The Nuremberg Defense

The Nuremberg Defense still works, at least as filtered through a uniquely
United Methodist interpretation of Romans 13 via U. S. Attorney General
Jeff Sessions’s United Methodist Christian Education. If the German
Lutherans in the dock at Nuremberg had been Methodists from Alabama, who
knows who’d have lived well into the 20th century? If we hadn’t been so
busy trying to keep races from mixing on our own continent, we could have
evangelized an Aryan Europe, eager for our arms-length approach to
Christian responsibility and Christ-like living.

You know what I’m talking about, right? I shouldn’t make that
assumption. The Nuremberg defense was the strategy used by senior officers
of the German High Command when tried by the Allies for war crimes after
World War II. (The trial took place in the city of Nuremberg, Germany;
hence its name). After WWII, when confronted with the horrors of the
Holocaust and ethnic cleansing in Russia, many officers claimed they were
simply “following orders.” These were not personal decisions, which they
may have objected to, but political decisions required by the necessity of
war, went their defense. Another former Nazi, Adolf Eichmann, made the
same defense when tried by the Israeli government in 1961. Lt. William
Calley and those responsible the My Lai massacre in Vietnam echoed the
same defense at their trials in 1971. What does this mean? If you want
morality, don’t look to war. War, as Gen. William Sherman said, is Hell.

Oh, be positive, Richard, it’s a lovely day, you might say. Yet if you’re
still in a detention center and your family is in Honduras and you’re
still in Texas, I’m guessing you’re in a form of hell. But if it’s great
for us, what does it matter for anyone else? That’s how many people say
they feel. Yet if the church is going to help anyone, even in this time of
denominational transition, our ability to remain empathetic must be

In this moment, we’re in a struggle for the survival of the democratic
republic. Those who are waging war on civil liberties, human rights,
freedom of the press, and the religious freedoms of those who aren’t
evangelical Protestants, could care less our impassioned letters to the
editor, daily bouts of incredulity, or attempts to censure members of our
own denomination. When powerful people such as an Attorney General who is
a lay leader in our denomination confidently and proudly relies on
versions of the Nuremberg defense, we’re done. When such a powerful person
can do so with full knowledge that United Methodist bureaucratic timidity
won’t challenge them (“our hands are tied by the Discipline and we refuse
to untie them despite the human suffering we pretend to acknowledge and
loudly bemoan”) we’re done. We’re finished not because of theological
divisions over homosexuality. No, this is far worse. We’ve become
short-attention-span activists; we say care, but after one letter telling
us no, we’re ready to let the institutional word be the last word.

Change was never going to come by compiling signatures. With human beings
still in cages, do we move on to our less “controversial” arguments? Hell,
no! We do both. How do we look at one letter from one district
superintendent claiming to settle the erosion of basic human rights in
America and United Methodism’s complicity in such an evil? I can’t salute
like a good soldier, say “yes, sir” and carry on. We’re well past that

As for the Romans 13 justification, I don’t owe Caesar anything. I don’t
think Paul meant for us or anyone else to transpose the phrase governing
authorities (as he knew them), meaning the Imperial Roman Administration
to 21st century America. I don’t want to be Caesar’s pet. Even Caesar is
subject to God. Our Caesar and those who administer his justice seem to
forget, this God isn’t a reflection of their own vengeful natures, but the
God of the Sermon on Mount. I owe that God everything.

Richard Lowell Bryant