18 September 2009

"My dear Christian friends in East Berlin"

These were the words spoken by the US civil rights activist Martin Luther King when he preached in the Marienkirche when he visited East Berlin in 1964, on one of the most tense days in the divided city since the building of the Wall in 1961. Chrismon, the German Protestant monthly magazine, has an article on its Web site about how King arrived in an American limousine without notice at Checkpoint Charley, and was eventually let in after half an hour by a stunned border guard after he was able to prove his identity with an American Express card (his passport was being held by the US authorities in West Berlin to prevent him crossing into the East) was back at the hotel, presumably). Shortly before King's visit to East Berlin, East German police had exchanged fire at the wall with the West Berlin police and US military as a heavily wounded 21 year old reached the West. King who was in West Berlin to address a commemoration ceremony for the John F Kenndy at the Waldbühne had hurred to the scene of the event.

In East Berlin King addressed a Marienkirche full to overflowing - the doors were closed 2 hours before the start of the service, news of which had spread only by word of mouth. The crowds who couldn't squeeze in were urged to go to the nearby Sophienkirche were a second service was arranged at short notice. Georg Meusel, a peace activist in GDR times who now coordinates the Martin-Luther-King Centre in Werdau, recalls in Freitag how King spoke of the civil rights movement in the United States, Gandhi's philosophy of non-violent resistance that inspired the US activists, "who would prefer to go to jail with dignity than live with humiliation and without equality". King ended his sermon with the words, "In this faith we can hew a stone of hope from the mountain of despair ... In this faith we will work together, pray together, stand up together for freedom in the certainty that we will be free at last". Meusel commented:

Although neither Martin Luther King nor his audience imagined the events in the GDR in 1989, a minority in the peace and civic rights groups and in the churches in the following years internalised the message of non-violent conflict resolution.
King's visit to East Berlin was on 13 September 1964. 25 years later, a group of civic rights activists in the GDR met to announce the formation of "Demokratie Jetzt", just one of the actions of non-violent resistance during autumn 1989. An event to mark this anniversary was held on 13 September 2009.

Michael Haspel, the director of the Evangelical Academy in Thüringen, has produced a study that compares the role of the Protestant churches in the GDR and the black churches in the US civil rights movement: Politischer Protestantismus und gesellschaftliche Transformation. This is a summary of an article by Haspel in the Forschungsjournal Neue Soziale Bewegungen:
The Protestant churches in the German Democratic Republic and the Black churches in the civil rights movement in the United States are two among very few examples for non-fundamentalist Protestant churches which were decisively involved in processes of social transformation. In both cases it was paramount that the churches were developed institutions with substantial resources at hand in order to play an important role in the respective social movements. In order to explain why the churches were willing to commit their resources for the sake of the social movements, in this analysis it is argued that a decisive development in the mode of theological reflection took place. In both cases theological contextualisation in the given situation was the presupposition for the involvement of the churches in the social movements.
(Photo: Chrismon)


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