Monday, May 30, 2005

You Make Me Sick

People can be pretty rotten. One need only look through the annals of history (or through a current newspaper) to confirm that. I have seen people do some pretty despicable things. We all have.

Still, I never cease to be amazed at how someone can harbor such unmitigated hatred toward another human being, simply because he's black or Jewish or gay or just doesn't share his value system. I remember the first time I ever saw someone behave in such a way.

I was with my mother. We were walking down the a Berlin street and passed a Gypsy beggar woman. She was sitting on the sidewalk, holding her baby. Another small child was nestled in beside her. A man stopped and started yelling at her, poking at the bundle in her arms to punctuate his curses and insults. I don't think I had ever seen my mother so angry before. Well, she might have been angrier the time she took me on a visit to the zoo and some pedophile grabbed my ass. I remember her telling him that if he touched me one more time, she'd part his hair with her umbrella and call the police. Man, did he run away fast! At any rate, I am proud to say that my mom told the bigot off as well.

Somehow it is even worse when perpetrated in the name concepts like the nationalism (really chauvinism) of the sort that states that everyone but the U.S. is bound by the Geneva Conventions or religion. Although I have strayed from my Sunday school days, there is still an expectation in me that faith be a good and kind force that elevates people.

Crackpots like the placard carrying "You make me sick!" guys are the antithesis of that. It seems that they are fixtures on every college campus. Thankfully, most people seem to dismiss them, but one sometimes wonders how many think "Well, he's nuts, but one thing he's right about is the _____." But perhaps there is even scant hope for people like him. I like to think so, even though I tend to be a little suspicious of people who can make such drastic turn-arounds.

But sometimes people do turn around. Take, for instance, the German theologian and Protestant pastor, Martin Niemöller. He started out a Christian, anti-semite, German nationalist who initially supported Hitler's rise to power. He ended up a resistance leader and founder of the anti-Nazi Bekennende Kirche (Confessing Church), who was sentences to years in a the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps. After the war, he became a figurehead of the German peace movement until his death in the mid-80's.

Despite his problematic beginnings, Niemöller is known today for his role in the resistance. He is perhaps best known for the following words:

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

There are many versions of this formulation. I've often seen it errantly referred to as a poem. More likely, it was part of a speech or sermon. According to Harold Marcuse of UC Santa Barbara, it is likely that Niemöller uttered different versions in various speeches and sermons as there is evidence that he varied anecdotes for different occasions as well.

Regardless of which version is the true (if that even exists) one, the spirit of the words remains the same. It is the kind of spirit I would expect from a pastor. It is the kind of spirit that stands in deep contrast to Bible thumpers like the "You make me sick" guy and his ilk.

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