The opening of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago was one of the most dramatic symbols of the global changes sweeping across the world in 1989.
In Latin America, at the same time, the fall from power of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile represented the end of the military regimes that had held sway on the continent for 30 years.
And in South Africa, the first steps were taken that would lead to the release of Nelson Mandela and the first non-racial democratic elections in 1994.
Yet as Konrad Raiser, the former general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), has noted, “the transformations in Europe and in other parts of the world had come so suddenly that neither governments nor the churches were sufficiently prepared for the new situation.”
The countries and churches liberated from oppressive constraints, Raiser underlined, had to find a new identity: “In many instances this led to sharp internal struggles, especially between those involved in or complicit with the former system and those who had struggled for liberty, justice and human rights.”
Churches in central and eastern Europe and of the former Soviet Union were now able to express themselves directly. In some places, the leadership of Orthodox churches now faced internal tensions over ecumenism within their own communities.
The Roman Catholic Church, which accounts for half of Christendom, began to assert more strongly its own distinct identity. Some European Protestant churches urged that Protestantism as well should have a stronger profile.
More dramatically, in the Balkan wars which accompanied the break-up of Yugoslavia, religion ― Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Muslim ― became a badge of identity in the conflicts that pitted community against community.
Meanwhile, the opening of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union two years later were widely seen as marking the triumph of liberal democracy, neo-liberal economics and the beginnings of neo-liberal globalization.
Yet the international financial and economic crisis that began in 2008 has demonstrated just how precarious the process of economic globalization has been. As the crisis developed, there was at first a widely expressed opinion that this represented a “Berlin Wall” moment, calling into question the very foundations of the system, after which nothing would be the same again.
Nevertheless, as one commentator has remarked, the banks and financial institutions continue to possess an “oligarchic freedom” against which governments are powerless. The unemployment rate worldwide is at record highs. Behind the turbulence of the financial markets is the question of the sustainability of the system itself in the face of conflict, economic crisis and ecological collapse.
Churches, ecumenical movement
Two pieces of the Berlin Wall stand in the garden of the Ecumenical Center in Geneva, where the WCC and several other ecumenical organizations have their offices. The pieces of the wall were a gift to the Conference of European Churches (CEC) from the first freely-elected government in East Germany as a sign of recognition for the role churches played in the peaceful revolution there.
For what is usually described as the fall of the Berlin Wall was preceded by weeks of peaceful protests throughout East Germany, many of which began in churches and were accompanied by religious symbolism such as candles, vigils and chants from the Taizé community in France.
Many of those who had taken the lead in the political movements to call for change in East Germany amid these protests had been active in peace, environmental and human rights groups, many of which had been active under the umbrella of the churches.
As the Berlin historian Ilko-Sascha Kowalczu has noted, for people in East Germany “the churches were places of active political education, a process that melded the border between action within the church and within society as a whole.”
Here the WCC process for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation (JPIC) was one of the avenues for dissent. The JPIC process was initiated by the WCC’s sixth assembly in Vancouver in 1983. In Europe it led to the European Ecumenical Assembly in Basel in 1989, co-sponsored by CEC and the Council of European (Roman Catholic) Bishops' Conferences.
In East Germany, the JPIC process linked peace, environmental and justice issues culminating in an Ecumenical Assembly of the churches that made unprecedented demands for change in East Germany, just six months before the opening of the Berlin Wall.
At the same time, the Ecumenical Assembly also tried to offer new theological and political perspectives to the official state socialism of Eastern Europe and the free-market Western economy. In the first of its statements, it called for a “conversion” towards justice, peace and the integrity of creation.
“We face far reaching processes of learning and changing: from idolizing economic growth and economic power towards solidarity with the poor and the sharing of power,” it stated. “From attempting to secure peace through the threat and use of force to a peace order based on confidence-building, cooperation and disarmament; from violence and despotic rule over nature to solidarity and cooperation with it.”
Such alternatives were overshadowed by the fast-moving events in Eastern Europe in 1989, German unification in 1990 and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Yet 25 years later, where the apparent triumph of free-market capitalism appears to stand on much shakier foundations, such insights can offer pointers to a new response by churches.
Stephen Brown is a program executive with the Geneva-based global ethics network Globethics.net and the author of a book on the role of the JPIC process for the peaceful revolution in East Germany.