What was so haunting, the philosopher Hannah Arendt suggested, was that “they were and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.”
Of 1930s Germany, especially of the countless bureaucratic functionaries who made Nazi evil possible and powerful, what’s frightening, she wrote, was that they were so much like us: ordinary, unreflective, pliant and banal. Just like the evil which consumed them.
Unable to recognize it, many accepted it and then served it, soon becoming evil themselves. For instance, Adolf Eichmann, a major architect of the Holocaust, when invited to join the S.S., was only able to ask himself: “Why not?” Such was his capacity for moral discernment. “That’s how it happened,” Arendt wrote, “that was all there was to it,” the shallow reflection of an ordinary man responsible for the murder of millions.
And it’s what comes to mind when thinking about the religion of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Quoting Paul’s letter to the Romans, he meant to quiet biblical people into obedience. That even some of his religious allies have criticized him, he must’ve felt the need to speak theologically, to remind the faithful of their duty to acquiesce to the “laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”
But, of course, it’s ridiculous. It belongs to a tradition of misinterpretation, the modern origin of which is Lutheran, but also of antecedents from the time Christians first wielded political power at the end of an empire. Thinking Romans 13 a text demanding Christians be obedient to the state because the state is ordained by God only became possible once Christians became agents of the state itself; only once they gained power.
Which is what Paul never imagined. For him, the state wasn’t something sacred but rather something that belonged to the principalities and powers of Satan, all arrayed against the kingdom of God. Writing to Christians under the heel of pagan rule, Paul wasn’t endorsing the state, but instead trying to help believers live faithfully in a regime of godless arbitrary power.
And his advice was that Christians imitate Jesus, refusing the kingdoms of the world and their glory. Christians were to make themselves “subject to the governing authorities,” not by becoming obedient agents of the state, but by doing what Christ did, and that is to love so radically and subversively, and to refuse violence so absolutely, that one chooses to be crucified instead of being co-opted by violent worldly power.
Calling Christians to “be subject,” Paul was inviting them to embrace the cross, its love and logic, even upon pain of death. Ironic that it’s become a text so misused to endorse blind obedience to the state, enabling so many Christians to do what Christ meant them to refuse. Odd that it’s a text used to suggest Christians should neglect love of neighbor. Now it’s not that the crimes committed by the Nazi regime and what’s being done by the Trump administration are immediately comparable; rather, it’s the psychology of obedience that’s hauntingly similar. In the 1930s, Germans prized being German above being Christian, placing obedience to the Führer above Christ.
That’s what’s become the American heresy that so many Christians see themselves more American than Christian, willfully misreading scripture from positions of nation and power instead of humanity and the powerless. It’s become the heresy of Sessions and others, those who see nothing wrong with tearing children from their parents’ arms, seeing it only as a matter of obedience to the state.
The heresy of so many, terribly and terrifyingly normal.
The Rev. Joshua J. Whitfield is the pastoral administrator at St. Rita Catholic Church in Dallas.