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  • Reverend James Squire

Then They Came for Me

One of the key drivers of ethical decisions is context or what is going on around the decision that would make the decision easier. One of the aspects of decision making is that we always try to follow the path that has the least risk. It is human nature. But there are other fixed points that are required that can move the decision into the terrain of the difficult and risky. Hence, the situation in Ukraine.

One of the points that I was always making in my ethics class was not to act is to act. There is no such thing as ethical neutral ground. Our government has forgotten this as well as an important statement made by a Lutheran pastor during the Nazi reign in Germany. Our government is giving the most weight to context in our decision not to intervene to aid the Ukrainian people. The utilitarian ethical stance is guiding all of our current positions. Recall in this ethical framework, you first identify your group and act from there and employ the axiom of the greatest good for the greatest number in my group. Various groups have been seen as our “group” including our nation itself, Europe, NATO, and even the whole world if Putin would set off a nuclear device. There is good reason for this approach as Putin has said, “If there is no Russia, why do we need the planet.”

There is, however, an important piece of the Utilitarian ethic that is as important as “our group.” It is this question. Would our decision stand the test of time? We hear this referenced by the politicos as “history will ultimately judge us.” But there have been a number of decisions of inaction in our history that have not stood the test of time that would have us take another approach. War crimes and genocides have occurred, most notably the Holocaust where the world stood by and allowed Hitler to kill 6 million Jews. The cry went up then, “Never forget!” Unfortunately, we have short ethical memories that history does repeat itself.

I used a simple example in ethics class that also takes into account context. If you, an Upper School student, were walking down our hallway and saw another Upper School student pummeling a Lower School student in a corner, would you just walk by? Taking into account peer pressure when you raise or don’t raise your hand, the hands of all reached quickly up to the sky with a positive response to act. Not to act would have been terrible. Let’s add another ingredient of context. Would you stop and help that child if the school had an ironclad rule that any interference in altercations even when there was an abuse of power would mean immediate expulsion (the nuclear option for a student)? Hands went up slower and a slight pause before they raised them. It is a difficult decision when you put that second rule into the mix.

How can we make the decision easier when we add the ironclad rule of expulsion? The reality is that we can’t, but we can choose another ethical set of ideas to make it wiser. We could add another context to the mix with the words of the novelist Stephen King, the failure to respond by the Roman Catholic Church to Hitler, and words from Pastor Friedrich Niemoller.

King wrote: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice shame on me. Fool me three times, shame on both of us.” This is the response that is needed to address a pathological liar such as Putin. We believed him somewhat as he had his armed forces move to the borders of Ukraine that he would not invade that country. His words sent out to the Russian people are filled with lies. His conduct of attacking citizens and children is appalling. He has his minions saying over the air waves the lie that a hospital was a Nazi center and not a maternity and children’s hospital. We forget that he is an evil thug and killer.

Hitler’s actions have “stood the test of time” as being unethical as the religions of the world on the whole, with certain exceptions, chose to look the other way. It is seen in the review of the book, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany by Guenter Lewy, that was reviewed by Walter Laqueur, “when the Catholic clergy in Nazi Germany was called to bear witness, the call went out to keep calm and not to lose sight of the welfare of the church as a whole.”

Contrast that approach with that of Pastor Niemoller and his now familiar words which are featured on the United States Holocaust Memorial that read: “First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a communist. 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.”


I always believe that you don’t outline a problem without outlining a possible solution. We need to shift our ethical decision making from political ethics which are about power, who has it, and how do I get it, to the guidelines of religious ethics that have stood the test of time.

Consider the Roman Catholic Ethic that we should always choose the sanctity of life, most especially among the most helpless (leave the abortion debate for another time). Situation Ethics states we must will the neighbor’s good, love and justice are keys, and the Machiavellian notion that the ends (stopping Putin) justify the means to accomplish that. The Jewish Ethic advocates the “law of the pursuer” which says that if we are being pursued by a threat, we are free to respond to that threat balanced by moderation in all things if possible, and my position of the Via Media that what we have to do is wrong but necessary and as it is sometimes stated as the lesser of two evils. All of these positions have STOOD THE TEST OF TIME, but since idea comes before action, we need these ideas articulated by the religious community whose voice is not currently heard enough in Washington. We need to post the words of Niemoller and Stephen King on every door leading into where Congress meets to vote. I want them to see these words and I want them to know about religious ethics as the last thing they see and know when they have to make a risky, hard decision about Ukraine.

Where are my ethics students when I need them to take a two-hour train ride on Amtrak to the Capitol to teach and post what is needed today?

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