The definition of civility is whether a religion might reach beyond itself to do the right thing. Here is an instance of a Christian minister who reached beyond himself. Against all the revulsion within himself, to do what was right to a band of human-rights abusers and genocidal monsters of mankind.
Of the wickedness, evil, and oppression the Nazis on trial had committed upon small children, mothers, fathers, aunts, and uncles, grandparents, families, and friends, was uncontested. Even for Henry Gerecke, a Lutheran minister, who witnessed their sinful deeds and held them accountable before the Judge of all mankind, was a fact he too could not deny. But of the grace and mercy that is made known in Christ Jesus the Savior and Forgiver of men, this truth was a truth that Henry had also to acknowledge as a minister of the grace of God in the gospel of Christ.
It was also a truth that had to be faced by those who were to to be executed for their heinous crimes against humanity. Of the truth that what they did was evil. And that what Jesus had done in His atonement was for all evils - not just those select sins a humane society might deems more evil (and unforgiveable) than others. As difficult as it was for Henry Gerecke to minister to these cruel men even so he knew the truths of the gospel were explicitly written for "such a one as these."
It is a truth that the Christian faith acknowledges there is evil in this world. Even now, this past month's events have shown to the world the brutal evils of ISIS' inhumanity to unfortunates caught in their web of terror and horror. But cruelty exists on many levels - from the injustice done to children in the home by unloving moms and dads, to the sins that exists on so many levels of our human existence. However unfortunate the act of sin, the truth is that in Christ has God made propitiation for the sin of the world through the atonement of His Son Jesus.
This is a spiritual truth that goes beyond human understanding. That is wiser than we can many times allow. That is the harder to admit when seeing the crime of the criminal. The Christian faith has been tested and in its wings rests the terrible truths that all are sinners. That all are held accountable. That all stand guilty before the God of creation.
But it is also true that in Jesus - and by His atonement - men may find salvation through repentance from sin to the One who has borne all the sin of the world. It is what is described as salvation. That upon the cross of Calvary hung One who died at the hands of unjust men that for those unjust men might God's holy salvation be effected for all time.
Christianity admits to the evilness of mankind but it also admits to the redemption of God that can justly remove evil's sentence of spiritual death. Its faith is most appropriately fulfilled by humanity when observed in this life and lived to its fullness. But it is also a faith that can reach past the fallenness of mankind to disturb its evils and hold all accountable before the holy One of Israel.
Justice is defined in a God who not only judged mankind as fallen but has also saved mankind from its fallenness. Who not only commanded judgment upon sin but did something about the judgment to be rightfully executed. For it was in Himself - the God of creation - that sin might be bourne upon His holy Person in Christ, the Son of God, who was very God of very God, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father. Who was obedient even unto death that He might bear the sin of mankind and be raised as Redeemer to the penitents of this wicked world. Who, like ourselves, was deeply repulsed by evil's cruelty and wanton affects. But unlike our sinful hearts demanding cruelty in return, had given His very self for its necessary judgment and payment.
This is a God-act that the redeemed heart of the Christian finds so hard to acknowledge or enact. It was an act of confession that Henry Gerecke undertook against the vileness to his own sense of injustice and condemnation. It was what marked his crucified faith against the sensitivities he rightfully held for the land of the living. He wished to condemn and execute upon the witness of the Nazi camps of the Holocaust, but his very hand was stayed by the all merciful hand of His Redeemer God who commanded justice in forgiveness. And forgiveness in judgment. Amen.
August 30, 2014
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God at Nuremberg: How an American pastor came to comfort Nazis
August 22, 2014
(RNS) He was a minister to monsters.
That’s what Tim Townsend writes of Henry Gerecke, the unassuming Lutheran pastor from Missouri who shepherded six of the most notorious Nazis to the gallows in “Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis.”
The book is one of a string of new titles that dust off a remote corner of World War II history — the role religion played both in and beyond the conflict.
