You will know of Godwin’s law, I’m sure, whereby the longer an internet discussion countinues, “the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” So, I’m afraid, the time has come.
One of the most gripping if chilling works of history that I’ve read is one that I find myself returning to a lot these days, despite the fact that it is well over 10 years since I first encountered it (in early research for Wilderness of Mirrors). Sir Ian Kershaw has spent a lifetime researching 20th Century German history and has brought all kinds of profound insights to the anglophone world (including through his mammoth two-volume biography of Hitler). The one I’m referring to, though, is his 1987 The “Hitler Myth” (revised in 2001).
Believers in the "Hitler Myth"
In this book he examines the simple problem of what people believed about the dictator, how they came to believe it, and most significantly, how much of it was true. Here is his summary (pp252-3):
- Hitler was the personification of the nation, aloof from selfish sectional interests
- Hitler was the single-handed architect of Germany’s 1930s ‘economic miracle’.
- Hitler was representative of ‘popular justice’, the embodiment of strong, if necessarily ruthless, action to strengthen ‘law and order’.
- Hitler was personally sincere and even ‘moderate’ (and therefore different from, and ignorant of, what Nazis were actually doing).
- Hitler was a statesman of genius, and a fanatical defender and rebuilder of Germany’s rights.
- Hitler was an incomparable military leader who truly understood the ordinary soldier (having been one himself).
- Hitler was the mighty bulwark against Germany’s ideological enemies: Marxism/Bolshevism and the Jews.
This is what people believed. And the diehard acolytes continued to cling to this. Even as the Soviet army was closing in on the Berlin outskirts.
But here’s the thing. None of this was true. Not. One. Scintilla. Every single statement was a complete fabrication, deliberately promulgated by Goebbels and his Propaganda Ministry. And in a grotesque irony, if one wants to know the true nature of the man and his regime, one simply needs to inverse each of the myth’s tenets. And that is not guesswork or hearsay, since throughout the book, Kershaw systematically evaluates documentary and eyewitness evidence for each belief. His conclusions are unequivocal.
But perhaps even more scary is the simple fact that even many architects of the myth were themselves sucked in. Kershaw again:
How was on earth was this possible?
Well, a probable major factor was simply that they wanted it to be true. Then before long, as the war turned in the Allies’ favour, they desperately needed it to be true. Because the consequences, if it wasn’t true, were too horrendous to contemplate. So it just had to be true. Which is why they then just knew it to be true. Such are the deceptive depths of the human heart.
I’m writing this, as it happens, from the United States, in a week that’s witnessed some of the most unsettling and disturbing scenes of recent years. The grim parallels (and ‘parallels’ is probably all we can currently call them, rather than ‘re-runs’) are all too plain. Tragically. There are those who persist in believing that the incumbent US President is a stable genius, brilliant businessman of astronomical wealth and standing, who alone has what it takes to drain the swamp.
Despite evidence to the contrary. Despite so much evidence to the contrary. And the true believers cannot be easily dismissed as the uneducated or ignorant. As Jacques Ellul chillingly explained, propaganda in a mass society (in which people are necessarily remote from centres of decision-making), can work best on the educated and discerning, by appealing to, say, a concern to be well-informed or sophisticated (see this helpful review, for example).
[Incidentally, if you need insightful evaluations of what seems to be going on, despite the constantly shifting situation, then these are the best I’ve read so far:
- Yale historian Timothy Snyder’s chilling overview The American Abyss ($);
- For the best theological engagements see David French’s commentary on the so-called Christian elements of the Capitol insurrection
- and Russell Moore’s brilliant piece, the Roman Road insurrection.]
So why bring all this up?
Believing in the Pastor Myth
One of the peculiar cruelties of abuse is the credibility trick played on the abused. After looking at recent church cases on both sides of the Atlantic, it seems that perpetrating leaders commonly exploit the willingness of people to believe their mythology. This is emphatically not because those people must be weak-minded or especially gullible, because so many factors lie behind that mythology. But what is clearly evident is that people are consequently far slower to face reality.
The evidence of their eyes, or gut instincts, or even from trusted friends and family, gets dismissed. It just can’t be true. Why? Well because famed pastor/leader/pioneer is… (delete as appropriate)
- uniquely gifted and equipped to lead XYZ mission/ministry/project
- so greatly used by God to achieve DEF.
