I Used To Wonder
Written for and Delivered to
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cleveland
January 12, 2020
© The Rev. Joseph M Cherry
Wisdom from the Global Scripture
Martin Niemöller was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian born in Lippstadt, Germany, in 1892. Niemöller was an anti-Communist and supported Adolf Hitler’s rise to power at first. But when Hitler insisted on the supremacy of the state over religion, Niemöller became disillusioned. He became the leader of a group of German clergymen opposed to Hitler. In 1937 he was arrested and eventually confined in Sachsenhausen and Dachau. He was released in 1945 by the Allies. He continued his career in Germany as a clergyman and as a leading voice of penance and reconciliation for the German people after World War II.
Niemöller made confession in his speech for the Confessing Church in Frankfurt on 6 January 1946, of which this is a partial translation:
… the people who were put in the camps then were Communists. Who cared about them? We knew it, it was printed in the newspapers. Who raised their voice, maybe the Confessing Church? We thought: Communists, those opponents of religion, those enemies of Christians—”should I be my brother’s keeper?”
Then they got rid of the sick, the so-called incurables. I remember a conversation I had with a person who claimed to be a Christian. He said: Perhaps it’s right, these incurably sick people just cost the state money, they are just a burden to themselves and to others. Isn’t it best for all concerned if they are taken out of the middle [of society]? Only then did the church as such take note.
Then we started talking, until our voices were again silenced in public. Can we say, we aren’t guilty/responsible?
The persecution of the Jews, the way we treated the occupied countries, or the things in Greece, in Poland, in Czechoslovakia or in Holland, that were written in the newspapers. … I believe, we Confessing-Church-Christians have every reason to say: mea culpa, mea culpa! We can talk ourselves out of it with the excuse that it would have cost me my head if I had spoken out.
We preferred to keep silent. We are certainly not without guilt/fault, and I ask myself again and again, what would have happened, if in the year 1933 or 1934—there must have been a possibility—14,000 Protestant pastors and all Protestant communities in Germany had defended the truth until their deaths?
His words are more famously known as this short poem:
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
Last Tuesday night I feared the worst.
Last Tuesday night I learned that Iran had sent twelve missiles into Iraq, aimed in places where American troops lived, as a retaliatory statement because Donald Trump had ordered the killing of their top general, General Qasem Soleimani
Last Tuesday night I went home after work, and I couldn’t shake the desire to turn off all the lights in the house. Now, I know it’s not the most rational feeling, and I knew it at the time, but in my mind, the animal part of my brain, the part that governs fight or flight, in that part of my brain, I kept thinking about the Blitzkreig, and how Britons attempted to hide their presence at night from the German Bombers in a desperate attempt to stay alive during night time bombings.
Last Tuesday night I could not comfort myself with the thought that the Republican President would have a calm, measured response to these twelve missiles, and I feared we were soon to be heading for war.
As most of you know I have always fancied myself a student of history. When I was younger, I would often wonder things like:
I wonder what it was like to live when Teddy Roosevelt was President, with all of his isolationists ideals. I grew up in the 1970’s when the United States regarded ourselves as the champions of democracy. We, I was told at the time, had troops around the world to help the rest of the world move toward our own version of the great governmental experiment of democracy. After all, it was 1976 or so, and hadn’t we just celebrated 200 years of amazingness?
Keep in mind, I was 8, so please forgive my lack of nuanced understanding at the time.
But what did it mean, I wondered, to have a government that focused on our country first? This was also the time of the gas embargo, the American hostages in Iran for 444 days.
Would it be so bad, I wondered, if we pulled our military home to work on things in our own country that needed help?
I read stories about the Great Depression, and I thought, from a kid’s point of view, how terrible that all seemed. I wondered why someone couldn’t fix it. I didn’t understand the difficulties of large scale economics.
I probably still don’t have the best understanding of global economics.
But I wondered how hard it must have been to go to bed hungry. I didn’t, then, wonder how hard it would be to have your children go to bed hungry.
And lastly, I used to wonder how a country could be duped into believing Hitler.
Before I go any farther, I want to be clear that I am not drawing a direct parallel between Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump.
I used to wonder how ordinary people could be turned against their neighbors. How people who’d lived together for generations, often on the same street, who knew each other’s stories, had probably shared coffee or meals together, could turn on each other.
As a middle-aged man, I no longer have to wonder about these questions from the safe distance of historical curiosity.
