Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Embassies and Walls: Anniversaries on My Mind

Last night was another late night, as I taught my 2 Composition students and also oversaw an appreciation event for evening students.  Happily, tonight won't be a late night at work.

I have anniversaries on the brain.  This morning on the Witness program that's broadcast on the BBC, I heard an episode on the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran that happened in 1979.  My family was with another family for a week-end get away at the Outer Banks, and it was one of the few times we had the TV on.  My dad saw the coverage and shook his head.  He said, "This doesn't look good."  It would be worse than we realized.  Everyone in that house that day, the grown ups like my parents, the high school kids (me), and the little ones--we all thought that it would be quickly settled.  It must be a mistake, right?  Crazy school kids taking over an embassy who would soon come to their senses--now, of course, we know it was nothing like that.

We are also at the anniversary of the wall coming down between the two Germanys that are now one Germany.  My dad was there for that newscast too.  We were cautiously optimistic, but I'm sure we both expected soldiers with guns to appear at any moment.

The world can change so radically in a single evening.  At the 20 year anniversary of the fall of the wall, I read a story in The Washington Post which told the story of 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 at the 20 year anniversary of the wall coming down, 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.  And yet, those seeds of peace may already be sprouting.

That's the hopeful view, of course.  The ending of the Witness episode this morning noted that relations between the U.S. and Iran had never been the same since the takeover of the embassy.  We still see embassies as places that should be safe, even in places with unstable governments--that's one reason why the murder of the journalist in an embassy has the power to shock us.

Still, let me remember the hopeful elements of the anniversaries, especially for those of us who feel helpless.  We can all light our candles.  We can pray/meditate/visualize peace descending on the world.  We can be people of hope.  History shows us that the improbable may already be on the way.

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