Sometimes a picture can tell a story about a particular time or event in a way that words can’t capture. As the anniversary of D-Day rolled around this year, I was looking at a collection of World War II photographs online and came across this one. It was taken on June 13, 1936–just about 80 years ago to the day–at the launch of the German sailing ship the Horst Wessel, which was designed to train sailors for the Navy. There in the shipyard, those gathered cheered the launch by giving the now infamous salute of the Nazi party, which was coming into its power.
When you look at the photograph closely, however, you notice that there is one man who does not salute. In fact, he stands with arms folded and a defiant look on his face. He refuses to join the crowd. It’s the kind of photo that stands out in your mind and makes you wonder, who is this brave, defiant man who refuses to give in to the masses around him? What made him go against the crowd?
Historians have speculated that the man was August Landmesser, who was a worker in the shipyard at the time of the launch. A couple of years before, Landmesser joined the Nazi party as a means of getting the job, but in 1935 he became engaged to a Jewish woman, Irma Eckler. Because he had become engaged to a Jew, he was expelled from the Nazi party but apparently retained his job. August and Irma had registered to be married, but their license was denied because of Nazi-enacted laws against Judaism.
So there he stood, realizing that the Nazis were enacting evil and refusing to give them his worship.
I thought of that picture this week as I looked at the prophet Zephaniah. He lived during a time when the kingdom of Judah, the southern kingdom, had once again turned away from God and had bought into the worship of the Canaanite gods around them, namely the storm God Baal. The superscription in verses 1 and 2 tell us that Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of Josiah, who was actually one of the few “good” kings in the Israelite monarchy. Josiah was the grandson of Manasseh, who was perhaps the worst king in Judah’s history. Manasseh had taken the nation deep into pagan worship, which involved ritualized sex and violence, including temple prostitution and child sacrifice. 2 Kings 21 gives a stinging indictment of his reign–he “caused Judah to sin so that they did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (v. 16).
Josiah, on the other hand, brought a reform from his father’s practices. At one point during his reign, a copy of the scroll of Deuteronomy was found in the temple. Upon hearing the law of God read, Josiah determined to tear down the pagan altars, stop the pagan practices, and restore God’s law to Judah. Josiah gets a rare endorsement in the history of ancient Israel–“He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in all the way of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left” (2 Kings 22:2).
In 609BC, however, Josiah was killed in a battle with the Egyptians at Megiddo and Judah went right back to worshipping Baal and the other Canaanite gods. As in the days of Nazi Germany and everywhere else in history, people tend to follow the crowd.
Zephaniah, however, proclaims to Judah that God has had enough. The “day of the Lord” is coming, which will be God’s judgment on his people for their failure to be faithful. In fact, the people had basically come to ignore God altogether, seeing him as ineffective and stodgy compared to the Canaanite gods who offered them the false promises of sexual pleasure, fertility, and safety. Zephaniah outlines their basic attitude in 1:12 – “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.” For them, Yahweh was malleable, changeable, and mushy–we will do what we want and he won’t stop us; he might even bless us.
Interestingly, this seems to have been the same attitude that the Christian church took in Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. In order for the church to maintain its center, the leaders gradually began to compromise with the religion of Naziism. The Nazi flag began to become a centerpiece of church sanctuaries; the Nazi salute became a regular part of “Christian” worship; copies of Hitler’s Mein Kampf began to appear on the altar instead of the Bible. It happened so gradually that it was like a frog in a kettle who doesn’t know that the heat is being turned up slowly until it’s too late.
When a pure faith is compromised by worship of other deities, we call it syncretism. Humans are prone to it because we want our cake and like to eat it, too. We proclaim our love for God but, at the same time, we are pragmatists who like what the world has to offer; particularly that which benefits us. The kings and people of Judah were intrigued by the sexual license of the Canaanite gods even as they still professed some loyalty to Yahweh. The German church could proclaim faith in Christ while buying into Nazi ideology that proclaimed hate and destruction for the very people of whom Jesus himself was a part.
Syncretism is still with us. In the 21st century we see the church still buying into alternate religions–the worship of sexuality, wealth, and power; the allure of politics. We have our ideologies and we assume that God is with us, or at least won’t stop us. We are still prone to run with the crowd, to tailor our message to meet the needs and desires of the masses. Today, the greatest “sin” ascribed to the church is that it is no longer “relevant” to the mass culture, and church leaders are seemingly obsessed with giving the masses what they want as a pragmatic way of staying in business.
