From that time forth began Jesus to show unto his disciples that he must go unto Jerusalem, suffer many things and be killed, and be raised again the third day. Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, “Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee.” But he turned, and said unto Peter, “Get thee behind me, Satan. Thou art an offense unto me. Thou savorest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.” Then said Jesus unto his disciples, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” Matthew 16:21-26, AKJV, edited
In a book coming out later this month called Hollywood’s Spies: The Undercover Surveillance of Nazis in Los Angeles, author Laura Rosenzweig tells the story of World War I veterans in the 1930s who infiltrated a German social club that was a recruiting post for Nazi spies—enemies right in our backyard.* The Nazis were smart to target veterans as members, because they were angry at the Roosevelt administration for having slashed their benefits due to Depression cutbacks. These were men with an axe to grind against their country. These same types of men helped put Nazis in power in Germany. (German veterans had suffered the same kinds of cutbacks.) They would be especially vulnerable to all the trappings of Nazism: the sharp, military-style uniforms club members wore, the quasi-religious symbolism, gestures and songs. These ex-soldiers would get to wear a uniform again, do the cool, Roman empire salute, march with their brothers-in-arms and feel like heroes.
The Nazis Miscalculated
One such veteran, former U.S. lieutenant John Schmidt, was recruited by this club as an ideal member. He was a German immigrant to America and had suffered from PTSD after his WWI service. Hospitalized for six years, he then saw his pension drastically cut like other veterans. The Nazis reasoned that Schmidt and others like him would give in to anger and revenge and join their cause. Schmidt did attend one of these club meetings, which were full of virulent anti-Semitism and anti-government remarks. He did not like what he heard. He immediately got several of his other veteran buddies to also infiltrate the club. They even convinced the Nazis they had enlisted the California National Guard in their cause. These heroes documented everything and ultimately brought the Nazis to trial, exposing their espionage.
The Nazis made a huge miscalculation in thinking that these economically-disadvantaged, white Americans of Northern European descent, angry at the government, would choose a racist, fascist, violent agenda. They could have lost their souls to the thirst for vengeance, to false assurances that they belonged to the master race. But instead they chose to listen to and honor their souls.
Choices, Then and Now
I couldn’t help but contrast the behavior of these heroic Americans with recent others who have made the opposite choice: the neo-Nazis, white supremacists and alt-righters who marched in Charlottesville. Suffering under an economic recession that has lasted years, they heard the racist talk of their own superiority over others–and liked what they heard. They willingly embraced the rhetoric of hate and violence, the idea that they are übermenschen, supermen over all others, to get back at a world that hasn’t done much for them, to feel better, to feel like heroes. They got to wear the uniforms, ranging from full-on KKK robes to the new alt-right uniform of white polos and khakis—tiki torch, optional.
I do not think the Los Angeles veterans from the 1930s were, in their essence, better people than those who went to Charlottesville.But they were people who had learned, through faith or practice, to pay attention to their souls. They had learned to make choices that fed their souls, not their egos, not their desire to be better than others, their desire for revenge. Those things feed not our souls, but the side of us that listens to Satan—that is, the tempter, the adversary.
Jesus Chooses Soul Over Ego
When Jesus says, “Get thee behind me, Satan,” it’s not a personal rebuke to Peter. Jesus is recognizing the adversary he has met before, during his temptation in the wilderness when he was offered all the gains and riches of the world. Jesus hears through Peter the side of himself that wants to follow the things of this world, that wants to save his own life. He is being tempted to feed his ego instead of his soul.
Immediately before this passage, Jesus talked about founding his church. And immediately after this passage is Jesus’ Transfiguration where he communes in the heavens with Moses and Elijah. So it’s imperative to have this moment in between where Jesus rejects those two temptations, to either stay in the world and be the beloved founder of a great movement, or to retreat from the world altogether and float on a cloud far above its problems. Rather than these options which would feed his ego, Jesus chooses to take up his cross. Jesus walks in the way of suffering, just like we average humans have to. That is how he redeems us. He chooses not only the benefit of his own soul, but salvation for all our souls.
Our Souls and the Soul of the Church
I want to know more about what this thing is that Jesus calls a soul. I want to be able to choose my soul over anger, resentment, violence and power even when it seems justified to choose them. And what is our soul as a community? How do we attend to that soul?
It is not for us to prophesy the day (although the day will come) when we will once more be called so to utter the word of God that the world will be changed and renewed by it. It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming – as was Jesus’ language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God’s peace with humanity and the coming of his kingdom. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1944
We have heard from the alt-right; we know what they think. What about the alt-church? What about those of us who, in Bonhoeffer’s words, are seeking a liberating and redeeming new language of righteousness and truth? The challenge for us is not which side we will choose. We know where we stand. But how can we change the environment so that hate-filled ideology is no longer an attractive option? What are we doing to, “[proclaim] God’s peace with humanity and the coming of his kingdom?”
Let Us Feed Our Souls…
We live in an age where among the many temptations of Satan we witness, the temptation to give up our very souls seems more present and tangible than I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. Let us feed our own souls and teach others, these potential enemies perhaps in our backyard today, how to feed theirs. Let us listen to and nourish this thing called a soul, greater than all the treasures and temptations of the world, this thing worth losing even your life to preserve, this thing Jesus gave his life in order to save for us.
*The club was on Alvarado Street, one block south of Good Samaritan hospital and two blocks from MacArthur Park.