Then They Came for Me

“Then They Came for Me,” Susan Ryder


Matthew 25:34-40
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Martin Niemöller
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.

A few weeks ago, Bob and I were watching “Real Time with Bill Maher” on HBO. Those of you familiar with the show know that he closes each episode with a segment called New Rules, which is typically our favorite part of the program. New Rules features a few short quips, like this one from a few years ago – “New Rule: Since Oscar voters are 77 percent male, 94 percent white and 86 percent over 50, the Academy must change its name to The Tea Party.” And then he ends with a longer segment that’s like an editorial. I read that on this past Friday’s show, it was about white privilege and liberal guilt. I say that I read about the most recent segment of New Rules because I didn’t watch it. In fact, I haven’t watched it for the past few weeks because Maher finally crossed a line for me, and I stopped watching his show.

In the closing of New Rules on September 6, Bill Maher proposed that society combat obesity by body-shaming overweight individuals. He argued that “In August, 53 Americans died from mass shootings. Terrible right? Do you know how many died from obesity? Forty thousand. Fat shaming doesn’t need to end it needs to make a comeback. Some amount of shame is good. We shamed people out of smoking and into wearing seat belts. We shamed them out of littering and most of them out of racism. Shame is the first step in reform.” As someone who has struggled with my weight for many years due to multiple issues related to rheumatoid arthritis, I was in shock and angered by what I was hearing, and ended up walking out of the room in tears so I wouldn’t have to hear any more of his ugly, hateful words. Fortunately, lots of other people were offended by Maher’s comments, including doctors and psychologists and other talk show hosts. In particular I was most impressed by the response of James Corden, who countered Maher with a segment of his own the following week. As Corden explained, “We’re not all as lucky as Bill Maher. We don’t all have a sense of superiority that burns 35,000 calories a day… Fat-shaming is just bullying and bullying only makes the problem worse.”

Now – I am not telling you this because I want you all to boycott Bill Maher because he made me cry. I am telling you this because in the midst of my righteous indignation I was hit by a realization. Over the years, Maher has slammed all kinds of individuals and groups. He goes after religion and religious people, Muslims in particular, along with feminists and anyone using politically correct terminology. He has welcomed Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos on his show, both far-right political commentators, the latter a former editor for Breitbart News, and defended their right to hate speech on his show and college campuses, and criticized those who cancelled their appearances. While I certainly believe in freedom of speech, saying things that are hatful and shocking just for the sake of being hateful and shocking doesn’t deserve to be promoted. It’s not informative nor entertaining – it’s provocative and violent. So yeah, I should have boycotted him years ago. But up to that point he hadn’t really insulted or offended me – sometimes his views on religion and atheism go a bit too far, especially when he puts all spiritual people in the same category. Plus he’s totally wrong in his opinion about Muslims, and I called him out for that – meaning I shouted at my TV, and retweeted others who disagreed with him. But I kept watching – until the fat shaming. Proclaim that Islam is an inherently violent religion – well, I certainly don’t agree with him, but I kept watching because I’m not a Muslim. Say that fat people are lazy overeaters who deserve to be shamed and die, well that finally crossed a line!

In that moment, the saying attributed to Martin Niemöller immediately came to mind. While I have been aware of what is referred to as Niemöller’s “confession” for many years, I didn’t know anything about his life. So I did some research and discovered Niemöller’s story was not a merely heroic one, as is the case for many of us. He was a World War 1 veteran and German nationalist who was bitter about the treatment of Germany after the war. He supported the National Socialists even though he never officially joined the Nazi Party, and voted for Hitler twice. He became a pastor after his military career, and was anti-Semitic. You heard that right – he did not originally defend Jews – only Jewish Christians – and only acknowledged his anti-Semitism many years later. The change began when he ultimately disagreed with and defied what he saw as Hitler’s crossing the line between church and state with the so-called “German Christian” movement.

The author of Then They Came for Me: Martin Niemöller, the Pastor Who Defied the Nazis, Matthew D. Hockenos, writes “As the Nazis grew in popularity, a group of fervent Protestant supporters emerged, calling themselves the German Christian movement. They believed that Nazism and Christianity were mutually reinforcing. As Nazi enthusiasts, they were anti-Semitic, but in a uniquely religious way: they denied the Jewish ancestry of Jesus and wanted to purge German Protestantism of everything associated with Judaism, including the Old Testament. Their goal was a racially pure church that excluded anyone with Jewish ancestry, even baptized Christians. As far as they were concerned, converts from Judaism to Christianity remained biologically non-Aryan and therefore were not welcome in the church. These self-proclaimed ‘storm troopers of Christ’ subscribed to a racial theology that viewed Jews and Judaism as alien to the German people’s norms, laws, and spirituality. In the fall of 1933 Niemöller and [Dietrich] Bonhoeffer founded the Pastors’ Emergency League, which in 1934 became [known as] the Confessing Church. For the next three and half years Niemöller and his followers in the Confessing Church defied Hitler’s attempts to Nazify the Protestant Church. His sermons became increasingly defiant — openly questioning the führer’s trustworthiness — until Hitler had had enough and ordered Niemöller’s arrest in July 1937 on charges of misusing the pulpit for political reasons.”

