It is incredible how this little phrase, “peace on earth” is so divergently interpreted. Take just one example. At twilight, as 100,000 spectators looked on, 110,000 Nazi soldiers bearing 30,000 banners and standards marched onto the field. Then the Führer entered through a spotlighted gate. Instantly a line of 150 powerful, anti-aircraft searchlights, 40 feet apart, cast their beams 25,000 feet straight up into the night air. The effect was stunning. The British ambassador called it “solemn and beautiful . . . like being inside a cathedral of ice.”1 “Church” was now in session.
When Hitler took charge in Germany in 1933, he declared himself a prophet whose words equaled those of Jesus and Paul, and he called his rule a time of “peace.” With this new religion came “worship services,” most notably in the form of annual huge rallies at Nuremberg, running through 1938. Hitler “preached” electrifying messages to the gatherings. Having seen Leni Riefenstahl’s classic film of the 1934 rally, Triumph of the Will, rock star David Bowie marveled, “How he worked his audience! . . . The world will never see anything like that again.”2
William Shirer, author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, observed that one meeting at Nuremberg “had something of the mysticism and religious fervor of an Easter or Christmas Mass in a great Gothic cathedral.”3 It seems that men must worship something, and demagogues will answer this need with dreadful counterfeits when the Church falters.
Thankfully, some in the German Church kept their theological compasses pointed upward. For example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer lamented the failure of the Church to publicly refute the sins of the state. Hitler’s ideas were first supported by only a few extremists, but they soon rose to national prominence. The Church’s silence allowed Hitler’s influence to spread throughout Germany with little or no struggle. In his Christmas letter of 1942, Bonhoeffer wrote of the Church’s weakness:
“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: we have been drenched by many storms; we have learned the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use?4”
This Christmas, Bonhoeffer’s question is for us to consider: are we of any use? When we see war in the Middle East, genocide in Darfur, and terrorism’s pervasive threat, do we find ourselves resembling the mainstream German Church of his day, relying on human inventiveness to supply the solution, or do we follow the One who, as Paul put it, “is Himself our peace” (Eph 2:14)? Jesus, the true world Ruler, whom angels exalt in unapproachable light, is our only enduring hope. As Jesus died, rose, and inaugurated his messianic reign, peace extends to every corner of the earth. In Him, our hearts not only course with impulses of divine rest, but also serve as the privileged channels through which it forcefully engages the world. The hymn writer said it well:
For lo, the days are hastening on, by prophets seen of old,
When, with the ever circling years, shall come the time foretold,
When peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling,
and all the world give back the song which now the angels sing.
Merry Christmas, and God’s peace to you!
1 Frederic Spotts, Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics (New York: The Overlook Press, 2003), 66.
2 Ibid., 56.
3 Ibid., 60
4.Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, “After Ten Years,” in Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1971), 16-17.