Wednesday, August 31, 2005

"If I Make My Bed In Hell
Behonld, You Are There"

Phillip Yancey tells the story of a former Nazi soldier who became a Theologian:

Juergen Moltmann was planning on a career in quantum physics until he was drafted at age 18 at the height of the Second World War. Assigned to anti-aircraft batteries in Hamburg, he saw compatriots incinerated in the fire-bombings there. The question "Why did I survive?" haunted him.

After surrendering to the British, the young soldier spent the next three years in prison camps in Belgium, Scotland, and England. When Hitler's empire imploded, exposing the moral rot at the center of the Third Reich, Moltmann saw how other German prisoners "collapsed inwardly, how they gave up all hope, sickening for the lack of it, some of them dying."

As he learned the truth about the Nazis, Moltmann felt an inconsolable grief about life, "weighed down by the somber burden of a guilt which could never be paid off."

Moltmann had no Christian background. He had brought two books with him into battle—Goethe's poems and the works of Nietzsche—neither of which nourished much hope. But an American chaplain gave him an Army-issue New Testament and Psalms, signed by President Roosevelt. "If I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there," the prisoner read.

Could God be present in that dark place? As he read on, Moltmann found words that perfectly captured his feelings of desolation. He became convinced that God "was present even behind the barbed wire—no, most of all behind the barbed wire."

Moltmann also found something new in the Psalms: hope. Walking the perimeter of the barbed wire at night for exercise, he would circle a small hill in the center of the camp on which stood a hut that served as a chapel. That hut became for him a symbol of God's presence in the midst of suffering.

Later Moltmann was transferred to Norton Camp, an educational camp in England run by the YMCA. The local population welcomed the German prisoners, bringing them homemade food, teaching them Christian doctrine, and never adding to the burden of guilt the prisoners felt over Nazi atrocities.

Upon release, Moltmann began to articulate his theology of hope. We exist in a state of contradiction between the Cross and the Resurrection. Surrounded by decay, we nonetheless hope for restoration, a hope illuminated by the "foreglow" of Christ's resurrection. Faith in that glorious future can transform the present—just as Moltmann's own hope of eventual release from prison camp transformed his daily experience there.

Through all of Moltmann's dense theological works run two themes: God's presence with us in our suffering and God's promise of a perfected future.

If Jesus had lived in Europe during the Third Reich, Moltmann noted, he likely would have been branded like other Jews and shipped to the gas chambers.

Yes, it is more than likely. It is almost assured.

I think one of the first duties of any Christian is to ask God to help him to find the person inside himself who would have helped nail Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, to the cross. That person is in all of us.

Until we find that person, and ask God to help us banish him (the old man), the world is not safe from us.