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Roger Newell, Keine Gewalt! No Violence!  Wipf & Stock, 2017

I really believe, and have often shared with others, that a book is worth its price if a person can take away one significant idea, one inspirational thought. In Keine Gewalt! No Violence! that one significant idea for me is this: “Whenever the church risks enacting parables of final victory, it will by grace share in the overcoming of present evil with good.” (p.190) This inspirational thought not only describes what took place – as described in this book – when the iron curtain came down in October of 1989, but what has also happened in numerous other places when faithful people ‘risk’ and ‘enact’ to confront evil with good.  “The Cold War itself . . . came to an end without a shot being fired.” (p.13)

In Keine Gewalt! No Violence! Roger Newell, an ordained pastor and professor emeritus, tells the story of the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig, Germany, under the leadership of Pastor Christian Führer, who “enacted a parable of final victory,” using the non-violent weapons of candles and peace prayers (Friedensgebet) to inspire tens of thousands of people to confront - and finally observe the collapse of - the communist/socialist regime of the German Democratic Republic (the former East Germany). “Two hands are necessary to carry a candle and to protect it from extinguishing so that you can not carry stones or clubs at the same time.” (p.7)

Roger Newell came to understand through one-on-one conversations with Pastor Führer that the “peaceful revolution” (Germany’s only one!) of 1989 was inspired by the experiences of pastors and theologians during and after the Second World War. Specifically, the words and witnesses of Karl Barth, Martin Niemöller, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Albrecht Schnöherr and Heino Falcke were retrieved and remembered, becoming powerful tools for creating the change desired. Both the failures and the successes of the anti-Nazi resistance of the Confessing Church served to guide the activity of the parishioners of the Nikolaikirche, as their pastor continued to call on the experience and insights of those earlier witnesses.

Newell carefully describes the insights and activities of Bonhoeffer, Niemöller and Barth, showing the imperfect – yet dynamic – experiences and convictions of each that made their witness helpful. Likewise, he describes “theologians of the Volk” (e.g. Paul Althaus and Emmanuel Hirsch), whose uncritical endorsement of the National Socialist Gleichschaltung (“coordination”) helped to confuse a majority of German citizens, an endorsement rendering significant resistance nearly impossible for most. As the author moves from particular chapters in the history of the Third Reich, with the extreme challenges facing Christian people groomed on “throne and altar’ and ‘blood and soil,’ to the setting of post-war Germany, with the polarity of the ‘Christian’ West and the ‘atheistic’ East, the real gestalt of Keine Gewalt is revealed. A critical element in the transition from the adversarial posturing of East and West during the Cold War period (1947-89/91), reflected in the abandonment of the Morgenthau Plan in favor of the Marshall Plan politically, was the evolution from an attitude of punitive revenge (which most would argue set the post WW I stage for the rise of the Nazis) to a more humane posture of forgiveness, grounded in mercy. Gleaning inspiration from the Stuttgart Declaration (of guilt) in 1947, the church led the way toward an honest reckoning of Germany’s guilt, an honest reckoning that paved the way for both East and West to see the ‘other’ in a new way.

Enter Albrecht Schönherr, an earlier student of Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the Finkenwalde Predigerseminar of the Confessing Church, who after World War II became bishop of the Evangelical Church/Berlin-Brandenburg (East Germany). Understandably, given the post-war adversarial posturing of the two primary occupying powers (Russia and the USA), Schönherr was severely criticized for wanting to engage Eastern communists in a respectful and serious manner. Should not the Confessing Church’s earlier resistance to the godless Nazis mean that - decades later - similar resistance would be employed against the godless communists? Why was Schönherr encouraging dialogue, cooperation and partnership? Precisely, and this becomes a necessary precursor for the ‘prayer and candles’ posture and the peaceful revolution of 1989, because from Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller, he had learned that being a ‘church for others’ meant others like “dissidents, atheists, apparatchiks, state security police (the dreaded Stasi)” (p.24) From Bonhoeffer’s lectures on Discipleship, Schönherr had also remembered that Jesus’ call to love one’s enemy was to be taken literally. It was his belief that the Cold War of East versus West, now almost thirty years of walls and checkpoints, could easily become a third world war if hatred of enemies would’ve held sway and found expression in the launching of well-placed intermediate range nuclear weapons. Schönherr’s life was dedicated to serving the “church within Socialism.”  Likewise, Heino Falcke, affirming the Gospel’s radical call for love of enemy, chose to affirm “freedom within Socialism” as a point of engagement between East and West, and not continue a “fear-based ideology.”

The members of the Nikolaikirche, and thousands of other Germans, discovered a solidarity of suffering and hope in the weeks and months leading up to October of 1989. If there was a singular mantra that consistently inspired the ‘prayer and candles’ and undergirded the peaceful revolution, it could be that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer fifty years earlier: “The church is only a church if it is there for everyone.” (This exact phrase used by Pastor Führer is a paraphrase of Bonhoeffer’s words, “the church is the church only when it exists for others.”) This mantra also found expression in a sign placed near the entrance of the church in Leipzig:  Nikolaikirche – offen für alle. “Open for all” was no longer just a dream of God, but a lived reality for Germans, East and West. “We live in the illusion we are laden with virtue and our opponents are mostly if not utterly evil. Into this cycle of mutual hatred the church’s unwelcome witness is to risk the difficult act of loving the enemy, the sole practice that interrupts the spiral of revenge and the spirit of self-righteousness.” (p.181) Further, “For a brief moment Bonhoeffer’s vision of a ‘church for others’ became a reality. When Christian Führer opened himself to Jesus’ spirit of forgiveness he was able to meet Stasi and the Comrades in a spirit of mercy not revenge . . . a little flock of church emerged with the kind of freedom grounded in the narrative surrounding Jesus.” (p.187-89)   Keine Gewalt! No Violence! is a powerful tome, especially for us who live in a time of increasing polarization, when ‘others’ are being seen as ‘enemies.’ Let us, too, take some risks and enact some parables!

John W. Matthews

John W. Matthews is the Senior Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Apple Valley, Minnesota and Past President of the International Bonhoeffer Society – English Language Section

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