Evangelicals’ Love for Israel

As detailed above, the Nazis easily found anti-Semitic ideas within Church thought and resulting post-Christian European society.  While Nazi ideology developed from a more complex background than just European Christianity’s history, it is not hard to understand how the implementation of the Nazis’ anti-Jewish practices may be rooted in the Church’s spurned efforts to convert the Jewish people.

Many consider the birth of the modern state of Israel to be a result of the Holocaust, a belated homeland for the Jews to protect their people.  Even more, many of Israel’s wars over the past 65 years have been viewed through that lens of the Holocaust, as ominous threats to Jewish survival.  Prior to the Holocaust and before the formation of Israel in 1948, new efforts began in the 19th century to spread the gospel to the Jewish people inside Palestine.  Descended from that new wave of Christian work, Evangelicals were among the newest followers of Jesus to minister in the Holy Land.  They have also typically been the most vocal supporters of Israel as well.

Living in Israel today as a Christian carries the inescapable association with the Holocaust.  In fact, Evangelicals who live here often do not call themselves “Christians” but prefer to use the circumlocution “believers” (i.e. believers in Jesus).  Evangelicals do this because among many Israelis the Holocaust, the Inquisition, and the Crusades are considered Christian phenomena.  From their perspectives, missionaries are practically synonymous with Nazis.  Therefore, Evangelicals meeting Israelis would rather they focus on Jesus than the ugly history associated with the Church’s relationship with the Jewish people.

Ironically, Israel, one of the smaller countries in the world, has one of the highest rates of Christian workers and Christian organizations per capita.  Evangelicals from abroad often ask why, after so many years, so few Jews in Israel have accepted Jesus as their Messiah.  It’s not for lack of concentrated and ardent effort.  But maybe that is the problem.

As Evangelicals, if we can learn anything from the terrible result of the Holocaust, we must learn love.  For everything we do in service for the gospel of Jesus must be done out of pure love.  If there is any envy, bitterness, or pride in our ministry, our witness at best is a clanging cymbal, or at worst a root of destruction.

[1] To see a long list of “Canonical and Nazi Anti-Jewish Measures” that Hilberg compiled: http://familybible.org/BeitMidrash/Model/AppendixH.htm [2] The Destruction of the European Jews (1985), pg 8.