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.