PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Our Bonhoeffer Moment

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  — George Santayana

Living as we are, in a time of extremes, it becomes  easy to fail to see the incremental steps in history.  Shortly after Donald Trump was elected, people started making comparisions to Nazi Germany and the discussion became immediately polarized.

From a historical perspective, as awful as the actions of this administration have been, it is unfair to compare them to the atrocities of 6 million Jews murdered in extermination camps or to the incursions into Poland that led to the start of World War II.

However, the rise of the Third Reich did not begin with those acts of aggression and mass extermination. They ended with them when Adolf Hitler’s power went unchecked.

There were key moments along the way, as people became marginalized and isolated through hateful rhetoric and as the German government ceded power to the duly appointed chancellor of Germany.

The “turning point” in Hitler’s rise to power, moving from the chancellor and leader of the Nazi party to dictator, was March 23, 1933 when the German legislative body, the Reichstag, passed the Enabling Act. The Enabling Act allowed the Reich to issue laws without the consent of Germany’s parliament, laying the foundation for the complete Nazification of German society.

One of the most important things that occurred in the aftermath of its passage, which only happened because minority members of the parliament were kept from voting by being detained or intimidated, was the silence of judiciary in condemning, or even questioning, the legitimacy of the act.

German judges and the Supreme Court did not challenge the law. They viewed Hitler’s government as legitimate and continued to regard themselves as state servants whose primary allegiance was to Chancellor Hitler.

The judiciary and the legislative bodies ceded their control and left Hitler and his accomplices to enact their agenda of hate and destruction unchecked.

As all of this transpired, the German Church was also being co-opted to become the German Christian Church, which was used to support the ideologocial principles of the Nazi party, with its nationalistic, xenophobic, racist ideals, looking the other way in the face of hate and instead embracing power.

It was during this time that the Confessing Church began, a small group of Protestant pastors who were willing to risk all to repudiate the hatred spewed by Hitler and stand firm in the Gospel that sees Jesus as Lord, who cares for the marginalized, the despired and the rejected. The Barmen Declaration in 1934 became their principle document, claiming the sovereignty of Christ over a state religion.

One of the leaders in the Confessing Church was a young German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a man of incredible integrity and conviction who could have fled to safety in the United States and taken the easy way out in the face of the rise of totalitarianism.

Instead, he chose to remain in Germany and fight for what he knew to be right, eventually being executed in Flossenburg Concentration Camp only days before it was liberated.

Bonhoeffer faced a time when he needed to make a decision about which side he was on and whether he was going to remain silent or if he was willing to be bold and do the right thing, which was also the hard thing, and take a stand against Hitler.

Right now, we as a nation are facing our own “Bonhoeffer moment.” Will we remain silent and take the path of least resistance or will we speak truth to power and take the risks that are necessary to ensure that we remain a democratic nation.

Are we where Germany was in 1938, as war broke out? Absolutely not. Comparing us to that is not helpful or historically accurate. However, we need to reflect on the incremental nature of what took Germany from where it was in 1933 to where it was in 1938.

In the past week, as Trump was acquitted in the U.S. Senate, we are seeing actions that make it apparent that he sees what happened in the impeachment hearings as his own “enabling act.”

He is clearly out for vengeance against anyone he perceives as his enemies and is determined to clear the path for those who committed crimes to allow him to gain power. He has attacked not only the prosecutors of his friends but also the judge and the forewoman of the jury who convicted Roger Stone, a grievous and heinous affront to our justice system.

In addition, he used a bipartisan National Prayer Breakfast to invoke his own brand of religion while eschewing the core teachings of Jesus, to “love your enemies and do good to those who hate you,” in what could be considered a blasphemous affront to the Gospel.

This is all made the more disturbing by the fact that he is using the Justice Department as his own personal agency of vengeance and mercy, rewarding his loyalists and punishing his perceived enemies.

These are not the actions of a democratic state. This is the beginning of a totalitarian reign. The guardrails come off when we no longer have a free and fair judiciary that promotes justice without fear or favor.

Over the past few years, so much has become normalized that it is hard to see one “hair on fire” moment from another, but make no mistake, the events of the past week reveal that we are in a new era, an era where the elected leader is seeking to consolidate power without restraint to rule the nation in what is in his own personal best interest, not our national interests.

The frog in the pot that has been slowly warming up is boiling now and we can look the other way at our own peril.

We each need to face our own “Bonhoeffer Moment.”  Are we going to remain silent, or are we going to be transformed and be bold.

No one knew on March 24, 1933, what would result from the Enabling Act, but the silence of those who could make a difference in preventing the further rise of a totalitarian power spoke volumes.

Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Time and again, history has proven that, and today, we stand at a crossroads, where it is apparent that absolute power is being sought, and there is no question it will corrupt even further an already unscrupulous administration.

What we do and how we respond now will also speak volumes as to whether we let history repeat itself.

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