The Nazi Gospel

Arbeit Macht Frei.

“Work makes free.” Or perhaps a better English rendering might be, “Work brings freedom.”

This quote was plastered across the front gate of several concentration camps during the reign of the Third Reich and Nazism in World War II Germany. It was forged by prisoners at Auschwitz (ironically not bringing their freedom), and it was on the gate at Dachau, where I recently had opportunity to visit.

ArbeitMachtFrei

“Work makes [you] free.”

I’m no historian, and I’m certainly no expert on World War II, or Nazism. So allow me to vamp a bit while I engage Hitler’s claim, “Arbeit Macht Frei.

Hitler has become the embodiment of evil in our world. He is the poster child, the author and underwriter of perhaps the most evil chapter in recent world history. His crimes against humanity were vast and horrendous. Surely there were MANY points at which one could challenge his worldview. Engage with his insistence that certain people were “subhuman,” or with his socialistic reforms. Argue against his harsh treatment of humans. But consider if perhaps, the root of his depravity was founded on a much more basic level—a level more common mankind than you might have originally thought.

Arbeit Macht Frei.

At the inception of the Concentration camps was a simple idea. There are some in our society that are less. They are broken in their very nature. They are further from God.

But they can be rehabilitated. If they work hard enough, they can be restored to wholeness within society. Did you know that in the earliest days of Dachau (one of the first—and the first of its size—camps established by Hitler), prisoners were often rehabilitated and released? They were trained how to work to maintain their humanity.

This is not a revolutionary idea. It’s not new, and it wasn’t when Hitler rose to power, either. It is the essence of our humanness. We are given revelation of a God who is bigger and greater than anything we can do or even imagine (Romans 1:20). Even without the Bible to guide us, every culture in the history of the world has had some understanding of “God.” It’s what we call “general revelation.” And even without a Bible, we recognize that there is something “wrong” with us (Romans 2:14-15). That’s why every religion has some concept of “salvation.” Every religion in the history of the world depends on Work [to] Make [you] Free.

Arbeit Macht Frei.

At the core of what Hitler believed was that how hard one worked determined his value. How much one accomplished was tied to one’s humanness. Still today, in every religion except Christianity, salvation is the result of Human hard work. Karma is the gross sum of your acts in this life playing out in the next…and the next (Nirvana may take millions of lives to achieve). In Islam, man is on the tip of a sword and at the judgment and God “flicks” you one way or the other, based on your good deeds. Even if you were “mostly good,” Allah may have a “bad day” and condemn you anyway. You just better do your best. In Old Covenant Judaism, everything hinged on rigid obedience to the Law of Moses. In modern American Christendom—and ironically, atheism for that matter—the message can have a tendency toward moralism, being a “good person,” and doing the right thing.

Arbeit Macht Frei.

But true Christianity is different. Christianity is about a God to whom we owe everything. A God we could never pay back for our short-comings because our lives are already his. The Gospel is about a God that saved us “by grace through faith, not by works so that no one can boast.” Trying to be “good enough” is succumbing to “Arbeit Macht Frei” gospel, which is really no gospel it all.

Religion says “works bring freedom.”

Christ says, “My grace is sufficient for you.”

The bleak end to the story at Dachau is that in short order, prisoners stopped being released. Men, women and children were brought in with the promise that they could work for their salvation, that Work would bring freedom. And all the work they did—the back-breaking, arduous work that was typically overtly and explicitly pointless—only enslaved them further. They were prisoners of their work. Work would never bring freedom, and it was only when the allied troops arrived and showed them grace that the prisoners received freedom.

Arbeit Macht nicht frei; Gnade Macht Frei.

Work does not make you free; Grace makes us free.

Solid!

Solid.

That’s my impression of every single missionary family I met last week. Simply put, they are solid people.

Solid in their convictions.

Solid in their life.

Solid faith.

Solid marriages.

Solid families.

Solid kids with solid faiths of their own.

Solid.

If I were starting a church, I’d want any one of them planting with me. I would want them as elders, and ministry leaders. When we worshiped, the singing was genuine, and when they would pray, it was bold and meaningful.

These people get it.

Enter the interesting paradox. Given the opportunity to describe themselves in three words, I doubt any of them would use the word “solid,” or any of its synonyms. There was a humility about them. It was one thing they all had in common. It was humility born of struggle and heartache. A bi-product of moving away from family, of feeling alone in a new culture.

As one minister put it, “When you get to a new culture, it’s very strange. The very essence of your calling, mission and job is communication, yet you can’t even ask anyone where the bathroom is.”

