The door of the old safe opened with a disapproving squeak. As it made space for its precious and historical content my eyes fell on the inscription above: “Immigration Bank of New York 1899”. One of many signs of the ever-present immigration history of the 175-year-old German Lutheran congregation.
I extracted from underneath piles of old and new records, check books and documents an old Bible from 1931. Its book wrapper was torn and used. Like a precious arc containing a memory from a time long past. The Bible was dedicated to the Church of St. Paul´s for its 90th anniversary in September 1931, and signed by the President of Germany, Paul von Hindenburg. He was a nationalistic Lutheran binding politics and Church together in a very active manner.
Back then nobody even had the premonition of the disaster, which would haunt Germany, Europe, and the whole of the world. The prominent historian Wolfram Pyta argues in the contrary to other researchers that Paul von Hindenburg as an 84-year old President very actively chose Adolf Hitler as the legitimate heir of the German empire, and by being a bystander helped Hitler to become a dictator, who would implement successfully Nationalistic and extreme thoughts in the German public mind. [i] Most major institutions and – a hurtful fact for Protestants – many large Church bodies embraced Hitler and his disastrous thoughts. My Lutheran Home Church in Bavaria endorsed him eagerly. Bishops supported him. Clergy had to preach according to Hitler´s writings with a watered-down gospel. Supporting Hitler was not just an ideological decision, but one evoked by money and influence. Proclaiming the true Gospel of Jesus Christ in its whole strength like a voice of one crying out in the wilderness of a political dictatorship was not only dangerous – it bore the risk of losing all your wealth, privileges, and influence.
The privilege of receiving Church taxes with beginning of the Nazi dictatorship was fairly new: after fighting for compensation due to the “Principal Decree of the Imperial Deputation” in 1803, when the Churches lost huge stretches of land, buildings and possessions left of the Rhine river, a compensation was implemented. Church tax was anchored into the Weimar Constitution in 1919. [ii] The financial future of the Church was secured with a stable income, and in addition to that pastors become public servants. But it came at a high cost. It meant collaborating with the State in structures and content. A connection, which led to the disaster of the “German Christians” as an instrument of the Nazi tyranny.
Holding the old “Hindenburg-Bible” as an artefact in my own hands, immediately evokes very ambivalent thoughts about the present political situation in the United States, and by acknowledging it as the prominent leading nation for the whole of the world. A quiet admonisher of a disaster bestowed on all of humanity, which haunted our world like never seen before.
After Germany was freed from the Nazi tyranny the Protestant Churches went into a deep crisis. The institutions had lost most of the trust by being an instrument of Hitler´s deadly machinery. To regain this trust massive measures were taken, learning from the words of the Confessing Church with its broadly known Barmen Declaration. The Church had to be deeply separated from the State, only accountable to God´s word. Due to the financials struggles they couldn’t survive without the income through taxes. To ensure freedom from political parties and structures a freedom in speech for Clergy based on the Gospel and the Confessions was implemented. This lead to a double freedom for clergy and the Church itself: Clergy didn’t depend on the income of the congregation and wouldn’t need to preach according to the members to receive a pay. Furthermore, Clergy were only responsible to the Holy Scriptures and the Confessions as long as they as citizens didn’t violate the civil rights of Germany. [iii]
When growing up in a Lutheran environment in Germany, and then working as a pastor in the above described system, I always took both for granted: Being able and even expected to proclaim the Gospel unadorned. Never having to fear about not receive a pay or stipend as long as the words kept within the above-mentioned boundaries, meant freedom from the opinion of parishioners and committees. And even though I was a public servant, I never had given in to a possibly State proclaimed content.
