A German Lutheran reflects on Remembrance Day in Canada

by Christian Schreiner, Dean of the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Québec

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
(Laurence Binyon)

Every year, we meet here at the Cathedral, at Christ Church Valcartier, and at many many other places across the country, to remember them. We read the names of those who have died, those who had to lay down their lives in the wars of the 20th century.

We remember – and we say “Never again”, again and again. They had to die – because we failed. Humanity failed. They had to die because war had become the only solution. And we need to ask: WHY? How did it come to this – that young Canadians had to cross the Atlantic Ocean and die on the battlefields in Belgium, France and Germany.

My grandfather on my mother’s side, as a very young man, received the highest military honours as a parachutist in the German Army. The tragedy of his life was, of course, that, once the war was over, he understood that he had been on the wrong side. That, in a way, his greatest achievements had been worth nothing. For many years he did not dare talk about the war, at least not with his children. He feared they would judge him, despise him.

And then there was my grandfather on my father’s side. He was the only “Pastor Schreiner” before me, as far as our ancestry records show. He was born in 1903, and in the early 1930s, when Hitler was elected Chancellor, my grandfather served at a German Lutheran Parish in Liverpool, England. Funny how we Pastor Schreiners have an inclination for ministry abroad…

At the time, there was another young German Lutheran Pastor serving as a pastor in two German-speaking churches in London: the German Lutheran Church in Dacres Road, Sydenham, and the German Reformed Church of St Paul’s, Goulston Street, Whitechapel. His name was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The two German expats met, and they exchanged letters. They discussed what was going on in Germany, and how the church should deal with the new government.

My grandfather tried to convince Bonhoeffer to keep calm; he trusted the authorities, he trusted his beloved Bavarian church. Bonhoeffer, on the other hand, was greatly disturbed and tried to get an ecumenical movement going to help keep the church out of the control of the new regime.

My grandfather was not a Nazi. He never sided with the National Socialists. As a matter of fact, he managed to stay away from Germany, with his family, for many years, while serving parishes in Cairo and later in Rotterdam. According to my father, he actively opposed the Nazis while serving in Cairo, from 1936 to 1939 – which got him into some trouble.

The question that Bonhoeffer discussed with my grandfather is still an important one! What do we do, as Christians, when we see the signs of something going terribly wrong? Do we keep calm – or do we cry out? I, for one, eager to avoid conflict, would probably have agreed with my grandfather.

But Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: “Only he who cries [out] for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant.”

Bad things are happening right now in the United States. Last Wednesday, a US-citizen of Indian origin, when filling up his car at a gas station, was yelled at by a group of young men: “Time to leave the country, Apu!”, they shouted.

Hundreds of these incidents have been reported over the last few days. And there is no reason for Canadians to be smug about this. Only 2 years ago, we had the terrible discussion here about the Quebec Charter of Values – during which dozens of Muslim women were attacked in Montreal and elsewhere.

Only he who cries [out] for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant.

Only if we speak up, if we take a stand for those in need of our help, for Muslims, for members of the LGBT community, for refugees – the list goes on!  – only then should we be allowed to say our liturgies, sing our Anglican psalms.

Martin Niemöller, a friend of Bonhoeffer’s, was a founding member of the Confessing Church, a small remnant of the Protestant church in Germany that resisted government control. He wrote this famous poem:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

 

Niemöller, Bonhoeffer and others, like the theologian Karl Barth, wrote down the principals of the Confessing Church in the Barmen Declaration of 1934.

The Barmen Declaration rejects the subordination of the Church to the state and the subordination of the Word and Spirit to the Church. We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans. On the contrary, The Declaration proclaims that the Church is solely Christ’s property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectation of his appearance.

It also says:

Try the spirits whether they are of God! Prove also the words of the Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church to see whether they agree with Holy Scripture and with the Confessions of the Fathers. If you find that we are speaking contrary to Scripture, then do not listen to us! But if you find that we are taking our stand upon Scripture, then let no fear or temptation keep you from treading with us the path of faith and obedience to the Word of God, in order that God’s people be of one mind upon earth and that we in faith experience what he himself has said: “I will never leave you, nor forsake you.” Therefore, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

It is only because some stood up, some cried out, that the Church in Germany had any chance of re-building after the war. In October 1945, the council of the Evangelical Church in Germany issued a declaration of guilt, the so-called “Stuttgarter Schuldbekenntnis”, which made it possible for the church to go on. Here is what is says:

With great pain we say: By us infinite wrong was brought over many peoples and countries. We accuse ourselves for not standing to our beliefs more courageously, for not praying more faithfully, for not believing more joyously, and for not loving more ardently.

If you sometimes wonder what we can do in these difficult times, well, there it is! Pray more faithfully, believe more joyously and, most of all: Love more ardently! The Stuttgart declaration goes on:

Now a new beginning is to be made in our churches. The fact that we, in this new beginning, find ourselves sincerely connected with the other churches of the ecumenical community fills us with great joy.

We hope to God that by the common service of the churches the spirit of violence and revenge, which again today wants to become powerful, will be overcome by the whole world, and that the spirit of peace and love will come to predominate, in which alone tortured humanity can find healing.

Thus we ask at a time, in which the whole world needs a new beginning: Veni creator Spiritus! (Come, creator spirit!)”

At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them. Amen

 

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