John [the apostle] recorded John [the Baptizer] as saying of Jesus, “I must become less, he must become more” (John 3:30). Then Paul proceeded to call himself the least of the apostles (1 Cor. 15:9), the least of the believers (Eph. 3:8), and the least of all sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). As his view of himself decreased, Jesus was glorified.

I think that is what has happened with these missionaries. Those that have stuck with it for the long term—who have struggled through being the new guy, struggled through learning a new culture, being worth very little (in a pragmatic sense) because of an inability to communicate, struggled through questioning the decisions they’d made, struggled through a life apart from everything comfortable, not to mention taking on the challenge of raising support from the generosity of others—those people have been humbled. They have become less, and their passion for the gospel has only grown stronger and stronger.

Growth only comes out of struggle. Life grows in the valley, regardless of how grand the mountain peaks may be. As one worship song says, “There may be pain in the night, but Joy comes in the morning.”

This isn’t to say they don’t have issues. Or sins to deal with. Or disagreements with spouses, church members and kids. This doesn’t mean their kids never run into trouble, or that everything is always hunky-dory. In fact, I got to see a few very small examples of some of these while I was with them.

Because they are real about it.

Because they aren’t shaken by it.

Because they have been through the fire and come out “without the smell of fire on them” (Daniel 3:27).

Because they are solid.

I want to be solid.

Stop Calling America a “Christian Nation”

How many times have you heard it? “We are a country founded on Christian values!” People fight over the constitution and how “Christian” our founders really were.

I’m not here to argue Thomas Jefferson’s theological ideology.

But I did just spend ten days with Missionaries from all over Europe. Europe is the birthplace of the protestant reformation, and the home of the Catholic church. There are churches every ten feet, and monuments to Christian faith throughout. Many of these countries, if they don’t have an “official” state religion, they do have concessions for Christian religions in their constitutions and governmental accommodations for church operations. In Italy, it’s Catholicism, as in Spain. In Germany, it’s Lutheranism. In all cases, atheism is reigning supreme.

Nations in Europe have been moving away from “official state religion” status, but that has not separated the church from the state. And the result is that a mockery has been made of the church. There are religion classes taught in schools in Italy. But they are not taught by Christians. And they are ecumenical in teaching other religions alongside Christianity. Most people identify as “Catholic,” but have been to mass only a handful of times in their life. They openly admit they don’t believe it. But they’re still “Catholic.”

In Spain the Protestant Reformation never “took.” That means that neither did all it’s teachings of “Sola Scriptura,” or “Sola Fidei” (“Scripture alone” as our only rule for faith, and “Faith alone” as the way we are saved, in response to Catholicism’s teachings that one must obey certain “rites” to obtain the grace of salvation). So until 35 years ago, it was illegal to own a Bible. That means in the late 1970s, in an officially Christian (Catholic) state, owning the Bible was a crime. Thanks, state religion.

In Germany, the official church is Lutheran, and Priests are state employees. The priesthood is seen as a “civil servant” job, like a meter maid, or a social worker. Lutheran priests in Germany do not have any requirements on them to agree to any set of doctrine or beliefs. In many cases, they are openly atheistic, but found a job doing this church gig. One woman—a new Christian—told me of her struggle with not wanting to be seen as an “extremist” for being a part of a biblical church. And in order to join she had to go to the town hall to “de-register” with the Lutheran Church. How do you say “Big Brother” in German? To make matters worse, those churches are funded by the government, so no attendees need to give an offering (contrasted by non-Lutheran “free” churches, which operate on member giving). That sounds great until you consider Jesus’ teaching that our heart follows our wallet (Matthew 6:21), or Paul’s teaching about the “joy of giving” that was a commendable trait in many of the churches he founded (2 Cor 8:1 ff). These churches are being robbed of the joy of giving by being told there is no reason to give.

Many churches in Germany have over 3,000 on their register, yet average about 12 in attendance.

12.

That is not hyperbole (It’s not scientifically accurate, either. It is simply an observation). That is the stark reality of faith in Europe. A “Christian” continent.

This is the background for my skepticism about calling America “a Christian Nation.” First of all, it’s not. Not in the way that “Christian” nations have always been defined. There is a separation of church and state that was intended more to protect churches’ interests than anything else. We don’t have state-run churches that have no regard for what is taught, or who determine doctrine based on political benefits (we still have those denominations, they just aren’t run by the state). We don’t have churches that are under-funded because the message has been sent that the church will cover the bills. We don’t have to register as Christian at the Religious DMV.

