Law, Gospel, and the Chaplain to Condemned Nazis

Every scripture accuses us but also gives us a promise of the future. 

Jason Micheli / 9.21.22

In September 1951, the Saturday Evening Post ran a shocking expose entitled, “I Walked to the Gallows with the Nazi Chiefs.” After five years of silence imposed by the allied intelligence services, who were alarmed over how a still angry public might react to such a story, Rev. Henry Gerecke recounted his remarkable ministry to journalist Merle Sinclair. Gerecke pastored as the Protestant chaplain at Nuremberg Prison in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.

Once a farm boy from Missouri, the International Military Tribunal requested the services of the Lutheran pastor because, of all the active duty chaplains, he had the most experience doing prison ministry and because he spoke adequate German. In keeping with the standards of the Geneva Conventions, the Tribunal ordered Gerecke to “offer Christian comfort and counsel” to the Nazi defendants at the Nuremberg Trial. Rather than make a mockery of the gospel by offering mercy to monsters, Gerecke’s commanding officer at the time pressed the pastor to take advantage of his eligibility to return to the inactive reserves.

Gerecke accepted his orders though when the prison psychologists assured him that the defendants were not exceptionally unique or uniquely wicked. Rather, they were ordinary men who had fallen prey to gross prejudice, cultural resentment, and the cunning manipulations of a master rabble rouser. The prisoners may have once been like ordinary men, but they were not ordinary Nazis. Albert Speer was an architect by trade who had designed the German war machine. Hermann Goering had been Hitler’s Reichsmarshal and thus one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany. The youngest of the prisoners had been the leader of the Hitler Youth.

When he first arrived at Nuremberg Prison, Reverend Gerecke walked from cell to cell, introducing himself, offering his hand to each prisoner with the peace of Christ, and inviting them to worship. “I have been criticized for offering my hand to these men,” Gerecke told the Post, “Don’t think it was easy for me. But I knew I could never win any of them to my way of thinking unless they liked me first. Furthermore, I was there as the representative of an all-loving Father. The gesture of grace did not mean that I made light of their malefactions. They soon found that out.”

Former Field Marshal Keitel, Hitler’s pet general, was reading a Bible when Gerecke first visited him. The war criminal welcomed the pastor heartily. “I know from this book that God can love a sinner like me,” he told the suddenly uncomfortable chaplain. “A phony,” the chaplain thought, but then the prisoner said that he had been about to begin his daily devotionals and invited the pastor to join him. “This I wanted to see!” Gerecke told the reporter.

“He knelt beside his cot and read a portion of Scripture. Then he folded his hands, looked heavenward and began to pray. Never have I heard a prayer quite like that one. Though I cannot break confessional confidence to share it, I can say that he spoke penitently of his many sins and pleaded for mercy by reason of Christ’s sacrifice for him.”

The military tribunal had cordoned off the regular prison chapel to use for questioning witnesses, so the chaplain set up an improvised sanctuary by knocking out the wall between two cells. A former SS Officer volunteered as an organist. For months, Chaplain Gerecke led the war criminals in worship and Bible study. He urged repentance upon them and prepared them to receive the sacrament of holy communion. He accompanied them to their sentencing and stood with each of them as they received the judgment that sealed their fate.

By the end of his ministry at Nuremberg Prison, Christ’s shepherd had found most of the lambs that had become lost. Only one of the war criminals shouted “Heil Hitler!” with the noose draped over his hooded head. Another committed suicide. “I particularly want to emphasize,” Gerecke told the Post reporter, “that most of the twenty-one defendants were able to come to their moral senses and repent. They asked God for forgiveness of their sins against Him and humanity … They did so in a spirit that convinced me that their repentance was true. I have had many years of experience as a prison chaplain and do not believe I am easily deluded by phony reformations at the eleventh hour.”

The pastor walked each of them to the gallows.

On the short, dreadful journey, Wilhelm Keitel told his pastor, “I thank God for you and for those who sent you.”

As he stood over the trap door, his hands bound and his head hooded in black, an American officer asked the prisoner if he had any last words. He responded, “I place all my confidence in the Lamb who made atonement for my sins. [For the sake of Jesus Christ] may God have mercy on my soul.”

Then, turning toward the man who had been the shepherd of his soul during his incarceration, the criminal said, “I’ll see you again [in Paradise].”

Then he dropped, out of this world and into the Kingdom of God.

That assertion makes one uncomfortable. But the true scandal of the Gospel is not simply that, on Christ’s account, God would admit such repentant war criminals into his kingdom. Nor is the scandal of the Gospel merely that God so loved even those Nazis that while they were yet God’s enemies, Jesus Christ died for them.

The real scandal of the Gospel is that, measured against God’s Law, Jesus Christ says you are no different than them. You are not appreciably better than them.

