If Christians have learned anything about living in a heathen culture, it is the ancient lesson that Christian victory is grounded in sacrifice, not coercive might. That lesson was refreshed a few days ago when we watched A Hidden Life which recounts the life and death of Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter, executed in 1943 after refusing to swear allegiance to Adolph Hitler. The weight of the movie–and it is weighty indeed–was summed up in the afterword by novelist George Eliot:
[F]or the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
In seeing that hidden life unfold, I was reminded of our visit to Prague a few years ago, and how I happened upon the curious little Museum of Communism, a humble establishment giving a retrospective on Czech life during the Communist era.
I’d almost finished my visit when I glanced into a little video theater where they had a looped film running, and the image I glimpsed on the screen was instantly memorable: in the grainy-gray black & white film of the 1960s, it showed a cross of thorns on a coffin that was being carried through a crowd; at the bottom of the screen it gave the English translation of the words to the song that was being sung: “God created a twig for me to make wreaths….”
With that, I could not turn away, and watched as the short film played out images from the season called the “Prague Spring.” That brief and tragic season was one in which the great Czech patriot Alexander Dubcek was being lauded for offering hope and freedom to his oppressed people.
But that spring soon was soon crushed by 5,000 Soviet tanks in August, 1968. The Czechs protested en masse, but the film showed the consequences: secret police ferreting out ringleaders; surrounding, then beating them to the ground; posters torn; words of freedom shredded and ground into the cobblestones; jackboots beating cadence on the cobbles; jackboots pinning the bloodied student to the ground; scene after scene as the song played and those painful moments came to the screen.
If you paid heed only to the images, it would have been clear who the victor was in the 1960s: like the Nazi legions that marched en masse through France’s Arc de Triomphe, the thousands of brutal police agents no doubt thought their mission accomplished and their battle won.
But yet the song was still being sung; the Czech vocals words playing out line by line in the English subtitles:
God created a twig for me to make wreaths;
Thanks for the pain that teaches me to question
Thanks for the failure that teaches me to work harder
So that I could bring a gift despite my weakness;
Thanks for the weakness that teaches me to be humble
To be humble with joy; to be humble without any bondage;
Thanks for tears That teach me to be sensitive
To be sensitive for those who suffer
Who suffer and cry out for mercy
Thanks for the desire for beauty
That gives me something to long for
Thanks for the fact that love combats spite
For the sweetness of falling asleep
Thanks for the feeling of tiredness
For blazing of fire, for rushing of rivers
Thanks for the thirst
That was revealed by my weakness
Thanks for the torment, that inspires good deeds.
For the fact that I love
Although my heart is constricted by anxiety
Lamb, Thank you
You did not die in vain.
With those final lines, the story became clear to me, for the victor in the film was not the secret policeman, but the man in that casket. His death is now memorialized by a brass cross inset in the rough cobblestones of Prague’s great Wenceslas Square —a cross that is scratched, battered, and flows as if it were once molten, as it embraces the rough cobbles where 21 year old Jan Palach burned himself to death in protest of the Soviet occupation in January, 1969.
Jan’s death sparked protests—huge annual protests—which for all the power of the state, could not be suppressed no matter how many beatings, arrests, and murders fell upon those who sought freedom.
Certainly, one may debate the morality and theology of a mortal man making such sacrifice. But Jan’s death vivified the love of freedom that runs deep in the great Czech people. It took 20 more years; years rife with suppression, oppression, beatings and death. But the spite of the Soviet Union was ultimately beaten, and it was beaten by love, not tanks and guns.
For us as Christians, our Messiah was publicly shamed, murderously crucified, and cast into the earth, dead. The prince of this world was left to mock us; we who had looked to a great victory are left with nothing but a scarred and bloody cross. But yet we now understand what the centurions, Gestapo, and the KGB did not: sacrificial death conquers evil. For Jan, for Franz, and for untold others whose hidden lives ended in too often hidden deaths, their sacrifices nonetheless conquered earthly evil empires.
Such resistance is not to be lightly taken. Indeed, throughout The Hidden Life, Franz had friends and enemies alike challenge his resistance as pointless. When he came to trial before a Nazi military tribunal, the chief judge called a recess to privately interview Franz in his chambers. Pressing him on the futility of one unknown farmer’s resistance to the grand sweep of the Nazi Reich–and pointing out that his failure to serve would require some other to stand in his placed, he pressed Franz: “Do you have the right to do this?
To which Franz replied, “Do I have the right not to?”