My wife and I were still newlyweds when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down on November 9, 1989.   I remember sitting in the living room of the seminarian parsonage where we were living on Grand Rapids northwest side and watching with mouth agape the images of people sledging holes into a wall and sitting atop a wall I had been sure was never going to come down anytime soon. 

It had been only five years since I had spent a week in East Germany.  I remember the many hushed conversations, how people always looked left and right before daring to say anything to me, how gray and industrial-looking cities and villages appeared.  Back then East German soldiers would come onto trains to check passports.   They had these portable little chest desks they flipped open.  They would take your passport, inspect the picture, then look back at you, then at the picture again, then back at you.  This happened at least a half-dozen times per person before they stamped the passport and wordlessly thrust it back in your direction.  Meanwhile you could see out the train windows the silhouettes of other soldiers with German Shepherd dogs as they walked along the top of the train’s cars even as others scurried around the undercarriages.

East Germany was never going to change.  The wall would remain a deadly and impenetrable barrier between freedom and oppression for about as long as one could imagine as recently as the mid- to late-1980s.  But then suddenly it was gone.  Wonder and astonishment swept the world.  Two years later my wife and I would be in Germany and I marveled at the ease with which we drove right past the remnant of guard towers and on into what had been the DDR, die Deutsche Demokratische Republik. 

Alas, not all has gone well with reunification, as a trenchant recent New York Times article detailed.  There are lots of reasons why that is the case but I cannot try to go into all of that now.  Instead I want to focus on a statement made by one of the former East Germans interviewed for the article in which he stated his disappointment that the world seems little to notice that among the key factors that led to the disintegration of both the Berlin Wall and the entire socialist government was a brave and noble grassroots effort of ordinary citizens who began to resist.  And I would add that also missing is an acknowledgment of the role played by the persecuted East German church whose members had been praying for change for decades but who also actively spoke up, took to the streets, and peacefully agitated for change.

Taped to the window of my office is a placard that was widely distributed among East German Christians in the 1980s.  It depicts a rose entangled in Stacheldraht or barbed wire.   The rose is the symbol of hope in the midst of socialist oppression.  But next to it is a quote from 2 Timothy 1:7: “God has not given us a spirit of timidity but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”  My friend and former German professor Wallace Bratt gave me this poster some years ago, though I had long seen it in his office even as I saw it in the East German churches I visited in 1984. 

The old Soviet Union and its minions in places like East Germany had no use for the Christian faith.  They also were certain they had nothing to fear from all those “little old ladies” who gathered to pray for peace and justice.  It is said that as World War II ended, Winston Churchill told Josef Stalin that perhaps the Pope would be helpful in rebuilding Europe.   It is said that Stalin replied, “Oh yes?  How many tank divisions does the Pope have?” 

And yet the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall that we observed this weekend had far more to do with the faithful prayers of all those tank-less Christians than we sometimes realize.  So much credit for what the Germans call “die Wende” or “the turn/change” is given to Ronald Reagan (a bronze statue of Reagan was just installed near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin) even as the whole matter is chalked up as a triumph of the West.  Lost in this focus on famous people and broader geo-political movements are all those faithful Christians in East Germany who embodied the old “ora et labora,” “pray and work” model of discipleship.

Back in 1984 I had the privilege of meeting Pfarrar Helmut Hasse who was at that time the pastor of Martin Luther’s former church in Wittenberg, East Germany.  One year for Christmas he sent me a Christmas card that featured the Lukas Cranach altarpiece from the church in which Cranach—as was typical of so many Medieval painters—depicted the birth of Christ being attended by shepherds, Magi, and family members all arrayed in then-contemporary Medieval clothing.  Rev. Hasse wrote to me, “Cranach is saying that Christ is always born anew in our own world, not only long ago and far away with other people.  This is hope.  Can you see Christ being born in your own society today too?”

There is always hope when Christ comes to us anew in all times and places.  That was certainly the empowering message for East German Christians 30+ years ago as they sensed that Spirit of love and power and self-discipline Paul wrote about to Timothy. 

Today, too, we are living in difficult times and not a few of us feel very uncertain about the immediate if not the long-term future.  The “woke” among us are very strident in calling for us to work, to become activists, which is fine.  But let’s not forget the power of prayer, of faithful acts of service across the whole spectrum of our lives.  Let’s not forget that we serve a powerful God and that when we call on this God for help, God hears.   The barbed wires of life cannot strangle the rose of hope.  

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.

6 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Thanks so much. So right on.

  • Cathy Smith says:

    Yes and amen to this: “But let’s not forget the power of prayer, of faithful acts of service across the whole spectrum of our lives. Let’s not forget that we serve a powerful God and that when we call on this God for help, God hears.” Thank you for this good news.

  • Ruth Boven says:

    Thanks so much, Scott.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Sehr gut. Danke.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Scott, for reminding your readers of the power of God being unleashed when Christians get involved through prayer and action. Christians assume there is power in prayer. They assume the Triune God of Christianity has acted to change the course of history, as in the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. I appreciate that you mention the actions of Christians that have contributed to change, but also the actions of others (the “woke”). Of course there were/are many others beside Christians that were/are praying to their Gods, people of many different religions, as well as the hopes and actions of those of no religion. I have my doubts as to whether the prayers of anyone (Muslim, Christian, Hindu, New Age, etc.) connect people to their own respective Gods. But prayer does seem to serve as an inducement to action on the part of the person praying, irrespective of their religion, non religion, or their God. So pray on, if it will contribute to your endeavor for doing good along with the actions of many others. It’s good to see such moral fiber in so many people that contributes to the moral advancement of our societies, such as with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Thanks, Scott.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Back in 2001 our family invited an exchange student from Germany to spend a year with us—we had two kids in h.s. yet, and our sole daughter excited about the prospect of a “sister.” Annett was from former East Germany, from the border town Guben/Gubin, the easternmost point of Germany adjoining Poland on the Oder River. She was a young kid when the wall came down and East & West were reunited; her stories shared with us were about reconciliation and rebuilding, and for her parents, a sense of awakening out of a state-imposed fog that had clouded their lives as a young family. Annett didn’t fit the mold of most exchange students—she was not wealthy, her dad a factory chemist and mom a part-time teacher, and she came with a motivation of serving rather than to be served. Even though our house is tiny in scale to most Chicago-area suburban mcmansions (“is that a church?!” was her response to one), she could not believe she would have her own room, as she lived in a 3-bedroom apartment with her parents and 4 siblings in Germany. She also was a Christian, raised in an evangelical fellowship that had to endure state scrutiny, and so she felt welcomed and comfortable in the Christian school where I taught, in our church, and among our family. She returned to Germany to study to be a nurse, and she served on the medical-mission ship HOPE, for a year, going to ports-of-call to do first aid and basic medical treatment for folks in poverty. She and her siblings, now adults and one a pastor, all are obvious examples and products of that hope, spurred on by faithfulness of her parents and community that raised her, in spite of the repressive culture and politics of an earlier time, and in response to that positive cultural change.

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