Devotion for Dag Hammarskjold

I am the vessel. The draft is God’s. And God is the thirsty one. – Dag Hammarskjold

Is life so wretched? Isn’t it rather your hands which are too small, your vision which is muddled? You are the one who must grow up. – Dag Hammarskjold

I found these two quotes of Dag Hammarskjold to be powerful for me. In the first quote, he succinctly describes God filling us, and in turn pouring us out for the sake of the world, for the redemption of God’s good creation. In the second quote, he talks about the power of persuasion – persuading ourselves to think bigger thoughts, to see the world through different eyes, for there is hope, and work to be done.

Dag Hammarskjold was born in Sweden in 1905, the fourth and youngest son of Prime Minister Hjalmar Hammarskjold. The Hammarskjold family had continued to serve the Monarchy of Sweden since the 17th century. His education focused on law and economics, and he received his doctorate from Stockholm University. He moved into the banking industry, from Secretary to Chairman of the Sveriges Riksbank.

Throughout those years, he also held important political positions. He served as an advisor for financial and economic problems of the post-war period. In 1949 he became the State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and was a delegate to the Paris conference that established the Marshall Plan, where the United States would help to rebuild European economies after the end of World War II, in order to combat the spread of communism. And in the early 1950s, he joined the Swedish delegation to the United Nations, being elected Secretary-General in 1953. It’s interesting that through his service to government, he never officially joined any political party.

During his United Nations term, he did a great many things to clarify the administrative structure, and to define the responsibilities of the various administrative positions. He also took an interest in smaller projects that impacted the UN working environment, such as creating a “meditation room” in the UN headquarters, a place dedicated to silence, where people can withdraw into themselves regardless of faith, creed, or religion. Among the highlights of his term, he tried to smooth relations between Israel and the Arab states, visted China to negotiate release of captured US pilots who had served in the Korean War, established the United Nations Emergency Force, and intervened in the 1956 Suez Crisis. Some historians also credit him with allowing the participation of the Holy See, the Vatican, within the United Nations.

In September 1961, he learned about fighting between non-combatant UN forces and Congolese troops. On route to negotiate a cease-fire, his airliner crashed near Zambia, and he and others perished in the crash. Initial indications were that the crash might not have been an accident, and there was speculation that the Secretary-General was assassinated. His death was a memorable event. The crash site memorial is under consideration for inclusion as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A press release from the Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo announced that “in order to pay a tribute to this great man”, the Government would proclaim Tuesday, September 19, 1961 as a day of national mourning. To this day, the incident is debated, whether accidental or intentional.

Posthumously, Hammarskjold has continued to receive many honors. In 1961 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He has received honorary degrees from Carleton University in Ottawa, Oxford, Princeton, Columbia, Harvard, Yale, Uppsala University, and many others. In 2011, the Bank of Sweden announced that his image will be used on the 1000 kronor banknote, the highest-denomination banknote in Sweden. After his death, John F. Kennedy said “I realise now that in comparison to him, I am a small man. He was the greatest statesman of our century.” He remains the benchmark against which all UN Secretary-Generals since have been judged.

His only book, Markings, was published in 1963, a collection of his diary reflections from 20 years of age through his death. The diary was found in his New York house, along with an undated letter giving permission to be published. The foreward was written by well-known poet W. H. Auden, a personal friend. Theologian Henry Van Dusen has called Markings “the greatest testament of personal faith written in the heat of professional life and amidst the most exacting responsibilities for world peace and order.” Among other things, Hammaskjold wrote that:

We are not permitted to choose the frame of our destiny. But what we put into it is ours. He who wills adventure will experience it – according to the measure of his courage. He who wills sacrifice will be sacrificed – according to the measure of his purity of heart.

The ELCA commemorates his life as a renewer of society, on the anniversary of his death, September 18.

Markings is not a political book, but, instead, is the spiritual diary of a man tortured by and yet at the same time drawn to the incredible burden he held, of keeping the world from disintegrating into nuclear holocaust while Khrushchev, McCarthy, and Nixon were doing their best to thwart his efforts. – Thom Hartmann

Two books have been written, dedicated to decoding Markings – Dag Hammarskjold’s White Book: the Meaning of Markings by Gustaf Aulen (writer of Christus Victor), and Dag Hammarskjold: a Biographical Interpretation of Markings, by Henry Van Dusen.

What do we learn from the life of Dag Hammarskjold? Browsing some of his writings, he seems to be deeply searching for God, for God’s comfort and serenity, while at the same time selflessly giving all of his life to fostering peace among whole nations. He felt strongly that life is filled with questions, and with struggles, but always for the sake of the world. He can be an inspiration to us, as we seek to serve those around us, to give what we can of ourselves, as a way to find our own meaning, and to discover who we truly are as God’s children. He may not have found answers in his lifetime, but perhaps he found life and transformation just by seeking and by having questions. And perhaps we can also find meaning by having questions, wondering what kind of world God would have us live in, and how we can bring that world into being, here and now.

Lord, we celebrate the life of your saint, Dag Hammarskjold. Let his life and legacy be an inspiration to us, as we experience the daily complications of our own lives, that things are more than they seem, that we can have a vision of God’s creation in our own lives, and to seek to bring that vision into being. Grant us hope and questioning minds, to learn, and to spur us to ministry in our own lives, as we are, and as we could be. In Your glory.


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