We live in a time where White Nationalism is on the rise. Where Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are on the rise. We live in a time where Immigrants and refugees are treated inhumanely. We live in a time when People of Color fill a disproportionate number of our jail cells, and our traffic courts.
And we have a weak leader who doesn’t do as President Truman once said: “you can’t divide the country up into sections … and you can’t encourage people’s prejudices. You have to appeal to people’s best instincts, not their worst ones.” Today, words like Truman’s seem to come from the remotest of eras.
Over the past 40 years there has been a cultural war in our country. There has been a continual attack on intellectualism, the so-called cultural elite, the liberal snowflake.
We, the cultural elite, for make no mistake this is who we are. No matter if your parents were professors or truck drivers, if you are here in this sanctuary, you are being defined by some as the cultural elite. We the cultural elite, have been using a toolbox that is ill equipped for this culture war.
We preach the gospel of coming together, of making sure that every voice is heard and feels validated. We spend more time building consensus than acting.
We have fooled ourselves into thinking that talking in a meeting room is actually action.
In the meantime, those who wish to force our country backwards into a time of a false golden era have a completely different toolbox.
It’s as if we are trying to fix the machinery of state with metric wrenches when the machinery was built with, ironically called English measurements. Which has recently been retooled into the term Imperial measurements, because the English have gone metric.
The toolbox of those with whom we are struggling include a heavy dose of divisive language. There is a lot of “othering” going on in their rhetoric. Othering is easier to accomplish than gathering.
Othering says things like: those people don’t belong; we don’t want your kind here; they are over-educated idiots who can’t change a tire.
Othering is easy. It allows one to dismiss whole swathes of people and to no longer care about their welfare. As long as your tribe is safe, then it’s okay. And you might be able to let some minorities into your tribe, as long as “they’re one of the good ones,” which makes you feel good, and like you’re not a bad person.
This is the fundamental “truth” of fundamentalism and conservatism.
We have a President who not only encourages this kind of mind set, but relishes it and benefits from it.
We have chosen, or been chosen to, answer the call of gathering, which is much more difficult. It’s much more nuanced and frustrating. Our process takes longer, must take into consideration the concerns and realities of those with whom we are trying to come together.
It is perhaps the better way to make a nation, but our path contains no quick fixes. It takes, has taken and will take, a lot of work.
There is a way in which a very wealthy elite class of multi-billionaires have been able to encourage this cultural war, all in to their own benefit.
Kurt Vonnegut, fellow Unitarian Universalist, wrote in his book Slaughterhouse Five the following truth:
America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but it’s people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves… It is in fact a crime to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters.
This wealthy elite class know this and have been using this as a way to divide our nation into smaller and smaller groups.
When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr set about co-creating the original Poor People’s Campaign in the 1960’s it was dangerous to the establishment because it called people together to struggle.
Those of us who have been in the civil rights struggles of the past 60 years or so, the various liberation movements from Black Americans, to Women, to the Bi-Sexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender—the whole Queer Continuum liberation, we have all learned a very real truth about trying to change to the world into a place where more people can be gathered together.
Those who don’t want change try to separate us because they know that coalitions have power.
So how can we adapt our toolbox to be more effective in this time that is very frightening for many of us and those people we love?
I wish I could tell you definitively that I have the answer.
But I don’t.
I only have my suspicions and ideas.
As we attempt to gather people together, which we know improves life for all, I think e have to stop letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.
We need to show more grace to one another in the work.
We need to stop imagining that only people who are like us enough to make us comfortable, are the one’s with whom we belong. The ones who are welcomed in our church, in our congregation.
I think that’s a good first step.
And then we have move outwards.
We have to go to places where we are not the most comfortable and learn the stories of others. Sr Mary Lou Kownacki is a Benedictine nun and writer in residence at Inner-City Neighborhood Art House teaches us “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story. ”
I started writing this sermon with a quote from a person whose name I’ve forgotten. It goes something like this: Donald Trump has given permission for people to be their worst selves, and for that they will never leave him.
When I read this, I felt self-satisfied. I thought there was a truth in it, and speaking of truth telling, I’ll admit to you that this made me feel a little smug.
It’s this smugness that often gets in the way of our work of gathering. This sense of “I know better than that” is a barrier to true relationship.
It is a wrench that we’ve been using that is no longer useful.
Curiosity, the risk of being changed in the process of growing, these are more helpful.
May we feel strong enough to risk.