“We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” This statement of our belief never troubled me until I lived in the German Democratic Republic, otherwise known as East Germany. How is a faithful member of the church to understand or live by this statement when the leader of her country is a despot, or the laws of her country deny basic human rights?
As I mentioned in my introductory post, I lived and worked in East Germany as a fellow of the U.S. State Department from January 1989 to May 1990. I arrived when the Communist government was still firmly intact. Before the year was up that government had crumbled and the Berlin Wall was open. These are events that most of us likely remember as nearly miraculous. But the experiences of the so-called “Revolution of the Candles” in the GDR caused unique conflicts for members of the Church, just as daily life there had for the previous four decades. Just as I had heard in occasional conference talks prior to my time there, from the LDS friends I had in the GDR I learned that church leaders who had visited East Germany over the years had instructed the saints there to be patient, to be “good citizens,” and that the Lord would, in due time (often a very frustrating phrase), make the full blessings of the gospel–and, they desperately hoped, the basic human freedoms they lacked–available to them.
From the earliest days of the GDR (founded in 1949–Berlin Wall erected in 1961), members of the church had to make many choices that often put them at odds with the laws of their land. Based on their faith that God was greater than the Party, members apparently found some of these choices easier to make than others, although they were not always necessarily easy to carry out. Church attendance was one of them. Government agents were frequently sent to disrupt church meetings in the country’s early days, but participation in church activities continued to cause conflicts in later years for some members. One sister who had served in her stake YW presidency for years told me of a “visit” she received one morning in the 1980s from Stasi agents, who questioned her for hours about her involvement with the youth, in particular her leadership of a youth camp. The interrogation included the agents repeating portions of phone conversations to this sister in which she had helped plan activities. It was clear that they wanted her to stop her activities. She was deeply shaken by this experience but did not consider ceasing her involvement with the church or the youth program.
For most of the 40 years of the country’s existence members had no official access to printed church materials. One 94 year-old sister told me of her experiences successfully smuggling teaching manuals across the border in her baby buggy in the 1950s. This wise, white-haired matriarch had been a devout member of the church–and a criminal. Incidentally, the lack of materials meant that the members were almost completely reliant on the scriptures to provide content for their lessons and talks. I was moved again and again by the deep knowledge of the scriptures of the members of the East Berlin ward, and by the powerful sermons and testimonies they gave as a result. It made me wonder if we might be better off without manuals sometimes.
I had to obtain special permission from the ambassador to attend church in the East, since it was clear from my first Sunday there that I would not be able to remain a casual visitor and would thus have very personal contact with these LDS citizens. This contact was potentially dangerous for both sides. We knew that since I was a “western influence,” and even worse, a U.S. government employee, any member of the branch who invited me to their home was would be immediately suspect and thus subject to surveillance or interrogation by the Stasi. All of the members I met seemed willing to put themselves at risk by disregarding the limitations their government placed on their interactions with foreigners. No one avoided me, I received so many invitations to the homes of members that I could scarcely keep up with them, and, most remarkable of all, at least in light of the potential risks to them, I was asked to teach the Young Women. I should note that I took certain precautions when visiting members’ homes, in particular, when I drove, by parking several blocks away from their building. Although none of the members ever told me about any difficulties they encountered as a result of their associations with me, I am nearly certain, based on some odd questions a brother asked me one evening, that at least one family was pressured by the Stasi to try to get some information about the layout of the embassy from me. I also doubt that any of them would have told me of any trouble they had because of me, because they clearly valued our associations and considered it worth the risks. I have never been so deeply humbled and touched by fellowship with the saints.
The conflicts between good citizenship and a clear conscience became more pronounced for many East German LDS in the heady days of what is known in German as “die Wende,” or the time of change–the months leading up to and including the autumn of 1989 when the prayer vigils and peace demonstrations, not to mention the numbers of citizens fleeing the country, increased dramatically, eventually leading to the collapse of the regime. One couple from the branch, who had gone on vacation to Hungary in late summer, told me of their tortured decision to return home from that vacation, rather than stay in Hungary, and, with many of their fellow East Germans, cross the border into Austria and from there into West Germany. Although family concerns were primary in their decision, they also considered the counsel they had received from church leaders to be patient in their particular trials. So they returned. I don’t know of any member of the branch who left the country during this time. I also recall a ward member telling me that some local leader–perhaps a stake president–had implored members during this time to stay in the country and keep the church strong.
Choosing whether or not to participate in the growing anti-government demonstrations was particularly vexing for some members. I vividly recall the Young Women president’s vehement declaration in late fall 1989 that neither she nor her children would participate in these demonstrations, because they remained illegal and church leaders had always preached that they should obey the laws of their land. Period. This issue was very clear to her. Other members chose to participate and were willing to risk arrest because they considered the freedoms at stake greater than the laws that prohibited their involvement. And they believed that God understood and even backed up their choices. I have to wonder if the YW president later wished she had taken part in what became her country’s revolution. I assume that most of us, at least with the hindsight of history, would side with the pro-demonstration group. I’d like to think that I would have had the courage to disregard the laws in this particular case. But I’m not sure how I would have felt had I had children who wanted to participate. Could I have encouraged them to follow their conscience and participate, even knowing that such activity was considered criminal and could have landed them in prison? The relatively comfortable, even honorable term we often use in connection with demonstrations here in the U.S.– “civil disobedience”–wasn’t really available to GDR citizens.
What connections to our lives in the US, if any, might there be with the experiences of LDS saints who lived or live under oppressive regimes? At the least, their conflicts are likely to increase our gratitude for our liberties. But perhaps there are stronger connections. Some consider our own current administration oppressive, for example. Is one justified in breaking laws, if necessary, to expose or respond to injustices here or elsewhere? Should the church be involved in telling members how to act where they live?