Monday, December 1, 2008
A Controversy... and beyond
Doing a little research on the poem attributed to Pastor Martin Niemoller, I uncovered confusion, an oral history and more than a little controversy. For some time, the poem itself, when translated into Spanish was credited to Bertolt Brecht. Neimoller is the one most often credited with it, but the exact wording remains a bit of a mystery.
The words, as inscribed on the New England Holocaust Memorial at Faneuil Hall in Boston are:
They came first for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics
and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time no one was left to speak up.
In Milton Mayer's book, "They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45" (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1955, 1966), p. 168f quotes a German professor in "Kronenburg" (probably Frankfurt/Main) whom Mayer interviewed between 1950 and 1954, as follows:
"Pastor Niemöller spoke for thousands and thousands of men like me when he spoke (too modestly of himself) and said that, when the Nazis attacked the Communists, he was a little uneasy, but, after all, he was not a Communist, and so he did nothing; and then they attacked the Socialists, and he was a little uneasier, but, still, he was not a Socialist, and he did nothing; and then the schools, the press, the Jews, and so on, and he was always uneasier, but still he did nothing. And then they attacked the Church, and he was a Churchman, and he did something--but then it was too late."
Niemöller was a commander of a German U-boat in World War I. A seminal incident in his moral outlook, as he related in many public speeches later in his life, occurred when he commanded his submarine crew not to rescue the sailors of a boat he torpedoed, but let them drown instead. Niemöller began studying theology in Münster in the 1920s. At this time, and at least until the mid-1930s, Niemöller was a typical Christian antisemite who openly professed his belief that the Jews had been punished through the ages because they had "brought the Christ of God to the cross." In 1931 Niemöller became a pastor in a wealthy Berlin suburb. As a German nationalist he initially supported Hitler, but as the Nazis began to interfere in church affairs, he moved into opposition. In 1934 Niemöller founded first the Pfarrernotbund (Pastors' Emergency League), then the Bekennende Kirche (Confessing Church), a branch of the German Protestant (Lutheran) Church. In 1937 he was arrested because of his outspoken sermons, and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. In 1941 he was moved to Dachau, where he stayed until the end of the war.
I bring this tidbit of history up both because of what occurred last week here in Silverton and because of a piece in our local monthly, Our Town.The latter boils down to a quote by Tom Smith, the pastor of the Silverton First Baptist Church, who responded to the events of last week by calling them, "a case of two wrongs don't make a right." He went on to say that "Mayor Rasmussen's personal and public promotion of transgenderism (sic) is contrary to what the Bible teaches. However, the Westboro group's promotion of hatred in God's name is similarly wrong."
In an open letter to Pastor Smith via the editor of Our Town, I wrote--
You may believe that the Bible doesn’t teach transgenderism—although, I would love to see the scripture that explicates that—but Mr. Rasmussen does not promote transgenderism, either personally or publicly. He has made a personal choice. He does not advocate others following his personal choice. Further, Mr. Rasmussen is protected by the laws of the land against unreasonable attacks on his personal freedoms, whether you or Fred Phelps may disagree with them. These are the same laws, by the way, that protect Phelps and his family to demonstrate at funerals for soldiers who died in the service of our country, stand on our flag and spew their hatred in public.
Personally, Pastor, if I were a leader of a Baptist congregation, I would do everything I could to distance myself from Fred Phelps and his family. They give the church a bad name. In fact, many people do not even consider them a congregation, but a hate group. I have to agree with current mayor, Ken Hector, who was quoted in the same article as you, saying, “This group is not a church; it’s a cult that preaches hate. They don’t discriminate – they hate everybody.” Their congregation of 60 spend all their time traveling around the country promoting their hatred and intolerance, taunting people and hoping for a confrontation in order to file a lawsuit. Not very Christian of them, wouldn’t you say?
The people of Silverton voted for Stu not because he is “transgender,” but because he is best suited for the job. Thankfully, they showed vision that you, and the Phelps family lack. I am proud of our community, its diversity and its active show of support for the rights and the dignity of an individual who has chosen, not to hate, but merely to be different.
It wasn’t that long ago that a woman could not vote in this country. Blacks were forbidden to cast a ballot… and now, an African-American is about to be sworn in as our country’s president. We have come a long, long way. Unfortunately Mr. Phelps and his family have not. Let us leave them where hate and ignorance live… in the dark—in the past.
God blesses America, so the song goes. He (or She) doesn’t hate it.
In the spirit of the holiday season I wish you Peace on Earth and Goodwill to All.
p.s. You will note I do not--and will not--refer to Fred Phelps as a pastor, reverend or anything else.
Collage created with credit to Google Images