Thema meiner Predigt heute Morgen in der Baekum Church war Versöhnung. Bernhard Dinkelaker – ehemaliger Generalsekretär der EMS – hat mich schon vor einigen Jahren auf die in meiner Predigt enthaltenen Geschichte hingewiesen. …
2 Corinthians 5:17-20
„(17) Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (18) All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; (19) that is, God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (20) Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.“ [English Standard Version]
Dear Sisters and Brothers,
I chose this passage from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians because the word „reconciliation“ and the actions related to it play an increasingly important role in the conflicts of this world. There where war, hatred and brute force reigns between ethnic and religious communities and human rights are violated, we need reconciliation in order to heal the wounds and to be able to prepare for a new beginning. Following the end of apartheid in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created. In the past weeks we have heard that now in Rwanda – some 20 years after the horrific genocide between Hutu and Tutsi – first steps towards reconciliation have been attempted, and just how very difficult these steps are. What does „reconciliation“ mean here? Does it mean to leave the past behind, and to forget? Or does it mean to confront the past in a healing manner? What does reconciliation mean for the victims, and what does it mean for the perpetrators? I was born in a country which faced the challenge of reconciliation in a special way during its recent past. Between 1933 and 1945, imperialistic Germany caused great suffering for millions of people, all the way through to genocide. Following this my church issued a „confession of guilt“, and it participated in steps towards requesting forgiveness from the start. For many this was not an easy path to take.
I would like to tell you a story which touched me deeply, and which – even if it describes an exception – leads to a deep understanding of that which Paul means when he writes about the „ministry of reconciliation“ in his letter to the congregation in Corinth. This story was told by and also lived by Paul Oesterreicher. Paul Oesterreicher, a Jew born in Germany who had to flee Nazi Germany of those days, later converted to Christianity and became an Anglican priest in England. Because of his own life experiences, he dedicated his life to peace and reconciliation. Soon after World War II, a Center for Reconciliation was established at the Cathedral in Coventry based on his initiative. The Cathedral had been destroyed by German bombs during the war. He brought young Germans and young English people together in the spirit of community and friendship. During the church convention (Kirchentag) in Stuttgart in July 1999 the following story:
In retaliation for the German bombardments during World War II, and with the intention of crushing German industry, the allied forces bombed countless German cities. This led to thousands of casualties among the civilian population. One day in 1944 the industrial city of Pforzheim was bombed. Hundreds of dead lay in the ruins. The next day the German artillery shot down a British reconnaissance plane. The crew saved themselves by parachuting out of the plane, but they were arrested in a village close to Pforzheim. In a spirit of hatred and revenge, and against all laws, the local commander ordered that the prisoners of war be shot. A group of 16-year-old boys from the Hitler Youth Group were assigned to carry out the execution. They shot the British officers.
For many, many years this event – like thousands of other stories not told about countless wars in the whole world – was forgotten and buried. In the 90s, shortly after Germany’s reunification, a retired pastor moved to this village. He came across traces of the events from back then, and dug out the story of the executed British officers. At first the village community was quite reserved and restrained. But the pastor did not give up, and he was eventually able to persuade the village community to publically commemorate the event, and to set up a memorial tablet at the place where the execution took place. Fifty years after the sad event, this memorial tablet was unveiled and dedicated to the victims. The community invited Paul Oesterreicher and a still surviving widow of one of the executed British officers to the event. After the tablet was installed, they celebrated an ecumenical communion service together. All of the participants formed a large circle outdoors. Together Paul Oesterreicher and the local pastor distributed the bread and wine. One old man was so moved when it was his turn to receive the wine that he could not take the goblet into his hands. He was shaking, and he had tears in his eyes. Then he opened himself up and confessed: I am one of the Hitler Youth boys who shot the prisoners. For 50 years he did not have an opportunity to speak with anyone about this trauma. For 50 years he struggled to forget, and yet he was tortured by the memories of this fatal day throughout his life. This was the first opportunity at which he could permit himself to cry, at which he could confess and confront the past face-to-face. Paul Oesterreicher stopped and stood with him, he embraced the man and blessed him. Following the service he told the British widow about this encounter. The woman was so moved, that she wanted to see the man and wanted to take his hands into hers as a gesture of forgiveness and reconciliation. But the man had disappeared. Even though these two people were not able to meet, all of those present felt the spirit of forgiveness and the peace of the reconciliation. The man, who 50 years later could find his inner peace after confessing to the deed, and the widow of one of the victims, who could overcome her wish for revenge by way of forgiveness. Reconciliation meant gaining freedom from the terrible burden of the past for this small community. It is certainly not an everyday tale of reconciliation. But it is a story which impressively demonstrates how we, without reconciliation, remain prisoners of, at times, very deep wounds.
Several years ago I was able to participate in a Protestant Church consultation in Germany about the role of the churches in a reunification process between North and South Korea. Representatives from the Christian councils of both North and South Korea also participated at this gathering. During this encounter it became clear to me how important the element of reconciliation will also be in a future reunification process. The separation of the Koreas and the events which led to this fission have left deep wounds to date – we can relate to this based on our own history in a divided Germany. Many of us cheered when the Wall went down and Germany became one again – only few listened to the voices which warned that with the fall of the Wall, the long process of a reunification was only just beginning – a process of reconciliation between East and West Germans, between representatives of both political systems, between perpetrators and victims. Here churches serve a very important function to date. Paul describes this in his letter to the Corinthians as a ministry of reconciliation, to which the churches and all of us as Christians are called upon in our life.
Reconciliation is possible – injustice need not be reciprocated with further injustice; violence need not be avenged with further violence; it need not be that like leads to like; guilt and injustice need not weigh on us throughout eternity; the cycles of violence and counter-violence need not govern our lives. This is the message which is to encourage us to take up reconciliation processes and which gives us the strength necessary, despite all the powers of violence and strife, to persevere. Amen!