“That’s why I wanted to write this book,” Townsend said from Washington, D.C. where he is a senior writer and editor for The Pew Research Center.
“A large part was trying to figure out why did the Allies provide spiritual comfort for men who were on trial for what was ultimately called the Holocaust,” he said. “They clearly did not have anyone’s spiritual welfare in mind when they were murdering Jews, so why did we feel it was necessary and humane to provide them with chaplains to see to their spiritual comfort?”
Townsend combed the National Archives for some piece of paper, some order that explained more deeply why the Allies felt those charged with the most horrendous crimes of the century needed — even deserved — a chaplain of their own, beyond the fact that the Geneva Conventions required it.
Beyond the rules of international law, American culture has long accepted the idea chaplains ministering to criminals from the common thief to the death row murderer.
Townsend finds his answer in Gerecke, a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod pastor charged with caring for men such as Hermann Goering, Albert Speer and Wilhelm Keitel — men responsible for the mass-extermination of six million European Jews. How, he asks, did he understand his role in leading the condemned Nazis to their deaths?
Tim Townsend’s 400-page “Mission at Nuremberg” details an American Army chaplain’s mission to save the souls of Nazis imprisoned following the end of World War II. RNS photo courtesy Heidi Richter, HarperCollins.
Gerecke volunteered in 1943, when the Army was desperate for chaplains. His unit was sent from England to Germany after the Germans surrendered in 1945.
There, he visited Dachau, where hundreds of thousands of Jews were gassed and cremated in ovens.
As the Nuremberg Trials began, higher-ups heard there was a German-speaking Army chaplain and asked Gerecke to take on the role of ministering to 21 high-ranking Nazis on trial for their lives.
In saying yes, Gerecke played one of the most puzzling and under-examined roles in what Townsend calls “the judicial improvisation we now call the Nuremberg trials.”
“Gerecke was the perfect choice,” Townsend said. “He was able to go in with his mind and his eyes wide open. He had seen Dachau, he knew what these people were responsible for but he was able to move past that in terms of his ability to relate to them.”
Townsend thinks Gerecke looked beyond the terrible men imprisoned in front of him to the children they had once been. One of the most lovely — and chilling — pieces in the book comes when Gerecke accompanies Keitel up the 13 steps of the gallows and prays aloud with him a German prayer both were taught by their mothers.
“He knew that he needed to save the souls of as many of these men as he could before they were executed,” Townsend said. “I think for him he thought it was a great gift he had been given.”
And not one he took lightly. Gerecke did not give communion to any of the Nazis unless he believed they were truly penitent and made a profession of faith in Jesus. Only four of the 11 sentenced to hang met Gerecke’s standard.
One who did not was Goering, who many historians credit with helping to create “the Final Solution,” the genocide of the Jews. When he and Gerecke discussed the divinity of Jesus, Goering disparaged the idea.
“This Jesus you always speak of,” he said to Gerecke, “to me he is just another smart Jew.”
Gerecke held that unless he accepted Jesus as his savior, Goering could not receive communion.
“You are not a Christian,” Gerecke told Goering, “and as a Christian pastor I cannot commune you.”
Within hours, Goering was dead, robbing the hangman by swallowing cyanide he had secreted in his cell.
In the end, Gerecke walked five men to the gallows. After the war, he was criticized by some of his fellow pastors for not granting Goering communion. And he was criticized for ministering to such monsters in the first place.
During the trials, a rumor spread among the Nazis that Gerecke would go home before the end. They wrote a letter to his wife, Alma, asking her to please let him stay. That letter, which Townsend first saw in a St. Louis exhibit, led him to the story.
“Our dear Chaplain Gerecke is necessary not only for us as a minister but also as the thoroughly good man that he is,” the letter reads above the signatures of Goering, Keitel, Speer and others. Then it includes a word Townsend writes is not often associated with Nazis: “We simply have come to love him.”
YS END WINSTON