***

As a preacher of Christ and him crucified, I have to admit that I am frequently jealous of Buddhists. Not only does the Buddha look better fed than our Lord, the Buddha just sits there, silent and smiling. The Buddha doesn’t say anything as offensive as Jesus. I’d love to jettison the verses of Matthew 5.21-22 by dismissing Jesus as just another enlightened teacher like the Buddha, but the grammar of the Gospel won’t allow for it. “You have heard it said,” Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “But I say to you …” He’s talking about Moses. He’s saying, Moses might’ve reported to you what I said about this, that, and the other, but I’m here now, in the flesh, and I say to you. With the six antitheses in his Sermon on the Mount, Christ claims for himself the authority of the One who first revealed the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai.

These are authentic words of Jesus because they are such a radical rupture from the accepted orthodoxy of Jesus’s day. The Old Testament Law makes distinctions. In the Book of Exodus and Deuteronomy, the commandment against killing refers to intentional manslaughter outside the context of warfare. Meanwhile, anger does not appear to be a significant concern in the Old Testament.

Psalm 137 says, “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who take your babies and dash them against the rock!”

2 Kings reads, “Some small boys came out of the city and jeered at the prophet Elisha, saying, ‘Go away, bald-head! Go away, bald-head!’ When Elisha turned round and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.”

Even Jesus throws a temple tantrum. And Jesus murders a fig tree that had actively offended no one. Nevertheless, in his Sermon on the Mount Jesus reveals that he would be the most irresponsible therapist in the world. An enraged thought is the equivalent of a murderous act?

Come on, Jesus. 

Who hasn’t harbored an angry thought or uttered an insult or lusted in their heart? “As long as you don’t act on your malicious thoughts,” I always counsel people, “that’s what matters.” Wrong. Evidently, Jesus never took any pastoral care classes in seminary:

“If you are PO’d with a brother or throw shade on someone you will be liable to the judgement, and if you call someone an idiot? Hellfire and damnation for you!”

I would never say anything heavy and unyielding and inflexible like this to anyone.

The question is — Why does Jesus say this in Matthew 5:21-22?

The Gospel promise did not transform all of Hitler’s wolves into Christ’s lambs. Hermann Goering, Hitler’s Reichsmarshall, confessed to the prison psychiatrist that he only attended worship in the chapel in order to get out of his cell. Once, while supervising a visit with the Reichsmarshall’s family, Chaplain Gerecke asked the man’s daughter, Edda Goering, “a woman of considerable grace and charm,” if she said her prayers.

She replied, “I pray every night.”

“And how do you pray?” The pastor inquired.

“I kneel by my bed and look up to heaven and ask God to open my daddy’s heart and let Jesus in.”

Her prayers did not avail against her father’s heart.

Chaplain Gerecke described the final weeks and days during which the war criminals awaited their certain fatal sentences as “feverish work.” Each of the prisoners called the pastor to their prison cell four or five times a day.

On October 15th, 1946, the last day, the tension was palpable, Gerecke recalled, as he went from cell to cell, hearing confessions and offering absolution and praying with once powerful men brought low by the judgment that awaited them. Around 8:30 that night, Chaplain Gerecke had a long session with Hermann Goering, the former Reichsmarshall. All his defenses and explanations and self-justifications had done nothing to remove the accusations against him. Still, in his last hours, Goering was proud and unrepentant, determined to find his own way out of his predicament. In his final session with the pastor, Goering mocked scripture’s story of creation. He ridiculed the notion that the Bible could become the living Word of God. He flatly denied particular Christian convictions; specifically, the claim that God became incarnate in Jewish flesh, that salvation was through the Jews, or that the almighty Maker of heaven and earth would esteem the powerlessness of a Jew from Nazareth.

Nonetheless, to the pastor’s astonishment, Goering asked the chaplain, “How do you celebrate the Lord’s Supper?”

“You claim membership in the church. You must be familiar with its sacraments,” Chaplain Gerecke reminded him, “only those who know themselves to be sinners in need of a savior should partake in the eucharist.”

“I have never once been refused communion by a German pastor,” the offended Reichsmarshall replied.

But this pastor did not budge.

Because the Reichsmarshall was stubbornly deaf to the law’s accusation of him, because he would not accept that, according to the law, he was dead in his trespasses and sins, the Gospel — in word and wine and bread — were useless.

The Gospel can only make alive those whom the law has killed.

“I cannot with a clear conscience commune you,” Chaplain Gerecke told the angry Reichsmarshall, “because you deny the Law’s condemnation of you, you deny the very Christ who instituted the sacrament.”

Unmoved, Reichsmarshall Goerring insisted that he wanted to receive the sacrament, “Just in case there is anything to this gospel business of yours.”

“You remember what your little daughter said?” The chaplain asked the criminal.

“Yes, she believes in your savior,” he said slowly.

“I’ll take my chances,” he snarled at the pastor.

And so the chaplain left him. Two hours later the guards summoned the chaplain back to the Reichsmarshall’s cell. He was dead, a tiny cyanide capsule lay on his chest. According to the chaplain, the man died determined to live life on his own terms; that is, he was determined to the end to be his own god.

The last time I preached on the Sermon on the Mount, one of my parishioners called me that night.

“But pastor,” they exclaimed breathlessly into the phone, “I’ve got angry thoughts all the time. I can’t control the thoughts that run through my head. If what Jesus says is true, then the you in that passage means me.”

