The 12th Article of Faith and East Germany

July 22, 2005 | 25 comments
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“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?

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25 Responses to The 12th Article of Faith and East Germany

  1. Charles on July 22, 2005 at 10:27 am

    Obedience to the law, any law, still requires us to excercise our moral compass. Just because something is legal does not mean we should do it.

    Being subject to temporal rulers is a case where we can acknowlege that there are those given charge over us politically, but that we are still accountable to God for our actions, moreso if we know and have an understanding of gospel principles.

    No doubt the circumstances of East Germany is beyond most peoples comprehension without first hand experiencing it. Even in the Book of Mormon, when commanded by law not to pray, they prayed in secret.

    It seems to me that the examples above were true tests of someones faith in the face of adversity. It would be easy to pray in secret, but by acting out publicly the members in the GDR demonstrated the strength an resolve to do what they felt was right.

  2. lyle on July 22, 2005 at 10:29 am

    First, I think you have asked an excellent and most problematic question. If rights are God given; then surely they trump positive law. However, if an individuals religious leaders (obedience to which is part of the personal covenants made) counsel obedience to the positive law, does this trump the God given rights?

    Yes, probably so. I find this answer somewhat awkward, but compelled. Only God can overrule God. God gave the rights; but latter prophetic counsel indicated that he wanted E. German citizens to forgo exercise of some of these rights to their fullest extent. It seems like one either believes & obeys (or personally questions & confirms via prayer, however you like it) the Prophetic mandate, or goes against God’s Living Prophet, i.e. God’s will for us on earth. Seems clear cut, if the implications are somewhat troubling.

    I know that if I had been an E. German LDS citizen of that time; I believe I would have been torn between my personal bent towards armed resistance to agency limiting governments & obedience to the Living God (and his Prophet).

    Second, you ask: 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?

    1. No, probably not. First, you would have been, in the eyes of the host government, fomenting rebellion; i.e. gotten the members in real legal trouble and been expelled for your activities. I don’t think SLC would have thanked you for such.

    2. Some of these members were endowed, right? Well, does honoring and magnifying covenants somehow trump & supercede the right to practice civil disobedience/foment rebellion?

    Anyone considering our administration oppressive should take a short trip with me to Kenya to meet some of my former S. Sudanese clients and/or their Darfur relations. Let’s keep allegations of “oppression” to serious absuses and not just potential abuses.

  3. Wilfried on July 22, 2005 at 10:32 am

    I cheer to the topic, Kirsten. The Church and international aspects. I hope the thread will stay on course and not focus (too quickly) on the alleged oppressiveness of “our own current administration”. The relation of members abroad to the laws of their respective countries is of course, at times, quite problematic. My experience, like yours, is that the Church prefers, by all means, good PR and good relations with the government, any government. Never a condemnation of practices, however inhuman. Is that the right course? I do not know, but it is sometimes troublesome to members abroad. So I welcome the discussion and hope to gain from yours and others’ insights.

  4. jjohnsen on July 22, 2005 at 10:41 am

    I don’t think the current U.S. administration has to be oppressive in the way East Germany was for us to apply these same thoughts. If government leader take us to war, do we automatically need to support this war? If a government leader were to enact laws that went against something we beleived, should we go along with these laws? Can you protest a war you consider wrong and still “obey, honor, and sustain the law “?

  5. Last Lemming on July 22, 2005 at 10:51 am

    Its good to hear that some East German members participated in the protests. I’m always irritated when I hear the falling of the wall attributed to the obedience of the East German saints in being good citizens. (Yes, I have heard that in church, more than once.) No matter how faithful the saints were, somebody had to destabilize the government by escaping through Hungary. Somebody had to physically tear down the wall. Its very convenient for us to be good citizens while others risk their lives and livelyhoods doing the dirty work. I fear that if Lyle’s attitude had always prevailed, we would still be singing God Save the Queen.

  6. Wilfried on July 22, 2005 at 11:23 am

    Yes, Last Lemming, but the choice is not easy in certain circumstances. The Helmuth Huebener case comes to mind and the related discussion on T&S. Now called a hero, but at the time excommunicated for his actions. At present we can wonder why the Church wanted to be in good terms with Nazism in the 1930s and even, locally then, during the war in Germany. Obedience to the law. Safety for the members. What should have prevailed? It’s at the heart of the discussion Kirsten initiated.

  7. Mark N. on July 22, 2005 at 12:24 pm

    Wilfried: My experience, like yours, is that the Church prefers, by all means, good PR and good relations with the government, any government. Never a condemnation of practices, however inhuman.

    Seems to me that in the past, part of the job of being a prophet involved calling political leaders to repentence when the occasion called for it (see: Abinadi/King Noah, John the Baptist/King Herod, etc.).

    I guess I can only assume that either our leaders aren’t in need of being called to repentence these days, or the job requirements of the position of prophet have changed.

