Last Saturday’s Montreal Gazette carried a news story about the Berlin Wall. In fact, over the past week or so, newspapers from the London Telegraph to the New York Times to der Spiegel have carried stories about the Berlin Wall. The reason is that August the 13th marked the 50th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall. It was 50 years ago this summer, on the night of August 12th to 13th 1961, that Berliners heard the sounds of heavy equipment moving in their city. And when they woke in the morning a barbed wire fence had been thrown around West Berlin. The city of Berlin, of course was located completely within communist, East Germany – and so the construction of that barbed wire fence had the effect of completely cutting off surrounding East Germany from West Berlin, that part of the city controlled by the Americans, the British, and the French.
Over the years, that wall first thrown up in 1961 took on a number of forms. It began as that barbed wire fence put up in the middle of the night. A few years later it became a concrete block wall – and still later, in the 1970’s and 80’s the wall was reconstructed out of reinforced concrete.
But why was the wall constructed to begin with? What was it that drove the East German government to cut off West Berlin from surrounding East Germany? The fundamental reason for the construction of the wall was to prevent East Germans from leaving or escaping East Germany. Earlier, in 1952 already, the border dividing East Germany and West Germany had been closed – this prevented East Germans from simply crossing the border into the West – and it meant that in the period between 1952 and 1961, when the Berlin Wall was built, the only way East Germans could escape life under the communist regime was within the city of Berlin – by crossing into West Berlin.
Ever since World War II there had been a flood of hundreds of thousands of East Germans into the West. And the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 was a last and decisive step taken by East German authorities to stop the flight of East Germans out of their own land and country.
Of course the building of that Wall didn’t take away the desire of many to escape into the West. And so during the 28-year lifespan of the Berlin Wall, some 100,000 East Germans attempted to flee over the wall into the West, into West Berlin. An elaborate system of towers and searchlights and guard patrols and dog patrols was put into place to stop anyone from getting over the wall. The exact figure isn’t clear, but during those 28 years, several hundred were also killed in the attempt to get over the wall – and many were arrested.
Now with all of this in mind, we fast-forward to the events of November 9, 1989. Dramatic political and social developments led up to that day when the East German authorities opened the crossings between East and West Berlin. Crowds of East and West Berliners converged at the wall and on the wall in this grand joyful celebration. Today you can go on Youtube and again watch those scenes of jubilation as Berliners danced on top of the wall.
As the celebration continued, you’ll perhaps recall that something else began to happen. Over the first night, and in the days and weeks to follow, people began chipping away at the Berlin Wall. Some were souvenir hunters. Others were simply Berliners who wanted to help destroy the wall that had been such a blight on their lives and on their city. They wanted to participate in destroying that symbol of de-humanization and division. Small parts of the wall were removed in this way. Later, large parts of that 120-kilometer wall were removed with heavy equipment. The demolition work was completed in 1991.
At one level, who can blame Berliners, or the authorities of a re-unified Germany – who can blame them for wanting to destroy that wall? It was a symbol of division and hostility. It was a symbol of inhumanity and death. It was a reminder of the very real guilt of some in destroying lives and communities. Who can blame Berliners and Germans for the impulse to destroy that wall, not to leave a trace of it behind?
In the end, it was not completely destroyed. A few small sections of the wall can still be found standing within Berlin, today. The most important remaining stretch of the wall is actually part of a memorial – a stretch of wall about 200 meters long – a memorial to a divided Germany – a memorial to a dark and destructive period in the history of Berlin and Germany.
On August 13th of this year, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, along with other dignitaries, marked the 50th anniversary of the wall’s construction at that memorial section. As an article in last Saturday’s Montreal Gazette article pointed out, they gathered there “to remember all the victims, not only those killed or imprisoned trying to cross the wall, but also the Berlin families separated for a generation.”
Once again, we can understand that initial impulse to destroy the wall, can’t we? It’s not surprising that the part of the wall now serving as a memorial was almost destroyed, too. As the wall was being demolished in 1990 and 1991, a number of people protested and tried to prevent its complete destruction – they didn’t want it wiped off the map. And it’s really interesting that one of the key figures in the movement to preserve part of the wall was Pastor Manfred Fisher. Pastor Fisher was minister of a church called the Church of Reconciliation. The story of that church is an interesting one. It was a church that no one could attend for many years, because it sat right on the border between East and West Berlin. In fact, when the wall went up, that church building sat smack dab in the middle of no man’s land. The only people who could get near the Church of Reconciliation, a beautiful, imposing neo-gothic building, were East German border guards – in fact, they had to go around it during their patrols. In 1985, the East German authorities got tired of the church’s inconvenient location, and of its symbolism, and so they blew it up. Destroyed it.
Imagine being the member of a church where for years you can’t get near the building. In any case, the pastor of that congregation, Manfred Fisher, was among those who stood in the way of bulldozers in order to ensure that the whole wall wasn’t destroyed – to ensure that some section remained as a memorial to the inhumanity and destructiveness of that period of history.
