Thinking Anew – Silence in the face of evil is a dangerous option

Rev Martin Niemöller, a German Lutheran pastor and fierce opponent of the Nazis

Rev Martin Niemöller, a German Lutheran pastor and fierce opponent of the Nazis

 

‘Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard is saying that it is only through looking back, possibly over a lifetime, that we can make sense of things that happened along the way. The present, too charged with emotion, is not a good guide.

Understanding backwards reminds us that we are more than a name, an address and a date of birth, that we are part of a continuum stretching back across generations, and that our present has been shaped by people and events long forgotten.

This is especially true for children given for adoption who in later life search desperately to find out who they really are.

Some years ago the BBC television series Who Do You Think You Are? featured the TV presenter Natasha Kaplinsky, who admitted that she didn’t really know who she was. She knew that she was born in England, her father in South Africa, her mother in India and her brother in Kenya but little beyond that.

Then she discovered roots in wartime Europe with family members who suffered because they were Jews. Her great-uncle had committed suicide in 1942 days after the Nazis murdered his two-year-old daughter. The rest of the family, including children, were also murdered. She found this deeply distressing and the programme ended with her standing in the ruins of the synagogue in Slonim, Belarus, where her family had once worshipped, shedding bitter tears as a cousin intoned Kaddish, a Jewish prayer for the dead.

The Old Testament lays much store on the importance of remembering the past and God’s part in it. God is referred to as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob – the God of succeeding generations.

In tomorrow’s reading from Deuteronomy the Jewish people are reminded that knowing their past was an important part of understanding their present: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.”

The Kaplinsky episode reminds us that the persecution of the Jewish people has been a shameful feature of human history ever since, and today there are worrying signs that anti-Semitism is on the rise again.

The Rev Martin Niemöller, a German Lutheran pastor and fierce opponent of the Nazis, spent seven years in a concentration camp.

He warned that silence in the face of evil is a dangerous option: “First they came for the communists and I did not speak out because I was not a communist. Then 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 out for me.”

Niemöller insists that there is a line to be held, not just against anti-Semitism, but against all forms of demonisation. That demands courage because it means taking risks, standing up for people who are different to us and with whom we may not agree.

We might of course disagree less if we knew more of their past.

Tomorrow’s Gospel asserts that a God-centred rather than a self-centred life is the deciding factor.

Jesus makes this clear by confronting his own temptations and saying “no” to the things so many of us pursue – material security, power and popularity, all in the interest of self. We are called to something higher.

As Thomas Jefferson said: “He does most in God’s great world who does best in his own little world.”

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