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.
– Pastor Martin Niemoller
Earlier this week I had the honor of visiting the Holocaust Museum in Skokie, Illinois on a field trip with my daughter’s class. I walked away incredibly sad, incredibly disturbed, and incredibly inspired. As we moved through the museum, we entered into stories of heartbreak and devastation as well as stories of strength and courage and hope.
At the close of the tour we were able to meet a man by the name of Ernst, a Holocaust survivor. He shared his story of being one of the lucky ones who escaped Nazi Germany. He vividly remembers the day he was put on a train at the age of 10 with one small suitcase in his hand. As the train pulled away, he glimpsed his parents through the window… this was the last time he ever saw them. As I listened to his story, I couldn’t help but correlate that 10-year-old boy with my 11-year-old boy, and tears streamed down my face.
He was the lucky one…..
His boyhood memories in Germany as one who was not allowed to play in public parks because he would “contaminate” the purer race; one who according to the loudest voice was “inferior;” one who watched as his place of worship was burned to the ground while firefighters stood nearby doing nothing; one who had to accept the reality that his parents were either victims of mass shootings or death camps.
He was the lucky one.
As we filed out of the auditorium where Ernst spoke, I went up to shake his hand and in that moment I was so overcome with emotion, I had to hug him. I don’t know if that was allowed, but I hugged him, and in that hug I hope he felt the truth that it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right, and he was loved.
It’s hard to spend time in a space like this and not walk away feeling heavy. It’s a physical reaction to the atrocities before you. And I think it is appropriate to feel heavy. We should feel the devastation. We should feel the loss. We should feel the pain of what was allowed to happen in our history.
The thing that really stuck with me however, was the bigger story and purpose behind the museum. Throughout the displays we would hear again and again about the work of volunteers, about the man who worked to ferry victims out of Germany, about the woman who hid a Jew, about the helping hands along the way who stood up, who showed kindness, who made a difference. In the sea of evil, there was good. In the midst of devastation there were the voices of those who refused to be silent.
They had a name for people like this. It was “upstanders.” This term coined in direct contrast to the term “bystander,” denotes the one who refuses to stand by and do nothing while injustice reigns; they will stand up to injustice. An upstander will not be silent. One of the videos we watched showed the progression of a new term, born out of the Holocaust, which was genocide. Never before had we needed this word, but as time moved away from the Holocaust, where we promised we would never forget, we began to see the need for this word arise again, in Serbia, in Rwanda, in Syria.
One young woman, a survivor of the Rwandan genocides, poignantly stated that the worst was not the violence or the killing; the worst offense was the silence. The worst atrocity is the silence. If it does not affect our personal selves, we conveniently push it aside, make excuses, turn away. We stand by and allow it to happen.
I walked away from that museum with a clarifying thought: I WANT TO BE AN UPSTANDER!!!
I want to be an upstander…
I do not want to remain silent as certain people are marginalized, victimized, and presented as less-than. I do not want to remain silent under the guise of morality or passive acceptance. I do not want to remain silent as we systematically decide who has value and who does not. How long before I am on the wrong side of that equation?
I want to be an upstander…
And I believe that if I am a follower of Christ, I should be rushing to the front of the line to be an upstander. So why does it often seem as if we are not?
As I read through my Facebook feeds, I am often overcome by sadness. Sometimes I just have to walk away, because I just don’t think we get it. The things we decide are worthy of our indignation; the vicious attacks we volley toward our fellow humanity; the high moral ground we take at the expense of a flesh and blood, hurting, broken life, and in the name of Christ. It just makes me sad. When the Christian community fosters fear and hatred, we are not displaying the freedom and wholeness of the gospel. When the Christian community witnesses inequality, discrimination, and violence and then either turns its head in nonchalance or expresses some notion that the victim deserves it….we are not understanding the heart of Jesus.
Jesus was an upstander. He did not simply stand by and watch the suffering of those around him in order to advance his own comfort and feel good about himself. He spoke up, He entered in, He embodied the love of God and sacrificed himself to bring healing and hope.
If we are truly concerned for the broken, and truly believe in the power of the resurrection, then why are we more upset about the words of Jen Hatmaker (that demonstrate love and kindness and entering into the messiness) than we are about the victims of human slavery rampant in our world and yes even in our own country? I don’t understand how we can be so clear about the rules of salvation (with nary a single doubt) but suddenly fuzzy on the idea of who to show love and kindness and respect to?
I get that it’s not easy. I get that it’s scary to enter into difficult conversations that foster inclusion and community with the other. But if we continue to allow injustices, when we give small allowances for what is deemed acceptable treatment for someone we don’t understand or have much use for, how long before we strip away the humanity of another? Or ourselves?
I want to look at those around me full in the face. I want to recognize the black, white, male, female, rich, poor, gay, straight, Muslim, Jew, Syrian (and the list goes on) and see their humanity and their worth. I want to see their value as one made and loved by God and I want to treat them as such. I want to stand up and take notice when humanity is being stripped away. And I want to say loudly that it is not right.
I know this doesn’t answer all the hard questions. That doesn’t happen all at once, if ever. But we at least need to be allowed to ask the questions. We need to enter into conversations motivated by love and restoration rather than fear and silence. We need to look beyond our own comforts to the brokenness and needs of others. We need to wade into the messiness of injustice and refuse to be silent.
I want to be an upstander. And I hope you do to.