If you remain indifferent in time of adversity,
your strength will depart from you.
Rescue those who are being dragged to death,
and from those tottering to execution withdraw not.
If you say, “I know not this man!”
does not he who test hearts perceive it?
Many proverbs tell advise us to shun evil, to flee from those who do wrong. But other proverbs balance that strong advice in a way that draws the bands of community tight. Just as much as we should flee from evil-doers, we should rush toward those who have been harmed, and be of aid to them.
The violent imagery, written thousands of years ago, calls to mind scenes from Darfur, from Rwanda, from the Holocaust, and from the many situations of conflict around the world. I notice, though, that this is not the language of protecting brother, family, friend, or village. Instead, the Proverb draws a bond of shared humanity between each of us and those who are being violently oppressed.
Pastor Martin Niemöller’s poem is one of the best modern statements of this sense of shared humanity, recognizing that we are linked even to those who do not seem to be part of our group.
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 out for me.
Proverbs, though, draws the boundaries of community even further out – to include even the enemy. Although we might need to act to stop evil-doing, we nonetheless respect the bond of common humanity, founded in a recognition that each of us, and all of our many groupings, are all beloved of the Lord.
Rejoice not when you enemy falls,
and when he stumbles, let not your heart exult,
Lest the Lord see it, be displeased with you,
and withdraw his wrath from your enemy.