“First They Came….”
They came first for the Communists, and I did not speak up—
Because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak up—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak up—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I did not speak up—
Because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
This poetic statement is attributed to Pastor Martin Niemoeller, and has become a legendary expression of the lesson of the Holocaust. It reflects the tragedy of his (and large swaths of the German church along with him) all-too-late opposition to the Nazi regime. Niemoller eventually became a vocal opponent of the Nazis, and was sent to a concentration camp, which the poem reflects in its final line.
It is all too easy to say that we would act differently than the characters of history past were we given the opportunity. Had I been born and grown up in the time and place of Niemoeller, I certainly hope I would have spoken up at the very beginning, and stood with the persecuted. I certainly hope I would not have made excuses, like “I didn’t know,” as many in Niemoller’s time did (in an interview in 1946 he admitted, “We knew it, it was printed in the newspapers.”). I certainly hope I have learned some bit of wisdom from this shocking lesson of history.
But the lesson stretches even further back. It can be found in one of the thirty Sayings of the Wise (Proverbs 22:17-24:22) written by Solomon. Here is the twenty-fifth saying:
Rescue those who are unjustly sentenced to die;
save them as they stagger to their death.
Don’t excuse yourself by saying, “Look, we didn’t know.”
For God understands all hearts, and he sees you.
He who guards your soul knows you knew.
He will repay all people as their actions deserve.
(Proverbs 24:11-12, New Living Translation)
This is a sobering statement of wisdom from Solomon. He makes it impossible to miss God’s passion for justice that should mark those who say they are his children and followers. We are to rescue the perishing. But who are the ones we are charged to rescue?
It could be that this is a metaphor for the spiritual. Namely, we should rescue those around us who are spiritually blind, trapped in the kingdom of darkness. We must proclaim good news to them, so that they might be saved and transferred to the kingdom of the Son.
But I don’t think that’s what Solomon is after. It seems this wisdom saying should be understood from a plain reading of the text. Namely, when we find that someone has been unjustly condemned to die, we must take extraordinary measures to secure their release. It would have been good for Pastor Niemoller to have paid attention to this saying in the midst of the extermination of the Jews in his country.
And we must be careful here. It would be easy to condemn the actions of this German pastor in the 1940s. But as an American pastor in 2018, how are my actions holding up?
Every day in my country, an estimated 3,000 of the most vulnerable people in our society are unjustly condemned to die through the horrific act of physician-assisted abortion. This is justified by its supporters because these babies are inconvenient, and the timing isn’t right to bring them into the world. Or, they are deformed or sick, and would therefore be a burden on society, so it’s better they not continue to live.
And these actions by our collective culture have had a devastating effect on the valuation of life, and have lead to a culture of death. Eight jurisdictions in the United States now have legalized physician-assisted suicide, a practice which has largely impacted another class of the vulnerable in our society—the sick and the old. How long before what is allowed, is expected? How long before the state comes for me in my latter years, shows the burden I have become on society for my care as an older person, and expects me to prematurely end my life for the good of the state? Who will stand up for me?
The testimony of Niemoller should remind us that this potential picture of the future is no stretch of the imagination. They came for him eventually, and there was no one left to speak for him.
Friend, I understand that these are complicated and controversial issues, and I have merely brought them up for consideration, and not dealt extensively with them. I am unable to do that in a short meditation on this saying of Solomon. But we must prayerfully consider that,
God understands all hearts, and he sees us.
He who guards our souls, knows what we know.
And he will repay all people as their actions deserve.
So, ask God today, What will be your actions, in our time, to protect the Sanctity of Life?
I know you won’t call all of us to work at a Pregnancy Resource Center. You won’t move all of us to become legislators or lawyers who would be able to effect change in the policies, statutes, and laws of our land to protect the Sanctity of Life at the beginning, end, and every year in between. But it seems that this proverb you have given says we should—all of us—be involved in some way when we know what is happening around us. So help us, Father. Make it clear, through the leading of your Holy Spirit, and the input of trusted friends and counselors, what action we could take—and soon—to rescue those who need rescuing around us.
Yes, and very amen, in Jesus’ name.
Pursuing the wise and good life with you,
P.S. If you’d like to study some of the wisdom literature further, I highly recommend the Wisdom Series from The Bible Project, and their resources on the book of Proverbs.
Proverbs Thirty-One Day Reading Plan
August 14: Proverbs ch. 1
Aug. 15: ch. 2
Aug. 16: ch. 3
Aug. 17: ch. 4
Aug. 18: ch. 5
Aug. 19: Grace Day
Aug. 20: ch. 6
Aug. 21: ch. 7
Aug. 22: ch. 8
Aug. 23: ch. 9
Aug. 24: ch. 10
Aug. 25: ch. 11
Aug. 26: Grace Day
Aug. 27: ch. 12
Aug. 28: ch. 13
Aug. 29: ch. 14
Aug. 30: ch. 15
Aug. 31: ch. 16
Sept. 1: ch. 17
Sept. 2: Grace Day
Sept. 3: ch. 18
Sept. 4: ch. 19
Sept. 5: ch. 20
Sept. 6: ch. 21
Sept. 7: ch. 22
Sept. 8: ch. 23
Sept. 9: Grace Day
Sept. 10: ch. 24
Sept. 11: ch. 25
Sept. 12: ch. 26
Sept. 13: ch. 27
Sept. 14: ch. 28
Sept. 15: ch. 29
Sept. 16: Grace Day
Sept. 17: ch. 30
Sept. 18: ch. 31
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