“Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Those haunting words of the Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemöller, came after the Second World War. They express his coming to terms with the catastrophic events which impacted on him, on Germany and its peoples.
Martin Niemöller was born in 1892, the son of a Lutheran pastor. His father hoped that he would follow in his footsteps. But from a young age, Martin was obsessed by German’s rapid naval expansion. Germany’s imperial aspirations were promoted by Kaiser Wilhelm. Germany was seen as chosen by God for a great and noble mission. “Throne and altar”, church and state, were affirmed as one. German’s cause was God’s cause.
Martin became a cadet in the Imperial Germany Navy. In 1915 he was assigned to U-boats, the submarine force. He rose to command his own U-boat, was very successful, and was awarded the Iron Cross, First Class. At the end of the war he abandoned his vessel in port. He was unwilling to hand it over to the allies. He resigned his commission and decided to become, like his father, a Lutheran minister.
During the chaotic years in Germany after the First World War, when Communists and Socialists contended with Democrats and Fascists for control of the country, Martin identified with right-wing, conservative, nationalist forces. He supported Hitler’s rise to power, voting on two occasions for the National Socialist German Worker’s Party, or Nazi’s. While remaining a committed nationalist, as a Lutheran pastor he opposed the growing Nazification of the German Protestant Church. He joined with others in founding the Confessing Church, which affirmed that God must be obeyed before man.
Martin found himself in direct conflict with Hitler when the independence of the church was challenged. While still professing his patriotism, he was arrested several times by the Gestapo for his outspoken denunciation of Nazi neopaganism. In a 1935 sermon, he declared: “’We are being drawn into a titanic’ battle, between heaven and hell, between God and the devil, between angels and demons’.” His biographer comments, that “There was no room for compromise because that would amount to granting the pagan god of the Nazis a place alongside Jesus.”
While Martin came to be regarded as a great anti-Nazi hero, he suffered a form of tunnel vision. His concern was to defend the church, and so he remained silent in the face of the persecution of others, notably Jews, with one exception. That related to the persecution of a small number of Christians who had a Jewish heritage. His outspokenness on the independence of the church resulted in arrest on 1 July 1937. He was accused of “giving inflammatory lectures and sermons disparaging leaders in the government”, of “incensing the population”, and inciting “resistance against government laws and decrees”.  After completing his sentence, he was interned without trial as an enemy of the state from 1938 to 1945 at Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentrations camps. He became a personal prisoner of Adolf Hitler.
Critical questions were raised after the war about Martin’s nationalism and attitudes towards the Jews. He was one of the initiators of the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt, issued by church leaders in October 1945. They declared that: “Through us infinite wrong was brought over many peoples and countries…. we accuse ourselves for not standing to our beliefs more courageously, for not praying more faithfully, for not believing more joyously, and for not loving more ardently.”
This was a general statement of guilt, which for Martin became more explicit over the following years as he owned his silence in the face of the arrests and wholesale murder of Communists, the incurably ill, Jehovah Witnesses, and Jews. This led to his confession: “Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”
While he was a flawed hero, Martin after the war committed himself to peace, becoming a pacifist and campaigning for nuclear disarmament. He was active as a protestor against the Vietnam War, visiting Ho Chi Minh at the height of the conflict. He became a president of the World Council of Churches.
In our service today, the reading of Martin Niemöller’s confession stood alongside the reading from the book of Acts about Pentecost, which marks the birth-day of the Church. It describes a multi-lingual gathering of diverse Jews; the coming of wind and fire; people understanding each other in their own language, and asking the question: “What does this mean?”
The answer to that question is given in a sermon by Peter. The same Peter, who had followed Jesus as a disciple. The same Peter, who when asked after Jesus was arrested whether he knew him, denied this three times. The same Peter, who beside the lakeside, is asked three times by Jesus, “Do you love me?” Peter’s response, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you”, is followed with Jesus’ instruction – “feed my sheep”.
