It is hard to disagree with the Reverend Johannes Richter of Leipzig’s Thomaskirche when he says that this has been the East German church’s moment of kairos. Consider: pastors are serving as government ministers in what used to be a Communist country. Pastors—of varied political persuasions—have founded the democratic parties that have totally changed East Germany. Pastors chaired the “Round Tables” that guided the transition from Communism to democracy, and they temporarily ruled cities whose mayors and councilmen had resigned. Finally, having protected Christians and others from political persecution by the Communists, pastors are now shielding these Communists from the people’s wrath.
Pastor Uwe Holmer, whose children were deprived of higher education because of their Christian faith, gave shelter to former Communist leader Erich Honecker and his wife Margot who, as Minister of Education, had prevented those children from attending university. Yet Holmer is by no means a left-winger; he is a Christian Democrat.
It is one of the most remarkable phenomena of East Germany’s non-violent revolution that it was guided and moderated by the church whose ministers and faithful were once severely persecuted and until very recently discriminated against by the ancien regime. It is equally remarkable that this revolution appears to prove Lenin wrong and Luther right.
Lenin once said that Germans were incapable of making a revolution; for before storming a railroad station they would buy platform tickets. Assorted writers, notably Thomas Mann and William L. Shirer, saw this alleged inability to rebel as a distinctly Lutheran deficiency. The lamentable performance of a considerable part of the German church during World War II seemed to prove their point.
To be fair to Lenin, he was at least half-right. In a sense, the East Germans did buy their platform tickets before storming the station. Their huge demonstrations were orderly. Having completed their day’s work, the demonstrators took buses, trams, and trains to the rallies and never cheated on the fares. And they shed no blood; they destroyed no property. The point is, however, that in their orderliness they succeeded.
While the peaceful nature of this upheaval has received due attention world-wide, one significant aspect has so far been ignored: The first genuinely German revolution in four hundred years, taking place in the Lutheran heartland, proceeded precisely along the lines envisioned by Luther himself.
One of the most enduring stereotypes about Luther claims that his strict interpretation of Romans 13—“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities”—precluded any resistance to tyranny in Germany. Friedrich Engels called Luther a Furstenknecht, a lackey of princes. Shirer spoke of Luther’s “ferocious [belief] in absolute political authority.” Both referred to the reformer’s harsh condemnation, during the Peasants’ Revolt of the 1520s, of the “robbing and murdering hordes of peasants.”
It is not necessary here to delve into the complexities of Luther’s attitude toward temporal authority. But in order to understand the extraordinary role of the church in the recent events in East Germany, we must know what it was that Luther objected to: not resistance but insurrection. For insurrection, Luther thought, results in anarchy, which is “a source of evil of the highest degree,” as Walter Kunneth has pointed out. The French, Russian, Chinese, and Cambodian revolutions have shown this to be true.
That the East German revolution did not follow these bloody patterns is the accomplishment of a church which by now represents but a minority of the population. Of the sixteen million East Germans, only four to five million belong to the Protestant Landeskirchen which make up the Federation of Evangelical Churches in the German Democratic Republic. Fewer than one million are Roman Catholics. Some 40,000 adhere to non conformist denominations.
In the 825-year-old city of Leipzig, the birthplace of socialism that became the hub of the gentle overthrow of Communism, a mere 12 percent of its 530,000 citizens are Christians. Yet the Monday night demonstrations of up to half a million people had their origins in prayer services in six churches whose naves and balconies had not been that full in centuries. “Many of these young people had no idea what Christianity was all about,” said Superintendent Johannes Richter of the Thomaskirche where Johann Sebastian Bach wrote most of his cantatas. “When they first entered they thought that the crucifix above the altar represented a gymnast.”
But they listened to the men and women in the pulpits who exhorted them not to resort to violence. The “nice heathens,” as Richter called them, proved very obedient.
It is impossible to understand the church’s success without returning to the late 1940s when the Communists solidified their hold on what was then called the Soviet zone of occupation. Virtually the entire elite of that part of Germany was forced to go West: the scientists, the lawyers, the writers, the editors, the landowners, the nobility, the bourgeoisie, the master craftsmen. And whenever in the subsequent decades a new fledgling elite developed, it too fled to West Germany.
East Germans used to say that the letters DDR, an acronym for Deutsche Demokratische Republik, stood for Der damliche Rest, the stupid rest who stayed behind. The only remaining members of the old elite were the clergy, for good pastors do not leave their flocks. And unlike many of their predecessors in the Third Reich, these ministers did not betray their faith to collaborate with the atheistic rulers. The Communists’ attempt to create a nucleus of fellow-traveling clergymen ended in miserable failure. Of some 7,500 pastors, only two hundred joined the pro-Communist Pfarrerbund, whose diminutive size became such an embarrassment to the Party that the group was quietly dissolved.
It is quite possible that things might be entirely different now in East Germany had not a virulent Kirchenkampf, or church struggle, in the 1950s accomplished two things. First, while prompting the lukewarm majority of the members to turn away from the church, it strengthened an ardent minority in their faith. Second, it helped create an interdenominational church of the catacombs that functioned within and without the manifest church. Taking a cue from the Communists, it developed a cellular system that infiltrated the entire society.
