We had a German student staying at our house twenty years ago this week and together watched the stunning news out of Berlin, as people armed with nothing more than hammers and picks dismantled the wall between east and west. We were stunned then and, as the subsequent weeks unfolded, even more so as nation after nation in Eastern Europe declared their freedom from the totalitarianism of the Soviet machine. I was privileged to travel through east Germany shortly after the wall had fallen and the east had opened. At the time the poverty was still palpable, evident in everything from food to architecture. Things are different now, where Berlin offers all the evidence of upward mobility and freedom, as people stand in line for lattes and the landscape rises with some of the most progressive architecture in the world.
As I look back on both the opening up of Eastern Europe, there are lessons to be learned:
1. Faith spoke to oppression then – it had better continue to do so now. The Polish Pope’s visit to his homeland was just one of numerous instances of faith, which totalitarianism had tried so hard to keep in the grave, resurrected. The events of Timasora in Romania were equally powerful. In a remarkable convergence of circumstances that can only, retrospectively, be seen as the sovereign hand of God at work, Christ followers put their lives on the line in pursuit of liberty, and turned the tide of history.
The church hasn’t always been so bold, or so right. I hope and pray that we can learn from the example of our friends in the faith from two decades ago, and that we will stand up to oppression in all forms, including human trafficking, and the reality that infant’s lives are snuffed out without ever seeing the light of day. I’m asking myself what my role is in standing up against oppression, praying for both eyes to see and strength to obey.
2. Democracy and Capitalism aren’t magic pills – It was thought that the demise of communism and moves to democracy would, in and of themselves, lead cultures and nations to prosperity. The results, however, have been spotty. The reunification of East and West Germany was perhaps the easiest and most successful transition but they had the advantage of an existing infrastructure into which the east could be assimilated. Even there it was hard. The rest of eastern Europe has not been so fortunate.
The reality is that democracy and capitalism work only to the extent that there are some inherent moral underpinnings to a culture. Without these foundations, the freedoms of these systems became a petri dish in which greed, corruption, and graft will grow unchecked. We see this throughout eastern Europe to this day, which is why my friend in Romania is trying to mentor an emerging generation of cultural leaders, so that they’re rooted and grounded in Christ.
We need to learn from this, because though the clothing is different, the obscene bonuses offered wall street and banking execs in the wake of their greedy behavior in indicative of the reality that we too are losing our way. Capitalism in an amoral society necessarily leads to corruption and oppression. It’s happening everywhere these days, because when people reject Christ, sins aren’t only sexual, they’re economic, as you can discover here.
3. God is surprising us… Nobody saw it coming, including think tanks everywhere, and the CIA. I look back on that week in November 1989 with great fondness, because the relationships that began that week, opened up opportunities for me to travel and teaching all over the world, and learning about how God is at work in various cultures has shaped my theology more profoundly than any other element. I also look back fondly because that week, as my German friend had tears in her eyes, hopeful that she might finally meet relatives her were on ‘the other side’, I realized that when God’s ready to move on something, He moves. Psalm 2 says that God laughs at the raging schemes of humanity when we assert that ‘our will be done’. He’ll allow it, but not forever.
That week gave strengthened my faith, giving me the confidence to believe that God is moving in human history. Subsequent to those days there have been terrible wars, Genocides, and acts of terror, reminders that humanity is still raging against God’s rule. But the day will come when all the dividing walls will fall. May we embody the hope that certain future; right here; right now.
O Lord Christ…
Thank you for the reminders in history that you are on the move. Thank you that you use people to bring slices of hope and liberty into the world, foretastes of your full reign. Make us such people; people of courage and sacrifice, generosity and integrity, that the world might see and know foretastes of your future and certain reign. Thank you for the ‘glimpses of glory’ that come about when walls fall down. Give us the grace to work with you in knocking more down, all around us, today and everyday.