In the Pentecost account, second-chance, or even third-chance Peter, makes a declaration about “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you.” He no longer denies Jesus; he declares who he is.
We are not defined just by what we have done in the past. Martin Niemöller and Peter both had done things, or not done things, which they later regretted. We are defined by what we become, and what we do. Niemöller is remembered today for his acceptance of his complicity in the loud silence against German brutality, against those it defined as enemies of the state. He is remembered for the ways in which he lived out that apology after the war. Peter’s words, spoken at that first Pentecost were a public counterpoint to his earlier denial; a public response to Jesus’ bidding: “feed my sheep”.
Speaking out of the silence in the face of challenging situations or issues requires courage and a willingness to challenge the status quo, the majority consensus, the do-nothing approach. Sometimes the action of one person can spark a response which takes off like wild-fire. Take Greta Thunberg, the Swedish girl, who has fired up young people around the world to tell adults that they need to act, and act quickly, in order to save the world from the ecological catastrophe it is facing. At the age of twelve Greta began a personal protest that has become a global movement of young people, with school strikes and public demonstrations.
The seriousness of global warming is now indisputable. The Guardian newspaper, because of this, has changed its style guide so that instead of “global warming” they now refer to “global heating”; and instead of “climate change”, they write “climate emergency”. A recent report declares that we need to get beyond scientific and political understatement to accept that “Climate change is an existential risk to human civilisation: that is, an adverse outcome that would either annihilate intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.”
Our Pentecost reading quoted the prophet Joel’s apocalyptic vision, that in “the last days … your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams”. For those of us who are older, it’s our grandchildren or even great-grandchildren, who prophesying, telling us as it is now, and as it will become for them, with global heating unless we act.
Politicians and voters respond to the short-term three-year political cycle. This too often allows economic self-interest to determine short-term policies rather than policies which have long term beneficial effects for the well-being of our world. The prophesy or future-telling of children, in response to the climate emergency, is a call to adults to act now for the interest of their children and grandchildren. We will be long gone by the time our young people reach our age. They ask us, what kind of world are you leaving for us?
Old men, and I think we can include old women, “dream dreams” according to Joel. Dreaming can refer to the somnolent activity which comes almost too easily as we grow older. But dreams can also be expressions of aspirations, of hopes, in which goals, with aims and objectives, shape actions. How can we convert our dreams of a better world for our children and grandchildren to inherit, into reality? We can talk with our young people about what actions we can take, even small ones, to stop polluting our world. My grandchildren have rightly questioned, for example, my use of glad-wrap (what one of them calls ‘bad wrap’), plastic bags and unnecessary packaging. This is just a small start! We can encourage and support them as they make their voices heard, encouraging our politicians to work together for their future. We can encourage and support them to educate us to think globally and act locally. For those of you who are younger, the challenge is to speak out for your future.
Martin Niemöller’s life, Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, the active response to the global climate emergency, the message of the Spirituals, are all about radical change. Niemöller’s acknowledgment of his silence in the face of persecution and horror; Peter’s turnaround from denying Jesus to preaching about him; the recognition that we must act urgently to respond to global heating; the affirmation that spiritual and political freedom are two sides of the one coin.
One of Niemöller’s biographers concludes, that Martin’s “legacy to the twenty-first century is mixed”. But he “provides an example of how we can all change…. By coming to terms with his past and dedicating his later life to the service of justice, peace, and love for one’s neighbor, he inspires us to look at our own prejudices and to try to do better.” For the sake of our world, for God’s sake, we need to be open to change, and to speak out for the sake of our children and grandchildren.
 Matthew D. Hockenos, The They Came for Me. Martin Niemöller, the Pastor who defined the Nazis, New York: Basic Books, p.114.
 Ibid., p.125.
 David Spratt & Ian Dunlop, “What Lies Beneath: the understatement of existential climate risk”, p.13. https://climateextremes.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/What-Lies-Bene...
 Hockenos, They Came for Me., p.265.