Thursday, July 3, 2014

"A Revolution that Grew out of the Church"

Christian Führer died June 30. Few people outside of Germany know his name, or about the important role he, and the church, played in the 1989 peaceful fall of Communism in East Germany. I wrote about Führer back in 2011; an updated version of that column is below.

Twenty-five years ago this October, the wall dividing East and West Germany came down.

Those of us who were alive back then remember it as a joyful and jubilant occasion. We watched with delight on TV as hundreds of thousands of people peacefully pulled down sections of the wall dividing Berlin.

One of the people most responsible for the destruction of the wall died June 30.

His name was Christian Führer, and he was pastor at the Lutheran Church of St. Nicolas in Leipzig, East Germany, in the 1980s.

Early in that decade, 
Führer began organizing “peace prayers” every Monday in his church.

Attendance was sparse at first, but over time the church became a focal point for East Germans engaged in peaceful protest against the regime of East German dictator Erich Honecker.

According to Führer, the prayer meetings attracted so many people because the church provided "the only free space" in the country.

"Everything that could not be discussed in public could be discussed in church, and in this way the church represented a unique spiritual and physical space in which people were free," he said.

"Here a critical mass grew under the roof of the church--young people, Christians and non-Christians."

In May, 1989, East German police tried to prevent people from attending the prayer services, now known as "the Monday demonstrations." This angered many. But Fuhrer preached non-violence, and the crowds continued to grow.

Despite government crackdowns, attendance at the prayer meetings swelled. One night in October of that year, after it finished, over 70,000 people marched through the city as armed soldiers looked on, doing nothing.

A month later, the wall between East and West Berlin came down.

"If any event ever merited the description of 'miracle' that was it," Führer said. "A revolution that succeeded, a revolution that grew out of the church."

What made him happiest about the demonstrations was their non-violent nature.

“Thousands in the churches, hundreds of thousands on the street around the city center. Not one broken shop window," he said in an interview.

It was, he said, "the unbelievable experience of the power of non-violence.”

In an interview in the New York Times about his experience with the protests, 
Führer said that “I always wanted also to move in the earthly realm. It is not the throne and the altar, but the street and the altar that belong together.”

In a letter to Fuhrer's son, German President Joachim Gauck wrote that "Christian Führer was a bearer of hope to many people, both in his profession as a pastor and as one of the defining figures of the peace prayers in the Church of St. Nicholas as well as the Monday demonstrations in Leipzig that led to the peaceful revolution in East Germany.” 

"Your father saw standing up against injustice as an essential mission of the gospel."

After Germany’s reunification in 1990, Führer championed the rights of former East Germans who had lost their jobs after the fall of Communism, spoke out against government policies that would adversely affect poor people, and demonstrated against the Iraq War.

Just before he died, Führer was awarded Germany's National Prize for his role in the peaceful protests.

In an interview last year with a German newspaper, Führer responded to critics who had characterized him as a social romantic and an incurable optimist.

“I heard the same thing in the days before Oct. 9, 1989,” he said. “At that time they said, ‘You don’t really think that your candles and prayers can change something?’ But history saw things differently.”

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