26 November 2009

A Mighty Fortress Indeed ...

On 26 November, Jane was interpreting for Daniel Cattau, a US journalist, in Wittenberg. This article from the Los Angeles Times was one of the articles he wrote about his visit:

A Mighty Fortress Indeed - East Germany: As pariahs in a communist society, churches developed an independent niche--and nurtured a civil reformation.


Daniel Cattau, former director of the Lutheran Council News Bureau in New York, was recently in East Germany. (Los Angeles Times, December 16, 1989)

The Castle Church in Lutherstadt Wittenberg, where Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses in 1517, was refurbished in 1983, the 500th anniversary of the reformer's birth. Near the top of the tall, white church tower is now a gold band inscribed, Ein Feste Berg ist Unsere Gott-- the first words to the battle hymn of the Reformation, "A Mighty Fortress is Our God."

When the local leaders of the Socialist Unity (Communist) Party saw this impressive statement of faith, they asked church leaders what words from Luther might be appropriate for their building. The church leaders suggested the beginning of the hymn's second stanza: "No strength of ours can match His might."

This story accurately depicts the role of the East German Protestant churches in socialism: quiet opposition with a clear distinction between what belongs to the church and what to the state.

For the most part, the church's role in toppling the monolithic Communist rule has been ignored in the litany of other factors: Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost , Hungary's decision to open its border, the great numbers of East Germans fleeing to the West, the opening of the Berlin Wall and the country's woeful economic, educational and ecological situation.

But in talks I've had with dozens of East Germans, it was clear that the church played--and continues to play--a critical role in the reformation of society. In an interview at the Luther House in Wittenberg, Friedrich Schorlemmer, a theologian and leading spokesman for the Democratic Awakening, drew a parallel between the Reformation and the current upheaval.

"Luther said the church is only the church when it always reforms itself, and lets itself be reformed," said Schorlemmer, who has already been transformed from an enemy of the state into a media star. "Socialism is only socialism if it's capable of being renewed."

After World War II and the division of Germany, church membership in heavily Protestant East Germany declined from more than 80% of the population to about 30% today. The government thought it had dealt a fatal blow by enforcing strict church-state separation, eliminating state funding and teaching only Marxism and Leninism in schools. Added to that was a heavy dose of oppression.

The severing of church-state ties, however, was a blessing for the three territorial Lutheran and five united Lutheran and Reformed churches that comprise a loose, 5-million-member Federation of Evangelical Churches.

Until the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, the East German churches had close ties with the wealthier, state-supported churches in the Federal Republic. In 1968, these formal ties were severed and the East German churches, after a long period of confrontation, moved toward being a church in socialism--but, as its leaders point out, not a church of socialism.

Remarkably, the church had found a niche in society by the late 1970s that was to grow into a full-scale spiritual and political movement a decade later: It was a "free room," as the Germans say, where church and non-church people could discuss issues rarely brought up outside the home.

It began with peace groups discussing East-West tensions and the redeployment of missiles in the two Germanys, and grew to discussions of human rights and social justice, the environment, military service, freedom of travel, press freedom and free elections. The church also played a key role in uncovering vote-rigging in last May's local elections, encouraging people to stay in East Germany and spawning many of the leaders of the opposition parties and groups.

In 1982 the Nicholas Church and later the Thomas Church in Leipzig began what looked, at first, to be innocuous Monday-night prayer services; it was after these services that 200,000 took to the street in October. These prayer services and demonstrations were soon replicated throughout the land of Luther, Bach, Schiller and Goethe.

"There was no other free room in society," for opposition groups, said Gerhard Thomas, editor of The Church, a newspaper of the Berlin-Brandenburg Evangelical Church. "The revolution was so peaceful from the side of the demonstrators--that was the spirit of the church. The spirit of the revolution was the spirit of the church."

In Wittenberg, a small university town in Luther's day but now a quasi-industrial city of 50,000 people, townspeople complained in the local paper that the demonstrators had left a mess in the Market Place in front of Luther's statue: Wax from prayer vigil candles covered the stones on the street.

Albrecht Steinwachs, a local pastor, gave perhaps the best testimony to the role of the church when he wrote in response, "I would rather see 1,000 drops of candle wax on the Market Place than one drop of blood."


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