This article was originally published in 40 days of Repentance: A Companion Guide to The LIST – Persecution of Jews by Christians Throughout History. To learn more about this subject, visit The Nations 9th of Av at https://9-av.com/.
We need museums to teach us what we do not know and to reveal to us what we should have known. The Virginia War Museum in Newport News did that for me. This institution exists to educate the public about the American military experience and to honor those who have borne the burdens of it. Its exhibits cover every phase of my birth nation’s conflicts from the Revolutionary War to the Global War on Terrorism, but as one might expect, many of those exhibits are devoted to the Second World War.
The disturbing thing about all wars, including World War II, is that they never bring permanent solutions to anything. The same evils overcome in one generation take shape again in the next, requiring renewed effort to keep them at bay. The evils overcome in the Great Patriotic War, as our erstwhile Soviet allies called it, were not foreign to us. They were, and remain, an integral part of the civilization the Allies struggled to preserve.
One exhibit made that abundantly clear to me. In a well-illuminated display case there hung the tunic of a German soldier. The buckle of the belt fastened around the tunic depicted an eagle of the Third Reich grasping in its claws the swastika of Hitler’s National Socialist Party. That was not surprising, but the inscription above the eagle was a surprise. In capital letters it proclaimed boldly –
GOTT MIT UNS
“Gott mit uns” means “God with us.” German soldiers have worn it on their uniforms for three centuries, long before the Prussian kings began uniting the separate German states into the cohesive empire that eventually became the instrument of Nazi aggression. The Third Reich had ample reason to continue the tradition, not only for many of its soldiers, but also for certain civil servants. Adolf Hitler, after all, believed he was doing the work of God in creating space for God’s “master race” to rule the world. Such work required the enslavement or elimination of all those who were considered lesser beings according to Hitler’s ideology: Communists, homosexuals, Gypsies, Slavs. . .
. . . and especially Jews.
Jews of Germany understood the inscription on the belts of police officers who enforced the decrees that robbed them of life, liberty, and property. Jews of Poland and Russia had no trouble deciphering Gott mit uns on the belts of soldiers who rounded them up and marched them away to an uncertain fate. Jews of France, Holland, Greece, and Italy would have recognized the message as Wehrmacht soldiers handed them off to SS Totenkopf (Death Head) units that staffed the camps where their lives became solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
What would those Jews have been thinking? Some surely wondered which god these Nazis thought was with them. That this was a Christian God seemed to be certain. The Germans were, after all, Christians. Protestants and Catholics alike embraced Nazism. Many of those same soldiers and policemen who efficiently eliminated 6,000,000 Jews faithfully attended church and chapel services, and almost all of them enjoyed the festivities of Christmas. The Christian God, then, was the one served by those who sought to make themselves masters of the earth over the bones of Jews and other supposedly lesser beings.
Why do we wonder that Jews have a hard time accepting the Christian message? If Christians – even nominal or cultural Christians – like the soldiers of the Third Reich did what they did in the belief that their crimes faithfully served their God, why would any Jew want to have anything to do with that God? If the experience of the Shoa (Holocaust) was the only evidence they had, then it follows that Jews might perceive the Jesus those German soldiers praised on Sunday must be a cruel god indeed, or perhaps a demon from hell.
Gott mit uns. God with us.
How arrogant. How dare they believe God would sanction such crimes? Surely the Nazi era was an anomaly. No other Christian nation would do such things. Surely none would believe that God’s chosen people, the Jews, would be so deserving of His anger that they should be eliminated from the face of the earth. Surely the Germans were led astray. It could never happen to anyone else. Or could it? The sad truth is that the same refrain, “God with us,” echoes through the corridors of history.
God with us –
– on the lips of Crusaders marching under the banner of the cross, ravaging Jewish communities across Europe long before they ever set eyes on the Holy Land.
God with us –
– in the minds of Inquisition agents searching for Jewish houses in the cities of Spain. It was easy. Since the Torah prohibited Jews from kindling a flame on the Sabbath, all they had to do was wait until Saturday and look for the smokeless chimneys. Once identified, the Jews were given opportunity to embrace the Savior. If they refused, the best fate they might hope for would be deportation. Even descendants of Jews who converted were not immune. Those who aspired to a privileged position in society required a certificate of limpieza de sangre (purity of blood) to prove several generations of Christian heritage. Unwary applicants might find, to their horror, that they had a Jewish grandfather, making them subject to the mercies of the Inquisition courts.
God with us –
– in the decrees of Christian kings across Europe as they expelled Jews from their realms. Spain, England, France, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Hungary, Austria, Lithuania, Holland, Portugal, and the German states all did so. After, of course, expropriating whatever Jewish wealth might be available to aid the crown in its “divine work.”
God with us –
– moving the hands of Russian Orthodox magistrates as they authorized pogroms that made the Motherland uninhabitable for the Czar’s Jewish subjects.
God with us –
– in the hearts of American Protestants as they excluded Jews from their professional organizations and social clubs, insulted them with derisive jokes and demeaning names, and complained fearfully about Jewish bankers who supposedly controlled the world’s wealth. It’s not that these American Christians objected to the blessings of Jewish achievements. They appreciated the financial innovations of Marcus Goldman and Samuel Sachs, the scientific advances of Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer, and the creativity of George Gershwin and Leonard Nimoy. It wasn’t so bad that they were Jewish, but it would have been better if they could have been Jewish somewhere else.
Come to think of it, the German Nazi experience was not so unique after all. We might think of it more correctly as the culmination of two millennia of Christian holy arrogance. Such arrogance seems to have overlooked the solemn word of God:
“If the heavens above can be measured
And the foundations of the earth searched out below,
Then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel
For all that they have done,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 31:37 NASB)
If God can break His promises to the Jewish people, and to the rest of scattered Israel, then what prevents Him from breaking His promises to Christians? How, then, do we dare presume that we act for God by relegating Jews to the status of lesser human beings?
Or what do we make of these words of our Savior, the Messiah of Israel?
They will make you outcasts from the synagogue, but an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God. These things they will do because they have not known the Father or Me. (John 16:2-3 NASB)
It is customary to consider this as a prophecy of persecutions coming upon Christians, but we rarely consider that these words were spoken by a Jew to His Jewish disciples. Did He, perhaps, have in mind the persecutions that would happen to all His Father’s covenant people, Jewish and non-Jewish alike?
Do we truly desire to heal this breach between Christians and Jews? If so, the first thing we should do is to let our Heavenly Father restructure our thinking. It is, after all, His Kingdom we profess to serve. Perhaps He should have the last word about who is in it.
Repentance prayer ~ Our Father and our King, truly the revelation of Yeshua (Jesus) the Messiah is an awesome gift You have given. Your prophet Isaiah identifies Him as Immanuel, God With Us (Isaiah 7:14). The redemption of all Israel and the world through Him is the greatest message of life. Yet we who profess His Name have all too often turned the message of “God with us” into an authorization to persecute those we should be embracing and honoring. Forgive us, Father, for our arrogance. We do not understand how Your mercy and grace work with our Jewish brethren, but the testimony of history demonstrates that You are not finished with them. Judgment belongs only to You. We want to leave it in Your hands, and instead be Your instruments of peace and reconciliation. Help us, Father. We ask in the Name of Yeshua, Amen.