"First they came for the terrorist-sympathisers... But I was not a terrorist sympathiser, more of a liberal who thinks that maybe sometimes our enemies have a point in terms of our foreign policy, though not in their methods. And I'm really terrified of going to jail and it seems like having that opinion is pretty dangerous these days, so I did not speak out..."
- Not Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Also not Martin Niemöller, though that's probably who you're thinking of.
The quote I've misappropriated above was meant to act as a warning for future generations. Fiercely anti-Nazi pastor Martin Niemöller actually says: "First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist." He then mentions not speaking out when "they" came for Trade Unionists and Jews. Ultimately, he says: "they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me." It's a popular quote among people wanting to encourage others to think about justice, to stand with those beyond their "own" people.
It's often mentioned in the same breath as that famous quote from his contemporary and compatriot, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless."
We must speak out when "they" come for others, the quotes say. We must not be silent. We must be like Bonhoeffer.
Except, we really shouldn't.
Bonhoeffer is remembered, more than for that quote, for his complicity in a plan to assassinate Hitler. His thought and writing, his lifetime of opposing ideologies that sought dominant power and to demonise the 'other', his very reluctance to follow the path of violence, even against Nazism – these fall by the wayside as his heroism is located in his willingness to kill.
And that is why, when faced with growing fascism, Christians who truly love their neighbours, who like Bonhoeffer, believe that "the will of God, to which the law gives expression, is that men should defeat their enemies by loving them," should try to think like him. Not be like him.
This is important because I think it is becoming clear that we are sliding, as a society, dangerously close to the waters of fascism – and Christians should be doing something. And ideally that 'something' should not be killing those who are driving us there, any more than staying silent. As Bonhoeffer put it: "We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice," but "to drive a spoke into the wheel itself."
The growing hostility to immigrants, including last week's announcement by our Government that foreign workers should now be listed, and the public 'naming and shaming' of those companies employing many foreigners may not feel like a big deal. But other fascisms have started this way. Kicking a particular group deemed 'outsiders' ("socialists, Jews") out of our places of work often precedes pushing them beyond the protection of the law.
Giving ever greater power and impunity to the military, as our Government announced it would last week, may feel like simple honest patriotism to you, but so did the militarism in Germany, Italy and Spain in the 1930s.
In a context where Trade Unions are being cracked down on by Government and we are seeing the erosion of legal protections like presumption of innocence and other bastions against arbitrary detention (sometimes out of the best intentions, badly applied), I think it's worth worrying. When anti-terror legislation means that sympathising with a terrorist organisation (whatever that might mean) could be a crime, and therefore thought and opinion are being policed by the government, I think it's fair at least to be vigilant about the threat of fascism.
It's not that they are carting people away (though they are, if they're suspected of terrorism, or if they are illegal immigrants) that should worry us most. It's that they are carting away principles. Instead, we say:
"First they came for free speech, but I don't really say anything controversial. Then they came for freedom of conscience, but my beliefs are pretty middle of the road – I'm a Christian, right? We're not the enemy. Then they came for the idea that you can't just imprison people on a suspicion. And I was afraid, so I kind of just assumed that would never happen to me. Then they came for the ability to bring legal cases against the British army without fear of backlash. But I'm not an Iraqi, so, you know. I honestly don't see the point of Trade Unions because I'm middle class and I'm okay with Australians, but those other immigrants just aren't British and so I just said nothing. I'm actually pretty confident they won't ever come for me."
The "they" in Niemöller's quote were the proper authorities, legally empowered and societally supported. They were 'decent folk trying to do the best for their country'. They were easy to agree with.
As Christians who believe in the God-reflecting humanity of every human, who rely on freedom of conscience to preach our gospel to a hostile world and who serve a God of justice and mercy, we cannot stand by and let our society slide into a fascist future where all of that is lost.
We must speak out, change the minds of our neighbours, hold courageous opinions and express them with bravery. We must campaign and vote and engage in politics, and we must make sure that we are never in a place of such despair that we are tempted to act like Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
We must defeat evil with good. It's not too late – yet.