Wednesday 31 October - Martyrs in our time - Markus Duenzkofer

How do you serve God in the midst of death?
This is one of the most challenging questions, I have ever considered.

How do you serve God in the midst of death?

Not: How do you trust God in the midst of death? Nor: How do you find God in the midst of death? Nor: How are you rescued by God from death?
Lots has been written about these questions. But I sincerely doubt that much has been contemplated about the question: How do you serve God in the midst of death?

I visited Jerusalem over 25 years ago: that ancient city of peace, the focal point of God’s people. Here the Temple of God in all its glory once stood. It spoke of God’s majesty, of God’s abiding presence, of God’s self-revelation in the children of Abraham, Jacob and Isaac, the children of Miriam, Rebekah, and Ruth. Here the people came together to give thanks and to be in communion with the One, who had loved them into being and who had chosen them. Here God was honoured as the God of life: who above all gifts us with love and seeks for our life to be lived in abundance and eternally.

But in this very same spot temptation was rife too. As Goethe once said: where there is a lot of light, there is a lot of shadow also. And the shadows were particularly wide and dark in the Mediterranean sun shining over God’s people. Hunger for power and the fallacy to run one’s own destiny enticed God’s people. And deities that sparkled golden in the sun tempted to replace the worship of the one Creator with submission to dead and deadly idols.

And once you were lured in, the principalities of the world – the driving forces behind these idols – demanded sacrifice: not just any sacrifice, but the sacrifice of life, your life and the life of your children. And all too late you realise that these entities are not at all interested in your welfare at all.

The most horrendous cult the Hebrew scriptures report about, was the worship of Moloch, supposedly a Canaanite deity that demanded the sacrifice of children. And there is nothing that defies the God of heaven, nothing that kindles the wrathful justice of God, nothing the defiles the love of God more than handing over our children to the flames and fumes of a deathful, dreadful, demonic power, be it spiritual or temporal.  

And Jerusalem is therefore also the place of unimaginable destruction and pain, and even about unimaginable death.

On my visit in 1991, I visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s central place of remembrance to those who had been sacrifice to another Moloch, the Moloch of the 21st century: Adolf Hitler.

There were a number of aspects of Yad Vashem that moved me deeply. One of them was a memorial to those who had taken their own lives in concentration and extermination camps. Rather than walk into the gas chambers, unnumbered people threw themselves into the electric fences. It was an act of defiance. It was an act of not giving in to the Moloch. It was an act that held on to God even when God was very silent, even when God seemed to have died in the gas chambers himself. And in a bizarre and grotesque way this denied the Moloch the final word. The irony of Yad Vashem is this: here, in the midst of unparalleled tears, stands a testament to life that is stronger than death, even if it is willing to sacrifice all.

I do not know if Jochen Klepper knew about these courageous souls that defied death by ending their own lives. But Jochen Klepper knew about concentration camps. He was a Protestant lay theologian, who in 1931 had married a Jewish widow and had accepted her two daughters as his own. His family, though, was not happy that their aspiring son had married a Jew.

Already the deathly shadow of the Moloch was growing larger, poisoning hearts and minds and souls. Yet, the subtle Antisemitism, oh-so-present in every generation, is nothing compared to the reality of death, when Adolf Hitler was appointed German chancellor. Soon, the Moloch demanded sacrifices. And too many, intoxicated by the poison of power and nationalistic furore, were willing to sacrifice whatever it took to keep the Moloch’s allure going: Neighbour, kin, and even family. Eventually, they even had to sacrifice their own children in the hail of bombs and bullets.

Jochen Klepper and his wife quickly understood what kind of death-loving cult Nazism turned out to be. With their own deportation immanent they tried desperately to get out Germany. The oldest daughter succeeded in escaping to the UK. But for Klepper, his wife, and his youngest daughter there was no way out. The shadows grew longer, threatening life and faith. And, yet, Klepper was able to expose these shadows for what they are in the Advent hymn for which he has become so well-known and which we will sing in a few moments.

Towards the end of 1942 all hope had evaporated. The Kleppers had one last visit with the Security Service. And, then, in the night from the 10th to 11th of December 1942, they joined those who defied the Moloch by taking their own lives. Jochen, Johanna and Renate swallowed sleeping pills and opened a gas valve, never to wake up in this life.   

These are his last words written in his diary:

“Nachmittags die Verhandlung auf dem Sicherheitsdienst. Wir sterben nun – ach, auch das steht bei Gott – Wir gehen heute nacht gemeinsam in den Tod. Über uns steht in den letzten Stunden das Bild des Segnenden Christus, der um uns ringt. In dessen Anblick endet unser Leben.”

“This afternoon we had the last deliberation with the Security Service. We will die now – well, that is before God too – We will go into death tonight together. In these last hours stands above us the picture of the blessing Christ, who fights for us. In his sight our lives will end.”

How do you serve God in death?

I struggle with Klepper’s decision.

And yet, I realise that this struggle in myself is not a moralistic struggle that seeks to uphold God’s law. It is a struggle of my own ego trying to be in control, trying to be in charge. But for Klepper, taking his own life was an act of giving it all to God – every single fibre of his being. And in death, he indeed defied evil and thus became not only a blood witness for Christ. He also joined God in his eternal victory over the Moloch, whatever form the Moloch might take: 75 years ago in Germany, or in our own time.