A Tribute to Kaj Munk

Sixty-six years ago a body lay in a freezing ditch outside of Silkeborg, Denmark.  It was that of a man of middle age and of looks not terribly prepossessing, especially with that bullet through his head (a distinction which is rarely flattering).  Oddly, he was not the victim of a robbery or some gangland slaying.  This was not the body of a wealthy man, as the world reckons wealth.  Nor was this a case of suicide.  You see, Denmark was under Nazi occupation.  This was a political statement.  This man was murdered simply for telling the truth.  Not the ordinary kind of truth we are used to telling, such as “two and two are four,” or “the American Revolution ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1783.”  I’m talking about speaking truth to power.  Courageously. And relentlessly.

When it came to speaking the truth, it seemed Kaj Munk was no ordinary man.  Unlike most Christians, he actually believed what Jesus said about himself, and he thought this should affect the way a Christian lived his life.  That’s right, he was one of those rare oddities of human nature:  someone who actually takes Jesus at his word and lives accordingly.  The world calls them fools.  There haven’t been many.  As a pastor Munk also took his ordination vows seriously and, like his Master, tried to keep the wolves from entering the sheep pen.  The wolves he fought so tenaciously were much the same as in Jesus’ day:  fear, compromise, lies, expediency, racism, religiosity, materialism, greed. 

A playwright as well as a pastor, Kaj Munk spoke truth to power and did it so eloquently and fearlessly that he seemed like another John the Baptist.  He spoke out against exploitation of workers, poverty and hunger, prejudice, the persecution of Jews, totalitarianism, the corruption of the state church, as well as the cruelty and injustice of the Nazis and their Danish henchmen. “The goodness of God,” he said, “as we see it in Jesus is meek and long-suffering, but never compromises with evil.” And again, in one sermon denouncing the deportation of Jews, he said, “To be silent in the face of sin is to speak the language of the devil.”

No, compromise was certainly not in this man’s vocabulary.  Even as they hung on his every word and gulped down his courage like interned prisoners ravenous for bread, his parishoners, friends, neighbors, and fellow Danes, living under a cruel occupation, knew Kaj Munk was not long for this world.  Years ago I happened to speak to a Danish woman who had grown up during the war.  She said that Munk was so outspoken, everyone held their breath knowing he would be killed by the Gestapo, probably sooner than later.

But it’s a funny thing about courage.  Just like fear, it can be contagious.  A few days later, after the murder, four thousand Danes gathered to bury Kaj Munk, despite violent threats from the Nazis and their sympathizers and even warnings from the Church Ministry.  Instead of chilling the passions of national resistance, his death had the opposite effect, sparking outrage within the church and without.  Munk’s laying down his life for the truth gave his fellow countrymen more courage to carry on his work.

In tribute to Reverend Munk, the following is an excerpt from his sermon, “The Truth cannot be Pickled”:

John [the Baptist] was not a very cautious man. He believed in the truth. King Herod was committing adultery. The Baptist called on him and told him to stop it. He risked his life by doing so. And, more than that, he was in danger of provoking rebellion and civil war. It might even stir up the Romans, who could use this as a pretext to mix in the internal affairs of the country. This could have bloody consequences for the whole Jewish people.

Why did John not keep silent? That would have been far more sensible and considerate. John was possessed of a burning faith—the faith that truth is to be preached. There are people who believe that truth can be salted down, that it can be pickled and be taken from the jar and used when convenient. They are mistaken. Truth cannot be pickled. It is found only in living form, and it must be used the moment it appears. If not used, it dies and decays, and it soon be-comes destructive. The most dangerous of all lies is dead truth.

…John was a man of spirit, the Spirit of God, of Truth. Therefore, he had not the slightest faith in the idea that truth can exist hermetically sealed. The day came when he was convinced that the time for action was at hand. He said to himself: “Now the truth demands that I put it into action.” His heart beat fast within his hairy chest. His tongue seemed paralyzed. But within that jittery heart there was a great peace: “Now I speak as I ought to speak; now I am acting in accordance with my call as befits a man.” In his troubled heart there was a great calm. It gave him strength to utter the few but sufficient words: “It is not lawful for thee to have her.”