  8. Lisa B. on July 22, 2005 at 12:29 pm

    I don’t feel like I can comment on this particular situation, but I think this topic touches on some larger questions as well. Like when do we trust that Christ’s grace is sufficient to “cover” for less than perfect leaders, institutions, and situations, and when are we required to act in an attempt to move things closer to ideal, for the benefit of all? What do we make of the damage done in the meantime (when the answer is to wait)? This can be a real test of faith insofar as belief in God’s power to save (including overcoming the effects of even well-intentioned stumbling and limitations) is concerned. Do we believe in God’s hand? Or that God “has no hands but ours”? (I’ve always hated that particular cliche.)

  9. Mark B. on July 22, 2005 at 1:23 pm

    I remember (vaguely) an Honors seminar on revolution led by Lamond Tullis in the early 70′s. He apparently had some contacts with South American revolutionaries who were members of the church.

    When he asked them about the 12th Article of Faith, they’d respond: You Yanquis have had your revolution.

    That being said, the issue Kirsten raises is a difficult one. There are days when I wished that the good Latter-day Saints in the Ostzone weren’t such “good citizens”, but, would that have (1) helped to build the kingdom (and most important, perhaps, the temple in Freiberg) or (2) hastened the end of the Communist regime there. I don’t know, and I’m not sure anybody does.

  10. Kirsten M. Christensen on July 22, 2005 at 1:24 pm

    Wilfried said: “My experience, like yours, is that the Church prefers, by all means, good PR and good relations with the government, any government. Never a condemnation of practices, however inhuman,” and Mark commented on the role previous prophets have played in calling corrupt leaders to repentance. These are things I did not bring up directly in my post but that also trouble me in the East German context. The official church accounts of the events leading to the building of the East German temple, the return of missionaries there after 50 years, and permission for East German saints to serve missions abroad portray the encounters between Church leaders and East German leaders as warm, convivial, and ultimately fruitful. (See, as just one example of many, Russell M. Nelson’s “Drama on the European Stage,” Ensign, Dec 1991, p. 7.) According to one friend, this is apparently also how the East German press portrayed the meeting that brought about permission to build the temple. It is easy enough to understand the strategy behind church leaders’ huge smiles and warm handshakes as a desire to butter up the East German leaders so they’d look favorably on the church’s big requests. But it is impossible for us to comprehend the sense of betrayal some saints there felt over this warmth, in particular church leaders’ expressions of gratitude to the East German government for its support of the church there. If one takes this as gratitude for the government simply allowing the church to function and not completely suppressing it, then perhaps the thanks was warranted. But the examples in my original post are just the tip of the iceberg of injustices church members suffered at the hands of the government, so most would hardly have felt that their government deserved any thanks for its support. From the outside we probably see the church’s approach as sensible, savvy, even unavoidable, given the circumstances. After all, waiting for democratic reforms before trying to bring about important progress for church members could have meant no temple or missionaries for many more years. And the members there were certainly joyous and grateful when those blessings came about. Still, some East German saints felt enormous tension over the church’s willingness to ‘deal with the devil,’ in sense, in order to build the kingdom. Finally, it bears mentioning that any goodwill the East German officials felt toward the Church was certainly enhanced significantly by the influx of hard currency that the building of the temple brought to the failing economy.

  11. Frank McIntyre on July 22, 2005 at 1:32 pm

    Jesus lived in an occupied country and presumably also lacked many of the liberties that we now enjoy. Yet he did not seem to spend too much time in cries for free elections or the overthrow of the government. This doesn’t mean that such cries are always wrong. Just that they are not always the most important thing for Church leaders to pursue.

  12. Julie in Austin on July 22, 2005 at 3:02 pm

    Kirsten, over a decade later, I can still remember most of the fireside that you did on your experiences in Germany. Especially the East German toilet paper (shudder).

  13. Amira on July 22, 2005 at 4:15 pm

    The Church is dependent on the governments in these countries to even function. Why risk, for example, the branch in Kazakhstan by complaining about the government there?

    But there are members in countries where it is nearly certain that their religious freedoms cannot be guaranteed without the government changing somehow. Should I pray for a coup in Uzbekistan? Did the recent coup in Kyrgyzstan bring a greater possibility that the members there will be able to meet together soon?

    I cannot believe the the 12th Article of Faith requires each member of the Church to obey every law in her respective country. Some countries don’t have any method for change in the government besides violence. Obeying the law works better when you have laws that at least allow for some political expression. Laws that allow political change are even better.

  14. Kristine on July 22, 2005 at 5:13 pm

    I think there is an interesting hermeneutical question here, besides the practical and political ones: how will we read “modern” revelation as we move farther from its original context in time and space? Until pretty recently, the revelations given in the early days of the Church were almost contemporary, at least on any slightly longish view, and they were interpreted mostly by North Americans. As time passes, and especially as the church grows into new geographies and political cultures, it seems to me that we will need to find ways of historicizing some elements of scripture and/or rearticulating them for an audience farther removed from the early Saints. (To some extent, we’ve already done this with Section 132, but I’m not sure the result is entirely satisfactory, or that the process has been conscious or deliberate.)

