…The Bell Tolls for Thee

By Rabbi Yeshaia Charles Familant



Reverend Irene Monroe is an African-American lesbian feminist minister, and in wide demand as a motivational speaker, preacher and writer. She has the credentials for being a liberal, both socially and religiously.

Rev. Monroe states that “the uptick of dystopian novels is one clear indication of the nation’s current mood. Classics like George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are all now horrifyingly prescient. Our devouring of these tomes in search for answers is a frightening new normal.”

She continues,

“Trump’s reign has ushered in a steady stream of queries about the afterlife – an individual’s soul or spirit living beyond the life of their physical body. There is a belief that in the afterlife one’s moral choices and actions while alive will result in their soul residing in a place of reward or punishment, known as Heaven or Hell.”

If there is a Hell, some believe Trump will certainly end up there. Irene Monroe further states that “Trump appears to be both unstoppable and invincible in his erosion of fundamental freedoms and protections to various disenfranchised populations.” She says that this raises, “anxiety and hopelessness” for many as they increasingly dwell on thoughts of the afterlife. Irene Monroe is quite explicit regarding her conviction that Heaven and Hell don’t exist. Those notions are simply “fictive narratives” [creations by religions throughout the centuries] as a form of “social control.” She says, “I don’t think that a person is likely to go to Heaven or Hell in an afterlife.”

To my mind, Rev. Monroe might have stated this more emphatically as follows: “Not only is there no such place as Heaven or Hell, but there is also no such thing as the afterlife. Once you’re dead, you’re dead! That means there is only this life; and this is the only shot you get at it. So make the most of it!”

Too stark, you think? Well, that is my sentiment – and I’m a rabbi, remember. But I can assure you that I am not alone, as a member of the clergy. Many of my Christian colleagues and most of my rabbinic colleagues share this conviction. I believe Rev. Monroe also shares that belief, judging from her following pointed remarks:

“I do, however, believe that crushing setbacks that include grinding poverty, racial, gender, sexual orientation, and religious profiling is unquestionably a living Hell for many of us in marginalized communities. The belief in an afterlife, in my opinion, can create complacency and indifference to present social justice issues and crimes against humanity, like the Holocaust, American slavery, lynching, and the immigration crisis presently at the U.S.-Mexico border.”

Here, here, Ms. Monroe! I am in complete agreement.

She further states: “In the case of enslaved Africans, the belief of an afterlife was passed on to my ancestors as an intentionally Christian theological concept. It was a form of social control to maintain the status quo of perpetual servitude. The indoctrination of an overjoyed and jubilant afterlife wasn’t to make people better Christians but, instead, to make them obedient, subservient and God-fearing slaves.”

Doesn’t this bear a remarkable resemblance to one of the “dystopian” books to which Reverend Monroe alludes, Huxley’s Brave New World? But instead of social engineering, we have theological indoctrination as a means of societal control.

She further states, “For African American slaves, however, the belief in an afterlife was a coded critique of an unfulfilled existence, denying them of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The belief in an afterlife functioned as an eschatological hope and aspiration that their future progenies would have a fulfilled life that they could only purportedly experience in death.”

As Reverend Monroe rightly points out, it was a lie and cynically perpetrated on a credulously desperate people! But one can understand the prime mover for such a belief – justice! Her forebears – but not only they – harbored the belief that If justice cannot be attained by those of their generation, then it must be realizable for their progeny.

In fact, it’s the belief in ultimate justice that perpetuates the myth of immortality of the soul, the existence in an afterlife and such exotic places as Heaven and Hell. Without such beliefs, then what is left but the here and now, and sadly, for many, justice seems to be elusive for the underprivileged who dwell at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder; who are stricken with illnesses with no means or availability to excellent health care; whose children – let alone themselves – are deprived of an education sufficiently adequate to achieve a satisfying and fulfilling livelihood.

The lack of justice for many would not sting so sorely were it spread universally and equally. But that is not the case, as we all know. There are the powerfully wealthy who were either born into the lap of luxury or fell into it by chance or acquired it through devious means. Undeserving reward is not justice! So what is left but to strive for justice, for it will not come of its own. This takes us back to Rev. Monroe’s prescription:

Rev. Monroe describes the only viable recourse for a despairing populace: “People across the country and around the world have taken to the streets in protest of the Trump regime. Social justice and pro-democracy organizations are now employing intersectional approaches to stem the deleterious and regressive laws of this administration.

“This new reality brings to the forefront the ever urgent need to speak up. Just like Rev. Martin Niemöller, a Protestant pastor who was an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler, these voices of justice need to be heard

“‘First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out-because I was not a Socialist. … Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.’”