But second—and perhaps more importantly—I have to question whether we should even desire for this to be a “Christian Nation.” I must imagine that this is a case where we should be careful what we wish for. State religion brings religious classes back in the schools, but those classes don’t need to be taught by Christians. And I would much rather my son or daughter learn to pray from myself, my wife, or our pastors, elders and friends, than some teacher who is covering it as a part of a public school curriculum. Sure, there are cultural Christians in America, who claim the name, Christian, but nothing else. But it is far less wide-spread than in Europe. Our government does not interfere with what churches can and cannot teach (not yet, anyway, regardless of what FoxNews says on the issue). State religion would mean that churches would be predominately one denomination and that statements of faith would largely be compulsively homogenous.

What we have is better than having a “Christian Nation.” I keep putting that in quotes because I think it is a misnomer. A nation cannot be Christian. There is nothing biblical (at least in the New Testament) about being a God’s People simply by citizenship in a nation. There is no such thing as a “Christian” nation, but rather there can be nations with high number of Christians. And that is the opportunity we have in America.

As a nation of Christians, we have the right to teach our own children biblical truths.

As a nation of Christians, we have the right to pray openly, even if we don’t get to compel others to pray with us.

As a nation of Christians, we have the opportunity to support churches and ministries without a large portion of that going to cover administrative costs for the “Department of Church” somewhere in our capitals.

As a nation of Christians, we have the right to raise our kids the way Deuteronomy 6 describes, rather than outsourcing spiritual growth to bureaucrats.

I am skeptical of America ever being labeled a “Christian” nation, but I am not against Christians taking a more fervent stand for what they believe in within its borders. Consider that the places where the church is growing the most are the nations most hostile to Christianity. Maybe that persecution acts as a refining fire that identifies who truly believes, when there is no worldly benefit for such a confession. Perhaps it is time that we spend less energy trying to establish a “Christian America,” and more energy being Christians in America.

Thanks for listening.

Simply Observed

These are just some simply observations I took from our trip. Just thoughts. Do with them what you will.

  • I don’t know how little cafe’s do enough business to stay open and pay the bills. Seriously, some of them seem to always be empty!
  • Seeing “Ausfahrt” on freeway signs is always good for a giggle. Always.
  • The Americans (a.k.a. our group) were almost always the loudest crowd anywhere we went, be it the cafeteria or the trails in the mountains.
  • Speaking of the mountains, there are few things on God’s earth more beautiful than mountains. I could have spent days upon days just admiring the majestic Alps.
  • Everyone else in the world speaks multiple languages. Mostly their own, and English. While that makes traveling easier (everyone can understand me!), it might be time for Americans to step up language studies.
  • For the most part, German food in Germany is pretty equitable to German food in America. There were some exceptions, but the real moral of the story is that German food is AWESOME.
  • Contrary to what I had heard from many people, every beer I saw or drank was cold, and not a single one was flat. It also was pretty much like beer here in the states.
  • The Labor Camp at Dachau is a chilling memorial. Evil exists, people.
  • Worshiping in “House Shoes” needs to take hold. Every morning and evening we worshiped in slippers and it was pretty cool. Comfortable and like family. Isn’t that how worship should feel with your brothers and sisters?
  • It’s pretty lame that you don’t get passport stamps when you travel between countries in the EU. Then again, it’s nice to not go through customs at every border.
  • Meat. Potatoes. Repeat.
  • “Parking lot” is a relative term. Any plot of land more than about 5×5 will have about 7 cars parked in it, unless marked otherwise.
  • Did I mention I love the mountains?

Any other observations from your own travels in different cultures? Leave them in the comments below!

Religion: A Relic

This little 12×12 ft (or 4m x 4m!) chapel was not far from where we stayed in Germany. We passed it almost every day. In much of Europe, Christianity is a relic of the past, and church buildings the memorials that honor that heritage. As we pondered this little chapel, we wondered, does it ever open? If so, who has the keys? Our suspicion is that it is just another architectural artifact. Fittingly, the inscription above the door reads:

“the Spirit, that hovered above the water,

the son that lived with fisherman,

the father who gave us this lake,

which were worshipped at this location.”

The Hills Are Alive!

Church in Mittenwald, GermanyI recently went on a mission trip to Germany. Yes, Germany. The land of the Protestant Reformation. And yes, mission trip. As in, working with missionaries who have devoted their lives to taking the gospel to those who live there.

While we weren’t doing evangelical ministry (we were primarily serving the missionaries), we had an opportunity to speak with many of them and pick their brains about what ministry looks like in Europe. 

There is so much I could say that one post just won’t cover it, so over the next week or two I will be sharing thoughts from our trip and observations about the landscape of Christianity in Europe.

1. The Hills are Alive!

2. A Camel, A Needle, and Religion in Europe