Dead stumps and a green shoot

At Revesby, we are navigating the season of Advent through the eyes of Isaiah.

Last week, we listened to Isaiah’s claim (Is.11:1-8) that a new shoot would grow from the stump of Jesse (Jesse was David’s father, and therefore a reference to the lineage of King David). Isaiah foresaw a new king who would execute justice based not on what he saw, but out of concern for the poor (whom society then, as now, rendered invisible).

It’s a grand promise, small and fragile but grand. Isaiah links it with imagery of utopia, ‘the wolf will lie down with the lamb and the calf with the lion.’

Can this emerge from one leader, one new shoot? Can a dead stump bring forth such vitality and hope?

A test case concerns the response of the German Church to the rule of Adolf Hitler.

When I explored this topic some years ago, I was dismayed that much of the German Church supported Hitler and often with great enthusiasm. A measure of relief came with the recognition that a small remnant, the Confessing Church, opposed him.

Recent reading has even called this green shoot into question. While the Confessing Church opposed several Nazi policies, it did so for its own sake, not out of concern for the poor (i.e. the Jews). The church tried to deflect Hitler’s interference in its internal operations.

In 1933, the Nazis passed a law purging Jews from the civil service. Some members of the church had Jewish ancestry, so a question arose as to how they, some of whom were pastors, should be regarded.

The ‘German Christians,’ supporters of Hitler, wanted all those with Jewish ancestry removed from positions of authority. The ‘Young Reformers’, who were forerunners of the Confessing Church, opposed this measure.

However, they remained silent about the brutal Nazi policies that affected all German Jews, regardless of whether they had converted to Christianity or not.

Sadly, Isaiah’s image of a dead stump is entirely applicable. It is very troubling.

The German Church, being a Protestant church, adhered to the doctrine of the two kingdoms. This doctrine, first promulgated by Martin Luther, asserted that faith entailed a double allegiance: to the state (guarantor of order in the political realm) and to the church (guarantor in the spiritual realm).

It resulted in uncritical and naive support for the state. During the Third Reich, this rendered the church blind to what the Nazis were doing.

There was one leader, one green shoot that sprang from this dead stump, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

He was not a ruler or widely recognised leader, but he understood the necessity of rethinking the doctrine of the two kingdoms. He perceived that faith in Christ urged action in the political realm on behalf of those against whom the state discriminated.

At enormous cost to himself, he re-imagined the world of faith, and acted upon it, joining the plot to assassinate Hitler.

This green shoot of hope lasted only a short time. Bonhoeffer was executed.

While his thought and the witness of his life continue to inspire many, a big question remains.

Hitler’s rule led to the death of six million Jews and twenty million Russians. Bonhoeffer and his fellow conspirators were unable to prevent it.

Is the emergence of one green shoot enough?