Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

In a Very Dark Garden

In the dead of winter, books can be a nice diversion. They’re also pleasant if one is in the Caribbean, or on a ministry ship like the Logos Hope. Over the years, I have come to really enjoy historians like Erik Larson. I was hooked with Dead Wake, but absolutely captured these last few days with In the Garden of Beasts. It’s the story of an American family living in Berlin in the 30’s, when literally all hell was breaking loose. Why I am reading this in Tobago is uncertain—but it is timely.

I seldom read simply for entertainment. I approach most books as one on a mission. There is something here that God wants me to capture, so I look for that occasional sentence that tells me to stop right there and shift from eyes to ears. The first sentence of the book does this: “Once, at the dawn of a very dark time, an American father and daughter found themselves transported from their snug home in Chicago to the heart of Hitler’s Berlin.”

Sometimes we too are pulled out of our safe and secure places and dropped into a setting that will completely change our lives. There is a little bit of that feel here on this ship. But sometimes the place can be dark. It’s hard to imagine a darker place than Germany in the 30’s. Here, a rather nondescript professor from Chicago, nearing retirement, was called by his government to be the ambassador. Immediately he began to meet leaders who were less statesmen, more psychopaths that should ordinarily be receiving treatment.

I’ve often wondered how this horror show ever took place, and how the Jews, in particular, faced such a disastrous end. But back then, the Jewish problem was framed as an immigration issue, a domestic German affair that the American government was hesitant to get caught up with. Given the Depression, any boost in Jewish immigration “could only lead to disaster.”

At first, Hitler was not taken so seriously. He was perceived in some circles as a clown who looked more like Charlie Chaplin. But slowly, things began to turn more sinister. Still, few perceived that occasional arrests or orders to salute were anything to be concerned about. There was a strange indifference to rising atrocities. Nazi attacks on Jews were like “summer thunderstorms” that came and went, leaving an eerie calm. Some could see a settling darkness, but others only saw the sun. They were not paying attention to a growing and complicated network of espionage and terror.

Sadly, during this time, it seems that many in high places in American government preferred to look the other way. Few were willing to acknowledge the harsh realities occurring on the side streets of Berlin. Part of the interest in avoiding offense was to ensure that Germany paid off its huge debt to American creditors. Part of the failure to react to the growing evil was our nation’s own racism. All too many wanted to protect a certain racial purity. And some wanted to believe Hitler was a man of peace, who simply wanted the same securities all leaders want for their people. Meanwhile, a great flywheel had been set in motion driving the world to a very dark place.

I shudder to think what it would be like to live in such times. Mistrust was ubiquitous.  People became fearful of sharing their thoughts with their most intimate friends. People postponed surgeries for fear of what they might say under anesthesia. The contagion of an ever present fear took over. An anxiety grew like a pale mist slipping into every crevice.

Reflecting back after his years in Germany, the American ambassador found that he had entered “the dark forest of a fairy tale where all the rules of right and wrong were upended.” Eventually, Hitler’s purge solidified the Nazi’s power, and then it was too late for him or anyone else to reverse the course.

Some takeaways. First, though not exactly replicated today, this is an evil that could be repeated. Madness is always looking to be unleashed. Our capacity for darkness is held in check only by the grace of God. We must never presume on it.

Second, given our own turbulent times, the church needs to be unusually vigilant.  During the 30’s, there were exceptional men like Bonhoeffer and Barth, but all too many pastors seem to have acquiesced, too impressed with an emerging, popular power (read Irwin Lutzer’s Hitler’s Cross). Evil loves to work slowly in the quiet—in the dark places. Corruption is a subtle process, and we cannot afford to miss its signs. We cannot simply overlook one’s lack of character, even if we prefer their policies. As the church, we must always maintain a certain disassociation, a healthy unattachment to the powers of this world.

At the same time, we must never lose our prophetic voice. Sometimes I wonder if we are losing it. Sometimes I wonder if the church will know a prophetic voice when it speaks. This is what God asked Ezekiel in the days Israel was turning ever darker: “When it comes—and it will definitely come—will they know that a prophet has been among them?” (Ezek. 33:33).  If the church had spoken out in the early 30’s at the first sign of hate and evil (instead of singing Christmas carols and going through the motion), a Hitler and his malevolence may have never gained traction.

Finally, we must always speak for the oppressed and never look the other way. The church must always champion the voices of those who are marginalized and persecuted. It must hate any sign of racism. Otherwise, this too will become a garden of beasts.

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