Of what use are the the ancient (and not-so-ancient) creeds of the church in the twenty-first century? In late 2019 and early 2020 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at how some of these historic documents, many of which have their origin in some historic church fights, can be helpful in our attempts to walk with Jesus. On February 9, we entered the 20th Century and engaged with the authors of Theological Declaration of Barmen written in Germany in the 1934. We listened to the creed while referring to Psalm 62 and I Peter 2:13-17.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:
As I was growing up, a familiar part of the school experience was the air raid drill. Every now and then, there would be an announcement or a bell, and we’d be expected to kneel underneath our desks making sure that our fingers interlaced over the backs of our necks, protecting our vulnerable spinal columns. We did this because there was always a chance, we knew, that the Communists in the Soviet Union were out to get us. I remember hearing that if the Reds launched the nukes, that we’d be in the first strike zone. It was easy to believe, as I watched the warships steaming down the Delaware river from the Philadelphia Naval Yard, and when most of my classmates’ dads went to work for DuPont every day.
There was a prevailing climate of fear, anger, and uncertainty. I was told, however, and I accepted as fact, the notion that the government would keep me safe. During the same time, I heard a lot about a war that we were fighting in a place called Vietnam. I didn’t understand everything, but if we were fighting the Commies there, that meant that they wouldn’t come to Delaware to get me, so that was all right with me.
Every couple of months, we all went down to the auditorium and watched a rocket blast off in what was known as the “space race”. Again, I didn’t know much about what was happening, but I knew that it was pretty important that we be the first to get to the moon and claim it for our side, so that the Reds didn’t wind up using it for evil purposes.
I understood much of my life, in those days, as being “us vs. them”, or good vs. bad. It was simple, and uncomplicated.
In 1987, not long after our marriage, Sharon and I were given a European vacation. Did we want to go to Paris? Rome? London? Nope. We traveled behind what was known as “the Iron Curtain”. We went behind the Berlin Wall into East Germany, through communist Poland, and visited a good bit of the Soviet Union. I was told that it was foolhardy, or stupid, or dangerous. People who loved me were nervous.
And I’m here to tell you that it was an amazing trip. There were aspects of it that were quite difficult, of course. I was stunned by some of what we saw: the lack of personal choice, the pockets of poverty we encountered. And yet I was surprised by the joy that we discovered. I will not forget the woman who gave us plums from the farmer’s market outside of Moscow, or the man who kept trying to buy me shot after shot of cheap vodka in the city that was known then as Leningrad. While visiting a town called Novgorod, we saw a statue commemorating the 1000th anniversary of Christianity in Russia.
Contrary to the expectations that I had developed a decade or two earlier, I did not encounter a single person who appeared intent on murdering me. My experience was the opposite of that which I expected.
I’m telling you that because those are the lenses through which I approach the theme of our worship today. As I hope you recall, we are considering some of the historical documents and creeds that make up the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Book of Confessions. Today, we leave ancient history behind and enter into some of the 20th century statements of faith and we will consider the Theological Declaration of Barmen.
When World War I ended with the Treaty of Versailles, the nation of Germany had been humbled, to say the least. The spirit of the people had been crushed, and the allies demanded war reparations to the tune of $33 billion. In addition, the victors imposed a new government on the German people and curtailed that nation’s ability to defend itself. One British official summed it up by saying, “We shall squeeze the German lemon until the pips squeak.”
Life in post-war Germany was miserable as the economy plummeted and people suffered. The exchange rate was as high as 4 billion German Marks to a single U.S. dollar. People needed a wheelbarrow full of currency simply to buy a loaf of bread.
A young veteran of WWI, who had been wounded in the trenches, began speaking out across Germany. He ridiculed the politicians for accepting the terms of Versailles, and he began to blame “outsiders” like communists and Jews for his nation’s troubles. “If we get rid of THEM,” he said, “there will be prosperity and security for US.”
By 1933 this young man, named Adolf Hitler, had been named Chancellor of Germany. In short order, he outlawed all political parties but his own. He replaced the judicial system, abolished civil rights, purged the universities, attacked the labor unions, and increased the size of the German army. And he did all of that with the support of Christians in Germany.
Emboldened by the support of church leaders, Hitler appointed a “State Commissioner” of the church. The German Christian Church had a national convention, the theme of which was “The State of Adolf Hitler Appeals to the Church, and the Church has to Hear His Call.”
Most Germans accepted this cocktail of nationalism, militarism, and Christianity. They came to see patriotism and Christian truth as interchangeable, and the churches of Germany predicted that the government of National Socialism would restore order, bring justice, increase prosperity, and make Germany safe for Germans again.
From May 29 – 31, 1934 a group of 139 representatives from various churches around Germany gathered in the Gemarke Church in the Barmen district of the city of Wupperthal. This courageous group drafted an appeal to German Christians to stand against any attempt to link the church of Jesus Christ to the Nazi regime. They asked the church to remember and affirm the fact that God, not Hitler, ruled the world. Their document contained a series of six propositions, based on scripture, that rejected the false claims of the German Christians and pointed to the centrality of Jesus Christ in and over all of life.
