Kaj Munk: Martyr, Mentor of Epiphanic Recklessness
What is, therefore, our task today? Shall I answer: “Faith, hope, and love”? That sounds beautiful. But I would say–courage. No, even that is not challenging enough to be the whole truth. Our task today is recklessness. For what we Christians lack is not psychology or literature…we lack a holy rage–the recklessness which comes from the knowledge of God and humanity. The ability to rage when justice lies prostrate on the streets, and when the lie rages across the face of the earth…a holy anger about the things that are wrong in the world. To rage against the ravaging of God’s earth, and the destruction of God’s world. To rage when little children must die of hunger, when the tables of the rich are sagging with food. To rage at the senseless killing of so many, and against the madness of militaries. To rage at the lie that calls the threat of death and the strategy of destruction peace. To rage against complacency. To restlessly seek that recklessness that will challenge and seek to change human history until it conforms to the norms of the Kingdom of God. And remember the signs of the Christian Church have been the Lion, the Lamb, the Dove, and the Fish…but never the chameleon.
Call committees, when sketching out a profile for their next pastor, are awfully drawn to words like these: kind, available, comforting, pastoral, articulate, flexible, intelligent, dynamic, wise, knowledgable, organized, trust-worthy, confident.
Good, solid, wholesome, reliable words.
Reckless never gets scratched off the brainstorm list, because it never gets on one.
Nor does ‘rage-filled’ show up the summary adjective for a coveted pastor, even with the word ‘holy’ tacked on.
Kaj Munk, the man who wrote the words above, he was a pastor.
He was a Danish pastor, and playwright, and martyr of the Danish resistance, and according to author Shane Claiborne, Munk wrote these words for a community newsletter not long before he was killed by the Gestapo on January 4, 1944.
The Gestapo assassinated Pastor Munk because he had the audacity to write and preach against the danger, the lies, the intimidation, the cruelty, the threat of the German regime, and had no time for the Danes who were complicit or remained silent.
I grew up hearing about Kaj Munk.
My father’s uncle Søren was a good hunting buddy of his. They, along with a mess of other men, regularly traipsed about in the land–a plantage, in Danish–of the western shores of Denmark, rifles in hand, hope in heart that each would bring home some tasty creature for their respective tables.
Munk might be best known as an author of several plays, but he also served a small parish in Vedersø, until the night of January 4, 1944, when the Gestapo broke into the parsonage, dragged him away from his wife and children, shot him, then callously tossed his body in a nearby ditch.
The body was found on January 5th.
Resolutely defying Nazi threats, 4,000 townspeople gathered for Kaj Munk’s funeral, and De Frie Danske Newspaper dedicated page after page to Kaj Munk’s life and murder.
When my father was but a schoolboy in Brookings, South Dakota, he and his parents (who had emigrated from Denmark to the US in the early 1900’s) traveled back to the homeland, back to Jutland, back to the lands near the North Sea. There they passed some time with Søren, a rugged farmer and a gentle, good-humored ox of a man, according to Dad.
One day, Søren, this man with hands as big as hocks of ham, brought my father into the beloved old hunting grounds, through the woods, and to a clearing. He had something he wanted to show this young American boy.
And finally, there it was, in the clearing: a stone, a Mindesten.
Here stood a monument that Søren and others of Kaj Munk’s hunting clan erected exactly in the sacred space where the men passed countless moments together in glad friendship, in trust, in apparent safety.
Søren, says my father (himself no small man, and his own eyes moistening just enough for this daughter to notice), Søren, this hulk of a farmer, began to sob, tears pouring onto the stone and into the ground where once walked his friend and his pastor Kaj Munk. And then they went to have lunch in the parsonage garden with Kaj Munk’s widow Lise, who told more stories to my father and his family about the courage of her late husband.
We in the church remember Kaj Munk on January 5th, on the day his body was discovered and recovered.
We in the church celebrate Epiphany, the beginning of the season of God-made-manifest, on January 6.
The conflation of these days is almost too rich with meaning.
These days, Kaj Munk raises any number of questions and conversation points for us in the church, both laity and clergy, not least of all as we stand on the cusp of Epiphany.
His words, which I quoted above, were clearly timely then.
But clearly, and discouragingly, they are still timely now.
The earth is being all the more ravaged, children live in hunger and squalor while others of us feast, ridiculous numbers of people die in senseless gun violence, battles swing forth and loom, lies take hold and root in political rhetoric, complacency runs and wins the day (the top trending search of 2015? Not Paris, not refugees, not drowned Syrian boys, not terrorism, not Black Lives Matter, not climate change, not gay marriage: Lamar Odom). (*Updated for Epiphany 2020…the top trending search for 2019 was not Climate Change, not Impeachment, not the Wall, not #metoo, not deportation, not immigration, not anti-semitism: it was Disney Plus.)
Clearly, God is not yet fully manifest, fully known.
