This is the text of an article I published in the Yorkshire Post yesterday.

Every English teenager should be required to go with me to Berlin and take a 100 metre walk from the Brandenburg Gate up Unter den Linden. Within that short stretch we would walk the human history of great culture and dreadful tragedy, the heights of wisdom and the depths of corruption, the terror of captivity and the euphoria of liberation.

Of course, no one has offered to take me up on this proposal, but Berlin offers something unique in the world. And there could be no better – more poignant or instructive – day to do my walk than 9 November – a date that haunts Germans for different reasons. This year Remembrance Day falls on this day.

Berlin 1To remember means, literally, to re-member – that is, to put the memories back together in some order. So, make of this what you will: 9 November 1918 saw the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II; 9 November 1938 was Kristallnacht; 9 November 1989 saw the fall of the Berlin Wall. Within 70 years this date marked the end of the First World War which sowed the seeds of the Second which destroyed and then divided Europe and which then brought down the Soviet Empire.

It is hard to overstate the trauma suffered by Germans and made visible in the wall that tore apart a city and a world for 27 years. The German Democratic Republic proclaimed freedom from Nazi fascism, but then created a society riddled with secrecy, fantasy and suspicion – an estimated 25% of its population somehow corrupted or compromised by the secret police (the Stasi).

But, the Berlin Wall became a symbol of much more than political or social division. It became a metaphor for all sorts of ruptures between people and societies. It even became a metaphor for the spiritual imprisonments to which we allow ourselves to be subject: including to the consumerism that dominated on the western side of the Wall, but which did not ultimately satisfy the yearnings for freedom that those ‘liberated’ on 9 November 1989 imagined it would.

The fall of the Wall was, however, remarkable. I was working as a Russian linguist and Soviet specialist during the first half of the 1980s. Although the Soviet system was ultimately unsustainable – for lots of reasons – there was no sign that it would fall within a few short years. The idea that the Empire would collapse so quickly would have been thought ridiculous. History teaches us to be open to surprise.

When US President Ronald Reagan stood before the Brandenburg Gate and challenged the Soviet President to “tear down this wall”, it seemed a prophetic and bold act. Yet, now we learn (through German news sources) that Mikhail Gorbachev was already talking in 1987 about pulling it down as a fruit of glasnost. The popular ‘revolution’ in East Germany was already beginning in and through the churches. In Leipzig particularly it was the churches that provided the space for free debate and open expression of dissent.

Berlin 2Berlin is now a different place – my favourite city in Europe. The wastelands and minefields have been replaced by vast and expensive building sites. The city bursts with confidence and life. Yet, everywhere you look there is the haunting memory of sadness. Look left from the Brandenburg Gate and you see the Reichstag, the building that sat at the heart of violence, political corruption and nationalistic hubris; look to the right and you see the enormous and moving Holocaust Memorial. Look a little further and you will find the new Topography of Terror museum, sitting close to the site of the Gestapo HQ where so much dehumanising horror was generated. The Wall ran through this landscape, dividing east from west, capitalism from socialism, but never protecting from the realities of past decades.

So, in fact, the fall of the Wall in 1989 exposed past glories and horrors to renewed scrutiny. The euphoria of 9 November 1989 can never escape from the shadow of 9 November 1938. Re-membering, if it is to be remotely true, cannot wipe out what is inconvenient or uncomfortable. The eventual reunification of Germany simply meant that Germany had to shape yet another new role for itself in the world. How could it heal the lingering wounds of the past while vast material and economic inequalities existed between east and west? And how would German society handle the disillusionment of those from the east who would soon discover that capitalism does not mean a Mercedes or a mansion for everyone?

The fall of the Wall brought freedom and hope. But, it also brought into focus the harder question: what are we to be set free for?

Whenever I preach in the Berliner Dom (cathedral) I am struck by the inscription below the great dome: “Be reconciled to God”. It is as if this building, that has witnessed empire, fascism, communism and now capitalism, whispers into each generation the hint that reconciliation between people requires a bigger vision than the offer of mere consumerism.

I am preaching in the Berliner Dom this evening in a Lent series of sermons under the general theme of 'Reformation and Politics'. I was given the theme: 'To whom does the city belong?' and prepared the text (in German) before being given the biblical text on whcih to base it. So, it will possibly be a little tangential…

Sitting in the Dom this morning I was struck again by the text engraved above the chancel steps: “Lasset Euch versöhnen mit Gott” – “Be reconciled to God”.

This – along with all other texts inside and outside the building – was chosen by Kaiser Wilhelm II. I wonder what he understood reconciliation with God to mean. What did he expect people to do when they read this text above a crucifix on the altar of this grand cathedral church?

I ask the question because the answer simply isn't obvious. We always filter our understandings (and the assumptions that generate them) through the worldview we inhabit and the experiences we enjoy or endure at a particular time, as part of a particular culture in the context of the particular period of history in which we live. In other words, the practical outworking of reconciliation with God – it can never be simply an individual pietistic act of the spirit – involves real other people in real places and at real times. It can never be disembodied.

So, as Germany found itself heading towards war in 1914, how was this text read by those who worshipped in the Dom? Or, again, during the Weimar Republic? Or, again, between 1933-45 when the Third Reich adopted a particular view of religion and Christian identity? Or, again, during the Communist dictatorship of the GDR between 1949-89? Was 'reconciliation with God' an act of conformity to a private piety, or an invitation to political and ethical rebellion… at inevitable personal cost?

