God’s love and a German soldier

It was 1945, World War II had drawn to a close, and a young man sat broken inside a POW camp. He had been a reluctant soldier in Hitler’s army and here, inside a prison in Scotland, he had months to contemplate what had been and what was to come. The cities of his homeland had been reduced to rubble and the people impoverished. His sleep was filled with repeating nightmares in which the terrors of warfare were lived over and over.

And then came what was for me the worst of all. In September 1945, in camp 22 in Scotland, we were confronted with pictures of Belsen and Auschwitz. They were pinned up in one of the huts, without comment… Slowly and inexorably the truth filtered into our awareness, and we saw ourselves mirrored in the eyes of the Nazi victims. Was this what we had fought for? Had my generation, as the last, been driven to our deaths so that the concentration camp murderers could go on killing, and Hitler could live a few months longer?… The depression over the wartime destruction and a captivity without any apparent end was exacerbated by feelings of profound shame and having to share in this disgrace. That was undoubtedly the hardest thing, a stranglehold that choked us.

An unshakeable shame saturated his being and the only future he could see stretching out before him was one that filled him with despair. Yet it was in the midst of this shame and despair that God found him. A visiting chaplain gave the soldier a Bible and, with little else to do, he began reading it. In the lament Psalms he heard resonant voices, the agony of people who felt God had abandoned them. In the story of Christ crucified he encountered a God who knew what it was to experience suffering, abandonment, and shame. Feeling utterly forsaken himself, the German soldier found a friend in the One who cried “my God my God why have you forsaken me”.

In 1947 he was given permission to attend a Christian conference that brought together young people from across the world. The Dutch participants asked to meet with the German POWs who had fought in the Netherlands. The young soldier was one of them. He went to the meeting full of fear, guilt and shame, feelings that intensified as the Dutch Christians spoke of the pain Hitler and his allies had inflicted, of the dread the Gestapo bred in their hearts, of the family and friends they had lost, of the disruption and damage to their communities. Yet the Dutch Christians didn’t speak out of a spirit of vindictiveness, but came to offer forgiveness. It was completely unexpected. These Dutch Christians embodied the love the German soldier had read about in the story of Christ and it turned his life upside down. He discovered despite all that had passed “God looked on us with ‘the shining eyes’ of his eternal joy”, that there was hope for the future.

That German soldier was Juergen Moltmann, who would go on to become one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century. Years later, with the message of the loving, crucified God still indelibly printed on his heart, he penned these beautiful words.

But the ultimate reason for our hope is not to be found at all in what we want, wish for and wait for; the ultimate reason is that we are wanted and wished for and waited for. What is it that awaits us? Does anything await us at all, or are we alone? Whenever we base our hope on trust in the divine mystery, we feel deep down in our hearts: there is someone who is waiting for you, who is hoping for you, who believes in you. We are waited for as the prodigal son in the parable is waited for by his father. We are accepted and received, as a mother takes her children into her arms and comforts them. God is our last hope because we are God’s first love.

Source: Moltmann’s writings. Quotes from The Source of Life.The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life. Fortress Press 1977