Those rare stories of individuals who risked their lives to oppose the Nazi agenda show what might have happened in Germany, had more Christians “played in tune” with the teaching of Jesus.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of those opponents. From the beginning of Hitler’s rule, he spoke out against the government’s extreme nationalism, aggressive foreign policy, and treatment of the Jews.
He would eventually become implicated in a plot to assassinate the Führer – and pay for it with his life.
The story of Bonhoeffer and of the wider German church in the 1930s and 1940s offers striking answers to the question: What happens when Christians cosy up to power? And what happens when they exercise power for the benefit of others, as Jesus commanded?
Jesus consistently taught his disciples a radical ethic of humility: those in charge were to serve the lowly and put the needs of others above their own. His teaching that “the first will be last and the last will be first” represented the upending of social hierarchies – and in the highly stratified culture of the ancient world, it was almost incomprehensible.
In the end, it wasn’t just what Jesus taught that transformed Western culture’s understanding of humility from merely humiliation to a sought-after virtue. It was his crucifixion.
Today we take it for granted that humility is a good thing, and are mostly suspicious of arrogance and self-promotion. We admire those who wear their power lightly and lower themselves for the good of others.
In this, we’ve been deeply influenced by the “humility revolution” that Jesus started.
What happened when “Christian” Europe began to extend its influence globally, in the age of conquest, and colonialism? Do we see humble service … or naked power?
The stereotype of the colonial missionary is far from positive. But surprising links between Christian missions and the health of nations today are borne out both by research and by the lives of individuals like William Carey.
Christianity’s place in our world is highly contested. For some, it represents an oppressive past – a nightmare we need to wake up from. For others, it’s just a phase of history, soon to be forgotten.
But many believe it’s the source of some of the things we love most in Western culture.
Whether we're talking about the human tendency to violence, the value of the individual, charity, or the uses of power, Jesus wrote a beautiful tune: “Do to others as you would have them do to you”, “Blessed are the peacemakers”, “Love your enemies” – a message he literally embodied in his own death.
When Christians have played out of tune, the results have been disastrous.
But when they’ve followed in Jesus’ footsteps – played the tune well – that’s shaped our world in ways we can all be glad of.
The more of that kind of Christianity, the better.