Peace movement within the churches in the GDR and Kirchengemeinschaft UCC-EKU

Peace movement within the churches in the GDR and Kirchengemeinschaft UCC-EKU

Christa Grengel

Christa Grengel

1. Kirchengemeinschaft as service for peace

Let me start with an observation that is very important for me: “Communion of churches” is in fact a true peace-keeping reality and has been, therefore, always part of church’s work for peace in the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

Without communion with the worldwide ecumene it would have been impossible to conceive what I am referring to as church’s “peace movement”. Immediately after the terrible destruction of World War II, the ecumenical community, not least in the USA, saw that we, the children, did not starve. This experience has been etched on the memory of the older generation. The hand of the worldwide ecumene, willing to bring reconciliation, let the churches in the guilty Germany, draw hope again spiritually for a new community. When the “East–West–conflict” and the division of our world into two stronger military blocs came into existence, it was again the community of churches that helped cause the “iron curtain” to tear and the “Berlin wall” to crack and that built up bridges of communication over the deep political gap. This experience put its stamp on the peace discussion in all phases of the post-war history. Also the cooperation of church-representatives from the GDR in ecumenical committees and the initiatives and questions coming from the ecumene, sustainably influenced the church’s work for peace in the GDR.

This is also true for German-German relations. It has been essential for the one EKU as well as for the “special spiritual communion” between Federation and EKD. The mandate of Christ to seek possibilities of peace-making over dividing walls has been crucial. This became clear especially in the “Common Statements,” for instance in 1979, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the beginning of World War II and again in 1985 when we observed the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II. This corresponded to a dense network of partnerships between congregations, in which “communion with those over there” was experienced concretely and with great joy for decades. This communion across the wall and through the East-West-conflict has been a solid spiritual reality which cannot be estimated highly enough as a source for overcoming the East-West-conflict.

Nevertheless, Kirchengemeinschaft with the UCC has been something special because it constitutes a particularly intensive form of church community and because its representatives came from the country of the superpower that threatened with its nuclear weapons from beyond the Iron Curtain. There had been a regular annual exchange of delegations for many years. The declarations of Kirchengemeinschaft 1980 / 81 strengthened and deepened this already existing communion. They were declared in a period in which the peace question within the churches in the GDR had become again highly controversial. The introduction of military curriculum into schools, the invasion of the Soviet Army in Afghanistan, the threat and later the realization of deployment of nuclear warheads in both German states right on border between East and West had again made urgent the question of the authentic peace witness of Christians over the borders. The spiritual experience of community in the Church’s worship and in the life of the local congregations brought change, because while talking with each other; singing, praying and celebrating Holy Communion, we all became aware that we were together under the same Lord. Given such community, how could one shoot at each other on any day?! Experiencing concretely this communion, it became clear that everything had to be done to preserve it despite the “curtain” and the “wall”.

2. Struggle for the appropriate peace witness in the GDR

The EKU and the “social world peace”

The EKU set up an institute for church peace research on October 1, 1968. This institution dates from the EKU synod in February 1968 and resulted from the requests of the “Bausoldaten”. Clearly inspired by the WCC-conference “Church and Society” in 1966 and the preparation for the WCC-Assembly, which took place in Uppsala some months later, the EKU Synod clearly recognised the unjust structures present in North-South relations as a peace issue and an ethical problem and therefore as a challenge for the churches.: “The cry for bread, justice and peace is obvious …. We are shocked, that the gap between the rich and the poor peoples is increasingly extending. This cannot be the will of God … The price for peace is so high that it can be paid only by a general mobilization ….”

The beginning was meager: The “institute” was renamed more modestly a “desk” engaged in “peace questions”. As a staff person I was warmly welcomed in the EKU headquarters at Auguststr.80 but also with a bit of a smile as a “peace angel.” The situation was at first depressing, because in contrast to the visionary hope of the Synod in the spring of 1968, the invasion of the troops of the Warsaw Pact (which included GDR soldiers too) in August 1968, was a terrible shock to us. All hopes for a political opening of the system were ruined, and the non-violent resistance of our Czech friends and also parts of the CPC were brutally crushed.

We owe it especially to President Reinhold Hildebrand and Bishop Johannes Jaenicke that the EKU did not give up in that situation. Both fought with high energy so that also in the GDR attention would be given to both the theoretical and foundational dimensions required to shape a peace ethic independent of chance or ad hoc formulation.

