Friday, November 20, 2009
Alone with a decision
It was a rough night for Lieutenant Colonel Harald Jaeger.
Jaeger was a Lieutenant Colonel in the East German Stasi secret police. He had been a loyal East German border guard his entire career and as a mark of how well respected and trusted he was - he was selected to command a crossing point to the West on Berlin's Bornholmer Strasse. There were only 7 crossings inside Berlin and Jaeger got to command one.
Of the seven border crossings within the city, the checkpoint at Bornholmer Strasse was furthest to the north. It extended from Bösebrücke to Malmöer Strasse and, according to the East German Ministry of the Interior, was to be used by citizens of the West Germany when crossing into East Berlin.
On the night of November 9, 1989, Jaeger had just finished his shift and had gone to the checkpoint's canteen to eat a sandwich or two. Just another end to another normal day.
Then everything changed.
Günter Schabowski, the East German Central Committee member responsible for the media, made a premature, almost casual announcement at an evening press conference on television about the border being opened.
While it sounded almost like an afterthought - the effect was like a cannon shot.
For the thousands of East Berliners who had been literally prisoners behind barbed wire, mines and machine guns since 1961 - this was their call to freedom.
At first it was a trickle of brave individuals who wanted to see if it was true. Could they truly cross into West Berlin? Were they truly free?
And amazingly - they were.
Soon hundreds began to show up, then thousands - all descending upon Bornholmer Strasse - all on Lt Col Jaeger.
And despite frantic calls to get further guidance from his superiors on what to do, Jaeger got no answer. The East German government was paralyzed. The thousands of people pressing near the crossing point, frantic to cross, were starting to get agitated.
The crossing guards looked to Jaeger for guidance. They still had guns - what should they do?
And Jaeger was alone. Just one man and his decision. Life or death. The East German border guards had killed before. The Stasi had done a lot worse. He could just follow orders and order his men to shoot into the crowd and disperse them. None of his colleagues would have criticized him. That would have been the easy decision.
Yet despite his upbringing, his ideology, his lifetime of commitment to East Germany, communism, and the wall,
Jaeger opened the gate.
And over the next hour 20,000 people crossed over without being checked. The people of East Germany were finally free.
Jaeger later recalled at the time that felt ashamed as he let the thousands pass through.
"It was terrible because I realized that the party and the government had let me down and that my own colleagues did not stand behind me," he told Associated Press Television News in comments translated from German. "And particularly, my ideology completely fell apart back then."
And that is much the same with our reading this Sunday for the Solemnity of Christ the King. The last Sunday of Ordinary Time before we enter the Advent Season.
In John 18: 33 - 37 it is another dramatic showdown. This time a dialogue between Pontius Pilate and Jesus. Jesus had been turned over to Pilate because only Pilate could sentence Jesus to death.
And Pilate wanted to know was Jesus really the King of the Jews.
Jesus was alone and he also had a decision. And he made it - he told the truth even though he knew it meant his death.
"You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice."
Jesus did not care about titles - he was the Son of God. King of the Jews was what others called him. Jesus came to this world to save it. He came to bear witness to the truth and by his death and resurrection to save the least of us. To save us because we cannot save ourselves. Jesus told the truth - this was why he was here.
The rest of the John is brilliant. Pilate moves in and out of his palace. Into the light and into the dark. He is all powerful in this realm but he is trapped like an animal. Pilate does not want to kill Jesus because he finds no fault in him. He tries to appease the crowd but everything he does - fails.
Finally, he is caught too.
Pilate is alone and he must make a decision too.
And he decides to go with the crowd rather than do the right thing. He tries to wash away the blood but you can't wash away that kind of blood on your hands.
Pilate choose to stand with the crowd and do the wrong thing. Jaeger choose to do the right thing even though that meant turning his back on his entire life.
And the same is true for us today.
If we are of the truth then we hear the voice of Jesus. But more than that, we must act on that voice. We must live as disciples of Christ and pick up our cross and suffer for the truth.
We cannot go with the crowd, on the things that we know to be wrong. We know that abortion is wrong. That the unborn should be protected and the mother supported. We know that we should care for the poor and the alien. We know that we have to forgive even as the crowds demand blood.
We hear the voice of truth and we must act.
In this story, we are not Jesus - we are Pilate.
We may never find ourselves in the same position as Jaeger but we do find ourselves making these decisions all the time. Do we choose the way of life and Christ or of the world? Will we turn our backs on the crowd to do the right thing or do the wrong thing to stay popular?
Two decades later the 66-year-old Jaeger now sees things differently.
"Fact is that it was right and necessary, and exactly the right time," Jaeger said. "Although thinking back now, 20 years later, I think I should have done this earlier. It would have spared us a lot of trouble."
Even if doing the right thing is uncomfortable now, it is always right in the end.
Even in a crowded room, we often find ourselves alone with a decision.
When that happens, I pray that we choose Christ - it is always the right answer.
BTW, here is great link to some photos on the anniversary of the wall http://blogs.denverpost.com/captured/2009/11/06/the-20th-anniversary-of-the-fall-of-the-berlin-wall/