Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) was a prominent Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. Niemöller is perhaps best remembered for the quotation:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Niemöller’s point was that Germans—in particular, he believed, the leaders of the Protestant churches—had been complicit through their silence in the Nazi imprisonment, persecution, and murder of millions of people.
But there is a larger point here and one that applies across generations and across cultural and religious boundaries. That larger point is that courage speech and action is risk-taking by its nature and difficult to undertake. To do what needs to be done and say what needs to be said requires courage. My worry for our present time is that this type of courage seems more focused on being courageous for our own interests or the interests of those we know and love. I see and hear countless acts of courage, inspiring courage, where person speak up for an injustice that was done to them or done to a loved one. That is good and right. But Pastor Niemöller’s point is larger, that courage also requires speaking for those who are other, different than ourselves.
I find it so strange to hear people speak with such conviction about injustice as it relates to someone they know but in almost the exact same dynamic where it is someone they don’t know who has been the victim of injustice that same person will take the position that the victim has been the author of her/his own misfortune. If it is true that we have too many persons seeing themselves as victims then surely this indictment applies to us too. If it is true that we have too many persons denying others basic justice than surely that applies to people we don’t know as well as whom we describe as “our own”.
Whom do we speak for? A good question on this solemn occasion.