Friday, November 13, 2009

Thinking about the Fall of Communism, Bureaucratic Jobs, and the Power of Prayer

This past week, I've been enjoying hearing and reading various stories about the fall of Communism in the 80's. Most of them have focused on the fall of the Berlin Wall, of course, since we reached the 20 year anniversary of that event. I have vivid memories of that week. I was a young graduate student, cooking dinner, and I heard news stories that couldn't possibly be true. I felt that rush of hope, like earlier in the year during the Tian'anmen Square uprising, and I waited for the bullets. Amazingly, there were no bullets.

At the time, I didn't realize the accidental nature of the end of communism. In a story in The Washington Post on November 1, Mary Elise Sarotte tells about the East German official who was holding a boring news conference when he announced that travel restrictions would be loosened. The journalists immediately began to ask questions, but he hadn't read the briefing very carefully, so he made it up as he went along, announcing that the changes would be taking place immediately. The journalists reported, the ordinary citizens began to assemble, and the guards at the border were overwhelmed:

"Before long, the guards at Bornholmer Street were outnumbered by thousands of people; the same thing was happening at several other checkpoints. Overwhelmed and worried for their own safety, Jäger and his fellow guards reasoned that the use of violence might quickly escalate and become uncontrollable. They decided instead at around 9 p.m. to let a trickle of people cross the border, hoping to ease the pressure and calm the crowd. The guards would check each person individually, take notes and penalize the rowdiest by refusing them reentry. They managed to do this for a while, but after a couple of hours the enormous crowd was chanting, 'Open the gate, open the gate!"

After more debate, Jäger decided that raising the traffic barriers was the only solution. Around 11:30 p.m., the decades-long Cold War division of Germany ended.

Throughout the night, other crossings opened in much the same way."

I think of that boring bureaucrat and the blundering news conference, and I am reminded that even if we have the most dull jobs in the world where we feel like we affect nothing, we still might be an agent for social change. I think of those border guards who chose not to shoot. Even if they did it for fear of losing their own lives in the chaos that would ensue, that choice changed the future.

I also think of the people along the way who prayed. On All Things Considered on Monday, I heard a story about a Lutheran pastor who began to hold weekly Monday meetings in his church to pray for peace. This movement spread to other churches, and soon it was a mass movement of thousands of people. Communist officials later said, "We were prepared for everything except the prayers and candles." Again, people waited for the bullets. Again, the power of peace defeated the forces of violence.

I think of other places in the 1980's, where the powers of prayer and peace defeated the powers of evil, most notably Poland and South Africa. I think of places today where I cannot imagine how peace will come, like the Congo and Burma.

But I do not have to be able to imagine the particulars that will bring peace into the world. In the words of John the Baptist, "I am not the Messiah." I am responsible for praying for peace. The Holy Spirit will move in wondrous ways that I cannot anticipate. Happily, God has a greater imagination than I do.

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