Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Twenty Years of the Peaceful Revolution

In that revolutionary year of 1968 Christian Wolff was a student leader at the University of Heidelberg, where he was pursuing a degree in theology. At that time he was heavily involved in student street protests that called for an end to the U. S. war in Vietnam, for serious reforms in the curriculum and governing structures of the German universities, and for political-social changes in western societies. To a large extent, what he and other protesters wanted is what they got, albeit after several more years of marching and speaking.

Pastor Christian Wolff
Twenty years later Wolff was a Lutheran pastor in Mannheim. Unable to travel to Berlin to witness the revolutionary year of 1989 first hand (he had a broken foot at the time), he nonetheless watched the events unfold on television. Within the year, "what belongs together had grown back together." Germany was reunited.

A few years later he had been selected to be the senior pastor at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, the east German city where the so-called "Peaceful Revolution" began. In this position he became a leader in both church and civic life. He has helped to support the renovations of the St. Thomaskirche and to connect the proclamation of the gospel in word and sacraments with the outstanding musical offerings of the parish, its regular weekly cantatas, its annual passions, and the annual Bachfest. (Pr. Wolff's cousin, Christoph, is a leading scholar of Bach and serves as the head of Harvard's department of music. Christoph's father, Christian's uncle, was the important Old Testament scholar, Hans-Walter Wolff.)

When I taught my course on Luther and Bach at Valparaiso University's Study Center in Reutlingen, Germany, I incorportated two week-long study trips into the semester. On the second of those trips, when we traveled to such Luther-Bach sites as Eisenach, Erfurt, and Wittenberg, we also visited Leipzig. In the course of our explorations of that city we encountered Pr. Wolff. After the Sunday divine service he invited me and several other students to coffee and there we were reminded that he and his family had important connections to Valpo. The VU choir, under the direction of my colleague, Christopher Cock, has sung at the St. Thomaskirche on several occasions, as has Prof. Cock himself. Pr. Wolff's cousin, Christoph, had helped to lead the Bach Institute on our campus on several occasions--most recently for the St. John Passion in 2007, in which I was privileged to participate as well. And Christian himself had visited our campus as a guest of Prof. Cock.

Last week Pr. Wolff and his wife were back on campus. On Thursday he gave a public lecture at the Kade-Duesenberg German House on the twenty-year-old revolution. On Sunday he proclaimed the gospel in our Chapel of the Resurrection.

In his Thursday lecture he stressed that freedom in Germany remains a challenge. The so-called "New Germany" is neither an extension of the old West Germany nor a restitution of 1945 Germany. Rather, everything in Germany has had to be rethought. Intially, in 1989, he and many others thought Germany should develop an entirely new constitution. But in the hindsight of twenty years he now thinks that German leaders were right in '90 to maintain the 1949 Basic Constitution of West Germany, which was from the start to be inclusive of all of Germany, both east and west. This 1949 constitution is exemplary with regard to basic human rights (and here the west German Christians were instrumental in the articulation of these human rights) and "the citizens in 1990 could not have come up with a better constitution than the 1949 one."

But now, twenty years after 1990, the acceptance of the constitution is still a struggle. In the east, there is a kind of longing for "the fleshpots of Egypt," for the perks of the old socialistic system, since the economic struggles and high unemployment in the east have not subsided. And in the west there is still an uneasiness about the political changes that have occurred in the united country and about the huge costs of reunion. Throughout Germany today there are on-going discussions about the weaknesses of a capitalistic economy. "The problems with capitalism should have been examined in 1990 and afterwards, but this has not happened, at least not until recently. To think that the west did not also have to change as a result of 1990 has been a fallacy." Both sides have needed reformation.

Still, Pr. Wolff remarked, "I am grateful for the unity of 1990 and to live under the conditions of freedom and democracy." But, in good Lutheran fashion, Pr. Wolff asks, what does this mean? With freedom, comes responsibility. Indeed, Pr. Wolff stressed that Germans are still having to learn that "freedom" does not mean "being able to do whatever you want to do," but "being free to be responsible to the problems that need addressing."

The struggle for peace and a just society remains an on-going process. "Today we are in danger of trusting only in military efforts to solve our problems. Real peace-making strategies have not been followed. It is still the case that we should talk to and with our enemies than to shoot each other."

Pr. Wolff responding to a question that I put to him.
Near the end of his lecture Pr. Wolff turned more directly to the role of the church in both the revolution and its wake. "For the first time, the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Germany (EKD) was on the right side of the barricades." The church in both east and west had been asking the right questions and raising the right issues, the issues of peace and justice. In fact, the church was one of the few places in both east (especially) and west where one could ask questions of truth and to speak out about God's justice, his mercy, and his grace in word and deed."

What has not been appreciated is the role of the church's leaders in the east to organize the political protesters for a peaceful revolution. The marches remained non-violent largely because of the words and actions of Pr. Fuehrer (see my post of Oct 3), Kurt Masur (then the music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra), and other Christian leaders who focused attention on the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. "The Protestant churches in Leipzig and elsewhere were the base camps of the revolution. Not the trade unions. Not the universities. Not the political parties." In this regard, one could easily make a comparison between the Leipzig revolution, which was focused on the Protestant-Lutheran churches in the center of the city (St. Nicolai and St. Thomas), and the civil rights marches in this country's history, most of which were organized and led from Christian congregations.There is a clear parallel between the non-violent actions and words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the non-violent actions and words of Pastor Fuehrer, the pastor of the St. Nicolai Kirche.

In east Germany Christians stood against dictatorship on the basis of these basic biblical beliefs:

1) The First Commandment means that one cannot give absolute allegiance to anyone or anything that is not the living, true God;

2) The Christian-Jewish texts of the Holy Scriptures reveal God's desire that people be free from all tyrannies, from sin, death, and the powers of evil;

3) Everyone is a creation of God (Genesis 1:26), which is the proper foundation for all human rights and human dignity;

4) Jesus calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us;

5) There is an unconditional priority in the life of the Christian for non-violence.

Two years from now, the parish of St. Thomas in Leipzig will be celebrating its 800th anniversary. When you go to Leipzig, be sure to visit the congregation. Johann S. Bach is buried in the chancel. The music and the preaching will be excellent. And Pr. Wolff will greet you after the divine services and invite you to join him for a cup of coffee and conversation. For more information see:

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