Dangerous Words

One of the most vexing and sobering historical questions is how, in the 1920’s and 30’s, a nation and culture that produced sublime poetry and music (Goethe and Bach), important philosophers (Hegel and Nietzsche), and elegant theology (Luther and Bultmann), evolved into a murderous, racist, militaristic dictatorship. Much has been written about the anomaly of Christian German culture morphing into nasty, brutal Naziism. National humiliation at Versailles at the end of WWI, punishing reparations leveled on Germany by the victorious Allies, runaway inflation which resulted in nation-wide fear, desperation and anger are part of the puzzle. The major, determining factor was the emergence of a movement that fed the feelings of humiliation and fear, promised to make the nation great again by rearming and greatly expanding the military, threatened real and imagined enemies and, finally, identified an ethnic scapegoat to blame for the nation’s suffering – the Jews. At the center of it all is the singular anomaly that the German people went to the polls and elected Adolf Hitler.

He was a master at fueling peoples’ fears and frustrations, whipping up nationalism and patriotism, promising to punish enemies with a newly empowered military. Somehow he managed to transform a beautiful culture into a total dictatorship that turned on a major segment of its own population.

As I have watched and listened to the rhetoric of the Republican Presidential campaign, mainly but not exclusively from the front runner, I found myself pondering the psychological, social, economic, political factors that gave rise to Naziism. And as I watched a small riot break out at a rally in Chicago, the passion of the mostly young protestors, the outbreaks of physical violence among Trump supporters, encouraged by Trump’s own words about protestors – “I’d like to punch him in the face”- I could not stop thinking about Brown Shirts, Nuremberg, anti-Semitism.

Christianity provides a framework for thinking about what is happening to us. Deep in our theological/philosophic understanding of humankind, our anthropology, is a doctrine that is often maligned and misunderstood and scorned – namely Sin with a capital “S”, Original Sin, to be precise. Old John Calvin, progenitor of Reformed Christianity and Presbyterianism, called it “total depravity” which strikes many people as draconian hyperbole – “total? nothing redeeming about us?” – but which, in fact, points to something very important about us. Human beings are capable not only of courage, self sacrifice, beauty and great good, but also of cruelty, greed, inhumanity and monumental evil. History itself is the textbook. In a recent essay Marilynne Robinson reflects on, “the dazzling world of contemporary science on the one hand and the impressive and moving and terrible record of the deep human past on the other.” Robinson calls herself a “church-going Calvinist.”

The Christian doctrine of Sin is not a popular idea and one reason is the way it has been trivialized by religion when it translates into a list of petty rules and taboos, mostly sexual – about which Jesus said virtually nothing. But it does say something important about us. The checks and balances built into our own republican democracy reflect the Calvinist idea that human beings are capable of both good and evil, beauty and ugliness.

There are moral, social and political implications. For one thing, public rhetoric from preacher to politician has enormous power and potential for both good and evil. Both preacher and politician should always carefully measure words for their dangerous potential. Making wild allegations about national and ethnic groups – “Mexicans are streaming over our borders and they are rapists and drug dealers”, threats against specific religious groups – “most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims hate us”, demagogic rants about nations -“China and Japan are ripping us off”, threats to obliterate enemies including their families, feeds into the least attractive traits of humankind and should stop.

It is why many Christians begin the act of public worship with a confession of corporate sin.


  1. jack macmullan says:


  2. Emily Wigger says:

    Thank you John, you articulate what my husband and I have been thinking.

  3. pittrader1988 says:

    Sorry. I think that comparing Trump to Hitler is extremely incorrect and 100% misplaced logically. People have got to be smarter than this. Dilbert cartoon creator Scott Adams gives a nice explanation why Trump isn’t Hitler. http://blog.dilbert.com/post/140800778006/lets-talk-about-hitler

    The rise of Trump has a lot to do with mainstream America’s anger with its institutions. Obama was elected as a transformational President and Democrats were going to balance the budget in 2008. What happened? Stimulus in 2009 (failed). Massive increase in regulation. Massive increase in costs. Economic stagnation for the middle class (GDP under 3%, and Fed interest rates at .25%, with massive increases in money supply and no inflation). No personal access to loan capital thanks to Dodd-Frank killing community banking. Higher health care costs, exponentially higher-thanks to Obamacare. Bigger government. Bigger dependent class.

    Republicans were elected to run the House in 2010, extended gains in 2012, 2014. They didn’t do anything. In 2014, they were handed the Senate. They didn’t do anything. They didn’t even pass bills that Obama was guaranteed to veto to make a point. Instead, they played the game.

    At the same time the Republicans were playing Ostrich, Obama was churning out executive order after executive order as if the Presidency was a dictatorship. Bush did similar things and significantly expanded the power of the Presidency. Both Presidents were wrong-and mainstream America knows it’s wrong.

    Mainstream America wants less interference by government, smaller government and lower taxes with a balanced budget. The establishment Republicans play them for patsies. The establishment Democrats are also playing them for patsies, and are locked at the hip with public sector unions-who feed at the taxpayer trough.

    You guys are missing a major niche/movement/mainstream (http://pointsandfigures.com/2016/03/16/lightning-in-a-bottle-niche-movement-mainstream/) trend if you think this is just about Trump. To be clear, there is little difference between crony capitalist Hillary Clinton and crony capitalist Jeb Bush. The public knows it and they are turning out for Trump-and to a certain extent Sanders.