As I left Germany to minister to a small German Lutheran Congregation in New York, which governs itself according to American legislation, not only meant a crash course in “American lifestyle”, but a huge learning curve about the expected role of a pastor as the proclaimer of the Gospel in a certain context. Now, with the new administration voices are becoming louder, pressuring me like many other colleagues to be silent about any political reference. Most folk will eagerly quote from the State offered tax exemption status through 501(c)(3), which after the opinion of some forbids any speech with political references. What they forget, is that the Gospel was and still is a highly political message. Being a tax-exempt institution does not forbid to speak about the current political situation – it does forbid talking concretely about a certain party or person. Rev. Dr. Leah Schade, who is an Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary, is trying to find and outline solutions for preaching controversial issues in the context of American Churches. A very important issue, which will be the turning point of the role of Churches in America and how deeply they will stand on the ground of the Gospel.
Coming from Germany, and experiencing my second ministry abroad, I think the Church can only live up to its calling, when it actively embraces the role of John, the Baptist as the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. If it is silenced by money, being afraid of losing its privileges, history is repeated. Germany has been there. Unbelievably many have suffered. And the Gospel has been broken by those, who should have safeguarded it.
These are the challenges American Churches like the ELCA are now facing. Will it stay silent in the midst of a cancerous and dangerous political system? It may only be able to live up to its calling through a very bold step: By changing its funding, freeing itself from a covered up strong bond to the State. One solution could be a centralized funding of minister stipends, as it can be found in the Reformed Church of Scotland. Working as an Island pastor a few years ago due to a European ecumenical partnership, I was part of a in Scotland established equal pay system. All congregations would pay according to a certain key to the central offices, ensuring the stipend of a pastor no matter where he or she might work. This ensured, that pastors were free from the income of their congregation, and that they could even afford to minister in very remote places – bringing the Gospel, where maybe otherwise very extreme opinions might develop. Just imagine, what such a system could do in the United States… With pastors being able to freely proclaim the Gospel, even in areas, where the political atmosphere is dangerous or opposing to the Gospel!
But as a German pastor working in the rough American wilderness of New York City I might just be a lonely and urging voice, devoted to remember others of the crimes and failure our German nation. Crying out for justice and peace: “Make straight the way of the Lord!”
More information about the work of Leah Jacobs Schade: https://thepurplezone.net
[i] Wolfram Pyta: Hindenburg. Herrschaft zwischen Hohenzollern und Hitler, München, September 2007.
[ii] Article 137, paragraph 6: „Religious communities, which are cooperations under the public law, are entitled, on the basis of civic tax lists according to the measure of federal state law, to raise taxes. [Translation: Miriam Groß] Original: „Die Religionsgesellschaften, welche Körperschaften des öffentlichen Rechtes sind, sind berechtigt, auf Grund der bürgerlichen Steuerlisten nach Maßgabe der landesrechtlichen Bestimmungen Steuern zu erheben.“
[iii] For those fluent in German: Pfarrerdienstgesetz der EKD § 24 Absätze 2 und 3: “ ( 2 ) Pfarrerinnen und Pfarrer sind in Gestaltung und Inhalt ihrer Verkündigung frei und nur an die Verpflichtungen aus der Ordination nach § 3 Absatz 2 und an die Ordnungen ihrer Kirche gebunden.
( 3 ) 1 Pfarrerinnen und Pfarrer haben in ihrem dienstlichen und außerdienstlichen Verhalten erkennen zu lassen, dass sie dem anvertrauten Amt verpflichtet sind und dieses sie an die ganze Gemeinde weist. 2 Sie berücksichtigen in ihrem Dienst die Vielfalt der Handlungsfelder und Erscheinungsformen, in denen sich der Auftrag der Kirche konkretisiert.
34: „Pfarrerinnen und Pfarrer haben durch ihren Dienst wie auch als Bürgerinnen und Bürger Anteil am öffentlichen Leben. 2 Auch wenn sie sich politisch betätigen, müssen sie erkennen lassen, dass das anvertraute Amt sie an alle Gemeindeglieder weist und mit der ganzen Kirche verbindet. 3 Sie haben die Grenzen zu beachten, die sich hieraus für Art und Maß ihres politischen Handelns ergeben.“