Thursday, November 9, 2017

When Walls Come Tumbling Down

Today, many thoughts swirl through my brain.  It's the one year anniversary of the day that Hillary Clinton conceded the election to Donald Trump.  But it's also a different anniversary:  this day marks the anniversary of the 1989 beginning of the end of the wall between East and West Germany.  The story of how it happened is one that's inspiring and scary--it could have been so much worse, ending in bloodshed and terror.  Instead, in one year, Germany would be reunited.

Not every uprising in 1989 would end this way.  I'm thinking of June of 1989, when I held my breath watching the Tiananmen Square uprising in China, and how crushed I felt when the tanks rolled in.  I waited for tanks that never came to eastern Europe in the fall of 1989.

I'm thinking about social justice and those huge movements for change.  I think about my childhood aspirations to be a Martin Luther King for my generation.  I think of how hard it is to keep fighting for the people in my immediate orbit as we work to make our school better.  And I wonder how Martin Luther King found the strength.

Part of it was his religious community--and the Civil Rights community, which overlapped with that religious community.   I think about the religious people who have undergirded other movements for justice.  On All Things Considered in 1989, 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 Syria.  I think of our own deeply polarized country, today, a year after a deeply divisive election.

When I think of Germany in 1989, I also think of it as a story of administrators.  One administrator had a news conference where he announced new travelling rules.  When asked when the new rules would go into effect, he didn't know--he hadn't been at the meeting.  So, he made the policy when he said, "Immediately, without delay."

Citizens assembled and demanded to be let through the gates.  Soldiers called their higher-ups but got no answer.  They feared a stampede, and so, they opened the gates.  Some years, history is made in this capricious way, a way that doesn't end in bloodshed and military invasions.

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.

The elections of this week remind us that our futures might be decided by very few votes.  Even if we feel despair, we can still vote.  Even if we feel despair, we can still offer our prayers for a better future and trust that there are powers that work for good in the universe--some of us frame it in spiritual terms, but even if we're not comfortable with that language, we can still work towards a vision of something better.  We can be people of hope, not fear.

It may feel like we've fallen through a hole in time and landed in 1939, when powers of evil are assembling.  That may indeed be true.  But the story of Germany in 1989 reminds us that evil can be defeated--and it may not take mass bloodshed.  We may just need to light a candle and remember that we can create better lives.

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