Until Rev. Monroe mentioned Martin Niemöller, I was in complete accord with her.  But then she touched upon a Jewish nerve. The quote, attributed to Niemöller, she may have used for homiletic reasons, though why she abbreviated it as she had, I have no idea because it conceals a conspicuous omission. It is likely that mention of the Jews was not included by Niemöller during his original version in 1946; it has since been amended and attributed to him to correct that omission, but too late for the Jews in Nazi occupied Europe from the early 30s to 1945. Niemöller’s original, though we have no transcript, is likely to have gone like this:

“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 Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.” (It is a huge and bitter irony that Jews comprised sizeable representations within each of these groups.)

To put this oft-quoted statement by Niemöller in context, I discovered an interview done in 1976 that Dietmar Schmidt (who previously completed a biography of Niemöller) had with him. Schmidt asked Niemöller about the origin of the “poetic” version of the quotation.

Niemöller: “That wasn’t a poem. Once when I gave a sermon in a Lutheran-Slovakian church, we had a discussion. They asked me whether we weren’t “woken up”  [for the Church to protest the mistreatment of the Jews] after Kristallnacht* (see bottom note) in 1938. And I said, for heaven’s sake, don’t ask me about ’38. I was imprisoned and in solitary confinement by then. But [in 1933] when they began locking up the Communists we [the Protestant Church] didn’t protest, since we lived for the Church and the Communists were no friends of the Church; then came the trade unions, and the trade unions weren’t any friends of the Church, and we had little or nothing to do with them and we said ‘let them deal with their own problems.’ There was no transcript or copy of what I said and it can certainly be that I expressed it differently. But the idea was: The Communists, we just calmly let that happen; and the trade unions, we also just let that happen; and the Social Democrats, we let happen too.”

Note: No mention of the Jews at this interview.

Niemöller continues:

“That wasn’t our business. The Church didn’t yet have anything to do with politics back then – apolitical, and one shouldn’t have anything to do with [coming to the defense of any of these groups]; we in the Confessing Church basically didn’t want to resist politically. We didn’t see ourselves obligated to say anything for people outside the Church, that wasn’t fashionable; we hadn’t come far enough yet to understand that we were responsible for our [entire German] people.” [Italics, mine.]

I wonder if Reverend Irene Monroe is aware of the excuse Niemöller provided for the Church’s and his own inaction regarding the persecution, incarceration and eventual murder of those “outside the Church.” That he took steps to protect the Protestant Church is a matter of historical record; that neither he nor the Church did anything to protest the mistreatment of groups “outside the Church” is also a matter of historical record. This is in striking contrast to what Reverend Monroe is currently advocating with regard to the persecuted and/or disenfranchised groups in this country.

But Niemöller had left out some important facts that subvert his relatively benign explanation by using such terms as “apolitical” and “not fashionable” (these are translations from the German, but quite accurate). He is correct that the Church’s main  concern was protecting itself and its reputation. However, what he does not say is he, as well as most of the rest of the clerical leadership in Germany, agreed with the Nazi regime in its position on the Jewish question. Both Nazis and their Protestant opponents were anti-semitic, based on nearly two millennia of theological Judenhass (the compound word for the currently used “anti-semite” which literally meant “hatred of the Jews).”

German Protestants, as a whole, concurred that Jews were evil beings who deserved to suffer in this world, principally because they did not accept Jesus as a divine being, the Messiah and the Son of God. This anti-Jewish stance, along with other factors such as German nationalism and Lutheran Obrigkeit (authority), weakened and nearly ruined the ability of the resisters to set themselves up as the moral opposition to Hitler. This unholy alliance between Nazis and anti-Nazis would be fatal for the Jews.

Niemöller spoke of the Church, using “we” and “no one” speaking out, as opposed to the “I” widely known in later versions of the quotation Monroe referred to, but severely abbreviated in her example . Moreover, Niemöller was a national conservative and initially a supporter of Adolf Hitler, despite Monroe’s statement to the contrary.  Although he opposed the Nazis’ Aryan Paragraph – a clause signaling out Aryans as having certain rights and privileges to the exclusion of non-Aryans – his opposition derived from the fact that many of Jewish descent, including pastors, were Protestants! Also, Niemöller’s opposition to the proposed unification of pro-Nazi Protestant churches, was the reason for his imprisonment in concentration camps (1938-45). This had nothing to do with Jews. He did not openly oppose Nazi treatment of the Jews in his country. After his  imprisonment, at the end of the war, he expressed his deep regret about not having done enough to help the victims of the Nazis.

It is unfortunate that Irene Monroe mentioned for emulation Martin Niemöller. She might have better chosen Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one for whom I can not give sufficient praise. He holds my deepest respect, as he does of every other Jew and non-Jew alive since the Holocaust. He, too, was a Lutheran pastor during the Nazi era. But you will find he has no need to supply excuses for his own actions because of the failure of the German Protestant churches to take a moral stance for those “outside the Church” (Of course, that same condemnation can be made of the Catholic Pope and Catholic churches of that time).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was, alongside Niemöller, a founding member of the Confessing Church (I have explained this above). Bonhoeffer was raised in a highly educated and enlightened family. His father was a psychiatrist and neurologist; his mother, a teacher and the granddaughter of Protestant theologian Karl von Hase and painter Stanislaus Kalckreuth. Bonhoeffer completed his Staatsexamen, the equivalent of both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, at the Protestant Faculty of Theology of the University. He went on to complete his Doctor of Theology degree from Berlin University in 1927, graduating summa cum laude.

