In this Oct. 21 file photo, tourists pass a painting on a segment of the East Side Gallery in Berlin, Germany. Ninety-one international artists gathered 20 years after the wall came down Nov. 9, 1989, to repaint their original creations on the concrete slabs, bringing new life to images that were eroded by the elements and time that had decorated the longest remaining length of the wall that once split Berlin and, to an extent, west and east. Photo by The Associated Press
Last month, while visiting the eastern part of Germany, I was reminded many times of the peaceful revolution that shook the two Germanies in October 1989.
In Dresden's downtown bookstore, a special table was reserved for books that wrestled with the events of two decades ago. In Saxony, two friends - one Lutheran, the other a Moravian pastor - shared with me their experiences during this dark and oppressive period.
The Lutheran took me to Bautzen's notorious prison for dissidents, a monument to ideological hubris and a reminder of a totalitarian regime that sought to improve societal conditions, but suppressed human rights and freedoms.
If organized religion is today a vehicle of disillusionment, East Germany may remind us powerfully of how churches - and the people who are the church - can redirect the course of history and contribute to peaceful change.
No person illustrates the courage and benevolent influence of such change better than Christian FÜhrer, who began the Leipzig "Peace Prayers," now seen as the starting point of more generalized peaceful protests in the city of Leipzig and beyond.
In a contribution to the book "Vom Gebet zur Demo" (From prayer to demonstration), and in an excerpt in the magazine "Chrismon," the now retired pastor of Leipzig's Nikolaikirche (the Church of St. Nicholas) recently reflected on the events of October 1989.
FÜhrer reads the Sermon on the Mount as best summarized in two words: "no violence." That watchword also became the commanding characteristic of the revolution in the east. What happened in Leipzig and other cities of East Germany fulfilled, for FÜhrer, a promise of the prophet Zechariah: "'Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit,' says the Lord Almighty" (Zech 4:6).
Leipzig's peace prayers began inconspicuously in 1982, when on each Monday, except for a few weeks in summer, people young and old met at 5 p.m. in Leipzig's 800-year-old Nikolaikirche. Initially these prayers responded to an alarming re-armament in East and West, but, gradually, they became occasions for hope of freedom when many people had given up on change and were trying to leave East Germany in droves.
For FÜhrer, the church was a place for all and a space not taken over by a totalitarian ideology. When the events of 1989 came to a climax, the party sought to suppress these peace prayers because of their political impact. Party functionaries entertained the illusion that with the suppression of any dissidents, they could save their country from counter-revolutionaries, just as Communist China had done in June of that year at Tiananmen Square. Thus the police responded violently to the peace prayer on Sept. 4, 1989.
At one stage, the government tried to keep church-goers away from the prayers by filling the pews with party faithful. FÜhrer saw in this intrusion a humorous opportunity provided by God to preach to those not in the choir. He kept the church galleries open for those who usually attended. No disturbance marred the service, and the pastor succeeded in convincing even some party members of the peaceful intent of their prayers.
On the eventful day of Oct. 9, 1989, peace prayers spread to other churches in Leipzig, while the mass of people outside the Nikolaikirche had swelled to 70,000. Government threats to shut down the prayers had ignited a popular protest impossible to extinguish. People were holding lit candles in their hands, which FÜhrer viewed as peace symbols, since hands holding candles cannot clutch clubs.
People asserted that day their right to a peaceful protest. In the days that followed, Erich Honecker resigned as head of state and, after a large, peaceful demonstration in Berlin, the wall opened on Nov. 9, 1989.
FÜhrer recalls Oct. 9 as a "day of decision" for the whole country. In retrospect, he judges this peaceful revolution as unique in the history of Germany and as an act of grace on the part of God.
"We should never forget," the pastor writes, "that there is a great and blessed power of God, which can create change without bloodshed, even a revolution, in which no store windows are smashed, none have lost their faces, and no one had to give his own life."
FÜhrer also learned from these events of 1989 and those leading up to them, that street and church belong together. "The church," he writes, "must go out into the street, must get involved, and must be the salt of the earth of which Jesus speaks." "And the people," he continues, "have to find once again a place in the church. Jesus never hid in the temple. He could be found wherever people struggled with their life. He was in the midst of them. In the same way, we have to go to the people and make room in our churches, where they can experience security and overcome their fears."
After the reunification of Germany, Christian FÜhrer received many honours, but could still be found among the people and in the streets, ministering to unemployed workers and impoverished welfare recipients. He retired as pastor of St. Nicholas last year.
Hans Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University and can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.?