The book goes on to describe a scene on a wintry November day in 1945, when Niemöller and his wife stood at the entrance of the crematoria at the Dachau concentration camp outside Munich, where he had been imprisoned for part of the time, from July 1941 to April 1945. There they read a plaque: “Here in the years 1933–1945, 238,756 people were cremated.” It is reported that “even more than the number of people murdered, Nie­möller was taken aback by the plaque’s dates: 1933–1945. Dachau had commenced operations in March 1933, just one month after Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists had come to power. The camp’s first prisoners were the Nazis’ avowed enemies—communists, socialists, and Jews. Niemöller, like most Germans, was well aware that the Nazis were rounding up their adversaries as Hitler tightened his grip on power. But it was only in late 1945 that he began to fully acknowledge his own culpability in the Nazis’ 12-year regime of terror. The Niemöllers were visiting Dachau so that Martin could show his wife the cell block where he had been held for four years. Unexpectedly the plaque outside the crematoria jarred his conscience. His incarceration … had provided him with an alibi for the years 1937–1945. But the dates on the plaque … read 1933–1945, and for those first four years Niemöller had been silent about Hitler’s attack on Jews and the Left. This revelatory moment at Dachau, and the feelings of shame and guilt it surely prompted, gave rise to his famous confession.” (Matthew D. Hockenos)

Niemöller’s story is one of a man who changed his mind, and as a result, risked his life to speak up for what he believed and paid for it by spending many years in a concentration camp. After World War 2 ended, he was among the first to speak publicly from the German pastoral community in terms of confession; he was among the first to proclaim that the German people bore responsibility for what happened, and that the clergy did not speak against Hitler clearly and often enough. He began to open his mind and fight for justice following the model of Gandhi; he gradually became a pacifist, and a progressive advocate for peace. Niemöller encouraged people to speak out when other human beings were being attacked, whatever their race, religion, or political beliefs, and his name and confession became linked with the moral imperative to come to the defense of persecuted minorities. Some people have the clarity of mind to fight against wrongdoing from the very start. Far more of us are like Niemöller – and have to learn and grow and change our minds.

I mention Martin Niemöller’s story for a couple of reasons this morning. The first – because I was convicted by his confession in my much overdue boycott of Bill Maher. How easy it is for us to tolerate the violent words and actions of others if we are not the ones impacted by those words and actions. First Bill came for the Muslims, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Muslim. Then he came for traditional religious people, and I did not speak out — because I was not a traditional religious person. Then he came for politically correct speech, and I did not speak out — because he was edgy and funny and I decided to overlook the error of his words. Then he came for fat people with pre-existing conditions — and I cried and finally boycotted him.

The other reason I mention Niemöller’s story is because we are at a time in history when our future and freedoms are under attack in a dozen or more different ways. Bill Maher is just an arrogant comedian. Boycotting his show is no profile in courage. It certainly won’t make a bit of difference to him, and anyone can change the channel whenever they feel like it. But the corruption, hatred and oppression being promoted by those in power is causing real, possibly irreversible harm. It’s overwhelming and hard to keep track of at times, as rights are already being stripped away from immigrants, refugees, people of color, women and their right to choose, LGBT persons, the poor, those with pre-existing medical conditions – the list goes on and on. Protections for endangered animals, and clean air and water are being lifted, and voter’s rights are at risk.

But I am not an immigrant or a person of color, or a woman of child-bearing age, or gay or lesbian or transgender, or poor, or an endangered animal – so while losing these rights and protections may not appear to directly affect me, and because there are so many things going on all at once, it’s easy to either carry on as usual or be overwhelmed by it all. It’s understandable to lose focus on keeping track of all of the injustices because there are just so many. But the refrain “never again” has echoed through the decades since the end of World War 2, as people bore witness to the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany against other human beings. We vowed, united in our common humanity, never to let such a thing occur again. And yet, crowds chanting “Jews will not replace us” have echoed through the streets of America as walls are being constructed along our border with Mexico, and hard-won rights are being stripped from the LGBT community, as citizens of African descent are once again having their access to the ballot suppressed with gerrymandering and voter ID requirements. As citizens of a global humanity, as followers of Jesus’ way, we have to be aware of the consequences for all our brothers and sisters in our world, not just what’s at stake for us – lest there be no one there to speak when they finally come for us.

Let us pray – Gracious God of all people, we confess that our hearts are easily distracted. We lose sight of our role as neighbors to our fellow citizens, as stewards of the earth’s resources for all creatures. Give us the imagination and courage to speak out against injustice and oppression even when it doesn’t affect us directly. Help us to resist evil, and support causes of justice, healing and generosity to our neighbors in need – those with whom Jesus most identified and for whom he risked his life confronting their oppressors.  Help us to love what is kind even as we search for what is true, inspired by the life of Jesus who said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” Amen