A Call to Activism

A Call to Activism May 16, 2014

On the 8th of May we mark the 69th anniversary of the surrender of Nazi Germany to the Allied Forces. The horror and the tragedy of the rise of the Nazi party and the Nazi ideology in Germany is that so much of what happened might have been preventable if people had been willing to stand up and say “This is wrong!” when it was first noticed that the powers that be were imprisoning, killing, and discriminating against their own citizens. The Holocaust did not happen overnight, it happened in a series of small steps that gradually desensitized people to what was happening. There is an old saying that you can’t kill a frog by dropping him into boiling water because he will leap out. But put him into cold water and gradually heat the water up and he won’t jump until it is too late. This is what happened in Germany between 1933 and 1945.

With the clarity of hindsight over half a century after the end of the war we can point fingers at this person, or at that person, and say that they were responsible for such and such a crime. But the responsibility for horrific crimes against humanity, both then and now, falls upon all of us. We may not engage in criminal acts ourselves, but by our silence and lack of action when such crimes occur we, in fact, condone them. Martin Niemoller, a Christian priest in Germany during the Nazi era, said this most clearly in his famous statement of:

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I did not speak out;
As I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I did not speak out;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
As I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I did not speak out;
As I was not a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

I am not speaking of Nazi Germany in particular when I remind all of us of Neimoller’s writings. But I think the lesson of history is that we should not, in fact cannot, ignore what can happen when we turn a blind eye on injustices to others simply because those others are not us. We are not so clean and pure ourselves in our actions towards others here in the USA of the 21st century. We have only to look in the newspapers to see the sort of bigotry and hatred that led to the death camps of Germany.

Since 9/11 Muslims in the United States have been the targets of discrimination In 2011 the Huffington Post documented over 800 incidents of violence against those thought to be Muslim that occurred in the years following the attack on the World Trade Center. We have even created a word to describe the fear and hatred of those who are Muslim or from countries where Islam is the prevalent religion, it is called “Islamaphobia.” Some leaders in our national government have condemned all Muslims as being terrorists. And many voices speak out against Islam creating an atmosphere of fear and hatred against the entire religion. Can we not hear the echoes here on the attacks on the Jews in Germany prior to and during WWII?

Over the past 10 years or so there have been virulent attacks both verbal and physical against illegal immigrants. In many cases this has been expanded to include any Hispanic, whether legally or illegally in the country. Many voices have been heard that wish to deny them citizenship or to deport them all. They are viewed as a drain on the economy and here to take jobs and money from American citizens.

We have been watching the struggles of our gay, lesbian, bi-, and transgendered citizens to gain the same rights enjoyed by those of us who are straight. Some have been beaten or killed simply because of their sexuality. There are those who portray them as being a threat to the very foundations of our way of life. Does anyone remember that Nazi Germany also condemned and imprisoned an estimated 10,000 gay men in the concentration camps?

What does this all mean for those that engage in interfaith work?

To me the core of interfaith is the understanding that we are all human beings who share the same goals in life. We all have hopes and dreams that are shared across religious faiths. We all try to honor the Divine by whatever name we know it, and we try to treat our neighbors as we would want to be treated. We are trying hard to remember that our “neighbor” is not just the folks who believe the way we do, or who are of the same race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation as ourselves. We are reaching across boundaries to acknowledge that we are all children of this planet we live on. As John Donne wrote:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

With this understanding, I believe that we are called, as Neimoller said, to remember that we cannot afford to ignore the actions against one group simply because we are not members of that group. If we are all human beings then we must speak out against injustice towards another, whether that other is of our faith, our nationality, or sexual orientation. Otherwise we may find that when they come for us there will be no one left to speak out.

(Photo taken by myself in August 2009)

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