Paul W. Galetto, O.S.A.
St. Rita High School
Jer 20: 10-13
Ps 69: 8-10, 14, 17, 33-35
Rom 5: 12-15
Matt 10: 26-33
Visiting the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., is a moving event. The magnitude and gravity of this disgrace against human dignity is symbolized by several displays that help the visitor understand the immensity of the horror: numerous suitcases that were never claimed because the owners had been exterminated, mounds of hair shorn from the heads of men, women and children about to be gassed and which the Nazis were going to use for bomb making and manufacturing, piles of eyeglasses that were taken from those whose last clear sighting was of a loved one who would die with them. The displays in the museum effectively help the visitor understand how depraved and dark the human spirit can be if left unchecked because people are afraid to speak truth to power.
Just before one exits the Holocaust museum, there is a saying from a German Lutheran pastor who was himself a prisoner of Nazi hate. It reads:
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 for me.
The story of the man who wrote these profound words is as interesting as the words themselves. Pastor Martin Niemoller was a Lutheran minister who supported the rise of the Nazi party from its inception because the Nazis were against the Communists who wanted to do away with religion. Niemoller approved of the rounding up and internment of the Communists and also of the sick whom the Nazis called “the incurables” because they were a drain on the German health budget and Niemoller thought, “What could we do for them anyway?” In hindsight he realized that the Nazis were picking on minorities for whom most Germans had little sympathy already; the Nazis played on peoples’ fears and prejudices. They created an intensity of intolerance that masked their true intentions. Niemoller was temporarily blinded to the injustices and he bought the argument that Hitler was trying to make Germany great again after the country’s defeat in World War I. The Nazis thought that by banning communists and building walled concentration camps they could eliminate the weak and make Germany strong. The Nazis wanted to put Germany first above the needs of its people.
When the Nazi party said that the state was superior to the Church, Niemoller abandoned his support of Hitler and became a vocal critic of the Nazis. In 1937 he was sent to a concentration camp and remained there until the end of the war in 1945. For the rest of his life he became an outspoken advocate for peace because he had been silent for too long and at the wrong times; he was trying to make up for lost time and lost opportunity.
In today’s Gospel the first words we hear are: Do not be afraid! Jesus is telling his followers that they must speak up in the face of injustice and tyranny; this is a section of the Gospel commonly called the mission discourse. Those who can’t bear to hear the truth feign deafness because the truth is inconvenient or because it threatens their hold on power; they will do everything they can to silence those who speak the truth. There is a deliberate perversion of truth and fact. Those who use power for their own self-aggrandizement or for their own self-esteem will not listen to the truth. Jesus tells us we should not fear them because even though they can do us bodily and financial harm–and they will try–they can’t kill our soul or our spirit and that is what matters most. We must be people of courage because the world needs to hear the Gospel message of love and reconciliation. We cannot buy into the lies that cause division and hate. If good people remain silent in the face of injustices, the world will never become better.
Jeremiah in today’s first reading found out what happens when someone tells people something they don’t want to hear. Jeremiah was at first just a preaching prophet but once he fully understood the depth of depravity and the consequences of the immorality and injustices that were being perpetrated, he spoke out. His friends and supporters became his harshest critics because they stood to lose the most financially; power was slipping from their hands. The immediacy of their turn shocked the prophet. Nonetheless he felt compelled to speak the truth and history proved him right. He knew that he must be faithful to God and to God’s message.
In the world in which we live political and economic discourse have become difficult. Everybody wants to be heard but nobody wants to listen. The shooting of the Congressman in Alexandria, VA is a case in point. Fake news, alternative facts and paid spokespersons create something akin to the fog of war; we don’t know whom and what to believe. The only solution is to remain faithful to the Gospel. We should not follow any politician blindly but judge each on how he or she reflects Gospel values. We may not know what a politician or public figure did or didn’t do but we know what is good and true and that is what matters. Speaking the truth to power is how we fulfill the prophetic mission we received at our baptism.
Let us heed the words of Jesus: Do not be afraid. Let us have the courage of Pastor Niemoller and become the voice that advocates for peace and reconciliation.