Kaj Munk’s words still speak, and still need to be spoken.
Laity, the people who come to worship in vast and diverse numbers of communities and congregations, gather because they believe that God has some words to say to them in the here and now.
But words, of course, words are spoken to impact circumstances.
“Dinner’s ready!” “I love you.” “I’m leaving you.” “Are we there yet?” “I don’t understand.” “No.” “Yes!” “I’m pregnant.” “I promise.” “You make me so very glad.” “Amen.”
People come to church to hear words of meaning, words of consequence, words which impact circumstances by manifesting God’s will for God’s people and God’s creation.
Kaj Munk wrote and spoke such words, and the Danish people read and heard them and took them to heart.
He was killed. The Danes who lived through those dark days stalwartly and proudly continued to tell his story in their own words.
Kaj Munk was not oblivious to the threat: the Nazis were not known for equivocating on their principles or mandates.
Given the clear potential cost, however, of speaking up, Munk could well be forgiven had he protected his life, his station in life, his way of life.
He is remembered, of course, because he didn’t, and because he found the courage–actually, the recklessness and the holy rage –to speak the Word of God, a Word which surely impacted his circumstance, and he hoped would impact the circumstance of his parishioners and those persecuted by the politics of the day.
Pastors today don’t tend to have Nazis eavesdropping on their sermons and pouring over their newsletters.
But pastors can have good reasons to avoid speaking directly, to not name conflictual issues, to leave for the newspapers what could be written about in parish newsletters.
And, many do stay silent.
Can we blame them?
Pastors might have people leave.
Pastors might have people ask them to leave.
Pastors might have people angrily knocking on their doors, might have arguments at council meetings, might have unpleasant annual meetings.
But between January 4 and January 6, Kaj Munk still speaks to us: to clergy and to laity in different ways.
Kaj Munk knew and acted, even to the point of being killed for it, out of this conviction: pastors are not called to serve people–even those in the congregation: pastors are called to serve the Gospel, namely the invitation to come, pick up your cross, and die.
And laity are called to hear and respond to the very same invitation, communicated not least of all by the pastors whom they called for this very purpose.
The weird thing is, we Christians call that “come to die” thing Good News.
We Christians call that Good News, because we believe that God has freed us from fear, and freed us for living….but a distinct sort of living: As named and called Christ-ians, we serve the living God who bids us to speak honestly, to resist, to act recklessly, to engage in holy rage where all but God is manifest.
The recklessness of which Munk spoke is not recklessness that is self-serving, that is hateful or spiteful or violent or mean-spirited.
It is recklessness that speaks the Word, hears the Word, and then acts on the Word, regardless of the cost.
It is recklessness that refuses to be tamped down by fears, by avoidance of conflict, by ducking the facts of injustice and suffering, by questions about timing or process or appropriateness.
It is a holy rage, a righteously indignant fury that we would feel if our own children were hungering, if our own children were floating the waters, if our own water were polluted, if our own children were shot for the color of their skin, if our own religious group were profiled, if our own parents were sleeping in boxes, if our own families were denied health insurance, if our own loved ones were rejected, scorned, maligned, threatened, killed.
The holy rage manifests itself in Word and Action that names wrongs, that speaks truth, that protests, that changes, that repudiates, that calls out injustice, that works to change oppressive systems, that stands up to manifest death and fear and embraces manifest life and hope.
The season of Epiphany dwells on stories that make God manifest.
To preachers, I say this: Kaj Munk mentors clergy to be bold, to be reckless, to be enraged in the name of God as we speak the Word of God. He reminds them of the cost of our calling, and he reminds us of its freedom.
To laity, I say this: Kaj Munk mentors parishioners to hear the Word, to be inspired by its boldness, its recklessness, its holy rage. He reminds them to embolden the clergy, to welcome their Words, which are God’s Word, a Word which calls us to be relentlessly dedicated to the Least of These, to advocate for the Least of These, to act on behalf of the Least of These, and to die for the Least of These too.
January 4 Kaj Munk was murdered.
January 5 Kaj Munk’s body was discovered.
January 6 is Epiphany.
Perhaps today we can dwell on the cost of his life in the wake of his death.
Perhaps tomorrow we can dwell on the despair found by the ditch, and the hard knowledge that speaking truth means engaging risk.
Perhaps on Wednesday, Epiphany, we can dwell in the Word, and commit to speaking it and making it manifest recklessly, with holy rage, and in full conviction that death is real, life is real-er.
Perhaps we can strive to trust that we Christians are stewards and ambassadors of the Gospel, be it in pulpit or in pew or in the plantages of our lives or the lives of those who would otherwise be forgotten.
Perhaps in his story we can find inspiration, courage, and freedom: the very thing that the Nazis, that fear, seek to kill.
Murder. Discovery. Epiphany.
Holy, holy, holy days, these three.