But God won’t tolerate syncretism. God is not a God for the masses. He is a holy God who will bring judgment upon those who refuse to walk in his way. Judah forgot that, so did the German church, and so does much of the church in the 21st century. God promised judgment on Judah in the form of exile. As Zephaniah puts it in 1:14-18 (read text).
That’s pretty harsh, but notice that every time God proclaims judgment, there is also a word of grace. Look again at chapter 3 verse 12 which we read earlier (here is the NRSV version): “For I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord–the remnant of Israel; they shall do no wrong and utter no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths. Then they will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid.”
In the midst of the masses who are blown to and fro by the latest, the sexiest, the newest, and the shiniest, God retains a remnant who are faithful to him. In the midst of the world where the highway to hell is wide, paved, and inviting, God retains and values those who are on the narrow path, as Jesus put it. Few find that narrow path, said Jesus. They are the remnant.
Being the remnant is difficult, which is why many don’t choose that way. In I Kings 18-19 we read the story of the prophet Elijah, who defeated the prophets of Baal in spectacular fashion one moment, and found himself on the run for his life in the next. At one point, Elijah sits down under a broom tree and prepares to die, crying out to God, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant and thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life to take it away.” But God reminds Elijah that he is not alone–there were still 7,000 in Israel who had not bowed the knee to Baal. There is always a remnant.
There was a remnant in Nazi Germany as well. A German pastor and theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer refused to buy into the syncretism going on in the German church. He gathered a small band of pastors together to form the “Confessing Church,” defying the state and proclaiming the way of Jesus over and against the hate and destruction of Naziism. Bonhoeffer and many of his pastors would eventually be executed for their defiance. Being the remnant exacts a cost.
August Landmesser paid a price for being part of the remnant as well. He and Irma tried to flee Germany in 1937 and were caught. Irma was eventually sent to a concentration camp, where she died. August was placed in a military unit consisting of men who had resisted the state and was eventually killed, fighting for a state and an idea that he hated. Refusing to bow to the will of the crowd exacts a steep price.
Reading Zephaniah, I can’t help but wonder if God is seeking a remnant in our time as well–those who will stand up and be faithful in the midst of a culture, even a Christian culture, that is increasingly syncretistic. God is looking for people who will seek refuge in him, as Zephaniah puts it–those who will do no wrong, but keep faithful to God’s will and way; those who will tell the truth even when that truth is costly; those who will not give into fear of what the culture might say about them, but will be faithful no matter the cost. The remnant will never be “relevant” to the culture, but nowhere in the Scriptures does it say that relevance is a good thing. As Paul reminded the Roman church: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what the will of God is–what is good, and acceptable, and perfect.”
It’s not easy to be the remnant–it might be the hardest thing ever. It’s not easy, for example, to be a Christian teenager in a world where the temptations are myriad to syncretize the culture’s obsession with sex and violence with Christian values. The culture values unbridled sexual desire, whereas God desires faithfulness and fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness. It’s not easy to be a Christian in business when the culture values wealth and power at any cost, whereas God values generosity, honesty, justice for the poor. It’s not easy to be a Christian in politics when the culture values jingoism, revenge on enemies, and economic policies that increase the gap between the haves and the have nots.
It’s not easy to be part of the remnant. You will be seen as weird at best and dangerous at worst. Great pressure will be exerted on you if you choose the narrow path. It might even cost you your livelihood or your life. But the promise of God is that those who are faithful to the end will be saved. As Zephaniah puts it, “They will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid.” God will make all things new and set them right. The remnant must remember that and be faithful.
Speaking of making things new–I was curious when reading August Landmesser’s story about what happened to the ship, the Horst Wessel. The ship was named after the man who wrote the Nazi party anthem, known as the “Horst Wessel Song.” Horst Wessel, ironically, was the son of a pastor. He bought into the syncretism of Nazi Christianity, however, and was eventually seen as a martyr to the Nazi cause when he was killed by Communists in 1930. The Nazis passed a law that every time the song was sung, the Nazi salute had to be given. This was no doubt happening at the shipyard on the day August Landmesser engaged in his act of defiance.
The ship used the old technology of sails as a way of teaching seamanship to German sailors. After World War II, however, the ship was taken by the Allies and repurposed. Today, the Horst Wessel has been renamed “The Eagle” and is used by the U.S. Coast Guard to train its recruits in seamanship–seamanship for the purpose of saving people.
I wonder if that would have made August Landmesser smile.
God will make all things new. Do not conform to the patterns of this world, but be the remnant. Amen.