Monday, January 18, 2016

A Call to Arms

Jeremiah 1:4-10                                                                                                                                   2 Corinthians 10:1-6                                                                                                                               John 18:28-38

 “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

After German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller had been imprisoned for eight years in concentration camps during WWII, he wrote these infamous words: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist.  Then they came for the Trade Unionist, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist.  Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.  And then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me.” 

It is said that Rev. Niemöller was a supporter of Adolph Hitler in the early years.  He was a German patriot as evidenced by his WWI service as a German naval officer and his opposition to what Hitler initially stood against (long history with no bearing on this sermon).  It has also been suggested Niemöller was no friend of the Jews, at least as of some of his sermons go.  Some historians have accused Niemöller of being nothing more than a political opportunist who only began to oppose the Nazis when he and all that was important to him came under attack.  But as Niemöller himself wrote:  “Then they came for me …”

No secret there.  True to his own “confession”, Niemöller had his eyes opened.  He became an opponent of the Third Reich and helped to establish the anti-Nazi Confessional Church after the Nazis nationalized Germany’s Protestant churches.  For his opposition he, along with over 800 Protestant ministers, was sentenced to labor camps and served time from 1937 in some of Nazi Germany’s most infamous concentration camps until his release in 1945.  His initial sentence was only a few months; but because of Niemöller’s outspoken opposition and leadership, he was “invited” to stay a while longer by the personal invitation of Hitler’s right-hand man, Rudolf Hess.

What Niemöller witnessed during his imprisonment can only be imagined, but his own imprisonment was clearly a great spiritual awakening for him.  Surely he began to see that his – and the church’s - silence in the face of what was unfolding in Nazi Germany was part of the reason the Third Reich became so powerful.  It was the silence of fear – or maybe the silence of exclusivity (they won’t come for me, so what do I care?) - that emboldened the Nazis and ultimately led to a post-war confession, the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt.  It is a document initiated by Niemöller and collectively signed by the Council of the Evangelical Church of Germany shortly after the war.

The confession reads in part:Through us (meaning the silent Church) infinite wrong was brought over many peoples and countries. That which we often testified to in our communities, we express now in the name of the whole church: We did fight for long years in the name of Jesus Christ against the mentality that found its awful expression in the [Nazi] regime of violence; but we accuse ourselves for not standing to our beliefs more courageously, for not praying more faithfully, for not believing more joyously, and for not loving more ardently.”  Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt, 19 October 1945

It should also be noted that Simon Wiesenthal, a former Jewish POW, a post-war Nazi hunter, and author of the book, The Sunflower, raised a question in that book to further haunt the conscience of the German church as well as those who read the book even today: who is guilty of the greater atrocity; the one who does the deed, or the many who remain silent in their knowledge of these deeds?

Nazi Germany is an extreme example of what can – and ultimately will - go wrong whenever humans are left unchecked to decide for themselves what is right and what is lawful, what should be allowed, and what should be done to or against those with whom we stand opposed – especially in lacking a moral and Divine compass.  The Holocaust serves as a reminder that the so-called “mob mentality” can cause grave and unspeakable horror before we come to our senses … usually when our blood lust is eventually satisfied and we are confirmed in our sin of silence.  We think we have learned a lesson from that era, but the truth is we haven’t really learned anything – or perhaps we have just forgotten because, well, it wasn’t us.

Especially during an election year, we are inclined to get stirred up over “conspiracy theories” by which many (from both parties) try to convince us there is danger lurking around every corner, a boogie-man is hiding behind every tree, and no one is to be trusted.  Not only does this mindset have the potential to do great harm to individuals who do not fit a popular profile, it also renders impossible the necessary task of building communities – especially churches. 

There are undeniably a great many challenges we face – as Americans, as Christians, as a people who prefer peace but who will wage war if and when it becomes necessary, war-weary though we are.  As Americans we can easily say “all is fair” when it comes to facing our enemies.  As Christians, however, a “call to arms” presents perhaps a greater challenge than simply facing down an enemy while well-armed with plenty of ammo.  “For the weapons of our warfare are not merely human”.

It must also be noted by Christians that the “kingdom” we are baptized into and commissioned to speak and to work for “is not from this world”, as our Lord testified to Pilate.  It is the very Kingdom the “Word made flesh” attested to at His trial, the very Kingdom that only seemed to leave Jesus to fend for Himself against a “mob mentality” that is so easily stirred but not so easily contained. 

We also cannot help but to note that in the instance of Jesus standing trial against religious leaders and refusing to even try and defend Himself to Pilate – who was in a position to help him and seemed determined to release Him - is a testimony to the reality that we are talking about two entirely different and wholly incompatible realms of existential reality.

The way we are called to live and the ways in which we are called to arm ourselves and to fight do not in any way fit a profile we can create for ourselves on our own terms.  Yet because we are so deeply enmeshed in a culture we embrace as our own (however we may define “normal”), we find it nearly impossible to think and to act in “kingdom” terms.  As St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “The flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is contrary to the flesh.  They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want” (Galatians 5:17).

There are no easy answers to the challenges we face, but we must learn to face these challenges together – “for a house divided against itself cannot stand”.  Let us remember that our Lord set the tone for such days as these.  We must remain vigilant, of course, but we cannot allow ourselves to get so caught up in the problems of the "world" that we forget it is the Word that protects us, the Word that sustains us, the Word which has redeemed us. 

It is the Word itself with which we must be armed, the Word which calls us to look ahead and learn to more fully trust Him, look to Him, earnestly pray to Him, and allow Him to show us the way.  It must be faith – rather than fear and suspicion – that compels and informs and motivates us.  Faith in the Word rather than fear of the world.

This is the path chosen by Jesus, the path which has been laid out for us.  It is the path to righteousness and is the path to our own Resurrection, the fullness of Life offered to all who call Him "Lord" and trust His Living Word, the Word made Flesh, the Word which endures forever – with us or without us.  Amen.

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