Several weeks ago, I visited Leipzig, Germany, as part of my work as an external advisor to Joram Tarusarira, a Zimbabwean who is completing his Ph.D. there on the role of religious ‘non conformists’ in contributing to reconciliation in Zimbabwe. Joram is a graduate of my School’s Master’s in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation.
Joram’s office is just across the street from St Nicholas Church, the site of the prayer meetings and protest marches that have been credited with leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
While I had known about the activism of the Christians of St Nicholas, my visit and a recent profile of the events by the BBC have brought them to my attention again. As Christians in Northern Ireland, and Zimbabwe, search for ways in which they can contribute to peaceful political transition, it is hard not to be inspired by the courage and creativity of the Christians of St Nicholas. The article on the BBC is titled:
The answer, it seems, is both ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ As with all situations of conflict and oppression, a variety of changes and actions have to take place simultaneously for there to be transformation. But two points about the activism of the Christians – and later, those of various political and religious persuasions who would join them – stand out for me.
Patience – Peace Can Take Longer than you Expect
Disillusioned with the Berlin Wall, the physical fault line of the ongoing Cold War and the repressive East German regime, Pastor [Christian] Führer began organising Prayers for Peace every Monday evening, beginning in 1982.
On many occasions fewer than a dozen people attended the prayer meetings. The East German government strongly discouraged its citizens from becoming involved in religious activities, but the meetings continued each Monday without fail.
1982 was seven years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Seven years is of course not a long time in the sweep of human history. Nevertheless, it’s long enough that people could become discouraged, especially if only a handful were showing up some evenings.
But on 7 October 1989, the 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic, 70,000 people from all over East Germany gathered in Leipzig, filling the various churches and then participating in a protest march through the city.
The Christian Witness is one of Peace
“What moved me the most was that people who had grown up in two atheist dictatorships – first the Nazis then the communist regimes – were able to distil the message of Jesus into two words: no violence.
“Without the church it would have been like all other revolutions before – bloody and unsuccessful.”
Christians often have been tempted to justify the use of violence to defend or promote political causes. Military victory is interpreted as proof that God is on ‘our side.’
But for the Christians of St Nicholas, putting themselves on God’s side meant choosing non-violent action. On a day that could have turned bloody, their commitment to non-violence shamed the East German forces into restraint.
In Zimbabwe, Christians continue to face a violent regime, and the organisations that Joram is researching must every day find the courage to continue non-violent witness against this oppression.
The situation is of course different in Northern Ireland, where violence is not the everyday reality it once was. But conflict continues through the violence of our words and the violence of our division — often reinforced with physical walls.
Any society in which ‘order’ must be maintained through physical and/or structural violence can never be a peaceful one. The Christians of St Nicholas have shown us that transformation is possible with perseverance and a commitment to subvert violence through peaceful means.