(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, November 15, 2014)
KAMPALA, UGANDA — It was still morning in Berlin on this Sunday when candles at the Church of Reconciliation were lit to honour yesteryear’s dead, the brave souls who ran from the uniforms and helmets and strong-armed authorities, who ran for freedom that was torn away, even as their flesh would be torn by barbed-wire and vicious dogs and bullets at that wall.
Even during the wall’s beginnings, when one side of a Berlin street was boarded and barricaded, dumbfounded residents stood on the other side and waved to loved ones, and cried, and watched one woman – her name was Ida – jump to her death as she tried to escape to freedom through her third-floor window.
The remembrance took me by surprise. I had just finished a workout at an African locale, a wanting, one-star hotel, when I passed a television. And stopped. And watched, alone, but then as if a thousand stood on my left, ten thousand on my right, because this is how it is with freedom and its cloud of witnesses.
Witnesses like at the Brandenburg Gate, Germany’s mystic centre, where, 25 years earlier to the day, the unthinkable happened. Watch, now, the flags and colours and flares and everyday people chipping away at that heavy wall with whatever they had: pickaxes, sledgehammers, even their bare-hands, it was so sudden, now atop that wall, singing, even with laughter and a beer over the unexpected absurdity of the moment.
The view returned to today and a CNN reporter, a German-American, Fredrik, shared his personal history about his journalist father in Berlin – East German spies called him ‘The Tiger’ – and how the family managed. Back to more old, black-and-white scenes. Family photos.
But this could be any family’s story, really. Yours. Mine. Yes, I was literally born in it, in West Berlin, in that cold era when bravery wore common clothing, when it faked passports and ran in the night and jumped from windows because freedom is that deeply embedded in humanity, in our very DNA, running all the way to Eden, and without it nothing in life makes any sense.
Nobody knows how many people perished at Berlin’s wall. The official record, 136, is wrong. What’s known is how everything collapses when systems become more important than people, when ideology towers over common decency, when evil, that is ‘l-i-v-e’ spelled backwards, finds new and creative ways to lie and steal and destroy.
Then, on that television, Berlin’s mayor spoke, live, about injustice and also about personal responsibility. And finally Germany’s chancellor rose and talked about the impossible, about dreams coming true, as if a lion might lay down with a lamb right in front of the cameras to show a glimmer of utopia or eternity or what’s beyond even the wildest imagination.
When the chancellor finished I stepped outside where I smelled the fresh Ugandan rain. I looked at the impoverished African streetscape and then up a nearby hill to my home. Then I jumped on the back of a boda-boda, a putter motorcycle taxi, and thought about it all: the hardship and hope of this world, of human nature.
Because we can blame the Communists or the Nazis, or we can blame the Muslim extremists or Attila the Hun for that matter, but there’s more to this story, a deeper truth that says something else, that says there is no “us” versus “them.”
No, there’s only us, all of us, muddy and glorious both, created in God’s image, just a little lower than the angels if we believe the ancient Scriptures. Yet the line dividing good and evil doesn’t cut through any city as much as it cuts through, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it, the heart of every human being.
And so walls of hostility are still being built – in troubled nations, in communities, in families. This is the rest of the hard truth. But brave souls are still running too, running to get over or under or around these walls any way they can, dying, and somehow living all the more, with every step they take.