An oft-quoted statement by Martin Niemoeller (1892-1984):
“When they came for the communists, I was silent, because I was not a communist; When they came for the socialists, I was silent, because I was not a socialist; When they came for the trade unionists, I did not protest, because I was not a trade unionist; When they came for the Jews, I did not protest, because I was not a Jew; When they came for me, there was no one left to protest on my behalf.”
Niemoller was speaking, of course, about the Nazis. During the summer, I happened to hear (not by choice), on ‘Christian’ talk/hate radio, this quote misused against proponents of gay rights – as if people who support gay rights are out to get anti-gay, ‘pro-family’ people; as if gays and lesbians were not one of Hitler’s targets in ‘pro-family’ Nazi Germany; as if gays and lesbians are ‘anti-family;’ as if it is ‘pro-family’ to deny equal treatment to gays and lesbians or tear their family bonds apart. It is a typical tactic of religious right: use a statement of tolerance and courage in the face of oppression to advance an intolerant, oppressive objective.
But the misquote got me thinking, and reading. While the religious right is out in the public square and in your face, we progressive Christians are often silent. Of course, when we do speak, we are often ignored by the media – it seems that a thoughtful progressive statement by, for example, Bishop Mark Hanson of the ELCA (and president of the 60 million member Lutheran World Federation) is not as sexy as the latest stupid thing to come out of a televangelist’s mouth. Another example: October 15, a Guinness world record was set by the Stand Up Against Poverty campaign for the most people to stand up for one cause on one day - 23,542,614 – and yet it did not seem to be covered by mainstream media.
Too often, progressive Christians are silent in the face of injustice, racism, militarism, and other demonic spirits in the world. We seem to have lost our voice – or at least I have, to some extent. This is partly due to my calling as preacher: partisanship in the pulpit is a misuse of pastoral authority. I can advocate a partisan position as a citizen and as a Christian individual; I can share my political beliefs in private conversation or forums. But given that Lutherans, at least in Northern Minnesota, are too polite to publicly disagree with their pastor when he or she is preaching, partisanship inevitably turns the pulpit into a bully pulpit. That is not to say that a sermon should always be apolitical, for that is frankly impossible. Whether you are silent in the face of evil or injustice, or you speak out, you are being political. Failure to take a stand is still a stance.
As I have often noted, Bonhoeffer wrote that the Christian has two tasks in the modern world: prayer and righteous action. Through prayer, we communicate with God. Through righteous action, we communicate God’s love, peace, and justice with the world. We must be both grounded and fruitful. Both tasks are political, as Jesus knew so well. I propose to take a break from uploading my sermons to this weblog, and reflect on both tasks.
A college professor of mine, Dr. Stephen Bouma-Prediger, defined wisdom:
Wisdom is sound judgment based on
keen discernment informed by
cultivated memory developed over time into a
habitual disposition and aimed at
knowing and doing the truth.
I propose to seek Christian wisdom in this pregnant age by (re)turning to the source, to scripture, informed by some wise contemporaries: to cultivate a deeper memory of Christian thought, informing keen discernment, to guide sound judgment, for the purpose of forming a habit of knowing and doing the truth. I do not come to this as a tabula rasa, a blank slate, of course. My choice of wise contemporaries will reveal as much.