Oppression and Indifference

I was reading this morning about a crackdown on religion by the Chinese Communist Party in one province, in a refreshed campaign against religion as “the opiate of the people” and a renewed emphasis on state or party sanctioned atheism.  The article noted that the Communist Party’s “…ideology is rooted in Marxist-Leninist thought, which decries religion as a delusion that distracts the oppressed masses from demanding their fair share.”

I cannot imagine how it would feel to be oppressed for the practice of my faith.  As an American, it is a foreign concept to me.  Such oppression is unthinkable.  And yet, millions worldwide are officially discouraged from worship, actively detained, and in some cases, threatened, physically injured or killed for professing faith in a Savior who is called the Prince of Peace.

I have heard people in my faith heritage talk about how they have been oppressed.  I have asked how, only to hear the response that someone said something bad about them, or called them an ugly name, or used some religious epithet like “Campbellite” in reference to them.  Maybe they felt as if they had been denied a business opportunity because they were members of the wrong church.  When I hear such pitiful complaining, I shake my head in disbelief, shame and sorrow.

To be ill-spoken of is not oppression.

To be denied a business contract is not oppression.


But, to have your property seized because of your faith is oppression.

To be imprisoned for your faith is oppression.

To be beaten for your faith is oppression.

To be murdered for your faith is oppression.

To be murdered for your faith in front of your children is oppression.

 There are many stories of brave Protestant ministers who took a stand against the Nazi regime of early 20th century Germany.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor who spoke against Hitler, and was said to have joined a movement to assassinate him.  The Führer himself sent down the order for Bonhoeffer’s execution.  He was executed by hanging about two weeks before American forces liberated the concentration camp where he met his fate, and one month before Germany’s defeat.  An SS doctor who witnessed the execution said Bonhoeffer prayed and accepted his sentence with dignity.  In reality, he was denied common human dignity, stripped naked and led to the gallows.  Some say he was hoisted by a meat hook to a noose made of piano wire, where it may have taken half an hour to die.  Other reports suggest that the execution may have taken hours to complete. Other writers speculate that the SS doctor who reported what he saw, who marveled at Bonhoeffer’s faith and resolve, may have lied to salve his conscience or detract from the grisly business with which he was involved: it was suggested that such SS doctors supervised the revival of political opponents at the brink of death only to prolong their agony.  This is oppression.

Martin Niemöller was another German pastor who was imprisoned for his anti-Nazi stance in the late 1930’s, sent to concentration camps, including the infamous camp at Dachau, and was finally liberated at war’s end in 1945.  Niemöller was originally a Hitler supporter, but became disillusioned with the state’s control of religion.  After the war, he regretted having not done more to help victims of Nazi atrocities.

 Niemöller gave a speech in which he laid the foundation for what would become an oft-quoted, and often varied poem, one version of which reads:

In Germany they first came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me
and by that time no one was left to speak up.

This idea is echoed by Elie Wiesel, himself a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, who became a celebrated writer and peace activist.  In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  In an interview that year, he said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference between life and death.”

Indifference.  That was the crime of the priest and the Levite in Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan.  Those who should have been most active in helping a Jewish brother turned away.  They did not further abuse the beaten traveler.  They merely turned their backs, walked away and left him to die unaided rather than become involved. 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”  Indifference.  It is indifference that leads to inaction, and that ultimately accompanies tragedy by failing to stop oppression.

Wiesel said in his Nobel acceptance speech in December, 1986,

“And then I explained to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remain silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere….

“Yes, I have faith. Faith in God and even in His creation. Without it no action would be possible. And action is the only remedy to indifference: the most insidious danger of all….

“…As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our lives will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.”

It is an age-old story.  God told Israel in Isaiah 1, “16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17  learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”  The offenses shown here can easily be the product of indifference.  By doing nothing, oppressors are free to oppress.  By doing nothing, justice can be denied to the powerless.

In the last sermon Martin Niemöller preached on June 27, 1937, before he was taken to a concentration camp to begin an eight-year imprisonment, he said, “We have no more thought of using our own powers to escape the arm of authorities than had the Apostles of old. No more are we ready to keep silent at man’s behest when God commands us to speak. For it is, and must remain, the case that we must obey God rather than man.”  I admire that.  I aspire to that depth of faith and purpose.

Although it is true that I came to faith late, I have in that time never been oppressed for its practice.  I hope and pray that I would have the courage to stand fast if real oppression should ever arise. But unless — or God forbid, until — it does, it is my duty to stand in the face of indifference and correct oppression wherever it may be.  It all begins with caring enough to speak out. 

Consider this a shout.


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