Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
The past several days have felt like an intensification of the last four years. Christian nationalism loomed on the fringes as a possibility in 2016 when Donald Trump took the Republican nomination with his “Make America Great Again” slogan, but it became a devastating reality over the slow grind of his presidency. For Never Trumpers like me, the years have brought loss: loss of relationships, loss of fellowship with other believers, loss of faith in our democracy. For many people I know and know of, the Trump years and the unholy union of Trumpism with Christianity have also brought loss of faith in the Church—and most devastatingly loss of faith in God.
Prior to January 6, I hoped I’d seen the worst that Trumpism had to offer, but then the President of the United States instigated a violent insurrection on our Capitol. And it wasn’t just any insurrection; it was a Christian insurrection. All the trauma and betrayal of the last four years swept over me as I watched the events unfold, but I was also gripped with sadness, because for all my feelings of shame over what people bearing the name of Christ have done to this country, I still believe there is a properly ordered way to love America as a Christian. I remain a patriot, but I reject nationalism in all its forms—most especially Christian nationalism. This struggle between patriotism and nationalism, between Christian and national identity, is far from unique to our current moment, and it’s one average people of all types have had to wrestle with throughout history.
The 2019 film A Hidden Life tells the true story of Franz and Fani Jägerstätter who were Austrian peasant farmers during World War II. Despite having limited knowledge of the larger workings of the war or the outside world, Franz (played by August Diehl) becomes convinced that the Nazi movement is harmful to Austria—and that the war Hitler is propogating is unjust. Although he loves Austria and would readily fight in a just war to defend his land and his family, Franz decides that he will never be able to swear the required oath to Hitler to fight for him. Rather than fleeing when called into active military duty, however, Franz subjects himself to the Nazi military authorities. When he refuses to “Heil Hitler,” he is arrested as a traitor.
Much of the movie is told through letters exchanged between Franz and Fani (Valerie Pachner)—both while Franz is in prison and from earlier in the film when he is training to be a soldier. A line from one such early letter Franz wrote jumped out at me as I watched: “Oh, my wife. What’s happened to our country? To the land we love?” The sentiment is striking because although we haven’t been facing outright, worldwide war, we have faced terrible conflicts in America in just the last year—not to mention the last four years. What is happening to the land that we love?Love of country is good, but love of country must never supersede love of God, and it’s only by loving God most that we can love our country in the way we should.
And it’s not just the buildings that have been burned, the institutions that have been attacked, or the people who have been killed—although there is a special horror to the killings which must be acknowledged as being the worst of all the atrocities. But when we speak of patriotism, we must also look to love of the land itself. And this is another reason I appreciate the film A Hidden Life as helpful for interpreting our present moment.
Love of the land is steeped in the storytelling of A Hidden Life. Director Terrence Malick devotes an abundance of screentime to longshots of the Austrian mountain sides on which the Jägerstätter family lives and works. They plant, they cut grass, they harvest wheat and apples and beets. They bury potatoes with their bare hands, dig wells, weed, gather dry sticks for firewood, and furrow fields. They not only tend the land, but the lands tend them—each sustaining the other in a sort of post-Edenic, yet still beatific, dance of existence. Malick has a special talent for displaying the full beauty and majesty of creation and everything in it and letting us just revel in what it is.
The Jägerstätters love Austria—their land, their family, their village. The fact that they view all of it as a good gift from God allows them to love it properly, even when life is hard. In a way, patriotism is an extension of God’s first mandate to Adam and Eve to live in the Garden and take care of it. The Garden of Eden was obviously not a country or a nation, but it was the first place on Earth given to a people as a home, and they were to act as stewards of it and everything in it. It was a place for them to love, as you must love any land that you care for. The drive and instinct to love, protect, and care for the land and people of our birth is not an inherently bad thing.
Love of country is good, but love of country must never supersede love of God, and it’s only by loving God most that we can love our country in the way we should. Our loves must be properly ordered. Nationalism disorders these loves by saying that country must come first—or even that country must be equal to God. It can even say that if we don’t have our country then we don’t have God. This is a dangerous conflation and can lead to radicalized action the likes of which we saw on January 6.
Franz Jägerstätter was a patriot, but I can’t help thinking that many Americans today wouldn’t view him that way—just as how his villagers and his government didn’t view him that way, either. He refuses to run away from military service, acknowledging that he is Austrian and belongs to the land, but by refusing to swear the oath to Hitler, he’s viewed as a traitor. But Franz was acknowledging that he owed his allegiance to a higher authority—and a higher kingdom—to which he belongs. His stance should be the stance of all Christians. We do not bow the knee to anyone who demands our full allegiance or an oath given which should only be given to God.A people who cannot distinguish what sin is, and what truth is, are in full epistemological crisis.