“Peace be with you” is the greeting of the Church. We sing of the peace that is “more than angel watch.” And every Sunday we pastors stand before the altar, hands extended upon the congregation saying: “The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee and give thee peace.” It is a great error to think that this “peace” means fare you well, live well, sleep well, and have a good time; that God will see to it that you always have rubbers to wear in the slush. No, the peace of God means that the soul is at rest. It has found a place of rest in its relationship to the truth. Rest is a difficult word, for truth is ever on the march. Rest in this connection means to march together with truth.

That is the peace which protected John when he appeared before Herod. It could not protect his body, but it gave him poise and dignity for all time. The Bible speaks of John’s time in such a way that his time becomes our time. This event in the life of John the Baptist took place in ancient times and in a distant land. But it also takes place in Denmark today.

Among us, too, there are good men who possess this burning faith in the truth to be proclaimed. They do not believe in truth as a stored substance. They cannot go about pretending, and looking away from the truth. They are of flesh and blood and they know fear—fear of their own fate, fear of the tragedy that truth may bring down upon our people. The tragedy which hypocrisy, silence, and lying brings upon a people will, in the course of time, be a thousand fold more fateful.

…In our nation, too, there is a Herod who flirts with the idols—the spirit of compromise which, for the sake of personal well-being permits itself unseemly conduct.

John wields the ax of righteousness. Herod was but a tiny branch on the great tree of evil. But, great or small, judgment had been pronounced. The sprout [in Danish “Kvistling,” a word play on the Norwegian traitor Quisling] must be cut off.  His Majesty, naturally, did not argue with John. He ordered handcuffs. Thus it has always been. Truth has the word at its command; error has sword and chains. And error continues to delude itself, even to believe it is the stronger of the two.

Now John was in prison. He had delivered his message. In the darkness of his dungeon he sensed the sword hanging over his head. But in his heart was the peace of God, the approval of a good conscience.

What an uncomfortable book the Bible is! Does it not tell us that a good conscience is insufficient, and that even the peace of God may vanish from our hearts? Could not the Bible have dressed up the naked facts a bit? The incident of John’s doubt been passed over in silence? The Baptist might then have died a spotless champion. Alas! The Bible is such a primitive book. It is quite out of place in diplomatic circles, too uncouth for the propaganda ministry. But we have to take it as it is; there is nothing you can do about it. The Bible too is saturated with that dangerous, uncompromising regard for the truth. It tells us the Baptist fell into doubt—as something that it is well for us to know.

…Well, folks who never risk anything are always disappointed when those who do fail to endure. See how manfully and wholeheartedly Jesus defends His friend. He throws Himself into the breach for John with all His untried authority: Though he be weak now, do not forget what he was and what he did in his strength. He was not a reed shaken in the wind. He did not straddle the issue. Go to the Rigsdag if you would see that sort of men.

Now Salome is dancing in the king’s house. There is great merriment. And this man, who was to have been guardian of the law and dispenser of justice, must finish the course he has set—under the silly pretext, perhaps, to prevent someone worse from taking over. That is to say: To keep out a rogue you must be one. Then, between dances, and to the accompaniment of orchestral strains, they bring in the Prophet’s head on a platter.

Herod, Herod, are you so great an idiot as to think you serve the good powers of life with this evil game—that it can lead to anything but corruption of soul, and to ruin and damnation for yourself and your misguided people?

And you, my countrymen, who have been cast into prison because you found yourself compelled by the voice of truth, I pray that you may be strong, and faithful to that inner conviction of having done the right. If there be those among you who are doubtful and uncertain, I absolve you from that sin on behalf of my Lord, as He forgave John. I assure you that He will judge you by your efforts in the cause of truth. You have helped create the spirit out of which alone a sound future can grow. Let it be said to you: The Lord of truth has let His face shine upon you. May He grant you His peace! Ame



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2 Comments

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  1. Ray

    I had never heard of this man. In an age where we long for real heroes, he sounds like one.

  2. Yes, he was definitely a man for all seasons. I learned about him while writing something about the Danish resistance, which is another courageous story. He is a saint in the Lutheran Church.

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