  15. Peter on July 22, 2005 at 5:17 pm

    D&C 134:5 We believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside, while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments; and that sedition and rebellion are unbecoming every citizen thus protected, and should be punished accordingly; and that all governments have a right to enact such laws as in their own judgments are best calculated to secure the public interest; at the same time, however, holding sacred the freedom of conscience.

    The 12th Article of Faith seems to be more of a general statement. This section (134) goes in to much greater detail about our relationships with earthly governments.

  16. B Bell on July 22, 2005 at 5:34 pm

    Kirsten,

    What a wonderful experience this must have been…..

  17. Ben H on July 23, 2005 at 12:30 am

    I hear periodically about John Paul II’s actions in Poland around the time of the Change. I do think it matters, in assessing how the church should approach problematic governments or policies, that LDS are a very small minority almost everywhere. If LDS did not take part in a larger movement of resistance in a well-chosen time and manner, that might be blameworthy. On the other hand, if LDS were lone mavericks, that would probably not do anyone any good. Let’s just say that people in Salt Lake are very unlikely to be in a position to give wise counsel to resist a particular regime, unless through direct revelation. As long as that is the case, it seems wise to stick with the policy of “be good citizens”, and if the Spirit moves the local Saints otherwise, then good for them.

    Some time I should write something about the church in Saudi Arabia.

  18. lyle on July 23, 2005 at 8:46 am

    Ben: Please do.

    As usual, folks would rather point out bad outcomes rather than address the real conundrum of whether Temple or baptismal covenants and/or a Testimony of a Living Prophet, answers the question.

    Kristine: Assuming, of course, that the revelations were context specific. Far be it that God might actually deliver counsel that was specific and long lasting.

    As Amira and others have mentioned other places where the Church is trying to function; let’s take Kristine’s suggestion to heart and think about actions of LDS citizens living under less than ideal terrestrial governmental regimes:

    Two types:
    1. Where the Church is officially recognized. Say…Hong Kong.
    2. Where the Church isn’t recognized as yet. Say…China.

    Feel free to add other example, as the two I gave are inter-related and might produce less than optimal discussion.

  19. Kristine on July 23, 2005 at 10:00 am

    lyle, as you know, I believe that much (most) revelation is, indeed, “specific and long lasting.” The difficulty lies precisely in distinguishing the few instances where that may not be the case, as (possibly) in being subject to an unjust government in the example Kirsten (we’re two different people, btw) has asked us to consider.

    But it’s nice to know you’re still able to read every word I write in the most negative possible light :)

  20. lyle on July 23, 2005 at 10:45 am

    lol…as long as you understand that i’m just taking your words & claims seriously (i.e. to their logical conclusion); and not painting you in the most negative light.

  21. Kristine on July 23, 2005 at 11:03 am

    Alas, lyle, I fear that you and I have different notions of how one proceeds to logical conclusions.

  22. Jettboy on July 23, 2005 at 11:38 am

    If one reads the Scriptures, the Prophets NEVER called “non-member” governments to repentance in an adversarial way. It was always to those who should have known or at one time did know right from wrong that a direct “threat” and “rebellious” message was delivered. Most of the comments by Prophets toward repressive governements outside of the Gospel Message were either non-existant or positive. In fact, if they were repressive the governments were usually called the Hands of God. The prophets always stated that the repressive governments would fall on their own volution with God’s help. The Saints were never to raise hands against them, unless they were directly attacking the people of God or causing them to sin.

    Those times that the Saints (and not particularly the prophets) did have direct contact with wicked governments, it was usually low key and by example. Missionary work and charitable service was considered of greater value than armed resistance and rebellion. During those times when the policies of repressive governments did hinder the Saints worship, resistance was passive and personal and not active and political. In fact, more than once with repressive governments of a non-gospel oriented society the command was not to stay and fight, but to leave and let God take care of the problem.

  23. A. Greenwood on July 25, 2005 at 7:13 pm

    “Let’s just say that people in Salt Lake are very unlikely to be in a position to give wise counsel to resist a particular regime, unless through direct revelation. As long as that is the case, it seems wise to stick with the policy of “be good citizens”, and if the Spirit moves the local Saints otherwise, then good for them.”

    Wise advice.

    The elephant in the room is China. If our strict policy of obeying governments lets us be the first recognized religion allowed into China (as I have it on good authority was nearly on the point of happening when the Falun Gong thing broke), and if that in turn pays off in allowing us to spread the restored Word, then I think we’ll see in retrospect why the Lord instituted the policy. The humiliation and bit tongues of the Saints everywhere will have helped to redeem their Chinese brothers. We shall see.

  24. Chad Too on July 25, 2005 at 10:40 pm

    Apropos this thread: Interesting article in last weekend’s Deseret News about a conversation Mike Wallace had with Pres. Hinckley. See in particular the final few paragraphs.

    http://deseretnews.com/dn/view/0,1249,600150679,00.html

  25. Jettboy on July 28, 2005 at 9:06 pm

    Until President Hinkley says something directly and from his own mouth, those final few paragraphs are hearsay and complete subjective musings at best. I have personally ignored them and chalked them up to Wallace’s liberal agenda.