Thomas Kelly (1893-1941) was a Quaker philosopher and writer. Kelly’s son wrote a biography of his father (see here), in which he tells of what happened when Kelly was sent to Nazi Germany in the summer of 1938, out of concern for the welfare of Quakers who were feeling the oppression of life under Hitler. After traveling “from one end of the Third Reich to the other” he crossed the border into France to write “without fear of censorship” about what he found.
In a superficial material sense, Kelly found that things were going well for Germany:
On the surface, Germany is spruced up, freshly painted, great public works are in progress. Unemployment is entirely gone, etc., etc. And if one looks at such things, one feels that this is the bloom-time of Germany. That is what the tourists see…The material side of life is fostered in every way, to the cheapening of the real German soul that has been much deeper than such material things (Kelly, Biography, p. 98).
But these economic events were a distraction. Beneath the surface, among the people, there was a tremendous loss of freedom, beginning with the press:
One thing that strikes one right away is the terrible difference the loss of a free press makes. The tentacles of the government reach out over all. All newspapers are the same newspaper (Kelly, Biography, 98-99).
Censorship was everywhere. People especially censored themselves out of fear that their conversations would be heard by snitches:
This is the first lesson you must learn in Germany, if you are with the oppressed and despairing—you must look to see if anybody can possibly see or hear. It is called der Deutsche Blick, the German Glance. Many a time we sat in the middle of a room and whispered. The Martins always removed their telephone from the wall (it plugged in two places) when they wanted to talk seriously. Now nine-tenths of the time nobody hears. But there is always the chance that someone will hear. And that chance keeps thousands on edge (Kelly, Biography, p. 97).
People outwardly conformed to the regime, not because they believed it, but out of fear of losing their jobs and livelihoods. So they acted dishonestly for the sake of self-preservation:
It is almost impossible to be unswervingly honest in Germany. Take the matter of the “Heil Hitler.” Plenty of people don’t want to do it. But they see their bread and butter taken away if they don’t. I know some people who don’t Heil Hitler, but say Guten Tag. But they are the brave souls who take their future in their hands. But most people are succumbing and are doing what they don’t want to, and are inwardly uncomfortable, but the hunger of children is what they fear—losing their jobs. This is a great undermining of character, that is sad to see (Kelly, Biography, p. 99).
It was especially hard for parents to stand up to the regime, because they had to think about their children:
But souls are sitting in such prisons now, bitterly, suffering because of what they find themselves compelled to do, to keep their stomach filled, or more commonly, to keep their children’s stomachs filled. Many and many a person says to me, “I could be brave and resist the regime, if I didn’t have children” (Kelly Biography, p. 100).
And yet, as Kelly noted, the kids suffered, too. They were living in that society, as much as anyone, and were torn between what they were taught at home and the contrary things they learned in State school programs:
Many young people are having spiritual suffering, arising out of perplexity. At home their parents teach them sound ideas. They are well brought up and grounded until the age of ten. Then their lives get so much more strongly influenced from the outside world. In school and in Hitler Jugend they hear one thing, and at home another. Which will they believe? They get confused and troubled, and lose their way (Kelly, Biography, p. 100).
Why didn’t more people stand up? The Germans themselves had an explanation:
The Germans have coined a phrase for it. They say, “We have no civil bravery” (Kelly, Biography, p. 99).
They lacked civil bravery.
Kelly’s description struck a chord. Actually, it struck numerous chords for me—did it for you?
I naturally asked myself how I would have lived under the same circumstances—would I have shown civil bravery, or would I have succumbed like most people?
Of course, maybe I don’t need to imagine. As I read Kelly’s letter, I thought of many analogies with life today, and how Christians are increasingly living under heavy pressures to conform to oppressive ideologies. I think of how the press and Big Tech walk in lockstep with a particular political party; where people outwardly conform, while inwardly dissenting, for fear of losing their jobs; where kids are being indoctrinated in state schools; and where people no longer speak openly, but self-censor out of fear of being cancelled. Rod Dreher has called this “living by lies.”
Civil bravery means not conforming, not living by lies, but instead standing up for the truth, despite the personal costs.
I think many local churches, especially Evangelical ones, have been preparing their members to resist these pressures, at least a little. But as societal pressures increase, Christians will need “advanced training” on civil bravery.
All I would add is this: a Free Grace perspective would clarify that your eternal destiny does not depend on civil bravery.
Some people might think that standing up to a regime proves whether you are born again, or not. Or that failing to stand up to a regime means forfeiting your salvation.
Salvation is by faith apart from works, including the work of civil bravery.
However, civil bravery can be a discipleship and rewards issue.
Society may want you to deny Christ and your Christian principles and threaten to take away your right to “rule” in society, business, or academia if you refuse to bow down. If you succumb to the pressure and deny Christ, you cannot lose your salvation, but it’s possible He will deny you the right to reign with Him in the world to come (2 Tim 2:11-12).