Even when persecution comes, ...

Christians must be a Light in the World

Martin Niemoller: [This sermon was preached in Berlin ca. 1936 after he had been threatened many times by Nazi-controlled Church authorities. Earlier, Niemoller had a face-to-face confrontation with Adolf Hitler regarding freedom of religion.]

"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 h**ls, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a h**l. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me - but by that time there was no one left to speak up."
By Martin Niemoller, with many variant versions

And now, dear brothers and sisters, to-night, in this hour of worship that brings the week to a close, we cannot help remembering, in silent intercession, those who belong to our congregation, to the company of Christ's disciples, and who cannot be here in the congregation with us this evening. We hear the names of those who, for the Gospel's sake, are hampered in their freedom or robbed of it.

(Here follows the five minutes' reading of the intercessory list, that is of those who have been forbidden to speak, or evicted or arrested by the Nazi authorities.)

Dear brethren, this list has now become shockingly long: it includes - if I have counted rightly - 72 or 73 names, known or unknown, names of pastors and church members, names of men and of women, names of young and of old. No one in the German Fatherland can say whether the number is complete, and each of us has a foreboding that it may become larger still, as it has grown from day to day in the week which is now ending.

What are these pastors and church members accused of? During the last four years we have been taught to have an extremely bad opinion of all those who have been taken into custody as members of the Church; and, when we hear of someone or other who has come into contact with the police, we are inclined to think of the things that are being broadcast to-day in the newspapers.

God be praised and thanked: our brothers and sisters cannot be reproached with the slightest trace of anything conventionally reprehensible; but, on the contrary, these people have all been banished from their homes, condemned to be silent and thrown into prison, because they considered it their duty and because they claimed that the Evangelical Church had the right to denounce attacks against the Christian faith freely and publicly as "attacks", to denounce the decline from Christian faith quite openly as a "decline", and to denounce interference with Christian worship fearlessly as "interference". There is not one among them against whom another reproach can be levelled; and our brothers and sisters can rest assured that the repulsion of attacks on the Christian faith, the publication of secessions from the Church, and the collection of offerings - these are the three things in question to-day - they can rest assured and can plead that these things have always been the uncontested right of the Christian Church. and that the Fuhrer [German Chancellor Adolf Hitler] has solemnly guaranteed and has always confirmed this right of the Church, and that up to the present day there is no law which restricts this right.

Our brothers and sisters can plead that they have been appointed by a Higher Power, Who calls upon us through His Word to resist the propaganda of unbelief, Who warns the church against defection, and bids them to make intercession for those who have fallen away from the faith, and Who has ordered us to take up an offering - and a money-offering at that - for the needs of the congregation.

And so what is happening to-day to our brothers and sisters brings us up against an unequivocal question, and that question is: "Has the Church of Christ, in its members and office-bearers, still the right to-day which the Fuhrer has confirmed with his word - with his word of honor - the right to allow us to defend ourselves against attacks on the Church, or are the people right who forbid us - the Christian community - to defend ourselves against unbelief and make it impossible for us to do so, and cast into prison the people who do defend themselves?" This is the problem in the case of the Chief Pastor, Dr. Jannasch, and in the cases of Pastor Busch and Pastor Held in Essen. They publicly repulsed public attacks and were on that account put in prison.

The question is this: "Has the Church of Christ still the right to tell the congregation that members of the congregation have fallen away from the faith, or are the people right who forbid us to carry out this charge and make it impossible for us to do so?" Brothers and sisters, that is the position in which Pastor Niesel finds himself, and the arrested members of the Prussian Council of Brethren - if I count correctly, there are eight of them in all - have declared: "The names of those who have left the church should be made known to the Christian congregation and it is not right to forbid this." Brothers and sisters, the question is quite simple: is the congregation to be allowed to learn who has left the church and may it be called upon to offer prayers of intercession for the deserters; or is that not allowed?

And the third question is this "Does the Fuhrer's word still hold good?" Has the Church the right - and this right has been guaranteed it from ancient times - to collect alms in the congregation, or can this right to bring offerings in accordance with the will of Christ be forbidden it by the stroke of a pen on the part of a minister - or even of two ministers?" No one has yet been imprisoned because of this ban, but a notice appeared in the newspaper the day before yesterday to the effect that collections may no longer be taken unless they are sanctioned by the church authorities set up by the state.