- so helpful and insightful about our cultural context and climate.
- by so many accounts, known for his pastoral sensitivity and concern for individuals
- trusted in many different circles as an effective organisational leader
- committed to purity and high personal ethics
- is trusted by so many women, not least because he seems to go out of his way to give women ministry opportunities
- etc, etc, ad infinitum
I can only assume that this seems to have been a contributory factor behind the reluctance within RZIM to accept the allegations that Ravi Zacharias had abused several (and perhaps many) women. Another motivation was clearly the desire to preserve the global juggernaut of a ministry that bore his name (but that’s a rather different issue, for another time perhaps). Yet, as so often, the cover-up causes as much, if not more, damage as the individual abuses (as the collapse in the reputation of Boston Archdiocese after the Boston Globe exposé proved).
There is a process at work here.
It might start because of personal needs and insecurities, but it doesn’t always; e.g., the lack of a positive father figure (because of early bereavement, abuse, or trauma, say); or being overwhelmed by doubts in one’s faith and so needing the comfort and reassurance of someone who knows what they’re talking about. So they get drawn to a strong leader. On the basis of his reputation, they are expecting, and even wanting, to find it valid. This makes it all too easy to latch onto alternative explanations every time counter-evidence is presented. Because leader X just ‘isn’t like that’; Because guru Y ‘would never do it’. Even as evidence begins to pile up, the wanting can become needing. And the needing somehow becomes corroborating. They just know he’s not like that.
Until they don’t. Until the convergence of evidence reaches a critical mass and reality shatters the myths. The leader is exposed; the wizard of oz is just a pathetic old man. The reputation was mythical; some people were always going to believe; but the truth was always going to emerge eventually.
However, the longer that took, the greater the scale of abuses and victims.
Now, again, it might seem from the outside, that the process of wanting to needing to knowing is a mark of weakness or unintelligence or lack of discernment. All I can say is that it is far more complicated than that, particularly when an abuser is a sophisticated and skilful manipulator (essential if he is to get away with it for a while).
Grim, isn’t it?
Checking the credibility of the plausible
Here is perhaps the saddest thing about all this–apart from the obvious atrocities and abuses, of course. None of us can afford NOT to lose our innocence. Too much is at stake. But one thing is certain. We can no longer say ‘oh that could never happen here‘ (regardless of ‘here’ being a nation, an organisation, a ministry, a church). Ever.
Here’s Kershaw’s conclusion to the book:
Quite apart from whether or not western democracies are now more likely to collapse in this way than when Kershaw first wrote, he’s surely right. We need to be on high alert.
But does this make sliding into the suspicion vortex inevitable, even in the places where we are supposedly safest (like the church)?
It’s a massive question. And in Wilderness of Mirrors, I tried to address it. But I’m horribly conscious of simply scratching the surface. It definitely needs even more work (and blog posts no doubt – because there is definitely more to be said with regard to evangelicalism in the UK and elsewhere).
For now, I guess I will limit myself to an anecdote that I’ve used often in talks. But it has a rather more chilling relevance, now. I’ve no idea where I picked it up and over the years did try to source and verify it. Perhaps it’s no surprise I always failed.
A Canadian Christian took her very secular neighbour to hear Ravi Zacharias at a big event on a nearby university campus. As they walked to the car, the two women chatted. Inevitably, the key question arose.
‘So! What did you think?’
‘It was amazing! I’ve never heard anything quite like it. It’s really given me loads to chew on. Thanks so much for bringing me.’
So did that mean she was ready to sign on the dotted line and come to church. Not at all. Because she then thought for a minute and uttered a crucial thought.
‘But I wonder what he’s like at home…’
And therein lies the problem. In mass culture, we face a huge disadvantage when seeking out integrity and truth. We’re too remote. Which means that the onus on those in Christian ministry can only be an even greater willingness to be known, to be vulnerable, even in our brokenness. And for that, a culture of reality-facing truth and grace is essential. (Which is quite another story…)
Otherwise, people are justified, and even wise, to dismiss spiritual authority figures. As in fact they are increasingly doing.