Still too young to be ordained, at the age of twenty-four, Bonhoeffer went to the United States in 1930 for postgraduate study and a teaching fellowship at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary. He studied under Reinhold Niebuhr and met Frank Fisher, a black fellow-seminarian who introduced him to Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where Bonhoeffer taught Sunday school and formed a lifelong love for African-American spirituals, a collection of which he took back to Germany. He heard Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. preach the Gospel of Social Justice, and became sensitive to not only social injustices experienced by minorities, but also the ineptitude of the Church to bring about integration. Bonhoeffer began to see things “from below”—from the perspective of those who suffer oppression. He observed, “Here one can truly speak and hear about sin and grace and the love of God…the Black Christ is preached with rapturous passion and vision.” Later Bonhoeffer referred to his impressions abroad as the point at which he “turned from phraseology to reality.”

After returning to Germany in 1931, Bonhoeffer became a lecturer in systematic theology at the University of Berlin. Deeply interested in ecumenism, he was appointed by the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches (a forerunner of the World Council of Churches) as one of its three European youth secretaries. At this time he seems to have undergone something of a personal conversion from being a theologian primarily attracted to the intellectual side of Christianity to being a dedicated man of faith, resolved to carry out the teaching of Christ as he found it revealed in the Gospels. On 15 November 1931—at the age of 25—he was ordained at the Old-Prussian United St. Matthew’s Church (German: St. Matthäuskirche) in Berlin.

Bonhoeffer’s promising academic and ecclesiastical career was dramatically altered with the Nazi ascension to power on 30 January 1933. He was a determined opponent of the regime from its first days. Two days after Hitler was installed as Chancellor, Bonhoeffer delivered a radio address in which he attacked Hitler and warned Germany against slipping into an idolatrous cult of the Führer (leader), who could very well turn out to be Verführer (mis-leader, or seducer). He was cut off the air in the middle of a sentence.

There followed vigorous in-fighting within the German Protestant churches, to which Bonhoeffer was in the forefront, along with Karl Barth. In April 1933, Bonhoeffer raised the first voice for church resistance to Hitler’s persecution of Jews, declaring that the church must not simply “bandage the victims under the wheel, but jam the spoke in the wheel itself.”

In November 1932, two months before the Nazi takeover, there had been an election for church officials. Despite Bonhoeffer’s efforts, in the rigged July election an overwhelming number of key church positions went to Nazi-supported Deutsche Christen people.

Bonhoeffer was staunchly resistant  to Nazi dictatorship, including vocal opposition to Hitler’s euthanasia program and genocidal persecution of the Jews. He was arrested in April 1943 by the Gestapo and imprisoned at Tegel prison for one and a half years. Later, he was transferred to a Nazi concentration camp, when he was discovered, along with one of his brothers, Klaus, to be involved in the 20 July plot (1944) to assassinate Adolf Hitler; former members of the Abwehr (the German Military Intelligence Office), together with the two brothers, were executed by hanging on 9 April 1945 as the Nazi regime was collapsing.

To conclude this exposition that began with Reverend Irene Monroe’s reference to Martin Niemöller and his oft-repeated meme, albeit with its many morphisms, let me, in its stead, mention the words of the seventeenth century poet, priest and pastor, John Donne. In 1624, he wrote these immortal words:

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe;

every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;

if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse,

as well as if a Promontorie were,

as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were;

any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde;

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

John Donne describes how he came to write these words. It occurred while he lay in bed recovering from a near-fatal illness. Donne resided very near a steeple that tolled the advent of another funeral. Confronted by what he feared might be his own imminent death, he recognized that his funeral might be the next one for whom the bell tolls.

How well these words apply to the infamous Munich Agreement to which Neville Chamberlain, the erstwhile Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, was a signatory with Adolf Hitler. He conceded the German-speaking Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia to Germany as a futile gesture of appeasement so as to avoid war. When Adolf Hitler next invaded Poland, the UK declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. The bell tolled for England.

In our own country, today, the current president is persecuting people of color, both prospective immigrants, those now residing here and current citizens. His naive white base that believes their Führer, rather their Verführer, is their protector may, too late, realize that the bell now tolls for them.


*Kristallnacht – the night of broken glass – refers to the pogrom against Jews throughout Nazi Germany on 9–10 November 1938, carried out by SA paramilitary – the “stormtroopers” – and German civilians. The German authorities looked on without intervening. The name Kristallnacht comes from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after the windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues were smashed.

Estimates of the number of fatalities caused by the pogrom vary from 91 Jews murdered during the attacks to hundreds when post-arrest maltreatment and subsequent suicides are included. Additionally, 30,000 Jewish men were incarcerated in concentration camps.