We Lost Our Fear and Went Onto the Street

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 pray in Monday evening meetings. Despite Stasi secret-police threats of a Tiananmen Square-like attack, worshippers 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.

Last month the pastor of Nikolai, Kristian Fuehrer, spoke with Monitor editorial writer Robert Marquand about 1989 and the new challenges facing his church and eastern Germany.

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

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, 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's 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. And I would like you to consider that 90 percent of those who did, who were with us, were non-Christians.

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

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 promoting and advertising of our church by Western means and standards, through heavy commercial appeal.

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?

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.

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?

First, yes, there was hatred toward the regime. But the main impetus for change was misery. The misery of the people. Those who took the symbolic and decisive step of applying to leave the GDR waited two years or more for an answer. It was usually no. They were outcast. Many became psychologically ill. We let them in, arranged circles of help for them. They found in our church that their problems were taken seriously for the first time.

But as for grace, there was a certain grace in how God led us to play this role and to respond to this need in our society. We were given the courage and insight to continue, despite pressure. Remember, the state was opposed to anything we did. The state felt a good church was an empty church; when we grew in numbers and influence, the state applied pressure. They wanted to close our doors; we wanted to open them. During that time I always stuck with a simple question: What would Jesus have done or said in this case, about this trial or problem? This brought struggles. But once I found an answer there was no going back. Our courage at this time was an effect of grace. Our grace was going forward, then finding more strength when we did.

You said you felt no fear. Why?

That is a difficult question. There has always been fear in the world. It seems to be everywhere, Jesus tells us this. But he also says fear can be overcome through deeper faith. This was our experience. The most important way we arrived at this faith was to read the Sermon on the Mount and take it seriously. We found we had to stop diluting the message of Christ, but bring out its deeper meanings in relation to our lives.

Before, the churches were diluting the message. But when we did not dilute the message of the New Testament, we had in our services and meetings on many occasions the miraculous experience of feeling the effect of the Word. It was with us. It was with us, all of us, and I remind you that 90 percent of those in our movement were non-Christians. They too felt it. And this 90 percent made the revolution possible. It was a successful translation of Christian values into universal values these people felt.

It was my special joy to see this Bible Word come true, be realized.

Are Western churches and their officials coming to you to find out your message and experiences?

No. I would rather say they fear it. Our experience was possible only because we didn't share power with anyone and did not benefit from any worldly security. This is the only basis on which the message of Jesus can be genuinely proclaimed. But the comfortable world of Western churches, and the safe and conventional structures they exist in, the state sponsoring, would be threatened by this approach. These churches are afraid of losing something, and they dilute the message of grace.

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