    This is way more than Trump. Main line church membership and participation is down? Why? Because the hierarchy of the churches have totally lost touch with their members. What churches are winning? Non-denominational churches that were initially thought by mainline religion as “church lite”.

    Don Surber wrote a nice piece (http://donsurber.blogspot.com/2016/03/the-trump-reform.html?spref=tw) on the consultant class of Washington. They hate Trump too. Why, because he isn’t using consultants to run his campaign. He just is himself.

    If you are naive enough to believe that only Republicans are angry, you should check your confirmation bias. Democrats are just as angry. MoveOn.org paid protestors to disrupt Trump, and ordered them to be violent and stop the rally in Chicago. If Democrats are okay with ending peaceable assembly, and aren’t tolerant of letting people exercise their free speech rights they aren’t a lot different than despots that have lead movements designed to disenfranchise people in other countries.

    I am not saying I agree with everything Trump says. There is a grain of truth to a lot of what he says. It is true that we have porous borders. Border states like California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas have trouble with illegal immigration. It’s true that there is a segment of the Muslim religion which hates Americans-and is raping innocent women in Europe, and defenseless Christian boys in the Middle East. Muslims are rounding up women and enslaving them in Africa. ISIS is chopping off people’s heads, burning people while they are caged and alive, and shooting people at will on the street. They want to destroy Israel and the Jewish State. Americans can see that-and see it in real time transparently on the internet with no filters.

    As Christians, we might like to turn the other cheek but we might want to be smart about how we turn. If you want to learn more about the rise of Hitler and how it really happened, here is a place you can learn: http://www.nationalww2museum.org/history/final/interactive_timeline.html

  4. Scott Laird says:

    John, if dangerous words are backed up by dangerous actions, then we have lost our last handhold at the top of the slippery slope toward fascism, or probably oligarchy.. One such action is McConnell’s decision to not hold a hearing / vote on the duly nominated candidate for the Supreme Court. To me, this action indicates that the Republicans have said they cannot abide by our democratic (small ‘D’) process as embodied in our Constitution because they don’t like the temporary outcome- a justice chosen by a Democrat (upper case D). Their chosen recourse to the situation is to flaunt the established democratic process to ensure that they retain governmental political control of judgments of legal disputes. Once Hitler was elected, the legal framework was steadily altered toward dictatorship and concentration camps. And all the people said they were unaware of the existence of the camps!

  5. Anne Epling says:

    Thank you for your words. My two teenage sons, Sanders supporters, attended the Trump rally in St. Louis last week. I keep thinking about the protests there in light of Palm Sunday and Jesus’ entry intro Jerusalem. “There’s a lot of hate here,” the older one texted me from the rally. And when I asked him if he was ever scared, he said “yes”. Frightening indeed.

  6. Years ago (1987?), my pew buddy Paul.Lehman leaned into me and quipped after the sermon “what we lack is a a good doctrine of original sin.” My liberal friend was a wonderfully humorous realist.

  7. Susan Van Hooser says:

    Thank you, John, I like to think I am a student of history and I see it repeating itself. With Trump, I do see pre Nazi times. I have a close life long friend who taught Public Health at Harvard many years. He was also deputy director of the FDA. He wrote to me that he cannot vote for either candidate. He has known Hillary to lie frequently, so, knowing her, he cannot vote for her. I agree with Mitt Romney that we need to stop this. I used to think that Republicans stood for less government. Private business more efficient. Democrats, I thought, were for dependence on government spending. I saw so much waste when I worked in DC in 1969-70. I lived with Cathy Davis. All the extra issues i.e. Gun control, birth control, religion, etc have taken away from the fundamentally different approaches to government. When we put our faith first, we know, if we have means, we are responsible for others. What good is $ without a peaceful heart? If I knew my tax money went for better schools and medical research, mental health expenses, I would be much happier rather than paying a government worker’s pension. No one ever guaranteed me a job and pension. We need to attract the best and the brightest to government and have term limits and special treatment a thing of the past. Missing you, Susan Van Hooser

  8. Marcia Page says:

    As a cultural historian and teacher for 42 years, I look back to 80 years ago when an emerging leader promised to restore pride to his country, to make their country great in the world again, to give jobs to the unemployed, to strengthen the finances of the country, to make people feel safe and to rid the country of a religious group that threatened national security.

    I also know that our fathers and grandfathers risked their lives, fought and died to prevent this dictator from destroying Europe.

    So why are people supporting Trump when he speaks the same language as Hitler

    ( I posted this on my Facebook page on March 5th)

  9. Marcia Page says:

    As a cultural historian and teacher for 42 years, I look back to 80 years ago when an emerging leader promised to restore pride to his country, to make their country great in the world again, to give jobs to the unemployed, to strengthen the finances of the country, to make people feel safe and to rid the country of a religious group that threatened national security.
    I also know that our fathers and grandfathers risked their lives, fought and died to prevent this dictator from destroying Europe.
    So why are people supporting Trump when he speaks the same language as Hitler!??


  1. […] tonight, I offer this.  Read it. He says what I think, but cannot […]

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