Mark Johnson, the Executive Director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, met with Circles of Peace members in Tuscaloosa earlier this year. The conversation was a lengthy and interesting one; I hope to have the entire transcription available online soon. Until then, here is an excerpt from the conversation:
John Cooper: I feel that Christians are largely culpable for World War II also because if Christians had followed the principles of loving one another and the principles of Jesus Christ and they were, in fact, two supposedly Christian nations fighting and killing each other. Christians in Germany, Christians in the United States, as well as other faiths, did the same thing. I would say that our hands are not clean and we need to repent of our attitudes of supporting war and violence.
Mirza Beg: That is true for all religions. Actually, more people of the same faith have killed each other than persons of one faith killing persons of another faith. Nobody’s hands are clean in that regard.
Michael Fox: We should point out also the German hostility to religion, in particular to Christianity. They were rapidly discarding Christianity at the time of the rise of Hitler. I’m not necessarily sure its fair to say Germans were Christians fighting other Christians.
Things had changed by the time Hitler had risen to power and invaded Poland. I would like to fine-tune the doctor’s question. Granted, were certain ideas in place and certain powers at the time, Hitler could have been prevented. But I believe the question was more about if those ideas hadn’t been tried, or even if they had not been, what you do when you meet the reality of a Hitler. Not how to prevent a Hitler from arising, but dealing with a Hitler that has arisen.
Mark Johnson: I think there is an important context for that question as well because we tend to live in the past as if some of these problems were no longer with us. The fact of the matter is more Africans have been killed in the last ten or twenty years through genocide than people killed in all of the second World War. We continue to use practices that are horrendous and horrible and so we’re still confronted with that question today. There are leaders who are responsible for those deaths. In fact, one of the more interesting questions is-- How is it possible that a small number of individuals are able to shape the response of masses of people, to draw machetes and kill their brothers and sisters and wives and pastors and so on?
Another answer is the answer that Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave-- that when you’re faced by inexorable evil, some people are called to sin. Bonhoeffer chose to return to Germany and join a plot to assassinate Hitler and he knew that was a violation of God’s will, that it was a sin. In a salvationist sense, he would go to hell. But that was his choice to make. I heard an interesting and challenging argument the other evening in a circle like this in Washington, DC by a socialist who was arguing that the only reason that pacifists are present in the conversation, that nonviolence is in the discussion, is because of the threat of violence of others in those cultures-- that they provide the cover for pacifism or nonviolence. A challenging thesis.... a sort of chicken-and-egg kind of thesis. I’m acknowledging that the question has concrete experiences but it’s still hypothetical, especially retroactively in terms of someone like Hitler. And Bonhoeffer gave the answer.