8 November 2009

Watching and Praying in Gethsemane

For most of the five years that I lived in Brussels (from 1989 to 1994) I had stuck on my wall a cutting from the front page of The Independent newspaper from 9 October and the whole of the back page from the issues of 14 October. With the high quality black and white photogtraphy for which The Independent was then famous the pictures showed how the Gethsemane church in East Berlin had become a place of refuge and spiritual support for opposition to the SED. The title of the article on the back page was, "Where East Germans coonquer fear".

On 2 October 1989, the Gethsemane church, under its truly Christian pastor, Bernd Albani, had started a vigil for people who had been unjustly imprsioned after demonstrations calling for change. A month later, on 7 October 1989, as the SED celebrated 40 years of the GDR, demonstrators gathered on the Alexanderplatz and started marching towards the Palace of the Republic where the festivities were taking place. Ranks of police beat them back, arresting and beating demonstrators indiscriminately - the scene portrayed at the beginning of the film "Goodbye Lenin". Many demonstrators then made a U-turn towards the Gethsemane church, about 2 kilometres away, where they took shelter inside the church while the police sealed off the area around the church. For two days there was an uneasy standoff, those who had taken shelter couldn't leave but the police were not prepared to storm the church. The journalist Andrew Brown recorded the experience of Angela Kunze who began a fast on 4 October for the unjustly persecuted (he has also recently blogged about 1989). Her manifesto read:
I am fasting to cleanse myself of fear and hopelessness, hate and violence, impatience and the lust for novelty. I am fasting because I see no other way to express my protest against the ways in which our politicians brazenly keep us appearances and celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the state as their victory. I am fasting because, unlike our state media, I am worried about the great number of people who have left our country. I am fasting to live in solidarity with all who suffer and are persecuted because they have committed themselves to social justice. I am fasting in the hope that others will take part, for an hour or for days, and that we will show our personal commitment to this country by limiting our material needs.

"Watch and pray" - this is how the Bible records Jesus' injunction to his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane as he prepared for his arrest. It is also a chant from the Taize community much sung at the Gethsemane church as those who had taken shelter from the police waited for their fate. It was not until 9 October, as the huge march in Leipzig passed off peacefully, that the police moved back from the church.

"Watch and pray" - this is the motto for the series of events that has been taking place this autumn in the Gethsemane church to mark 20 years of the peaceful revolution and the felling of the Berlin Wall. On 9 November, the Gethsemane church will be the location in the morning for the central ecumenical service for state and religious leaders to mark the 20th anniversary of the opening of the wall, just a kilometre or so away from where the church is located.

On the evening of 9 November, however, the church is holding another service of public remembrance. The 9 November marks not only the 20 years since the opening of the walls, but the anniversary of the "Kristallnacht" - the night of broken glass or the state pogrom night - when throughout Germany, Jewish Germans and their houses of worship and property were attacked by the Nazis.

"The festivals of the Jewish and of the Christian religion are almost all festivals of remembrance" the brochure announcing the service states, "of the events of the history of the Jewish people or the life of Jesus. This ancient religious practice of remembering now has its modern forms when a date for the community has taken on such significance as the 9 November for Germans. In the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall the joy of the unexpected opening of the borders in autumn 1989 is linked irrevocably with the painful remembrance of the 'Reichsprogrommnacht' in 1938. A day such as this enjoins us to think ourselves about the forms and history of our remembrance."


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