Saying yes to God demands saying no to injustice

October 26, 2022

German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in 1938, welcomed confirmands – usually fourteen-year-olds – into the full membership of his congregation. Try to imagine what fourteen-year-olds are like: freshly minted teens who are no longer children but not yet adults. They are struggling with their identity, appearance, acceptance, and ideas or worries about their future. They are developing interests in sports, music, art, and hobbies. Friends and peers appear always in the forefront of their minds. And then, there is their commitment to religion. I asked a colleague what it was like to teach fourteen-year-olds. He replied, “When you go to a fish market and look down and see those fish lined up on the ice with their mouths open and their eyes bulging out… that’s what it feels like when you begin teaching fourteen-year-olds in church.”

Think about what it would have felt like to be a fourteen-year-old in Germany in the 1930s as the Nazi party was spewing hate and lies and Adolf Hitler was rising in popularity and power. Kids that age were being “persuaded” to join the Hitler Youth – the Hitlerjugend, or HJ, the Nazi-organized youth movement. To his young people joining the church that morning, Bonhoeffer gave them this charge:

“Faith is a decision. We cannot avoid that. ‘You cannot serve two masters’ [Matt. 6:24], from now on either you serve God alone or you do not serve God at all. Now you only have one Lord, who is the Lord of the world, who is the Savior of the world, who is the one who creates the world anew. To serve God is your highest honor. But to this Yes to God belongs an equally clear No. Your Yes to God demands your No to all injustice, to all evil, to all lies, to all oppression and violation of the weak and the poor, to all godlessness and mocking of the Holy. Your Yes to God demands a brave No to everything that will ever hinder you from serving God alone, whether it be your profession, your property, your house, your honor before the world.” 

Your Yes to God demands your No to all injustice, evil, lies, oppression, violation of the weak and the poor. In Nazi Germany, that could lead to a death sentence for these fourteen-year-olds. It did for their pastor, who was hanged on April 9, 1945, one month before Germany surrendered. These youth witnessed injustice, oppression, and violation of Jews and many others at every turn. And lies? Lies were the stock-in-trade of the leading politicians.

Against the backdrop of Nazi Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer charged his youngest new church members that “Your Yes to God demands your No to all injustice, to all evil, to all lies, to all oppression and violation of the weak and the poor, to all godlessness and mocking of the Holy.”

There have been politicians in our time, some in the highest offices, who trade in the stocks of lies. It is almost as though their mantra is: tell them a lie, make it a big lie, repeat it often, and in time they will believe it. That mantra did not originate with our politicians, but comes straight from the playbook of Hitler and his supporters. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was the intelligence agency of the United States during World War II. The OSS psychological profile of Hitler described his use of the big lie: “His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.” In other words, if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.

It was against this backdrop that Bonhoeffer charged his youngest new church members to respond “…no to all injustice, to all evil, to all lies, to all oppression and violation of the weak and the poor, to all godlessness and mocking of the Holy.” To do so for us is a challenge, but for young people then, standing with and speaking for those on the margins of society, or saying no to the big lie, required strength beyond their own and their total commitment to God, which could come at a high price.

Total commitment is what Jesus was seeking from the young man who came to him to ask, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The story is provided in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Mark gives an unusual and amazing detail: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’” (Mark 10:21). Why does it say that Jesus loved him? That is rare. It is the only time the gospels say anything like that. What is going on behind the scenes here? Answer: Jesus is about to extend to this young man the greatest invitation on earth, to become one of his chosen disciples. Jesus is going to say “Come, follow me” just like he did to Peter, Andrew, James, John, Bartholomew, Thaddeus, Thomas, and the others. Jesus loved him and saw the potential he had to become a child of promise… to fulfill his destiny.

The young man, had he accepted, would have been #13. There is nothing to say that Jesus must recruit an even dozen. Had this man accepted, he would have witnessed Jesus heal, raise the dead, and change hearts of stone to hearts of flesh. He might have authored a gospel. History would have forever recorded his name and enshrined him in stained glass windows. Children for centuries would have learned his name in church school, sermons would have been preached about him, hymns might have been written about him, legends would be told about his works, and he would have had one of the rarest opportunities on planet earth to apprentice himself to the Son of God. Jesus saw in him the potential of what could be… and Jesus loved him.

But the young man could not make a total commitment. Mark reports: “He went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” The young man’s whole life led up to this apex. But he couldn’t do it. He just couldn’t make that last leap of faith. You could imagine Jesus and the disciples watching him turn and walk away, their gaze sadly lingering as he walked down the path and away from a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

When Jesus told the young man “You lack one thing,” he was speaking specifically to this young man and not to you. What Jesus told him is unique. Jesus does not require a pledge of poverty or giving everything away in order to follow him. This was a specific prescription for a specific patient. But could you imagine Jesus saying to you, “You lack one thing” because something you choose comes between you and following God with all of your heart and mind? What kinds of other things besides money or possessions might block people from wholeheartedly following Jesus? Is it possible that one thing a follower of Jesus might lack is the ability to say “no to all injustice, to all evil, to all lies, to all oppression and violation of the weak and the poor, to all godlessness and mocking of the Holy?” To Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that is what is demanded even from young teens as they commit to joining the church, a consequence of their saying yes to God.

We thank God for pardoning us when we fail and continuing to embrace us as beloved children of God, but that does not lessen our Christian calling to always be prepared to say no to injustice and to the oppression of any person, no exceptions.

Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.”

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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