Reformation 500: A View from Berlin

On my journey to Lutherstadt Wittenberg to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I was blessed to spend a day in Berlin. As I prepared to meditate on the core of the gospel the next day, I wandered the streets of this city of 3.5 million. As I walked, I observed the city and prayed for the church, not in 1517, but in 2017.


“Do not rob the poor, because he is poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate” (Proverbs 22:22)

As my eyes took in the sights of Berlin, three sights left my soul troubled: a gate, a wall, and a slab. The first was a gate standing some fifty feet high near a park. Unlike the Brandenburg Gate down the road, this one bore the scars of time and violence. Its edges were worn and its statues broken. Under its arches a few homeless people slept on mattresses on a wet afternoon.

The gate captured the ambivalence I feel returning to the city. I have spent the last few years of my life in a small town, where the biggest architectural feat is a grain elevator. Visiting Berlin was exhilarating. So many people, so much energy, so many colors and sounds and smells. I enjoyed walking the crowded sidewalk without a firm destination, knowing my path would still be interesting. Yet, Berlin was also disappointing. This was the pre-eminent German city. I expected clean, modern, and efficient. I thought I would see the fruits of human skill and contemporary engineering. I thought Berlin would epitomize “German” as I had built it up in my mind. However, what I found was akin to most large cities I had seen in the US. I walked passed graffiti-ridden run down buildings as well as shiny new ones. People honked angrily and shouted at each other on the road. And homeless people slept under a worn out stone gate.

Cities are testaments to human creativity, ingenuity, and achievement. The stone, glass, and steel in all their beauty can hide ugliness. The strength of a society is not primarily in its cultural achievements, architectural wonders, or geniuses produced. It is in how it treats the poor in its midst. For all the beauty I saw in Berlin, the poor were sleeping the gates.

It troubled me because the poor were so visible to me in this foreign land, but remained mostly invisible to those passing by. Mothers herded children down the street, executives took business lunches, and tourists traipsed through the squares without even noticing the poor in the gates. How invisible are the poor in my town? How often do I walk by, too busy with my daily checklist to notice? How will we as a people – as the church of Jesus Christ – be judged by our treatment of the poor in our communities?

The poor easily become invisible to us. We make quick and easy excuses to quell the unease in our stomach as we see them. We blame the life choices they made (we assume) or the upbringing they have (which we clearly know) or the system that has tragically cut them out (and left us doing okay). Our invented explanations temporarily soothe our consciences so that we can go on with our day undisturbed.

The achievements of our cities, great as they are, ring a little hollow while the poor sleep in our gates. In a world of invisibility, the church must be people who see. We must be people who see those the world and our sinful hearts desire to keep us from seeing. As a visitor to Berlin, I have the eyes of a sojourner in this foreign land. Perhaps it is these kind of eyes the church must cultivate for the sake of the kingdom.

Wall & Slab

“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14)

Further down Stresemannstraße, I came across the remains of the Berlin wall. Hundreds of kilometers of cement wall that divided a city in two. Churches and homes where destroyed because they bordered the wall too closely.

The history of Germany is filled with pain and division. It is in the lifetime of many who dwell in this city that a wall stood cutting the city in two. People they knew and loved died trying to cross the wall.

Even further down the road was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Over 2700 stone slabs lay like tombs filling the land that was once the Third Reich’s Foreign Minister’s Office. Looking at row after row, my heart climbed into my throat and began to burn. Can 2700 pieces of stone be enough when 6,000,000 Jews were murdered. It didn’t seem enough. I wanted a slab for Jew gassed and thrown in a pile like rubbish. A slab for every legacy stolen, family destroyed, and soul crushed by the cold, systematic violence of the Final Solution. In those moments, I wanted 6,000,000 slabs covering the city. But would that be enough? What would be enough? Could any amount of stone undo or make up for what had happened? Could any amount of shame inflicted upon the perpetrators (and their kin) truly quench my outrage?

As I wrestled with the seeming insufficiency of this monument, I began to be amazed that it was here at all. What would it do the shape the soul of a nation for people to walk past daily reminders of such deeper and shameful parts of their history? I imagine many want to forget, to move past such horrors into a new day. Yet, they remember. Even against their desires and comfort, they remember.

My own country is in a struggle over monuments and memory. We debate and disagree – occasionally with reason, but regularly with fervor – over what heritage should be remember, what should be celebrated, and what should be forgotten. As I passed monuments of pride and joy as well as those of pain and sorrow, I wonder about the power of these physical objects to shape us. Who is lifted up and praised? Whose lost lives do we remember? Whose do we seek to forget?

In a recent article in Comment, Marilyn McEntyre expressed five reasons she would encourage the reluctant and skeptical to check out church. One reason, she claimed is that “A healthy church will allow you to acknowledge guilt and experience forgiveness.” She says that most of us carry around guilt like a stone in our pocket. We get used to the weight, and if life seems smooth, we can tend to ignore it. But eventually, we all get to a point where we no longer want to carry the weight. Our attempts to forgive ourselves only shifts the stone from pocket to pocket. What we need is to lay the stone down. A healthy church, McEntyre claims, helps us do that. It helps us ask forgiveness from others and seek it from God. It also proclaims a forgiveness that is as astound and freeing today as it ever has been.

As I stood pained by the depravity of the human race and thought of the sins of my own people, my own nation, I needed a church. I needed a place to lay down what I could not carry so that I could take up a new life where I am cleansed, forgiven, and called into a life of justice, holiness, and peace. But there were no churches surrounding these monuments, only government buildings. Where they should have been steeples beckoning in those whose hearts were broken in order to find hope and healing, there were flags waving in the wind atop embassies. It was a stark reminder of what the world believes will save us and how woefully inadequate the state seems in the face of sin. It has its purpose in the providence of God, but it cannot save.

At the sites that recalled such brokenness and depravity, the church should be there. As Kristen Johnson writes in The Justice Calling, the church is called to “move toward the darkness.” The church should be where there are dark, broken places in the world, not because of its own power and strength, but because it proclaims the light of Christ, which shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. The church’s physical absence in such a dark place was painful to see.

Five Hundred years after Martin Luther posted the 95 theses, we are still learning what it means to be a faithful church. We must learn anew, with each generation, the power of the gospel and the call of the gospel. May we have eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts to love, and feet to walk in the way Christ leads us.

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