Monday, October 4, 2010

The Day of German Unity

October 3 has already passed in Germany, but October 4 hasn't yet arrived here in Indiana, so I thought I would remind folks that this date, 3 October, is the national day of Germany. This year's Oct 3rd officially marks the 20th anniversary of the reunification of that country. Having lived in Germany for two years (2007-09), my family and I had the opportunity to celebrate this national observance a couple of times.

In the university course about German life and culture that I regularly taught in those years I was able to explore with my students the dramatic events of 1989 that led to the wall coming down, the rush toward unification, and the long aftermath that isn't over. One of the most common topics that Germans in our area (Baden-Wuerttemberg, in relatively wealthy southwestern Germany) complained about was the expense of unification. Chancellor Kohl's predictions about the cost were greatly underestimated. Twenty years later (and after more than 150 billion euro have been transferred from east to west), unemployment remains higher in the east than in the west. These economic problems continue to be a burden for the wealthier states. Chancellor Merkel, herself the daughter of an East German Lutheran pastor, is facing major political challenges this fall, and one of these is undoubtedly the abiding tensions between eastern and western Germany.

As a Lutheran theologian, I have been interested in how Christians in the former East Germany played such a decisive role in the peaceful revolution of 1989. One of my former students is now doing graduate research in Germany that will examine the role of the churches in this movement. While Baerbel Bohley, who died on Sep 11, is rightfully remembered as one of the most courageous revolutionaries who wanted (in words taken from her obituary in the Sep 25th Economist magazine) "not simply to dissolve the GDR into West Germany, but to rebuild something better and different: less greedy and more human," we ought not forget the heroic actions of those who gathered for prayer and protest in Lutheran church of St. Nicolai, Leipzig. This was the real heart and center of that revolution, one that had begun many years earlier as "merely" a Monday-evening prayer service. "There was no head of the revolution. The head was the Nikolaikirche and the body the centre of the city. There was only one leadership: Monday, 5 pm, St. Nicholas Church." The goal: pray for peace in a world gone wild with weapons and hate.

So tonight I'm remembering those prayer services. Here's what one of the pastors, Pr. C. Fuehrer, has written about that miraculous time:

"Nikolaikirche - open to all" became reality in autumn 1989 and surprised us all. After all, it united people from the whole of the former GDR: those who wanted to leave the country and those who were curious, regime critics and Stasi (State Security Police) personnel, church staff and SED members, Christians and Non-Christians beneath the outspread arms of the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ. In view of the political reality between 1949 and 1989, this defies all imagination. It became reality. Exactly 450 years after the introduction of the Reformation in Leipzig, 176 years after the Battle of Nations in Leipzig. Now it was Leipzig once more. From 8 May 1989, the driveways to the church were blocked by the police. Later the driveways and motorway exits were subject to large-scale checks or even closed during the prayers-for-peace period. The state authorities exerted greater pressure on us to cancel the peace prayers or at least to transfer them to the city limits. Monday after monday there were arrests or "temporary detentions" in connection with the peace prayers. Even so, the number of visitors flocking to the church continued to grow to a point where the 2.000 seats were no longer sufficient. Then came the all-deciding 9 October 1989. And what a day it was!

There was a hideous show of force by soldiers, industrial militia, police and plain-clothes officers. But the opening scene had taken place two days before on 7 October, the 40th anniversary of the GDR, which entered into GDR history as Remembrance Day. On this day, for 10 long hours, uniformed police battered defencceless people who made no attempt to fight back and took them away in trucks. Hundreds of them were locked up in stables in Markkleeberg. In due course, an article was published in the press saying that it was high time to put an end to what they called "counter-revolution, if necessary by armed forces". That was the situation like on 9 October 1989.

Moreover, some 1.000 SED party members had been ordered to go to the St. Nicholas Church. 600 of them had already filled up the church nave by 2 p.m. They had a job to perform like the numerous Stasi personnel who were on hand regularly at the peace prayers. What has not been considered was the fact, that these people were exposed to the word, the gospel and its impact! I always appreciated that the Stasi members heard the Beatitudes from the Sermon from the Mount every Monday. Where else would they hear these?

Thus, these people and Stasi members heard Jesus Christ's gospel which they didn't know, in a church they could not do anything with. They heard from Jesus who said: "Blessed are the poor!" And not: Wealthy people are happy.

Jesus said: "Love your enemies!" And not: Down with your opponent.
Jesus said: "Many who now are first will be last!" And not: Everything stays the same.
Jesus said: "For whoever will save his life shall lose it and whoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it!" And not: Take great care.
Jesus said: "You are the salt!" And not: You are the cream.

Thus, the prayers for peace took place in unbelievable calm and concentration. Shortly before the end, before the bishop gave his blessing, appeals by Professor Masur, chief conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, and others who supported our call for non-violence, were read out. The solidarity between church and art, music and the gospel was of importance in the threatening situation of those days.

The prayers for peace ended with the bishop's blessing and the urgent call for non-violence. More than 2.000 people leaving the church were welcomed by ten thousands waiting outside with candles in their hands - an unforgettable moment. Two hands are necessary to carry a candle and to protect it from extinguishing so that you can not carry stones or clubs at the same time. The miracle occurred.

Jesus' spirit of non-violence seized the masses and became a material, peaceful power.

Troops, (military)brigade groups and the police were drawn in, became engaged in conversations, then withdrew. It was an evening in the spirit of our Lord Jesus for there were no winners and no defeated, nobody triumphed over the other, nobody lost his face. There was just a tremendous feeling of relief.

This non-violent movement only lasted a few weeks. But it caused the party and ideological dictatorship to collapse.

"He dethrones the mighty ones and enthrones the weak ones." - "You will succeed, not by military power or by your own strength, but by my spirit, says the Lord", is what we experienced. There were thousands in the churches. Hundreds of thousands in the streets around the city centre. But: Not a single shattered shop window. This was the incredible experience of the power of non-violence.

Horst Sindermann, who was a member of the Central Committee of the GDR, said before his death: "We had planned everything. We were prepared for everything. But not for candles and prayers."

The prayers for peace continue. An initiative for the unemployed developed at the St. Nicholas Church.

Thus, the St. Nicholas Church remains what it was: A house of Jesus, a house of hope, a place and a source for a new beginning.

Tomorrow, Monday, Oct 4, is a day to join in spirit with those who still gather in the St. Nicolai Church every Monday evening to pray for peace.

Matthew L. Becker

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