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The Power of Courage

19th January 2023

‘Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander’.  (Yehuda Bauer)


HOM: Persisting/Taking responsible risks

In 1946 the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller wrote the following words :

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist

Then 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

It is about the cowardice of German intellectuals and certain clergy (including, by his own admission, Niemöller himself) following the Nazis rise to power and the subsequent incremental persecution of their chosen targets, group after group. In each case people failed to speak out for those ‘not one of us’ and instead remained as bystanders to the persecutions.

This week we will mark the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp (27th January), we may reflect where we would have stood in such circumstances. Would we have been one of the many bystanders, in fear perhaps that we too would then become subject to persecution? It’s a testing question. Or perhaps we would have been brave enough to be one of those who were ‘upstanding’ on behalf of the persecuted. One such man was the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a key member of the Confessing Church, a breakaway church that rejected the way much of the German Christian establishment had accepted Nazi ideology. He preached a message of ‘Costly Discipleship’ which led to him working with the Resistance and Allies, smuggling Jews to safety in Switzerland. Eventually it cost him his life, but his legacy continues to inspire not only Christians but all those who are called to respond in challenging times. He showed a powerful courage at a time when others did not.

This week on Holocaust Memorial Day, we will reflect on what can happen when prejudice and persecution are left unchallenged, and of our responsibilities to stand against these processes when we see them in our own communities. And we will think about when we need to have the courage to speak out on behalf of others so that we heed the ‘commandment’ of Yehuda Bauer ‘thou shalt not be a bystander’.


Christine Crossley