This week our nation and the world commemorate two of the greatest heroes of the 20th century. The first, of course, is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, King was born 83 years ago today. He was killed when he was just 39 years old—the same age as I am now, in fact, which in itself is sort of a reality check. While in his time Martin Luther King was a controversial figure with his fair share of detractors, history has remembered him as one whose vision and passion for justice and equality helped our country begin to be the kind of place that we should have been all along—a land of freedom and justice for all. Of course, we are not there yet. Even in the year 2012, with an African American president and racial discrimination officially illegal, we are still walking the long, twisty, and rocky path toward justice and equality, sometimes making great strides and at other times stumbling, or even getting lost along the way.
In some ways, I suppose, one could say that Martin Luther King was the right man, in the right place, at the right time. Like other important figures throughout history, he rose to the occasion when circumstances required it. Had he not been there, maybe someone else would have taken up his cause. But then again, maybe not. Certainly there were others—black and white—who struggled for civil rights, and had been doing so long before King was born, but he had that unique ability to inspire, to draw people in, and to help the people of our nation see how we are interconnected and how what happens to some affects us all.
King said, “All I'm saying is simply this, that all life is interrelated, that somehow we're caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”
You know, the thing about Martin Luther King that has always inspired me most is how he translated his deep Christian faith into action. He did so with a clarity and power that seems unique. His devotion to the civil rights movement was rooted in and nourished by his Christian faith. And so I imagine that he would have strongly protested against the notion that religion and politics don’t mix. Because for King, as for many of the civil rights leaders, it was their faith in God, their belief in the liberation offered humanity through Jesus Christ and the promise of freedom and equality in him, that led them to fight so bravely for human liberation for themselves, their children and grandchildren, and all the future generations. We, today, regardless of our ethnic background, are the beneficiaries of their bravery, their commitment, and their hopeful and inspiring vision. As we continue their work in our own time and place, King’s words, his actions, and his vision are still providing inspiration and hope, here in the United States and across the world.
Less well known than Martin Luther King, at least here in the United States, is another hero of the twentieth century who is also being remembered this week. His name is Raoul Wallenberg. I wonder, how many of you have heard of Wallenberg? He was a wealthy Swedish businessman (who was educated in the United States) and served as a diplomat from Sweden in World War II. In particular, Wallenberg was a special envoy to Hungary during the later stages of the War, with a purpose of trying to find a way to save Hungary’s Jewish citizens while it was under Nazi occupation. The situation there was so bad that by 1944 as many as 12,000 Jews were deported from Hungary to concentration camps each day. Because Wallenberg had business dealings in Hungary and spoke Hungarian (as well as German, French, English, and Swedish) he was sent there by the War Refugee Board (established by President Roosevelt) to do something about the growing humanitarian crisis.
By the time of Wallenberg’s arrival in Hungary in 1944, over 2/3rds of the Jewish population had been deported to Auschwitz in the space of just a few months. Only 230,000 remained. He quickly got to work and issued protective passes supposedly authorized by the Swedish government to as many of the remaining Jewish citizens as he could. The passes suggested that these people were in fact Swedish citizens. Remember, they were in fact Hungarian Jews, not Swedes. The passes were illegal (Wallenberg produced them on a mimeograph in yellow and blue, with the Swedish three crown symbol in the corner), but they looked official enough to trick the Nazi and Hungarian authorities. He also rented 32 buildings in Budapest, which he established as Swedish extraterritorial safe houses. He hung large Swedish flags from the buildings and placed signs over the doors calling the houses “The Swedish Library” and “Swedish Research Institute.” Jewish citizens lived in these buildings in relative safety.
One of the drivers working for Wallenberg, recounted the Swedish diplomat’s actions upon intercepting a trainload of Jews about to leave for Auschwitz: “[Wallenberg] climbed up on the roof of the train and began handing in protective passes through the doors which were not yet sealed. He ignored orders from the Germans for him to get down, then the Arrow Cross men [the Hungarian fascists working with the Nazis] began shooting and shouting at him to go away. He ignored them and calmly continued handing out passports to the hands that were reaching out for them. I believe the Arrow Cross men deliberately aimed over his head, as not one shot hit him... I think this is what they did because they were so impressed by his courage. After Wallenberg had handed over the last of the passports he ordered all those who had one to leave the train and walk to the caravan of cars parked nearby, all marked in Swedish colours. I don't remember exactly how many, but he saved dozens off that train, and the Germans and Arrow Cross were so dumbfounded they let him get away with it.”
Estimates are that in less than a year Wallenberg may have saved as many as 100,000 people, more people saved than by any other person or institution in Europe during the war. By the end of 1944 the Soviet army had circled Budapest, although the Germans would not surrender. And then on January 17, 1945 (67 years ago this Tuesday), during the height of the German-Russian fighting, Wallenberg was summoned by a Russian general on suspicion of being an American spy. There are no confirmed reports of him after that date; although, many witnesses claimed to have seen and spoken with him. He was just 32 years old at the time of his disappearance.
Hungarian radio announced he died later in 1945 at the hands of the Nazis, while Russian authorities stated that he died in a Soviet Prison in 1947. It’s probable that Wallenberg was sent to a prison in Moscow. Unfortunately the Swedish authorities believed he was killed by the Nazis in 1945 and did little to find him or secure his rescue from the Russians, despite offers of exchange for Russian defectors. The actual circumstances of Wallenberg’s presumed death are still unknown—as late as the 1980s people claim to have seen him in prison. His personal effects were returned to his family by the Soviets in 1989. He was made an honorary citizen of the United States in 1981 (Only the second person so honored; the other was Winston Churchill); he was also made an honorary citizen of Canada, Hungary, and Israel.
Late U.S. Representative Tom Lantos, a Jewish native of Hungary who was saved by Wallenberg, said “During the Nazi occupation, this heroic young diplomat left behind the comfort and safety of Stockholm to rescue his fellow human beings in the hell that was wartime Budapest. He had little in common with them: he was a Lutheran, they were Jewish; he was a Swede, they were Hungarians. And yet with inspired courage and creativity he saved the lives of tens of thousands of men, women and children by placing them under the protection of the Swedish crown. In this age devoid of heroes, Wallenberg is the archetype of a hero – one who risked his life day in and day out, to save the lives of tens of thousands of people he did not know whose religion he did not share.”
What Martin Luther King, a black American Baptist, and Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish Lutheran diplomat, have in common is their belief that ordinary people, people like you and me, can make a difference in human life. They weren’t old, standing in line, waiting to gain more experience. Wallenberg was just 32 when he was captured. Martin Luther King was just 39 when he was killed. And as we know, Jesus was just 33 when he was crucified. And like Jesus, they believed that human life, human dignity, justice, and equality are worth fighting for, and sometimes even worth risking your life for. And so, they were inspired by a belief that this world of ours can be a better place. They believed that all life was interconnected and that what happens to some affects us all. Most especially, they believed that they could make a difference. And that there wasn’t time to waste. But rather that God was urging them to action, right then and there.
Martin Luther King and Raoul Wallenberg wouldn’t accept excuses or take no for an answer. And neither should we. As we remember them and their witness this week, may we likewise be inspired to dream impossible dreams, stand up for justice and equality, and work for the day when, as Martin Luther King dreamed, all God’s people will be free at last.
To whom be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell