Your foes have roared within your holy place;
   they set up their emblems there.
At the upper entrance they hacked
   the wooden trellis with axes.
And then, with hatchets and hammers,
   they smashed all its carved work.
They set your sanctuary on fire;
   they desecrated the dwelling-place of your name,
   bringing it to the ground.
They said to themselves, ‘We will utterly subdue them’;
   they burned all the meeting-places of God in the land.

[Psalm 74:4-8 NRSV]

On November 9-10, 1938, Nazi thugs let loose a massive wave of persecution against Jews throughout Germany.

People were attacked, store windows broken; shops, homes, hundreds of synagogues were burned in every corner of the country.

And worst of all, the police stood by and did nothing!

It is known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass. More importantly, it is a vivid example of what can come about as a result of any form of organized campaign against a group of people.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

According to Dean G. Stroud, in his book, Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer opened his Bible to Psalm 74 (see above), and underscored verse 8b, “they burned all the houses of God in the land.” [page 38]

Bonhoeffer challenged other Christians in Germany to help the persecuted, sacrificing their own lives if necessary. He, other pastors, as well as people of faith, responded to the brutality, some losing their lives in the process. Bonhoeffer himself was imprisoned and eventually hanged for his actions several years later on April 9, 1945.

But the majority of the country, including Christians and other people of good will, shamefully, kept silent in the face of the horror.

Jewish business destroyed during Kristallnacht. (Source: Getty Images)

In fairness to those who said or did nothing, the threat of violence or death for protesting was real. This was a state mandated campaign against Jews, and anyone else who disagreed with the Nazi government.

It is important to remember Kristallnacht and the consequences of saying nothing to protest injustice.

Such a campaign usually begins with words. Words have power. And yes, what happened in Germany, a civilized country by any definition, can happen here in the United States.

At once we can recall the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, “Injustice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere.”

This country was founded on the principle of free speech. Anyone can say anything. But when those words pose a risk to the safety of others, what happened in Germany is not an impossibility here. We have already seen numerous examples.

The Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh comes immediately to mind. Three years ago, on October 27, a lone gunman, armed with an AR-15 and three Glock handguns, entered the place of worship, and fired into the gathered assembly. When the ordeal was over, eleven people had lost their lives and six others were wounded, including several Holocaust survivors. This was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the United States.

But it is not just Jews who are potential victims. Any marginalized group is a possible target. And what we say, or don’t say, matters.

We remember our Jewish sisters and brothers on this day, but think of the others who have suffered at the hands of injustice: Native-Americans, African-Americans, Latinx, Asian-Americans, and immigrants from nearly any other part of the world.  Hostility or violence towards any person or group defined by their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or other factors.

I close with words familiar to many of us. The quote is attributed to the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller, who himself spent many years in a Nazi concentration camp.

Martin Niemöller

First they came for the communists,
and I did not speak out –
because I was not a communist.

Then 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.

+     +     +

Published by pastorallende

Retired Bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Social justice and immigration reform advocate. Micah 6:8. Fluent in English and Spanish. I enjoy music and sports.

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