The “clearer witness”

The concrete question of how the individual Christian should act in view of the militäry threat, ran like a bright thread through the church statements in the GDR. Coming from the deep conviction of the post-war time that “War is not in accord with God’s will” (WCC Amsterdam 1948) and a belief that each military confrontation at the time would lead inevitably to a nuclear war and, therefore, the insight that the ethical criteria required to conduct a “just war” (CA 16) can no longer be applied, the refusal to do war-service was recognized as legitimate consequence that was required by faith. On the other hand, a kind of balance of military potential on both sides was seen as still tolerable as long as such “stability” prevented a war. Therefore, the participation in military service was seen as possible. But because military service in the event of war had been excluded, therefore, the training with weapons seemed to be unnecessary (“refusal of weapon service”). With the “Order of the National Defense Council of the GDR for the training of troops …” in 1964, the GDR-leadership reacted precisely to that argument and allowed young men who were liable for militatry service the possibility of a service without weapons within the army.

The justification for the “Bausoldaten” (or “construction soldiers” who did not bear weapons) could not be classified into conventional peace ethical concepts. This was not a pacifism of principle. It was at most a “pacifism because of nuclear war.” The “conscientious objectors” understood their refusal to bear weapons as “peace service” and asked the churches to express their position on it. This happened for the first time in 1965 with a “statement” whose first sentence pointed out that the refusal in the present situation was a “clearer witness”. The statement differed from the “Heidelberg theses” which had expressed the view that the different witnesses were of equal value in the present time. The “clearer witness” remained a matter of church discussions in the years that followed because it was clear to all people involved that this question was not a matter of church protection of minorities but rather a central question of the Christian peace witness in general. Also the “construction soldiers” experienced again and again that though their witness may have been “clearer,” it was nevertheless not “unambiguous,” as for instance in the case of building military facilities. Therefore, young Christians requested increasingly boldlier and more in the public an unambiguous alternative, namely a “social peace service.”

Political mandate and peace witness

After the foundation of the Federation of Evangelical Churches in the GDR (Federation) it was agreed that questions of “church and society,” including the peace questions, should henceforth be worked out on the level of the Federation, because the evangelical regional churches wanted to speak as far as possible with one voice in the basic questions of the political mandate of the churches, distinct from the centralist ideologically oriented state and the society dominated by the state. This position in distinction from the GDR-state had also another consequence. In the Marxist-Leninist perspective the “basic questions of power” were clear. This meant that the church had a subsidiary task. Church was to be a “private matter”. It was to be a “help for weak people”. Therefore, every word the Church spoke to problems of the society was understood as “interference” in the genuine tasks of the state. The churches, on the other hand, unanimously put forward the view –not least because of the second article of the Barmen Declaration- that God in Jesus Christ is related to the whole life of men and women and that, therefore, the church has to speak where she sees herself provoked to witness and service from her own roots and norms. But this meant that the churches permanently had to make, clear for themselves and for the state itself, that speaking and acting were theologically well-founded.

The leading question was related to Rom 12:2: “What is the will of God? What would the Lord have us do today?” But this was not as easy to discover as the simple wording of the question might presume. The evangelical theologians in the GDR came from different traditions, which especially in regard to the question about the limits of the political mandate of the churches, caused conflict. A doctrinal commission, especially called to address this problem, came to the conclusion in 1979, that the Lutheran doctrine of the “two kingdoms” and the Calvinist doctrine of the “Lordship of Christ” hermeneutically interpret and complement each other. Briefly stated: The “kingdom of the world” should not be left to its “own laws.” It has to be seen as subject to God’s will and should be questionned about certain problems from the realm of the Church as necessary. On the other hand, it shouldn’t be imagined that the Church can construct the kingdom of God in the still unredeemed world. In spite of this helpful insight and further useful ideas presented by the church committees, (for instance the Barmen interpretations of the EKU), questions remained about the Church’s political mandate, and controversy marked the inner-church discussions. Again and again individuals were accused of “going too far,” of crossing the limits. Obviously, the limits could not be set, but they could be commonly found always again through “listening to the word of God”. It is nearly a miracle that, despite everything, the Church came to unanimity in such important statements as “confessing in the peace question”.

