Jason Byassee: Anonymous leaders

One of the most important leaders in the Confessing Church movement died in obscurity in 1977, her funeral attended by seven people. How much of our lives is made possible by leaders forgotten to history?

Do you ever wonder whether the leaders who make the good in our life possible are actually people whose names we’ll never know?

There is good reason we associate leadership with the person up front, who gives direction to an organization and mentors us individually in how to see our lives in a larger context. But occasionally the more important leader can be the quiet one, in the back, pushing an organization from behind rather than pulling it from the front. Especially when the leaders in the front fail.

Elisabeth Schmitz was the greatest leader of the Confessing Church that no one knows about. Even scholars of the resistance to Hitler’s Germany were unaware of her contribution. She was the author of an anonymous 1936 pamphlet called “On the Predicament of the Germany non-Aryans” that insisted Christians must defend the Jews from increasingly violent Nazi policies. The Confessing Church, nominally the resistance to official state-church cooperation with the government, was in fits over persecution only of Jews who had been baptized. Schmitz insisted the church speak up on behalf of all Jews. “Why doesn’t the church do anything?” she lamented. She predicted, entirely accurately, that not long after Jewish property is destroyed the owners of that property would meet a similar fate. And she agitated: writing letters to prominent pastors and theologians, demanding they object to the events of Kristallnacht pogroms of 1938.

Some did. A significant protest sermon came from the renowned theologian Helmut Gollwitzer, to whom Schmitz had personally appealed. His sermon “Repentance Day” has long been in the (tragically short) canon of Christian resistance to Nazism. It is disheartening now to think how few pastors did what we all assume they should have seen clearly to do. One who did, earning deserved fame, did so at the urging of a woman who was, until now, anonymous. When Schmitz died in 1977 only seven people came to her funeral. (more on the film in this long review).

Scholars of the Confessing Church and Nazi resistance generally knew of the anonymous pamphlet, but thought it was written by someone else. Steve Martin’s new film Elisabeth of Berlin introduces us to the man who found Schmitz’s original in the basement of her and his church. Martin is an outstanding filmmaker and documentarian who has done much to illuminate the church’s quietism and even advocacy on behalf of Nazi Germany (more on him here). Here he highlights one rare exception, drawing attention to a Protestant saint (note the hagiographic form of the film’s title) who was brave enough to do what we all wish we would have the courage to do. Most of us will never know if we do. But we can be glad one of us did. I love the film’s image of the little old man in the church basement finding the unexpected faithfulness of the little old woman pushing the Confessing Church to where it did not want to go.

The church depends on unknown acts of faithfulness from old women and men who die to sparsely attended funerals. In the church of her day most of those up front did the wrong thing. The one who did right, unknown in the back, was forgotten. Maybe those of us who lead from the front would do well more often to notice those pushing more anonymously from the back—and even to give them a hand.

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.