There is a personal and communal cost to Franz’s refusal to bow the knee to Hitler’s military state—Franz is physically imprisoned, his wife and children are ostracized from their community. They’re denied access to life-giving activities like community harvests and water and help on their farm. Their children are mocked and ridiculed, Fani is spat on and told she and her husband are sinning against the village. She no longer feels welcome in their village church. But it is a better thing to sin against your village—or your town, city, state, or country—than to sin against God.
A people who cannot distinguish what sin is, and what truth is, are in full epistemological crisis. When everyone around Franz and Fani embrace a lie for the truth, the couple clings to Christ, who does not change. When Franz is awaiting the day he will be called into military service, a church painter tells him, “A darker time is coming. Men will no longer fight the truth. They’ll just ignore it.” Everything is permissible when you ignore the truth. As more and more people in their village become supportive of the Nazi agenda, the miller in Franz’s village laments to him, “Don’t they know evil when they see it? They are used to it now.” These sentiments feel familiar to me after four years of lost relationships, lost fellowship, ridicule from fellow Christians, and more. And I am not one who has had to worry about losing my job or livelihood for not supporting Trump—but I know people who have.
Being a “Christian nation” is no safeguard against the rise of a dictatorial power—powerful Christian nations all throughout history have harbored and enabled the rise of dictators. Austria was deeply Christian when Hitler rose to power and the people remained deeply religious throughout his reign. There is a cross or crucifix of some sort in almost every frame of A Hidden Life—I think to serve two purposes: to remind us of the way in which Franz and Fani kept Christ constantly before their eyes, but also to remind us that Austria itself never stopped being a Christian nation even as people swore allegiance to Hitler. Religious people are the worst sort of oppressors because they attach the name and witness of Christ to lies, violence, and a multitude of sins that destroy the body as well as the soul. As a character tells Franz in A Hidden Life, it is “better to suffer injustice than to do it.”
Church fathers like Augustine and Jerome mourned the invasions that swept through Rome in her last days. It is not unspiritual or faithless to love the land in which God has placed you. We are all mandated to serve the living earth and the people on it, whether they love or hate us or ignore us. And Christians, if they hate us, they had better hate us because we act like Christ, and not because we erect gallows to execute our statesmen and women. They had better hate us because we lay down our lives for others. They had better hate us because we are willing to be the lowest in society—because we’re willing to face actual persecution with joy. They had better hate us because we refuse to bow the knee or swear an oath of fealty to wicked and immoral leaders.
But that is not why they hate us right now. They hate Christians because those who marched on the U.S. Capitol and attacked the foundations of our freedoms did so while carrying the cross and banners proclaiming “Jesus Saves.” They hate us because for four years, roughly 80% of white Evangelicals have propped up a wicked man and made excuses for his immorality where they would never have given an inch of excuse if he had been a Democrat. They hate us for our lack of truth—for our hypocrisy.
Franz Jägerstätter was not a hypocrite. He had to ask himself, what does it mean to be an Austrian and a Christian? What is my duty to the state, and what is my duty to God? In answering these questions, he found peace with God, even as the Nazi government imprisoned, and eventually executed him, for treason. I think it’s worth noting, too, that Franz was executed in 1943, in the middle of the war. Long before the true atrocities of Hitler’s regime were widely known. He came from a far-flung Austrian village without access to the sort of news many in the world had. He watched army reels of German advances, meant to glorify the greatness of the Reich, and he heard the way people talked at his local tavern, but Franz’s world and his access to information was very limited. As a conscientious objector to Hitler, he had far less to go on than we know now—about Hitler, or about any events in our own time and our own world.Is your love for America an ordered love or a disordered one? We all must find peace with God, but there can be no peace without justice, and no justice without truth.
Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler, and we are not living in World War II Austria. But Scripture is clear about to whom our allegiance lies, and when we see a political leader whip his followers into violent fanaticism, we should unequivocally stand against such a thing. Trumpism did not emerge out of nothing, and we are without excuse for the decisions we make. What does it mean to be an American and a Christian? We now have to answer that question in light of the events of January 6, 2021. Is your love for America an ordered love or a disordered one? We all must find peace with God, but there can be no peace without justice, and no justice without truth.
It is better to be ostracized from your community—and even your church—for refusing to support an immoral political leader like Donald Trump than it is to attach the name and witness of Christ to nationalism. The Christian abandonment of truth in exchange for power in the white Evangelical American Church that took place during the Trump years will have ripple effects for years to come. We have only begun to see the fallout of it; we will not be able to begin the work of repairing people’s trust in Christianity in this nation unless and until Trumpism is eradicated from our churches. The work must begin with repentance, and it must begin now.
Franz Jägerstätter was told several times by his captors that no one would ever know what he was doing—that no one would know his sacrifice. He should just speak the Nazi oath so he could live, for his wife and children and mother. His integrity made no difference. But our individual piety, integrity, and choices always matter to God, and they form the foundation of our nation. It’s not what Donald Trump or Joe Biden does in the White House that ultimately forms America, but what you and I do in our “hidden lives.”