Rejection of the spirit, logic and practice of deterrence and confessing in the peace question

The threat with Eurostrategic weapons and finally the actual deployment of nuclear weapons in the midst of Europe in the eighties made the peace question again a hot theme for all synods. The question became increasingly urgent in the congregations because of a growing fear that a war with nuclear weapons was coming dangerously near. When the catastrophe of the Chernobyl reactor showed how dangerous highly developed technology could become, the conviction was lost that deterrence with highly sensitive military technology could guarantee “security” and “stability” in the East-West-conflict. Therefore, the churches recognised also “deterrence” as sin (as earlier the “war”). The annual synods of the Federation had commented on this since 1982. Discussion focused not only on deterrence as a fact, but on the deeper dimension of the “spirit and logic of deterrence”. Using the term “rejection,” they went back deliberately to the old liturgy of baptism (with its rejection of evil and sin). The crucial issue for the Church was not simply political comment but rather giving expression to a foundational element of Christian thinking. Rejection has something to do with separation. Therefore, it was not surprising that the Federation took also in account the request from the Reformed side to declare the “status confessionis”. The Federation, however, chose another way. It did not want to formulate only a “rejection” but also to describe at the same time a position of the peace witness. This happened in 1987 with a statement called “Confessing regarding the peace question”. The synod understood it as a “topical confessing” deriving from the obedience of faith and from discipleship in a question of highest priority for churches and congregations. The synod made a commitment to the love of God which is valid for all men and women, especially the weak and the oppressed; liberation from slavery to fear, and acknowledgement of the gift of God’s justice in Christ. Deriving from this “position” the negative conclusion was made: rejection of spirit, logic and practice of deterrence. Because the concrete conclusions were of a political nature, this document became very controversial.

CA 16 “just war” again under discussion?

In connection with “Confessing regarding the peace question” the question about the criteria of the “just war” again came under discussion. “Nuclear pacifism” had lost its urgency because in the meantime military concepts had been worked out, according to which also smaller and limited wars had become possible again. Could the original intention of CA 16 “to support the peace and to save the right by seeking to prevent and to limit wars” be used after all for the ethical discussion of peace? This was stated in a comment drafted by the Federation and revised on the basis of proposals from the Leuenberg churches and the EKU which said: “However, under the present conditions situations cannot be excluded, in which it will become necessary to oppose violators of peace first by ‘threat’, but then also by ‘exerting force’ (Barmen V) against them with conventional military weapons.”

Conciliar process for justice, peace and integrity of creation

The “Conciliar process for justice, peace and the integrity of creation,” set in motion by the WCC-Assembly in Vancouver in 1983 after a motion presented by GDR participants, gained momentum in the GDR after initial difficulties at first. Participants included not only the evangelical regional and free churches but also the Roman Catholic Church. In the GDR the process was named “Ecumenical Assembly for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of creation.” The theme was addressed in 1988 / 89 at three major conferences, in many working groups and by the drafting of resolutions to which everybody could contribute. The Ecumenical Assembly took up the peace concepts that had been worked out up to that date, and tried to summarize them. In content this was in accord with the biblical demand for “conversion” (metanoia) to the “shalom of God” and with that to the commitment of churches and Christians to “create justice for all discriminated against and oppressed people”, to serve the peace with non-violent means” and “to protect and to support life on this earth”. In the “peace question” (document 7) the Ecumenical Assembly went so far as to call the participating churches to become a “peace church”.

The Ecumenical Assembly managed to reach a surprising and very deep agreement within the GDR regarding life and death questions. It remained painful, however, that a common Eucharist still was not possible.

The Ecumenical Assembly brought together the church-leaders and grassroot-groups from the congregations which often were in tension with each other, urging them to sit around a table and to formulate common expressions. This became an essential spiritual experience for both sides during these politically very difficult times.

The Ecumenical Assembly offered hope and encouragement to the participants and to many people in and outside the churches in the GDR in an extremely difficult time.

There is no question that this process contributed to the “change,” or Wende, that took place in 1989, especially in regard to “remaining peaceful” during the turbulent weeks.

The Ecumenical Assembly can really be named with the word peace-movement because it altered the stiff structures within our churches and congregations. It was able to get despondent GDR-citizens out of their niches and brought the essential content of the biblical message into discussion. The fact that a great deal of this later fell back into “normality” brought bitterness to some of the participants and remains as a question for the present generation.

3. UCC and EKU together on the way

The declarations of Kirchengemeinschaft 1980 /81 demanded that the communion should be deepened by theological consultations. I want to mention the two most important ones.

