Berlin was in a festive mood the weekend I arrived. The yearlong celebration of the seven-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the city was coming to a climax with a giant fireworks display. Everywhere, colorful banners and posters heralded the anniversary. And the carnival, which occupied the famous Street of the Seventeenth of June, was thronged with visitors and residents, seeking to enjoy the final days of the Jahresfest. But the glitter of the festivities gave way to a sense of tragedy as I once again made a pilgrimage to Potsdam Square to view the Berlin Wall.
August 13, 1961, is etched in the memories of many people. On that bleak day East German police units shattered the early morning hours by unrolling barbed wire across the imaginary line that divided the Soviet occupied section of the city from the sections assigned to the Western powers. The one remaining hole in the Iron Curtain was now sealed. For over 26 years the wall has stood as a symbol of repression and of the apparent permanence of the partition of Germany into two competing states.
From the observation platform built by the West Berliners, I could see the wall in all its hideous strength. Actually the term wall is a misnomer. The wall is in fact a strip of mined no man’s land built on the entire 165-kilometer perimeter of West Berlin and flanked on both sides by a solid wall mass. There are guard towers at regular intervals. This cunningly designed structure has been fortified so as to make escape—over, under, or through it—virtually impossible. Although the communist government of the so-called German Democratic Republic (GDR) espouses the virtues of socialism, it finds the wall necessary in order to keep its political-economic system working.
My weekend in West Berlin was followed by a trip across the wall to spend a week “behind the Iron Curtain.” There I was forcefully reminded of a great truth: God can and does work good for his people in spite of, and even through, oppressive circumstances. Despite the loss of freedom and even the loss of life it has produced, the wall has been used by God as an instrument of blessing to the praise of his power and goodness. Three learning opportunites I had while in East Germany—church statistics, a conversion story, and a visionary’s hope—bored this into my consciousness.
Believers Who Stay
First came some impersonal statistics that carry personal meaning for the churches beyond the wall. The flow of people fleeing from the East to the West, which had been on a continual rise prior to August 13, 1961, has been virtually stopped by the presence of the Berlin Wall. Among the refugees of the 1950s were many faithful members of the churches of the GDR.
A case in point is the Union of Free Evangelical Churches, a small denomination that is a conglomerate of the Baptists, Plymouth Brethren, and Pentecostals. Before the Berlin Wall, the group numbered about 35,000. Each year their churches reported a combined net loss of between 700 and 800 members. The future of the denomination was in question, for many important lay leaders and supportive members were fleeing to the West. The coming of the wall changed all that. Since 1961 net losses have been cut to about 300 yearly, and these are mostly due to deaths.
Many Christians in the GDR now suggest the political climate there has so improved since the 1950s that no one needs to flee for religious reasons. Christians, these believers declare, have a responsibility to remain in the GDR under these improved conditions and to serve as missionaries to their own people. When a family does emigrate to the West, those who stay behind feel abandoned and wonder if in fact economic considerations motivated the move. The wall, they say, is God’s sign that East German Christians need to remain in their country. Some Christians in the GDR even believe that God allowed the wall to be built partly to insure the survival of the church in that land.
The Death And Life Of Richard
God’s ability to bring blessing out of the Berlin Wall was also underscored as I listened to the conversion story of a young East Berliner. Richard grew up in the shadow of the wall. His father’s commitment as a member of the Communist party insured that the strict socialist world view Richard was taught in school would be reaffirmed in the home. But despite party indoctrination, the Berlin Wall continually raised for him the question of life in the West and gave him a gnawing sense of imprisonment. Western television programs heightened this feeling by depicting life in America, which became for him “the promised land.”
Richard decided to find a way through the wall. But as he traveled its perimeter, he came to the depressing conclusion that it was impenetrable. Then he decided to escape another way. Given his relatively good income, he could apply to visit Cuba and abandon the airplane during the stopover in Canada. But obtaining clearance for such a trip could take years. Doubts arose in Richard’s mind as to whether life in the West would bring satisfaction. He decided to commit suicide.
The suicide attempt came shortly after Richard entered the military service required of all East German young men. One night he took an overdose of barbiturates. But his attempt was foiled. When he did not rise at morning roll call, he was discovered and rushed to the hospital. Richard’s miraculous recovery without brain damage or internal injuries awakened in him the thought that possibly there was a God who had spared him for some purpose.
Soon thereafter Richard was invited to a youth evangelistic week at a Berlin Baptist church. The logical presentation of the Christian faith by the evangelist, the encouraging words of the youth counselors, and the warmth and acceptance of the Christians he encountered there were new and welcome experiences. As the week drew to a close, he became convinced that faith in Christ was the answer to his needs.
Richard still lives at home. His parents have slowly accepted him as a Christian, even though he and his father hold sharply divergent views. During a recent trip to the West, his father even brought back the compact Bible Richard had requested. He is now contemplating what God has for his future and is open to the possibility of theological education and pastoral service.
Were he now able to flee across the wall to the West, Richard would not avail himself of the opportunity. The Lord has given him the contentment to live in the GDR. He believes he has a mission to fulfill—to serve his people as an ambassador for Christ.
An Heirloom Of Hope
What do East German Christians think as they look at the Berlin Wall? I asked this question of a young pastor living in East Berlin. He had accompanied me to the Brandenburg Gate, where the dividing power of the wall is most visible, running across the old Berlin landmark street Unter den Linden.
His first response was the word Ohnmacht—impotence. Then he sought to open a window into this feeling of powerlessness. He had no harsh words for his own government, but spoke of the wider world political-economic situation that had moved the East German government to take this desperate move in 1961. I understood and sympathized with his portrayal of the East-West struggle and the inequities that exist.
His description led me to think of the superhuman principalities and powers Paul mentions in Ephesians. My friend was right. No one human being or government was responsible for the wall. Rather, the world is in the thrall of powers beyond human analysis.
As I was contemplating this, he declared that one day the wall would be tom down. His prophecy was not for me, however, but for his two children. In them the dream of full human rights must be kept alive, this visionary told me, and this through the teaching of Christian parents.
This was the third learning experience: this hideous wall provides the focal point for passing on a dream from parent to child. The dream that becomes the heirloom of Christian families in the East, however, goes far beyond hope for the eventual eradication of a divided Germany. It looks to the elimination of the fears and rivalries that divide the world.
My friend spoke of the day when people will once more move freely where a wall used to be. But of greater significance is his personal commitment to the God who tears down walls. One day the principalities and powers against which all Christians are called to struggle as a united, international body will be defeated. And God’s reign over Earth will come in its fullness.
For over 26 years the Berlin Wall has stood as a monument to injustice. But by viewing the wall from the other side, I was reminded that no evil in this world is so great that it lies beyond God’s power to bring good out of evil. For the one who has eyes to see, God can use the Berlin Wall as an illustration of the coming kingdom that breaks into the present. What lies beyond the wall? Beyond the Berlin Wall, there is God.
Stanley J. Grenz is professor of systematic theology and Christian ethics, North American Baptist Seminary, Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
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