We’re thinking this morning about the act of remembrance – more specifically, we’re thinking about remembering the history and reality of the Berlin Wall. As we do so, let me add another interesting variable. In 1990, when she was 17 years old, Becky spent 5 weeks was in the former East German city of Leipzig with a youth mission program. And during her stay in Germany, her group also visited Berlin – and what did Becky happen to bring home from Berlin but a piece of the Berlin Wall. This morning, for our reflection on the act of remembrance, we have a piece of the wall to assist our reflection.
The question that arises, of course, is why remember that wall? Why keep a section of the wall standing? And we’re asking this question, not simply in a generically human way. Rather, we’re looking at this from a theological perspective – from the perspective of faith in Jesus Christ. The question is: why remember? Why establish such a memorial?
In a generic sense remembrance is vital to the identity of God’s people. That phrase recurs – remember the Lord your God who brought you up out of Egypt. Remember. Memorials are also central to the people’ identity – throughout the Old Testament, memorial stones are frequently set up to mark the places where God has acted on behalf of his people. And then also, from the perspective of New Testament faith – we are invited by Jesus to regularly break bread and drink wine in remembrance of him. Without remembrance of God’s involvement in our lives and history, we are not truly God’s people, not the church.
But why remember the Berlin Wall? Why should the people of Germany, and those in the wider world, for that matter, remember? Why set up a memorial to something that calls to mind such violence and injustice? Why remember a wall that had such de-humanizing purpose and effect? Why remember something that so many want to forget? In answering this question its helpful to go back to the name of that church in no-man’s land. The Church of Reconciliation.
It makes eminent sense that Pastor Fischer of the Church of Reconciliation Church was instrumental in preserving a portion of the Wall as a memorial. Why? Because reconciliation requires remembrance. Wherever relationships have been broken, reconciliation requires remembrance of the violence or injustices or failures that broke the relationships. Whether it is reconciliation between God and humans, or reconciliation between human beings, an acknowledgment of the wrongdoing is essential to the restoration of relationships. Put the other way around, if there is no naming or acknowledging of what was done to break or pry apart the relationship, there can be no reconciliation – there is no future for that relationship.
In order to really get at this, we could go back to an old-fashioned, Biblical word – repentance. When we think of this word we think of old-fashioned notions of guilt and shame – making people feel bad just for the sake of feeling bad. But the truth is, repentance is a word that has to do with restoring relationships. Repentance means a person to turn away from actions or patterns of behaviour that have betrayed trust, or have hurt another, or have caused them pain or suffering. Repentance means turning away from all of that. But there can only be repentance, a turning away from those actions or patterns of behaviour, their can only be a new way of life and a restored relationship, where those hurtful actions or patterns of behaviour are acknowledged. Without remembering, without naming, without acknowledging what was done, there can be no moving forward in confidence and joy and renewed love or friendship.
Now, perhaps we should be honest and admit that some of us would like nothing more than to bring to light all of the wrongful things that have been done to us. That’s right – let’s rebuild the whole Berlin Wall just to remind them what they’ve done. Sometimes there’s just a little vindictiveness in us – we’d like to see someone shamed for what they’ve done – we’d like to see someone condemned for what they’ve done.
But within the context of the gospel, our remembrance of past actions is not about shaming or merely condemning those who’ve done wrong. Rather, we remember so that the healing and reconciliation of Christ might enter our lives and relationships. The gospel is the news that in Jesus, forgiveness has the final word in our lives and world. The gospel is the news that in Jesus, grace has the final word in our lives and world. Our relationships, whether we realize or not, are defined by that overarching reality of grace and forgiveness. In Christ, God forgives – and forgiveness defines our whole lives. So remembrance of past wrongs is not for the purpose of shaming ourselves or the other. Remembrance of past wrongs is not for the purpose of condemning the other.
Yes, there is an element of judgment in remembrance – but what kind of a world would it be without judgment of wrongdoing. Even so, however, this note of judgment is not final or for its own sake. We remember and name wrongdoings – there is judgment – for the purpose healing and reconciliation – for the restoration of relationships.
It is fitting that the pastor of the Church of Reconciliation was one who insisted on preserving a portion of the Berlin Wall – for without remembrance of what was done, without a calling to mind of the injustice and violence, there can be no reconciliation – no healing of the broken relationships – no genuine possibility of moving forward in restored relationship.
Remembering the Berlin Wall is something that we here today will do only in a general kind of way. Remembering the Berlin Wall is not a terribly personal act for most of us. Yet each one of us has our own Berlin Walls, those things in our own lives or the lives of those close to us that we must remember, and name, and call to mind – actions and attitudes that we must remember, and name, and call to mind not so that judgment will have the final word for us or for the other – but because we live under grace. We remember so that the healing of Christ can enter our lives and relationships – so that relationships might be restored. A hopeful possibility toward which God invites us in Christ Jesus. Thanks be to God. Amen.