The primary author of the declaration, Karl Barth, and his colleagues recognized that in identifying with the Nazi Party, the church would not be influencing the political realm; it would be the exact opposite. The government would overwhelm the church and the political party would dictate to the church her practices, beliefs, and values.
This document, therefore, is comprised of a call for Christians to remember that Jesus of Nazareth is the sole authority for the church, and any relationship that the church has must be understood in light of the primacy of Jesus. The Theological Declaration of Barmen was, then, a call for the church to stand firm against idolatry.
Idolatry? Do you mean praying to statues or worshiping false gods like Baal or Molech? Isn’t that kind of Old-Testamenty? We don’t do that. In fact, the Germans weren’t doing that. Why is this relevant to us?
Because idolatry is not merely praying to a totem pole or trusting a little carving to save you or your crops when times get rough. Idolatry is when a person twists the order of creation and winds up trusting something that is NOT God to have or use powers that are reserved FOR God.
The Barmen Declaration stood in opposition to the German Christians who said, essentially, “Well, you know, personally I don’t think that I like Hitler, but, well, the economy is doing better and the streets are safer. Let’s be honest, you can’t argue with results.”
The theological problem was that many contemporary Germans began to look to the German government to offer, define, and provide security, freedom, success, and identity for themselves. When they did that, they put the State in the place of the Lord.
Author Ralph Waldo Emerson had warned about this a couple of generations earlier. He said, “That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our life and our character Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshiping we are becoming.”
The people of Israel, who knew something about being down and out and longing for safety and security, sang the Psalm that you heard earlier: “Only God can save me, and I calmly wait for him. God alone is the mighty rock that keeps me safe and the fortress where I am secure.”
The first Christians, who knew something about being persecuted and hunted and being at risk, heard their Pastor, Peter the Apostle, say, “Love and respect everyone; fear God, honor the government, and love your neighbor.” Don’t give to the Emperor that which belongs to God or your neighbor.
The church always needs to be reminded of the truth that comes through the words of Barmen. When we confuse the Gospel with the government, that’s idolatry. When we look to some aspect of creation to fill the role that belongs rightfully to the Creator, that’s idolatry. When we view other people as less than we, as threats to our own personhood, or as worthy of extermination, that’s the fruit of idolatry.
Listen: if you buy a gun to go hunting, or to shoot skeet, or because you think it might deter crime, that is using a weapon as a tool. But if you buy a gun because you trust that gun to make you secure and to bring you safety and peace, then you’re not treating that weapon as a tool – you are asking that tool to give you something (peace and security) that is only God’s to give.
Tomorrow we choose to provide Universal Health Care, or adopt Medicare for all, but that would not cure cancer or prevent HIV or the Coronavirus. We could build a forty-foot wall around the entire country, that will not bring us safety.
Asking one party, one person, to lead people like “us” to a promised land of prosperity, peace and security at someone else’s expense is a no-win scenario. It is idolatrous.
Frederick Backman is a Swedish novelist who tells the truth in amazing ways. In a recent book, he observes,
Everyone is a hundred different things, but in other people’s eyes we usually get the chance to be only one of them…The truth about most people is as simple as it is unbearable: we rarely want what is best for everyone; we mostly want what’s best for ourselves…It’s so easy to get people to hate one another. That’s what makes love so impossible to understand. Hate is so simple that it always ought to win.
The Theological Declaration of Barmen points us to the singularity of Christ and his pre-eminence in the world. In this letter from our German brothers 80 years ago, we are reminded that our first duty is obedience to God, and that our expression of that obedience is love – Love of God and love for each other; love that equips us to seek the best for our neighbor.
We, the congregation of the First United Presbyterian Church of Crafton Heights, as God’s people gathered in this place at this time are called to look to God as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth to lead us to a way of life that recognizes our interdependence, that refuses to “other” or demonize anyone, and that forms us to serve our neighbor as God in Christ has served us.
We can do this, of course, without retreating from the world. We can and should vote. We can and should advocate for strategies that we believe will bring healing and hope. Yet in the same breath we acknowledge that we trust that God is the author of ours and every story, and that the way to hope and healing is not the destruction or the removal of the neighbor, but rather the recognition of our neighbor as one who belongs to God no less than we.
One of the men who contributed to the writing of the Barmen Declaration was a Lutheran Pastor named Martin Niemöller. Several years after the declaration was made, he was arrested by Hitler’s agents and spent most of World War II in a concentration camp. He is best remembered for having said,
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Beloved of God, let us hold fast to our position as God’s own children, and let us commit ourselves to reminding our neighbors that each of them is beloved as we. There is no “us against them.” There is only us. Therefore, may we use our voices and our energy to speak and live truthfully, kindly, and in pursuit of justice and healing, looking to God alone as the arbiter of truth. May we have the wisdom to trust in God, and the courage to risk ourselves for love. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Quoted in James Atwood, America and Its Guns: A Theological Expose (Cascade Books 2012), p. 23.
 Us Against You (Simon and Schuster, 2018), pp 34, 218, 463.
 Niemöller used many different versions of this basic thought in his later life and speaking. This is the version that is printed at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/martin-niemoeller-first-they-came-for-the-socialists