Early last month I returned from an 11-day tour through Germany and Austria. It was interesting and exciting to be where Martin Luther lived and taught and preached, to stand by the Brandenburg Gate where the Berlin Wall no longer stood, to visit Salzburg sites where “The Sound of Music” was filmed and to see the grand palaces and monuments of imperial Vienna.
Of course, there were sobering sights as well — the huge field of rectangular granite stones like sarcophagi that was the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, the bombed remains of the Kaiser Wilhelm Church and the reminder that many of these beautiful buildings were actually wholly reconstructed after World War II, the first Nazi concentration camp outside Dachau a short way from Munich.
Two centuries ago the Irish statesman Edmund Burke said, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” As we toured the museum at Dachau we saw the fate of many good men who did do something against Hitler in the early years, but were imprisoned and killed for their efforts. Yet it gave me pause that in a land of so much art and culture and beauty, the home of Luther, St. Elizabeth, Goethe, Schiller, Bach, Beethoven, there were too many “good” men and women who did little or nothing, who even welcomed the regime which eventually brought violent destruction upon themselves and their country, along with huge swaths of the nations and peoples of Europe.
We’d like to think the horror that was Nazi Germany would never appear again, but while the scale is not always as vast, oppressive regimes, terrorist assaults, ethnic hatred and genocidal atrocities continue to be a bitter reality in our world — sometimes even in lands of similar art and culture and beauty.
One of Luther’s great teachings is that humans are “simultaneously saint and sinner” — we are fallen creatures often drawn by our baser desires and only made holy before God by his grace in Christ. Luther himself embodied that paradox, being a man of deep theological insight and great love for family, friends and the poor, but also a man of vicious temper toward his opponents and pervaded with the bigotries of his day, including against the Jews.
Whether we reflect on our Christian legacy, the history of our nation or our personal heritage, we will find much that is beautiful and rich, and we will see things that rightly cause us shame and distress. Simultaneously saint and sinner, may we acknowledge our ongoing brokenness before God in order to receive forgiveness and renewal, and by Christ’s grace may we evermore become the good men and women that God intends us to be so that evil does not triumph in our hearts, our community or our world, and that God’s holy purposes may be fulfilled for all peoples.
Yours in Faith, Pastor Jeff Jacobs