East Germany's liberation ---- an act of faith

August 18, 1994|By Robert Marquand

Though rarely noted, the movement to topple the Berlin Wall began in East German churches. In the lead was the Nikolai Protestant Church in Leipzig. In the fall of 1989 some 200,000 people came to Monday evening prayer services. Despite Stasi secret-police threats of a Tiananmen Square-like attack, worshipers poured from the church, many with tears in their eyes, and onto the inner-city ring road shouting "Wir sind das Volk," we are the people. Protest spread to Dresden and Berlin.

Below is an interview given by the pastor of Nikolai, Kristian Fuehrer. In it he spoke with Monitor editorial writer Robert Marquand about 1989 and the new challenges facing his church and eastern Germany.

Q: The 50th anniversary of the July 29 Stauffenberg plot against Hitler was celebrated in Berlin. Your church is known for its "confessing" tradition started by July 29 conspirator Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Mr. Bonhoeffer argued bravely in the Nazi period that the true church can follow only Christ, and not the dictate of other powers.

A: Particular people became important in a special way in 1989. I felt we were continuing the tradition of those in the Middle Ages such as Martin Luther and Thomas Muntzer, and then in the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr. and Martin Niemoller. I was especially attracted to Martin Luther King for his nonviolence and ability to translate religious ideas into nonreligious terms.

We wanted to get away from the bourgeois image of Jesus as one who doesn't disturb, who is only passive, and find a Jesus that spoke directly to the people the truth. This concept of Jesus we translated into the open church. We found Jesus not

bound inside the walls of a church or temple, but outside, dealing with everyday people, many of whom did not have higher education. We found ourselves, in this open church, having the miraculous experience of rediscovering the basic elements of Jesus' life: loving your enemies, helping the poor and needy. We found the Sermon on the Mount, and, thinking back, lived it to an extraordinary degree.

So in the GDR, amid the repression and the Stasi, the church became something larger than just a "religious service." It became a sphere of protection, a refuge for free thinking. We were a refuge of free discussion. We grew. We lost our fear, we felt no fear, and we went out onto the street.

Q: You speak of loving your enemy. Was that possible with the Stasi? Has there been enough redemption in East Germany for Stasi crimes?

A: No. Not enough. Jesus said you have to realize the truth. But in order to do this, truth has to first be put on the table. There are still several problems that disturb many of us. We see that few of the upper Stasi, those most responsible, have been rebuked or made to answer for what they did. Just the opposite is true in many cases. We see that these people have made their way only too well in the West. Many now work for Western corporations that give them a kind of protection.

Meanwhile, the small collaborators, the unofficial collaborators, those who helped the Stasi every so often, are hunted down without mercy or grace.

How do I love my enemy in this situation? I do not want to speak of the upper officials. But these smaller ones, many of them have had terrible struggles and crises, and are exasperated by what they did. Many now come here and ask for forgiveness. I find them coming to me, which puts that love into concrete terms.

We have to face today's challenges. There is high unemployment due to a lack of a concept of a viable economy. We lack a concept of a fair economy. The West is sticking to greater and greater consumption as an answer. We need a new idea. I might add that this is also true in terms of how we come across as a church. We are rejecting the promotion and advertising of our church by Western means and standards, through heavy commercial appeal.

Q: In the days of the Wall, your church had a well-defined "enemy," the repressive state. Is it tougher keeping your spiritual life alive today?

A: For 40 years we had in the East the experience of theoretical materialism, and atheism. In the past two years we are confronted with something new -- actual materialism. Materialism used to be a theory; in this integration with the West, it is a fact. It is more difficult to identify "the enemy." The "anything goes" mentality coming from the West is a problem for the church. In this pluralistic [mess] it is hard for young people to find their identity, to find true values to stick with. Before and during 1989 there was a genuine spirit, a true reform light, and our church was filled by no other means than word of mouth. People told each other. We were filled to overflowing. But today, even if we put out 1,000 posters, we would not get so many.

Q: Political pressure and hatred of repression helped topple the Wall. But could you say whether you ever experienced in '89 something that might be called grace, the sense of God's help?

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