Brothers and sisters, if I refer to these external matters I do so because no one knows to-day if or when he may have another opportunity of telling the Christian community whether the Fuhrer's word holds good, or whether the words of others who order the opposite of what has been promised to the Church of Christ, to the Evangelical Church, hold good. We cannot get away from this question. And as long as one man is left in prison, as long as one man remains evicted, as long as one man is forbidden to speak because he has replied to attacks against the Church, or because he has quite clearly called desertion of the faith desertion, or has been put in prison for collecting offerings, the question as to whether the Word of the Fuhrer holds good is answered in the negative.

Dear brethren, in this situation, of a which we may well say that It could not possibly be darker or more insecure - the remainder of the Prussian Council of Brethren wander about Germany as homeless fugitives. Frau Asmussen was cross-examined for hours to-day at the Alexanderplatz, after she had had to wait for four hours for her trial, because she could not give information as to her husband's whereabouts; for they would like to put the rest of the members of the Prussian council of Brethren under lock and key. The Prussian Church is without a leader, the service rooms of the Prussian Church leaders are locked, the typewriters have been taken away from them and they have no money - in such a situation these words strike us as rather peculiar: "Ye are the salt of the earth; ye are the light of the world" (Matt. 5:13-14).

When I read these words to-day, they became really new to me, and I had to go back and reread them; and I had a feeling of inward relief when I found the words which I knew preceded them and which I had also long known theoretically to be in the fifth chapter of Matthew: "Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you!" And then it goes on: "Ye are the salt of the earth; ye are the light of the world!" as though there were no gap between the persecution of the community of Jesus Christ and the "Ye are the salt of the earth; ye are the light of the world," but as though they were directly connected.

I must say that in this sequence of ideas contained in this passage of the Bible - which I have known since I was a boy - I to-day realized for the first time that the Lord Jesus Christ is telling His disciples: "You will be reviled and persecuted, you will be slandered and that falsely," and immediately He adds: "Ye are the salt of the earth; ye are the light of the world."

Yet, brothers and sisters, there is something there that does not fit in with our troubles. "Ye are the salt of the earth." The Lord Jesus Christ does not mean, however, that we are to take care to distribute the salt among the people, but He draws our attention to another responsibility: "But if the salt have lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted?" Our responsibility is not how we shall pass on the salt, but we are to see that the salt really is and continues to be salt, so that the Lord Jesus Christ - who is, as one might say, the cook in charge of this great brew - can utilize the salt for His purposes.

Brothers and sisters' in reply to the question of whether it is possible for the Lord Jesus Christ to render practical service to our people to-day I must say: I see no possible way in which service can be carried out today, among the people, or in which the salt can be used among the people. But, brothers and sisters, that is not our concern, it is the Lord Jesus's. We have only to see that the salt does not lose its savor, that it does not lose its power. What does that mean?

The problem with which we have to deal is how to save the Christian community at this moment from the danger of being thrown into the same pot as the world: that is to say: it must keep itself distinct from the rest of the world by virtue of its "saltiness." How does Christ's community differ from the world?

We have come through a time of peril - and we are not finished with it yet - when we were told: "Everything will be quite different when you as a Church cease to have such an entirely different flavor - when you cease to practice preaching which is the opposite of what the world around you preaches. You really must suit your message to the world; you really must bring your creed into harmony with the present. Then you will again become influential and powerful."

Dear brethren, that means: The salt loses its savor. It is not for us to worry about how the salt is employed, but to see that it does not lose its savor; to apply an old slogan of four years ago: "The Gospel must remain the Gospel; the Church must remain the Church; the Creed must remain the Creed; Evangelical Christians must remain Evangelical Christians." And we must not - for Heaven's sake - make a German Gospel out of the Gospel; we must not - for Heaven's sake - make a German Church out of Christ's Church; we must not - for God's sake - make German Christians out of the Evangelical Christians!

That is our responsibility- "Ye are the salt of the earth." It is precisely when we bring the salt into accord and harmony with the world that we make it impossible for the Lord Jesus Christ, through His Church, to do anything in our nation. But if the salt remains salt, we may trust Him with it: He will use it in such a way that it becomes a blessing.

And the other picture which the Lord Jesus Christ holds up to us: "Ye are the light of the world": we hear these words and are reminded by them that we worry about something that ceases to exist in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. What are we worrying about? When I read out the names, a little while ago, did we not think: "Alas and alack, will this wind, this storm, that is going through the world just now, not blow out the Gospel candle? We must therefore take the message in out of the storm and put it in a safe nook."