Christian cells, mostly little prayer groups, established themselves in high-rise buildings, offices, factories, the military, and, most especially, the universities, whose students, with the exception of the theologians, were supposed to be atheists. When I researched this development fifteen years ago, I was surprised by the high proportion of young scientists in the vestries of many congregations. How did they get there?
In hundreds of interviews I discovered that without even overtly propagating their faith small nuclei of Christians proved enormously attractive to their neighbors, fellow-students, and colleagues. Their language, their demeanor, their facial expressions distinguished them favorably not only from party functionaries but also from the anguished general population. They were the ones people turned to in times of trouble. While the church lost most of its half-hearted members, it gained new and fervent ones as a consequence of the performance of ordinary Christians in society. Quantitatively the trend in church membership is still negative. But qualitatively it is very positive indeed. As the saying goes in East Germany, “the church has shrunk its way back to health.”
The exemplary behavior of ordinary Christians in society provided the necessary backdrop for the upright performance of pastors and bishops who have earned “an amazing credibility bonus among non-Christians,” according to Superintendent Richter. It was the church that provided protection to citizens who had become outcasts after unsuccessful attempts to flee the country or pending approval of their applications to emigrate legally. It was the church that enabled banned playwrights to have their work performed and enabled banned singers to sing their songs of protest. It was the church that took up environmental concerns.
There exists in the West the misconception that just because many East German pastors are long-haired and bearded and have a proclivity for strumming their guitars to the tune of “Kumbaya” they must be radical “green” agitators, like so many of their brethren across the border. But this would be a thoroughly misleading assessment of the East Germany clergy.
To begin with, the environmental catastrophe in East Germany after forty-five years of Communism is such that a pastor would be negligent in his duties to God and his creation if he didn’t speak up. Just a few examples: Nuclear reactors are so sloppily built and badly maintained that West German experts consider Chernobyl-type disasters a distinct possibility. Half of East Germany’s soil and much of its ground water are dangerously polluted. The emissions of cancer-causing cadmium are often 120 times the permissible level. One-third of Leipzig’s children suffer from pulmonary and bronchial complaints because the lignite refineries to the south of the city belch huge amounts of unfiltered coal dust and sulphur monoxide into the air. In Leipzig, the life expectancy is six years below the East German average of 73 years, which is three years less than that of West Germany. In some parts of the country pollution is impeding children’s growth to normal height.
Yet it would be wrong to assume that East German pastors are trying to fill their pews by stressing social issues rather than proclaiming the Gospel. Not that it hasn’t been tried in the past. Especially in the uniate Landeskirchen of the formerly Prussian provinces, liberal pastors tried to win over the youth by appearing to be “modern.” In 1976, Manfred Stolpe, the jurist who is second-in-command of the East German Kirchenbund, told me, “This tactic was a resounding failure. We were amazed to find that not the liberal uniate Prussian church but the more orthodox Lutheran churches of Saxony and Thuringia, sticking to their confessions, attracted the young generation.”
I have just spent several weeks in Saxony whence I fled as a child. I have listened to and read scores of some of the best sermons in my life. While they obviously addressed the situation in which East Germans lived at the time, none of them was a political speech, none made concessions to the Zeitgeist, and all were crisp and Scripture-oriented. They were quintessentially Lutheran.
Pastors I spoke to were often bewildered by their new political duties. Communist functionaries would not talk to the opposition except in the presence of clergymen. As most of the East German elite had left, pastors became teachers of democracy. For four decades the church was the only major institution in the society practicing democratic elections.
As so many potential politicians had either gone West or collaborated with the totalitarian regime, pastors found themselves in the unusual roles of founders and leaders of political parties right across the political spectrum from social democrat to conservative. It is simply not true that the East German church, like its West German counterpart, has become a playground of left-wing clerics trying to immanentize the eschaton, although those types do exist; this is, after all, not just the land of Luther but also the land of Thomas Muntzer.
But the right-of-center Alliance for Germany, victorious in the March 18 general elections, has just as many pastors and lay church officials among its leaders as the Social Democrats and the Green party. The staunchly conservative German Social Union was founded by Hans-Wilhelm Ebeling, pastor at the Thomaskirche. And the Minister of Defense in the new East German government is Pastor Rainer Eppelmann, a former bricklayer who spent eight months in a military jail for refusing to swear the oath of allegiance to the atheistic state. (Overall, the parliament elected in March contains among its four hundred members nineteen ordained pastors: eight belong to conservative parties, eight are Social Democrats, and three belong to a centrist electoral alliance.)
Would Luther have approved? Probably yes. Luther dreaded nothing more than political voids that lead to anarchy. And in this case only pastors were available to fill the void. Under exceptional circumstances, Luther said, God sends viri miraculosi to put things right. Who better than ministers steeled by forty-five years of suffering?
Time will tell if this is truly the church’s kairos, as Johannes Richter says. Time will also tell if the church has made the best use of a great opportunity. Will pastors in political positions, once their mission is accomplished, quietly let go of their power and return to their pulpits to tackle the task of bringing the Gospel to the “nice heathens”? Or will hubris prompt them to delight in and maintain secular power?
Lutherans around the world will be watching. They have reason to be proud of their East German brethren for proving Luther right. Now they must pray that the most splendid event in the history of their church will be brought to its proper conclusion.
Uwe Siemon-Netto, a German, is a veteran foreign correspondent and a recent graduate of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He is now a doctoral candidate at Boston University.