About the Commemoration
Kaj Harald Leininger Petersen (his given name is pronounced KYE to rhyme with “sky”) was born January 13, 1898, in Maribo, on the island of Lolland, Denmark. His father was a tanner and shopkeeper. After his father died, his mother attempted to continue the business but soon died of tuberculosis. The boy, not yet six, was adopted by the Munk family, his distant cousins, in Opanger, and he took their name as his own. He has left a tender tribute to his adoptive mother upon the occasion of her death, in his sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Easter, collected in his volume of collected sermons, By the Rivers of Babylon. The pietistic home left a deep impression on the boy and influenced his decision to become a priest. He was tutored privately by Oscar Geismar, a poet and literary critic and supporter of Nikolai Grundtvig’s ideas (see September 2), who encouraged him to read the Iliad and the Odyssey and Scandinavian mythology. Although his family was poor, they were able to send him to Nykøping Cathedral School and at the University of Copenhagen, where he took a degree in theology in 1924. While he was there he came under the influence of Søren Kierkegaard, from whom he learned that the truths of Christianity can only be realized in action.
Munk was ordained priest in 1924 and became pastor at Vedersø in western Jutland, one of the smallest parishes in Denmark. It was his only parish. He married his housekeeper, and they had four children and adopted one child. He was influenced by the two strands of Danish devotion, Grundtvigianism and the evangelical fervor of Indre [Inner] Mission. Munk was respected and loved by his people, and when he suggested that he ought to resign his parish to devote himself to his writing, the parishioners urged him to stay and called an assistant to help with the pastoral work. For a time in the 1930s Munk had admired Hitler and Mussolini, as he had admired Napoleon, but after the occupation of Denmark by Nazi forces in 1940, his powerful sermons drew masses to the resistance, and his own opposition became so outspoken that his plays were banned.
He wrote his first play, Pilatus (published in 1938), when he was only nineteen. It revealed his fascination with powerful leaders who triumph over all obstacles. Munk, an exponent of religious drama with a strong sense of theater, revived heroic Shakespearean and Schillerian drama with writing of a passionate intensity. His three best plays are En Idealist, 1928 (in English translation, Herod the King, 1955), which was panned by the critics when it was first staged in Copenhagen; Ordet, 1932 (English translation, The Word, 1955), a miracle play set among the peasants of Jutland: and Han Sidder ved Smeltedigeln, 1938 (English translation, He Sits at the Melting Pot, 1944) a drama of Hitler’s Germany, attacking the persecution of the Jews and presenting a weak man as a hero.
Because of his outspoken resistance. Munk was arrested in the fall of 1943 but was released at Christmas. On the night of January 4, 1944, Munk was taken from his vicarage by the Gestapo. His body was found the next day in a ditch near Hørbylunde on the main road to Silkeborg. He had been shot through the head. His Bible was found some twenty meters from his body, as if it had been taken away from him before he was killed. More than four thousand people defied Nazi orders and attended his funeral at Vedersø. A marble cross now marks the place of his execution.
Kaj Munk is commemorated not only for his own bold witness to the faith but also as a symbol of the many thousands who bravely but with less attention resisted Nazi tyranny. A popular telling of the stories of the heroes is found in John Oram Thomas, The Giant Killers: The Story of the Danish Resistance Movement 1940-1945 (London: Michael Joseph, 1975). Munk’s Five Plays, with a preface and English translations was published in 1953. His sermons have appeared in English as Four Sermons and By the Rivers of Babylon. A brief biography is appended to each volume. Kaj Munk Playwright, Priest, and Patriot, ed. R. P. Keigwin, appeared in 1944. Kaj Munk by Sven Stolpe was published in 1944. He is included in the Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century (vol. 3, 1999). There is a portrait of Munk in the Encyclopedia of the Lutheran Church.
Excerpts from New Book of Festivals & Commemorations: A Proposed Common Calendar of Saints by Philip H. Pfatteicher, copyright, 2008 by Fortress Press, an imprint of Augsburg Fortress.
See also: Kaj Munk
From a sermon for New Year’s Day by Kaj Munk
Do not trust too much in the preachers. As a rule they are poorly paid. They are brought up as humanists. They have forgotten—or never learned—what Christianity is. They have imbibed lo-o-o-ve with the bottle milk in the cradle. In a world of men they too often plead the cause of the effeminate. They “abstain from politics.” They preach peace at any price for the uplift of the devil, who rejoices to see evil develop in peace. The Scriptures do not say: When your neighbor is smitten on one cheek it is your duty to hold him so that he may be smitten on the other cheek also. Do not trust the preachers until they wake up and remember that they are servants of the whole gospel, and of the Prince of Peace who came not to bring peace but a sword; of Him who forgave Peter and permitted Judas to hang himself; of Him who was meek and humble of heart and yet drove the sacrilegists from the temple courts.
And do not trust the majority, which likes to take things easy and therefore is easy to please…. Do not trust the great neglected masses. I believe that the heart of the nation is strong, but it has become encased in fat….
This is what our old nation needs; a rejuvenating power, God’s rejuvenating strength, that a new people may come forth, which is yet the old, worthy sons of the fathers. The gospel will have to teach the Danish nation to think as a great people; to choose honor rather than profit, freedom rather than a well paid guardianship; to believe in the victory of the spirit of sacrifice; to believe that life comes out of death, and that the future comes out of giving oneself;—in short, faith in Christ. What would it profit a people if it gained all the advantages of the world, but lost its soul?
The cross in our flag—it is long since we realized that it stands for something, and we have forgotten that now. And yet it is the cross that characterizes the flags of the North.—We have come to church—the few of us who go to church, and we have heard about the cross, about Christ’s example of suffering, and Christ’s words about self-denial and struggle. We have thought that this was all to be taken in a spiritual sense, and that it did not pertain to our time. We thought we were Christians when we sat in Church and sang Amen. But No, No! We are Christians only when we go out into the world and say No to the devil, renounce all his works and all his ways, and say Yes to the Holy Spirit.
Lead us, thou cross in our flag, lead us into that Nordic struggle where shackled Norway and bleeding Finland fight against an idea which is directly opposed all to our ideas. Lead old Denmark forth to its new spirit. Not by the grace of others, or by their promises, shall Danneborg again become a free banner. For freedom only God can give; and he gives it only to those who accept its responsibilities. Lead us, cross in our flag, forward toward unity with other flags of the cross. With honor and liberty regained, the old Denmark in the young North—that vision looms before us this New Year’s Day. We who have the vision will give ourselves to its realization. We promise we will. May God hear our vow and add his Amen!
Kaj Munk, Four Sermons, trans. J. M. Jensen (Blair: Lutheran Publishing House, 1944), 27, 30-32.
Gracious Lord, in every age you have sent men and women who have given their lives for the message of your love: Inspire us with the example of your servant Kaj Munk, whose faithfulness led him in the way of the cross, and give us courage to bear full witness with our lives to the victory over sin and death won by Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever.
LBW, ELW Common of Martyrs, rev. PHP
Readings: Ezekiel 20:40-42; Psalm 5; Revelation 6:9-11; Mark 8:34-38
Hymn of the Day: “Thy strong word did cleave the darkness” (LBW 233, LSB 578, ELW 511)
Prayers: For strength to follow Christ into the world; For those under persecution; For all who resist tyranny; For courage to proclaim the whole gospel; For the theater writers, actors, audiences, and all who produce and perform drama.