I love history. It doesn’t matter if it is church or secular history, about peacemakers or warriors, I always seem to learn something helpful for my modern life when I look back in time. Beyond the many books I read and the movies and television shows I watch (often to my wife’s chagrin), I even enjoy those quick notes found in the “This Day in History” articles of my local newspaper. So sometimes (just for fun), I will look toward history when a significant day in my life occurs. For example, I was born on December 10. On that day in 1520, Martin Luther burned the papal bull (edict) demanding he recant from his critique of the Roman Catholic Church or be excommunicated. This would have been a death sentence back in his day. On June 1, the first written record of Scotch whiskey appears in the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, certainly a day of celebration. Ironically, it also serves as the anniversary of another wonderful celebration for me – the day I married my wife. (Cheers to that!) On October 28, 2007, the congregation of Messiah Lutheran Church voted to call me as pastor. It was Reformation Sunday. (The Reformation actually began on October 31, 1517 when Luther posted his 95 Theses, but our denomination tends to recognize the anniversary on the Sunday before that date when October 31 isn’t itself a Sunday.) Now to be clear, I don’t plan events based upon historic dates. I enjoy looking backward after the fact; just to see if I learn any fun tidbit or maybe even something helpful. So by now, you get the idea. I am a bit of a nerd when it comes to history. I confess it to you freely.
Consequently, you probably won’t be too surprised to learn that I looked toward history after opening this blog on January 14, 2011. (Hopefully, my decision to write a blog will not become a day to live on in infamy.) In our denomination, we have days where we commemorate special witnesses to God’s love at work in our midst. We recall the Christian lives and witness of fellow saints. These saints aren’t perfect, for no human ever was, is, or can be perfect. As Luther pointed out, we are at best sinner-saints, truly saved but in constant need of our Savior’s grace. I often find people listed who I hadn’t previously known; at least not well. This was such an occasion, for by looking at our liturgical calendar, I made the acquaintance of Eivind Josef Berggrav (1884-1959), deceased Primate of the Church of Norway. Examining the life of Bishop Berggrav, we find the classic case of the right person being at the right place at the right time. Although special in many ways by most accounts, he perhaps wouldn’t have been more than a footnote to history if he hadn’t been the presiding bishop in Norway at the time of the Nazi occupation.
Personally, I found Bishop Berggrav interesting on several levels. First, he was a man of courage; a courage that appears to stem from his simple trust in God. Despite the threat of execution, his imprisonment in isolation, and the darkness of the times surrounding him, he remained prophetic in word and deed. He did his best to do what he felt called to do by God. He strived to act in love rather than react out of fear. This admirable quality was nurtured by his interaction with and his understanding of the catholic church (read “universal church,” note the small “c”). Despite differences in theologies, Berggrav believed there was only one church, and we should all strive together to answer Christ’s call to be the reflection of his light in a dark world. Like Nobel winner Nathan Söderblom after World War I, Berggrav believed that doctrinal agreement wasn’t crucial for Christians to live out this shared call. From his prior work to unify the church, his ecumenical contacts became an inspiration and support for him during World War II. The Confessing Church in Germany served as a model for his own leadership and action when the Nazi supported government attempted to take over the Church of Norway. Messages of support and news of public prayer on his behalf at Canterbury and other places helped sustain him during his imprisonment. Even in Norway, this attitude of openness and acceptance helped draw religious minorities (such as independent pietistic Lutheran churches and Roman Catholics) closer together in opposition of the fascist regime. Despite the oppression and challenges he faced, he learned to trust that he was never alone.
According to D.M. Yeager, he apparently was blessed with a charism of grace. Humble in his own self-assessment as sinner-saint, Berggrav tried to find the good in others. This was partly shaped by his past prison ministry. While not being blind to the realities of who he dealt with, he saw in them ordinary, fallible people where the goodness of God was still at work. In relating with others, people recognized his knack to be a compassionate, empathetic, bridge builder. After first taking on the role of bishop, he wrote in a letter, “My first objectives is to find something good, partly because I know there is always some good everywhere, and partly because I have to feel kindly toward a group before I can speak any words of admonition to them.”[i] Yet, such relationships were not to be maintained if they enabled or encouraged evil. When it was clear that the occupation government was committing atrocities and would not be true to its promises, he took actions against it.
Despite the personal costs, Bishop Berggrav found he had a Christian duty to disobey. He began to lead the institution of the church in its peaceful resistance. The church would seek to become a protective barrier between the illegitimate government and the citizenry. On Easter Sunday 1942, all but 64 of the 861 pastors of the Church of Norway read at worship The Foundation of the Church, a document primarily prepared by Berggrav explicitly stating that “the requirements of religious faith now made it impossible for Christians to cooperate with many of the laws and policies of the civil authorities.”[ii] The pastors then resigned simultaneously from the state church. Congregants responded as well, sheltering the pastors and refusing to participate in the state church. Reminiscent of the two kingdoms theology of Luther, he recognized that both church and state had parts in God’s ultimate plan. So while he argued that the church’s opposition should be and must remain peaceful, he remained a realist. He believed that when a government began to perform as a murderer, citizens must act in the government’s stead to protect themselves and fulfill God’s call for justice. Thus, some may indeed be called to take up arms for that purpose. This armed opposition isn’t purely political, nor is it to be self-serving. Violence is only entered into for the purpose of restoring a proper, just government, protecting the defenseless, and for calling others to repentance. Reconciliation must remain the goal.
There is much, much more to be said about Eivind Josef Berggrav, more than I could ever say here. For those interested in learning more, I would commend to you D.M. Yeager’s article, God, Church, and Country: Berggrav’s Leadership in the Norwegian Resistance in the Journal of Lutheran Ethics (available through elca.org). As for me, I recognize a bit better how his life has somehow touched my own through the communion of saints. I will be challenged to live up to his legacy as I think of him. For certainly all of us will face opposition in this fallen, imperfect world. Recalling of Baggrav’s own response in troubled times, we might be encouraged to look for the good in our enemies and to seek reconciliation where possible. We might find the courage to apply our faith as best we can to the troubles of our day. In all things, maintaining a simple trust in the eternal providence of God, we might see past our own immediate fears or suffering to realize that we just might be the right people at the right time and right place, sent by God, for these troubled days that surround us. We could even find ourselves inspired enough in our daily lives to risk acting in love no matter the cost. With such grace active in our lives, the course of history will certainly change for the better. Each day will prove historic and a blessing.
[i] Yeager, D.M. God, Church, and Country: Berggrav’s Leadership in the Norwegian Resistance. Journal of Lutheran Ethics, Vol. 6, Issue 5 [on-line edition via elca.org]. May 2006.
[ii] Yeager (on-line, ¶42) As noted by the author, the figures are according to a work by Odd Godal. In some documents, the number of pastors reported as resigning varies slightly.
Anonymous. (n.d.) Eivind Berggrav. Wikipedia.org as downloaded on January 15, 2011.
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Evangelical Lutheran Worship: Pew Edition. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress.
Yeager, D.M. God, Church, and Country: Berggrav’s Leadership in the Norwegian Resistance. Journal of Lutheran Ethics, Vol. 6, Issue 5 [on-line edition via elca.org]. May 2006.
© 2011 The Rev. Louis Florio. All text and images not held under copyright by Word Press or another entity may not be used without permission of the author.