Many years ago, when I was a first-year student studying ethics, religion and philosophy at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, one of my professors shared a famous statement and poem, written by a German minister, Martin Niemoller. We were instructed to consider its meaning and to see how it might relate to our world and to our own lives.
The poem addressed the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power and the subsequent purging of their chosen targets – one group after another.
In summary, it deals with themes of persecution, guilt and responsibility. Written around 1946, it has since has been revised and translated into many languages. It has always resonated with me – now, more than ever, given the recent, rising tide of xenophobia that appears poised to claim, or perhaps to “reclaim” America.
One version says: First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, 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. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
I wonder if we are in a similar kind of world today. A world where we could easily exchange the labels of those who are the next intended victims of persecution, from Socialists to Blacks, from Trade Unionists to LGBTs or from Jews to Muslims, Native Americans, those with disabilities, immigrants or women.
You see, while Maya Angelou had great hope in America’s changing values toward equality, justice and inclusion, as expressed in her poem “Human Family,” which ends with the phrase, repeated three times for emphasis, “we are more alike than unalike,” it seems like many whites have grown tired of playing the game of civility.
They have publicly embraced the centuries-old cancer of bigotry. And they are determined to “make America great again” — a land where “we the people” only refers to white men.
And yet, if we, yes “we the people,” simply give in, give up and give all that we have achieved away, we may be the ones “they” come after. I wonder if there will be anyone left to speak out for us then.