by Ned Netterville
[Editor’s Note: Christian patriots often offer up Romans 13:1-7 (Render unto Caesar – in other words, the Roman authorities – what Caesar is due) as a biblical reason for paying taxes to their federal and state governments (reproduced at the end). Rarely do they realize that their argument applies equally to democratic as well as totalitarian governments. In other words, there would have been just as much reason to obey and pay the pre-World War II German authorities (the Nazis) as there would have been to pay and obey the American government under FDR. The large majority of Christian preachers in Germany supported the Third Reich, while most Christian preachers in the United States supported the Allies. Both German and American Christian religious leaders were praying to the same deity and using the same New Testament while their co-religionists were trying to kill each other. (For an interesting account of how Christian soldiers from both sides cooperated, despite the pleas of their leaders, see “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie, THE VOLUNTARYIST, Whole No. 12, December 1984. Please enjoy the following fiction.]
My Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Let every person be subject to Hitler and the governing Nazi authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and the Nazi authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Whoever resists Nazi authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For the Nazi rulers are not a terror to good conduct but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the Nazi authorities? Then do what is good, and you will receive the Nazis’ approval, for Hitler is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong you should be afraid, for the Gestapo does not wield the sword in vain. Hitler is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore, one must be subject to Hitler, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the Nazis are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.
signed Heil Hitler, Rabbi Benjamin Roth at
Sachsenhousen, Germany, January 15, 1938
This letter was sent by Rabbi Benjamin Roth to the members of his synagogue in Stuttgart from a Nazi “labor” camp shortly after he was arrested as an enemy of the state for his frequent, bold condemnation of Hitler and the Nazis. The letter was, of course, first opened and read by the prison’s Gestapo censors, who were unaware of their prisoner’s history of sedition, assuming he was, like most of Sachsenhousen’s residents, arrested merely because he was a Jew. His letter made it past the censors and was delivered to the synagogue by mail, thanks to its Hitler-and-Nazi-flattering content.
When his letter was read to the synagogue community on the next Sabbath, it was recognized immediately by all but one member of the Rabbi’s flock for the irony it spoke. It inspired many members to do exactly the opposite of what the Rabbi’s ironic words appeared to be directing them to do, knowing the opposite is what he really wanted of them. As a result, evasion of German taxes was higher among members of Rabbi Roth’s synagogue than anywhere in Germany. More than a few members went to their deaths as illegal tax protesters.
The lone member who took the Rabbi’s words at face value was a rather dull honey dipper, Ike K. When Ike heard the letter read, he took it to heart and joined the Nazi Party. When the Nazis discovered he was a Jew, he was made to kneel and then kicked to death by Gestapo agents.
Rabbi Roth was eventually shipped on to the Chelmno extermination camp in December, 1941, where he was among the first victims murdered in the back of a box truck with its exhaust piped into the sealed cargo area. It was the Nazis’ first mass-human-extermination machine, reputedly contrived by Adolf Eichmann himself.
Roth’s personal papers were kept safely hidden by members of his synagogue community until after the war. The collection reveals that when Hitler came to power in 1932, Roth undertook a study of the works of Paul the Apostle (Saul of Tarsus), who similarly had to contend with the persecution and slaughter of his Christian congregation in Rome by the Emperor Nero. Paul was beheaded by Nero in 68 CE. No doubt Roth had reflected on the striking similarities between the infamous tyrant Nero, who would douse Christians with paraffin and use them as human torches to light his evening garden parties, and Adolf Hitler, whose rapacious extermination of Jews knew no bounds to its numbers nor its savagery.
I wonder if Rabbi Roth saw in himself a reflection of the Apostle? I certainly do in his use of Paul’s irony in Romans.
[Editor’s Note: Below follows the current version of Romans 13:1-7 from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)]
Being Subject to Authorities
“13 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.”