The importance of the justification and the covenant-traditions for just peace

The most important event in connection with our theme was the consultation “Reformation Theology for today: the importance of the justification and the covenant-traditions for just peace” in Erfurt in June 1983. The consultation brought into dialogue the two essential traditions of EKU and UCC and focused on the most important questions of the present time, namely questions about peace and justice. At the same time it was agreed attention would be given during the Luther-year (1983) also to the other traditions of the Reformation. For this same reason, representatives from other united churches were invited additionally.

The consultation was exciting in many respects and from my point of view its reception is not fully complete even today. Regarding the content, this consultation anticipated interestingly a great deal of what came to play a role some weeks later in Vancouver and then in the conciliar process.

The original focus on “justice and peace” was changed to “just peace”. This wording, with its emphasis on an ethic of peace, addressed not only the unity of the the East-West-conflict and the North-South-Problem. It also lifted up the goal of a “just peace” as over against the formula “just war”. In the peace ethic discussion in which war in a nuclear age had to be refused in general, a “just war” now had to be questioned. Could the criteria of that formula (“just war”) from the 16th century be made so to speak as “conditions for peace” in the nuclear age?

The traditions of “justification” and “Covenant” were both recognized as essential and completing each other with the result that for the peace discussion in the GDR the concept of “Covenant” became important as God’s covenant and as commitment for peace in the discipleship of Christ. In his reaction to the UCC-speech about covenant (Stackhouse) Professor Dembowski proposed to unite the two traditions in one model under the biblical basic term “shalom”. This model was deepened especially by the representative of the Czech brethren with the advice of the eschatological perspective of each Christian action concerning the “cry for just peace”.

The report sought in an impressive way to sharpen the two traditions and the “Yes of God to the world” and God’s “No to the sin” to the concrete world situation. It concluded with “practical considerations on the way to peace”, which I cannot quote because of the time-limitation. But I recommend that you read them.

It is undisputed that this consultation and the statements of the Federation which I have described above have had a stimulating effect on each other right down to the wording. The report is relatively unknown as a text. But the participants in the consultation went on to contribute, and to develop its thoughts in their respective places. This has been a highlight for the EKU-UCC – relationship in which we can, in my opinion, continue today.

Consultation in Process: “The Justice of God”

For the continuity of work it was decided to have a “Consultation in Process” (CiP) with many smaller conversations. The theme chosen was “The Justice of God”. Each partner (EKU East, EKU West, and UCC) was asked to develop the theme for its respective situation. The whole process was accompanied by a group of reflectors from the three partners who participated in all events and finally wrote a report. It was very exciting to see which issues the three partners faced as the most urgent problem of justice in their region.

Once the EKU–West and the UCC (one in EKU-West and 7 in USA) had spoken especially about questions of economy and law as the main problems of injustice in their regions, the region EKU-East significantly identified the lack of “possibilities for participation” as the most harsh injustice in the GDR. Our discussion took place in Erfurt at the end of August in 1989 when premonitions of the upheavels of autumn already were clearly being felt. While most of the working groups presented encouraging results, the working group dealing with “participation in local politics” became so depressed about the real possibilities for participation, that they were not able to present anything. Some weeks later, participants, especially of that group, took up political offices and were active in shaping the new situation in the GDR.

Regarding the content I would say that all CiP conversations concretely addressed the structures of injustice in their respective regions. However, it might be asked, how far were these injustices seen in connection with the worldwide perspective? To have done that probably would have required a summarizing and pursuing common conference. In the GDR, the final recommendations went “under” in the whirlpool of events that followed with dramatic swiftness in November, 1989.

In each case, the “Consultation in Process” was a valuable experience for Kirchengemeinschaft between the EKU and the UCC because many members of congregations participated in this process and because in this way the communion of confessing and world-responsibility were experienced as foundational to the life of congregations.

Final remarks

Briefly, and in conclusion, I have some hopes to share:

I hope that our churches would work together more intensively in relation to world peace (globalization) and in special disaster areas, for example in the Middle East. It always is nice to meet UCC-people by chance. But I am convinced that we could be more helpful, if we would work more closely together in such areas.

I hope,that a request of Fred Herzog could come alive again, namely to intensify the relations between us in such a way that we would be able to “interfere” in each other’s church affairs. This would mean developing courage and an ability to ask mutually questions that are possibly uncomfortable but questions that would really help.

I hope that as many members of local congregations as possible might have the opportunity in the future to experience Kirchengemeinschaft in a similar intensive way as we had the chance to do in the past.

Thank you.