East Germany and St. Louis
by Andreas Bochmann | 17 June 2022
When I grew up in the city of West Berlin, it was still surrounded by the Berlin Wall, to “protect” Communist East Germany from all the dangers of the free world. It is this memory that flooded my mind after the General Conference (GC) session was over and I had some time to reflect.
The points of comparison are too obvious to miss—some even seemed surreal to me. But the uneasiness and sadness with what happened is very real. I have been literally crying for my church while and since being a delegate in St Louis.
It is ironic that the ruling party of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), convened their Party Congress every five years, while in between sessions the Central Committee served as the highest governing body.
Of course, I am aware that our administrative structures are older than those of the GDR, going back to our Methodist roots. Yet as I sat in St. Louis, I saw distinct parallels.
Praise and problem-free
There always was a great need for self-praise and self-assurance in the GDR. Even if there was a dearth of necessities—sometimes even the most basic needs of everyday life—you always were told how wonderfully socialism worked, how superior the GDR was in comparison to Western countries, how proud you should be of the accomplishments offered by the ruling party. This glorification hid what was really going on.
This came to mind as I listened to one success story after the other in St. Louis. Apparently the church has no problems, no issues, and is quite oblivious to the problems and concerns in the world that surrounds us. Revelation 3:17 came to my mind:
You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.
Second, there was a song that sounds like a caricature now, but was meant quite seriously. It went, “The Party, the Party is always right.” Any questioning, any critical thinking, any doubts, were not only frowned upon, but things could become quite dangerous for the questioner.
At the General Conference session quite a number of high-ranking church administrators confided to me their unhappiness with what was going on but explained how it could cost their job and livelihood to be more upfront. How GDR, I thought, where most citizens played along publicly and had their very different opinion privately! But who can blame them?
And then in the sermon on the last day of the session, delegates and administrators who had concerns were publicly chastised and shamed—incidentally, a procedure frequently used in the GDR to intimidate people.
Veneration of people and things
Third, the veneration of people and objects was remarkable in the GDR. In every office you would find a portrait of the General Secretary of the Party, and insignia of the state abounded everywhere.
In the middle of the Sabbath worship service, the speaker of the day, Ted Wilson, was described and praised for 18 minutes! To me this was akin to mounting a large picture of him on the wall. The evening before, copies of The Great Controversy were to be held up high like little flags, while at the front leadership knelt in prayer in front of the same book. Irrespective of whether or not the unsolicited mass distribution of this 19th-century book is a good idea, it created a somewhat awkward impression, to say the least. (In fact, the literature venerated in the GDR, the writings of Karl Marx, though quite different than our venerated writings, were also products of the 19th century.)
Slogans and resolutions
Pithy slogans and resolutions were instruments to influence public opinion in East Germany. They usually revealed more about the insecurities of the governing body than about the actual will and interest of the people.
St. Louis offered that as well. Two resolutions were voted at the GC session. As one delegate pointed out, they could not cover everything, but could only underline what is especially important to us. Thus it appeared that six literal days of creation are now more important than the Sabbath, its meaning and significance for humans, and the longing of the creation for peace and rest. The resolution on confidence in the writings of Ellen G. White was nothing new for GC sessions, though, as some observed, the wording of the statement is well suited to make Seventh-day Adventism appear as a cult to other Christians,
And of course, just like the GDR, we had slogans. “Jesus Is Coming! Get Involved!” was added to the often-heard “I Will Go” and “Total Member Involvement”—though their constant repetition did not make them more meaningful.
Another issue in East Germany was the infrastructure to keep everybody in line with Party expectations. This was not only achieved by a tight informant system, but by a well-greased system of indoctrination. At every level of society right down to every factory or smallest industry, you found Party secretaries and “agitators” (yes, that’s what they were called) to explain the Marxist idea to people and make sure it was used appropriately.
If that sounds vaguely familiar, you are right back at the GC session. The need was seen to install a Spirit of Prophecy coordinator in each and every congregation. In my country it is difficult enough to find the regular church officers such as elders and deaconesses, let alone someone whose sole job is to encourage members to study Ellen G. White more intensely.
The final celebration
The highlight of a General Conference session is the final Sabbath. I was asked whether I would write a review of the sermon preached by Elder Wilson. I declined. I prefer to leave the theological analysis of the sermon to others.
The gist of the sermon that I took away with me? If I don’t believe the way the president of the General Conference does, apparently I am no longer an Adventist. The 70-minute, 25+-point Three Angels’ Messages sermon reminded me more of a GDR Party Congress speech than a shepherd leading me to green pastures and fresh water.
The colorful parade of the nations was hollow, as by then diversity had been reduced to a parade of costumes, while everything else marched in lockstep of uniformity, to music that seemed to be stuck in an era of many decades back.
So much to offer!
Having said all this, I realize that some people will accuse me of anger or bitterness, of fouling my own nest. They have a point. However, if we close our eyes to realities all around us we are likely to experience the fate of the GDR. Just weeks after the GDR’s spectacular 40th-year celebrations, the Wall came down and the system crumbled.
Interestingly, it was the critics who were the saddest. They bemoaned that they had not been able to establish a kind of socialism that was fruitful, inviting, and just.
I am like those critics when it comes to my church. My church has so much to offer; it is so rich in potential and could have a relevant and healing future in the proclamation of an everlasting Gospel in word and deed.
It is with this intention that I wrote this article.
Andreas Bochmann, Ph.D. a native of Berlin, Germany, has served in the Adventist Church for 40 years as pastor and teacher. He attended the GC session in St Louis as a delegate for Friedensau Adventist University.