East German Lutheran church: quiet critic of military training

The East German Lutheran church views its role as that of Nathan, several pastors are fond of preaching. Nathan trusted that David wanted to be a good man and a good ruler - but as a friend he told the King to his face when he erred in obtaining Bathsheba by sending her husband, Uriah, to his death in battle.

Just so, the church that represents some 40 percent of all East Germans tells the Socialist Unity (Communist) government forthrightly when it strays from the good it wants to do.

Not surprisingly, the government of the only Soviet-bloc country with a Protestant plurality has a rather different concept of the church. State Secretary for Church Affairs Klaus Gysi is fond of explaining to visitors that although religion is expected to wither away as socialist society matures, the church is free to be active until that future time.

Just how one reconciles these two views is the stuff of which church-state relations are made in the (East) German Democratic Republic.

There are four major issues on which various representatives of the church play Nathan: paramilitary training in the schools, military service for conscientious objectors, the peace movement, and, most recently, environmental protection.

Weapons- and other military training in the schools is a point of contention because of Christian pacifists' wish to be exempted from it. Such training was made mandatory for 9th and 10th graders in 1978 and for 11th graders in 1981. Many pupils who have refused to participate have been kept out of the 10 percent that go on to the last years of high school in preparation for university entrance.

Individual Christian pacifists can appeal for rectification with the support of the church, says Rolf-Dieter Gunther, head of the information office of the Evangelical Church in the GDR, a union of Lutheran and Calvinist Protestants.

But quite a few Lutherans at the church synod in Greifswald in September argued that this possibility of case-by-case appeal by very determined Christians is not good enough. They demanded that the right of exemption be established as a general practice, to let everyone ''know at last that discrimination against young Christians is forbidden.''

Both pacifist and nonpacifist Christians deplore the ''education in hatred'' and the ''enemy image'' of others (i.e., Westerners, including West Germans) inculcated in the schools. This does not jibe with Christian love for one's neighbor, they contend.

Christian pacifists face even more difficulties when they reach draft age. Conscientious objection is not recognized as such, but up to a thousand conscripts at any one time may get into the construction troops and not be required to bear arms. Those who make it into these units are compelled to work on building airfields and other military facilities. Draftees who have refused to participate have been subject to military discipline.

Here the synod asked for ''sensible solutions'' on the part of the state. In addition, it proposed once again that an alternative civilian service be set up to do hospital, environmental, or other social work. Such service is available in West Germany.

The independent peace movement of some (primarily) young pastors and laymen further strains church-state relations.

The issue may not be so acute now as it was a year ago, given the expulsion in the interim of several dozen of the most energetic antinuclear activists to West Germany. But this is an area of continued tension.

The government's response has basically been to let ''peace seminars'' be held within churches, but not to let them spill onto the street - not even in the passive form of wearing swords-into-plowshares patches in public.

The Evangelical church leadership has backed peace activists who have sought its support, but it is wary of being sucked into a role of veiled political opposition by dissidents who may have little interest in religion but take their cause to the church as the one autonomous organization in East Germany.

Conversely, many pastors are wary of being co-opted by the government into the official peace movement, which castigates Western weapons as warlike and praises Soviet-bloc weapons as peaceful.

Numerous delegates at the synod strongly criticized the conspicuous presence of the Evangelical Church's deputy chairman, Manfred Stolpe, at a conference of the official GDR Peace Council last summer.

Ecological activism seems to be replacing peace activism as the hottest political issue for the church. The synod's theme was ''Christian Responsibility for Creation,'' and many young Christians regard environmental protection as a moral duty.

Officially the government welcomes Christians' interest in ecology, but time and again grass-roots activists have encountered the suspicion and harassment of local security forces.

Other issues that arose at the synod included nuclear deterrence, the basic question of how much Christians can ''trust'' the government, and travel abroad. The synod flatly rejected the ''spirit, logic, and practice of deterrence.''

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