“Exactly,” I replied, “If it wasn’t for Jesus, you’d be screwed.”

My friend Jonathan Linebaugh writes that the Law is “an ecstatic fire at once reducing to ashes all hopes anchored in human worth even as it kindles a hope that even disobedience and death cannot burn away.”

The reason I am so radically grace-centric is because I believe any straight, unvarnished reading of scripture shows us that the Law of God is inflexible and total. “Do your best and God will do the rest” is not in the Bible nor is any promise of an “A for effort.” If you do not accept Christ’s fulfillment of the Law for you, it can only accuse you. Jesus says so himself in John’s Gospel. The commandments are not meant primarily as a manageable “To Do” list.

This is what St. Augustine and the Protestant reformers called the theological function of the Law or the Second Use of the Law. The commandments are not meant primarily as a doable Honey-Do List from your heavenly Father. The commandments instead intend to drive you out of your sinful self-sufficiency (a redundant phrase) and into the arms of a merciful Savior. This is why a bland, garden-variety, inoffensive message like “God is love” cannot make anyone Easter-new because it does not first crucify and kill.

Christ raises the dead.

Christ does not improve the improvable.

As the Apostle Paul says — you, the patient, must be dead on the table before the Great Physician can make you well.

Whereas the Old Testament only cared about your actions, here in the antitheses Jesus adds your intentions to the Law; it’s not just the blood on your hands, it’s the murderous thought in your head that matters.

But we all harbor angry thoughts!

None of us suffer fools easily!

Who hasn’t lusted in their heart?

Exactly.

Here in the Sermon on the Mount, but especially in the antitheses, Jesus magnifies the Law to its absolute. He ratchets the degree of difficulty up to impossible. He expands its jurisdiction infinitely so that its accusation will be all-inclusive.

He gives us no room to maneuver.

Either we cry uncle and pray, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, a sinner.” Or, like the Reichsmarshall Goerring, we laugh and put our trust in our own performance in life and under the Law, over and against our neighbors, and we say, “I’ll take my chances.”

The former is the gospel of grace. The latter — to trust in yourself and your own righteousness, whether you swallow a cyanide capsule or not — is suicide.

Seldom did Chaplain Henry Gerecke speak of the excuses he might’ve proffered for refusing the Tribunal’s summons. When the orders first arrived, his initial reaction was that his own profound and personal anger would be an obstacle for any effective gospel ministry. “I had been at Dachau concentration camp,” he recalled, “where my hand, touching a wall, had been smeared with the human blood seeping through. In England, for fifteen months, I had ministered to the wounded and dying from the front lines. My oldest son had been literally ripped apart in the fighting. Our second son suffered severely in the Battle of the Bulge. Our third and youngest had just entered the Army.”

Given the tremendous loss he had both seen and suffered, when his orders to report to Nuremberg Prison first arrived, Chaplin Gerecke admitted that he had been badly shaken. “How could a one-time Missouri farm boy, make any impression on disciples of Adolf Hitler? Given my bitterness and anger, how could I summon the Christian spirit, which this mission demanded of a chaplain?”

Pastor Gerecke reported that for the next few days he prayed over his decision, and, at some point, his anger and rage gave way to pity and compassion.

“I prayed harder than I ever had in my life,” he remembered, “Slowly, the men at Nuremberg became to me just lost souls, whom I was being asked to help — if, as never before, I could hate the sin, but love the sinner.”

A former teacher of mine, the theologian Robert Jenson, argued that if Christ is risen indeed, then every text of scripture, not just the Ten Commandments or the antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount, functions as both Law and Gospel. That is, every scripture text and every sermon on every scripture text functions as both an accusation against our present and our past but functions also as a promise of the future.

Every scripture text functions as both Law and Gospel. Every biblical passage works on us as both accusation and promise. Every scripture accuses us for who we are or who we have been. But every scripture also gives us a promise of the future. The Gospel is a promise of the future.

Jenson says every preacher should ask themselves, “What does the text promise and what may I promise about the future that can be true only because Jesus Christ lives?”

In light of the scripture text today, here’s the promise. Here’s Christ’s promise. And, make no mistake, it’s for you and me.  One day all the anger you bear against the people in your life — the anger that already has been forgiven by the Father in the Son — will be forgotten by you. One day there will no longer be any discontinuity between the person you are on the outside and the person you are on the inside. One day the voices in your head will be forever muted as the grace of God allows you to find mercy for yourself. One day your tongue won’t get the best of you; all the insults and injuries you wield with your mouth will cease as you see from the light of resurrection that we are all equally lucky that in Jesus Christ God came aboard our ship of fools.

And if you are someone for whom the act, not the intention, is where the Law accuses you today, some sin you committed not in your head but with your hands, then take heart. Take it from Christ. We’re all in the same boat. So, like Peter on the water, be bold and call out to him, “Lord, save me!” And then, step out towards him. He’s right here waiting for you, in word and water and wine and bread. He’s here, for you, to take hold of him.

COMMENTS


One response to “Law, Gospel, and the Chaplain to Condemned Nazis”

  1. Connor Gwin says:

    Thank you for this gut punch of grace!

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