When I stand in the pulpit this evening I will do so with the humility that comes from recognising the complexity of history and context. Even though I will preach in German, I cannot know how I will be 'heard' by a congregation whose historical associations and personal, social or familial memories are different from those such as mine that have been shaped by an island existence.

In other words, things aren't simple.

I am writing this with the Archbishop of Canterbury's references to gay marriage and the suffering of Christians in Africa in the background. Some ethical questions look clear and simple when seen from one clear perspective. However, look through different eyes and the clarity gets dulled by complexity. Some of us need not worry too much about what happens to Christians in Africa if the Archbishop of Canterbury expresses support for gay marriage (let's drop the 'equal' word as it isn't); the Archbishop has to worry. When there is a direct link between what one says and what happens to other people, words have to be chosen carefully and with a very big pause.

The problem here is that there are two evils: oppression of homosexuals (particularly in parts of Africa and the Middle East) and oppression of Christians by those who will use gay identity or approval as sanction for brutality. Working out the ethics here is not simple: if one has an equal obligation to both – and a responsibility not to contribute to the victimisation of either – then how does one decide what to say to whom and when?

I am not writing this to defend the Archbishop or his critics. But, I am defending the complexity of his position. It is a heavy burden to bear knowing that if you say something in England it can lead directly (in practical terms, not in terms of moral causation) to the murder of innocent people in Pakistan or Nigeria. And simply saying that we should abandon the Anglican Communion does not address the dilemma.

Yesterday I got the tram out to Hohenschönhausen to visit the former Stasi prison where thousands of people were imprisoned, tortured and abused – first by the Soviet occupying forces from 1945, then from 1950 by the security ministry of the German Democratic Republic. It finally closed in 1990 and is now preserved as a national memorial to those who suffered under the Communist dictatorship.

There are too many stories to tell. And it feels somehow cheap to stand as a tourist in a cell where people were once interrogated or held in terrible conditions, often not knowing their crime and usually not knowing where they were or for how long they would be there.

The brilliant film The Lives of Others illustrates the soullessness of this oppressive GDR culture. Life was cheap. And just as the film brings home the power of oppression by relating the personal stories of individuals, so it is the stories that impress when you stand one of the interrogation cells at Hohenschönhausen. We can generalise about politics and the cruelties of governments. We can academically abstract from places like this a penetrating critique of Marxist-Leninist dehumanisation and corruption. We can make clever points about resistance – from a place where to do so costs me nothing. But, it is the stories that haunt.

For each individual incarcerated, humiliated and abused here, there were families, friends, lovers, communities affected, torn apart, corrupted and dehumanised. Relationships were distorted, trust was compromised and identity questioned. And for each individual damaged here, others were responsible by what they did or didn't say, by what they did or didn't do.

The story of someone who has suffered innocently is hard to hear, even if a hard ethical choice had to be made which led to that person's suffering. The phenomenon is as important as the ethical content.

Abuse of individuals and groups is absolutely wrong always. Oppression of minorities is always wrong – whatever the context. But the complexity of balancing rights and obligations in matters of life and death is not to be rendered simplistic by turning such conflicts of obligation into a form of competitive ethics.

Those who say that the Archbishop should be opposing all forms of oppression and proclaiming 'love for all' – as if he were doing the opposite – are right. But, how? If we can't agree with him, at least understand the dilemma (as I think Andrew Brown does here).

Now, for the Dom…

 

It has been fascinating listening (in the car on the drive from London to Liverpool) to all the stuff on Germany 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I did a 30 minute slot on a radio station this morning and was interested to listen to the memories of Germans from the east and west of that surprising and momentous day two decades ago.

GorbachevBut, amid all the memories, it has brought to my mind a different event.

Last year I was in Astana, Kazakhstan, for a conference and was seated at dinner one evening with the Chairman of the Senate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Tokayev is a very fluent English speaker and a politician of broad experience. I think there were seven or eight of us around the table and the conversation ranged widely over all sorts of political matters. Being a little opportunistic, I thought I’d grab the chance to ask questions I could never ask anyone else: Tokayev knew Gorbachev and Yeltsin and worked closely with both of them.

YeltsinI asked him why it was that Gorbachev is seen in the West as a great hero – the one who liberated the East and ended the Cold War – and Yeltsin is seen as an egotistic drunk who was an embarrassment to everyone who saw him. His response surprised me. He said that Gorbachev was a loser (my word) who sanctioned a massacre in Kazakhstan only several years before Glasnost kicked in and then oversaw the collapse of an empire; Yeltsin, on the other hand, was admired for his strength, political ability and his drinking. Apparently, in Russia a man who can hold huge quantities of alcohol is revered rather than resented.

This made me realise again that it is too easy to assume that everybody sees the world through the same lens. The way we judge ‘strength’ in the West might be totally different from how it is viewed in the East. It was fascinating listening to Tokayev telling stories of people who are legendary in my world, but for very different reasons and from very different perspectives.

It is a similar story in Germany today. Ostalgia (as it is being called) refers to the sort of romantic memories of the old German Democratic Republic. The world of the Berlin Wall was easier to understand: east and west, capitalist and communist, etc. But there were things of value in the east: universal health care, full employment (even though much of the work was not great), cheap travel, good education, etc. One German commentator I heard this morning noted that ‘you cannot put a price on freedom’, but that freedom comes at a price: freedom to fail, to be unemployed, to lose, to be poor, and so on.

The events of this night 20 years ago remind me that freedom must never be romanticised – but it must be highly valued. The fall of the Wall brought losses as well as gains. But life is like that. Isn’t it?