It is only during these days that I have realized - that I have understood - what the Lord Jesus Christ means when He says: "Do not take up the bushel! I have not lit the candle for you to put it under the bushel, in order to protect it from the wind. Away with the bushel! The light should be placed upon a candlestick! It is not your business to worry about whether the light is extinguished or not by the draught." We are not to worry whether the light is extinguished or not; that is His concern: we are only to see that the light is not hidden away - hidden away perhaps with a noble intent, so that we may bring it out again in calmer times - no: "Let your light shine before men!"

Brothers and sisters, that is the strange pass to which we have been brought to-day. It has come to this: we are being accosted on all sides, by statesmen as well as by "the man in the street," who tell us: "For God's sake, do not speak so loudly or you will land in prison. Pray do not speak so plainly: surely you can also say all that in a more obscure fashion!" Brothers and sisters, we are not allowed to put our light under a bushel: if we do so, we are disobedient; but we have received our commission from Him Who is the light of the world. He does not need us as wicks, He can take other wicks as well, other men on whom He can set up His light as on a candlestick. The silent Church which no longer says for what purpose it exists - that is our service; but it is no business of ours whether the Church continues to live and is not put to death, or whether the light is blown out or not. "He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it." And that is true of the life of the congregation exactly as it holds good for the life of the individual Christian.

Surely the practical meaning of this is: I must speak thus once again to-day, for perhaps I shall no longer be able to do so next Sunday: I have to tell you that to-day once again as plainly as I can, for who knows what next Sunday may bring forth? But it is our duty to speak: on this charge of ours depends the promise, it depends upon it whether God will keep His word and keep alive the light - "the poor flickering candle of the Gospel" as Dr. Martin Luther calls it - in our nation; and that depends upon whether we are ready to do what we are bidden and to preach the message and to let the light shine forth.

And the Lord Jesus Christ has given us still a third picture of the church. "Ye are the salt of the earth. Ye are the light of the world." And lastly: "A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid." And this image, which gleams through the text once, is intended to direct our attention away from the salt-cask and the candlestick to the city on the hill. The salt disappears when it is sprinkled on anything. The candle burns down. Thus shall the Christian community be consumed in the service of its Lord. But the city that is eternal is firmly founded upon a holy hill. In the confusion and distress of our days this hope is held out to us: God's city is firmly established!

Dear friends, it is in our service and in this obligation not to cease our efforts on behalf of the preaching of the Word that the Word of the Lord Jesus Christ is fulfilled to us. We are the city on the hill which has been promised that even the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. And then it is not a case of: "Every mountain and hill shall be made low," but the other words hold good: "My grace shall not forsake thee, saith the Lord, thy God of mercy."

There is a rumor current throughout Germany - a rumor emanating from the German Christians of Thuringia - that to-morrow week the church elections will take place, unexpectedly, on telegraphed instructions. But a week is a long time: we do not know exactly. Dear brothers and sisters, if we are now embarking upon the church elections at a time when the Confessional Church throughout Prussia has been robbed of its leaders, that may be a source of great distress and anxiety, and the coming week may be much harder and more difficult still than the oppression of this week which is to-day ending by God's grace; and we ask where is the hope which will sustain us through the distress of the times -this distress which grows and grows and is now reaching a climax?

The city of God cannot remain hidden. Brothers and sisters, the city of God will not be blown down by the storm. it will not be conquered even though the enemy take its outer walls. The city of God will stand, because its strength comes from on high, because the Lamb is with it, and so it will remain firmly established.

This morning I said to my brethren, my colleagues in Berlin: "Perhaps we have reached the point to-day where, after four years of being guided and kept faithful to our Creed, God is asking us for proof that we can also find the way alone now, that we have not allied ourselves with men, but with the one Lord Who is and ever will be the chief shepherd of His sheep." And so when it comes to the election, we shall not mix up the salt, we shall not put the light into the corner, but we shall say: "Heaven and earth may pass away, as the Word of God says, Heaven and earth shall pass away - but the Word of God does not pass away!" Brothers and sisters, we will place our trust in that. Happy is he who accepts the sign of grace, who has learned to rely upon it and to establish himself upon it alone, so that he stands fast and is firmly established though the storms may roar and the waters rise.

And may God help us all to learn this trust!

A sermon preached by Martin Niemoller at Berlin-Dahlem, Germany, ca. 1936, just before his incarceration in a concentration camp. Despite Hitler's instructions that he be executed, he survived and continued his ministry into the 1950's. His most ardent foreign supporter was the Anglican Bishop of Chichester, George Bell, who, by coincidence, was also Bishop of this site's webmaster.


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