When do we know when a line has been crossed? Is it when speech in the public forum gives rise to a tone of bigotry? Is it when foreigners are maligned? Is it when women are spoken about as if they were objects? Is it all just mere speech, or are we, like the proverbial frogs in the ever hotter and hotter water, just accepting the rising temperature as “the new normal”?
How do we know when a line has been crossed? Is it the ever-escalating words of hatred swirling around us — or does it take something else? Do we know that a line has been crossed when a mob of hundreds of angry people, carrying guns and torches, waving swastikas, and giving Nazi salutes converge on the city of Charlottesville, Virginia? Or does it take three people being killed as a result of that disgusting display of white supremacy for us to finally recognize that a line has indeed been crossed?
When Elie Wiesel accepted the Nobel Peace prize in 1986 he said this: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.” Let me repeat that: “ Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.” I think there can be no doubt, when it comes to Nazis in our own country, who is the oppressor and who is the victim.
“We must always take sides.”
As Christians, we took a side a long time ago. In our baptisms when we vowed to “strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.” As Christians we follow a road map that guides us. Guides us with words such as those in today’s passage from the prophet Isaiah: “Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right…”
As Christians, our “side” has been determined for us by the one we follow, whose name we take on: Jesus Christ. And the centuries are filled with those who heeded his word and followed.
Followers like Bishop Desmond Tutu who fought against evil in South Africa, helped bring an end to apartheid and then worked for truth and reconciliation in its aftermath. Followers like the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King who ultimately lost his life in the struggle against racism here in this country.
Followers like Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who lived in a time which finds ever louder and more eerie echoes in our own time, here and now, in this country. Pastor Bonhoeffer once said: “Silence in the face of evil is evil itself.” And: “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” And: “Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not just speak. He took action. He took action when other pastors in Germany were saying: “The time is fulfilled for the German people of Hitler. It is because of Hitler that Christ, God the helper and redeemer, has become effective among us. … Hitler is the way of the Spirit and the will of God for the German people to enter the Church of Christ.” This from a pastor named Hermann Gruner. Another put it more succinctly: “Christ has come to us through Adolph Hitler.”
Can you imagine words like that coming from a Christian? From a Christian religious leader no less? With the 20/20 hindsight of history we are appalled and find it hard to believe, and yet have you heard what is now being said by certain “Christian leaders” in our own day, in our own country.
But back to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As the Nazi party laid claim to the church in Germany, Bonhoeffer, along with Karl Barth, Martin Niemoller, and others formed the Confessing Church, which announced publicly in its Barmen Declaration (1934) its allegiance first to Jesus Christ: “We repudiate the false teaching that the church can and must recognize yet other happenings and powers, personalities and truths as divine revelation alongside this one Word of God. … “
In the late 1930’s, Bonhoeffer left Germany and went to New York where he had previously studied at Union Theological Seminary, but soon realized he needed to be back in Germany, to which he returned and became part of the resistance movement.
Bonhoeffer was privy to various plots on Hitler’s life but was never at the center of the plans. Eventually his resistance efforts (mainly his role in rescuing Jews) was discovered. On an April afternoon in 1943, two men arrived in a black Mercedes, put Bonhoeffer in the car, and drove him to Tegel prison. He spent two years in prison where he began outlining a new theology inspired by his reflections on the nature of Christian action in history. Among his quotes from that time: “We are not simply to bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”
Ultimately Bonhoeffer was transferred to the extermination camp at Flossenbürg where, on April 9, 1945, one month before Germany surrendered, he was hanged with six other resisters. He is remembered in the Episcopal Calendar of Saints on April 9th.
How do we know when a line has been crossed? And, more importantly, what are we as Christians, as followers of Jesus Christ, called to do about it? As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” AMEN.