Reconciliation at Mass Graves?

Reconciliation at Mass Graves?

In Search of Peace in Former Yugoslavia

By Johannes Neudeck, originally published in Das Magazin für Gemeinschaften, Hauskreise, Gemeinden und Kleingruppen

Some time ago I visited the Military History Museum of the German Armed Forces in Dresden.  An exhibition focusing on man and the question of the causes and consequences of war and violence. Right at the beginning of the tour we were introduced to a sculpture depicting Cain and Abel. Cain succumbs to his evil thoughts and murders his brother, although God warns him beforehand (Gen 4:6-7). God identifies the heart of Cain as the source of the emerging problem of violence, hatred, anger, strife, murder and war: “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”


The Heart of Cain

The situation is clear: Longing for man, sin has not only pitched its camp at Cain’s door, but also at the door of every other human. The capability to commit violence and sin is inherent in man, and the cause is ultimately to be found in the addressee of God’s warnings: man himself. The biblical image of man shows that violence and war arise quite naturally from the heart of man and thus finds its way into structures, ideologies and systems. Here we find ourselves in the midst of the well-known Heidelberg Catechism, with question 8 bringing the thought to the point: “Are we so evil and wrong, however, that we are completely incapable of any good and inclined towards all evil?


Peace in Man

Only the divine power of forgiveness and restoration can break the cycle of sin and bring about peace, because it tackles the root of the problem, lying in the heart of man. The story of forgiveness, renewal and restoration begins where man, in the ruins of strife and war, with the stone of fratricide in his hand, meets the living God in Jesus Christ. Paul’s exhortations and the whole gospel are so radically challenging because they start with me and with you. The question of war and peace needs to be addressed in the context of the relationship between man and God, because this is where everything begins. Here, God starts off and this is where Jesus comes in: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Lk 2:14). This is the good news that announces the coming of Jesus. Peace in man with God, because Jesus becomes man and leads us the way out of evil. And there is nothing we can add to this work of salvation. We are saved by grace alone (Rom 3:21f.), as Martin Luther realized and widely circularized.


The Greatest Peace Mission

To put it straight: The greatest peace mission for this world is the crucified Jesus Christ, who gives his life on a mound of rubble outside of Jerusalem. Easter morning offers hope above all the terror from strife, war and violence, because the risen and returning Lord has disempowered the devil and death, so we sing in our church service in many songs that are often shaped by experienced suffering. This Jesus Christ sends us into this world as messengers. The “Missio Dei” is clear: “As the Father has sent me, I send you.” (John 20:21). We are aware that this mission is marked by clarity and sensitivity at the same time.


Only against this background, empowered by God and in Christ alone, we can do justice to the bible verse of the year 2019, on a small and large scale: “Depart from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it”. (Psalm 34:15). When David wrote this verse, he escaped from Abimelech (1Sam 21:11-16). As people who belong to God, we can not only be certain that God is near to us (19) and protects us (21), but also that a life with God includes the search for peace.


“Get involved!”

After studying Theology and Church Ministry, the question arose as to how things would continue for me personally in 1993. Through many trips to and encounters in Eastern Europe between 1979 and 1989, where we also had Bibles and Christian literature with us, I was able to get to know the situation of Christians and congregations in the countries of Eastern Europe. Then, in 1989, came the German reunification. Before the turn of the year 1990, we drove to Romania with a first aid convoy, while the communist regime was still in power. In 1991, the war began in Yugoslavia. In 1992, I visited the region. In 1993, the foundation of the association “Hilfe konkret” (Help in Practice) followed. Shortly afterwards it became clear to me: I need to be there. Many advised against it and said “Stay out of it!”. The war was in full swing, in Bosnia-Herzegovina it was expanding. The former head of the Reichenberg Fellowship (OJC) in Reichelsheim (Germany), Horst-Klaus Hofmann, said, “Johannes, we want to get involved! We´re in!”. Emergency relief and spiritual accompaniment of the people was needed at that time. During the first three years on the field, I averagely slept in a different bed or on the floor every third night. Seated in Northern Croatia, we supported more than 30 refugee operations. Thus, a visit with a transport of relief supplies, turned into eleven years of missionary service there, later on also with my wife Katharina and our children. This ministry continues to this day. For two years now, I have had the privilege of supporting this endeavor full-time again.


Reconciliation often takes place in secrecy

I am reminded of a pastor, incredibly committed at the front line during the war. The family in Germany. He stayed behind in the war zone. From the roof of his house he sees the burning houses on the front line. Then, his neighbors and their house occupied by the military. Many debates, almost a scandal. The pastor offers the neighbors accommodation, over a year. Provocation by the military. International marriages are a big challenge in times of unrest. Conversations, again and again. With those affected and with the administration. All quietly and in the background. Reconciliation work often happens in secrecy. During and after the war we distributed thousands of bibles and children’s bibles. Illiterates learned to read by means of the children’s Bible. Two spiritual books were a “bestseller” and copies were distributed in six-digit numbers: “Jesus our Destiny” by Wilhelm Busch and “Peace with God” by Billy Graham. We received thousands of letters; people ordered courses on Christian faith. The Good Seed sprouts.


Pushed to my own limits

I, for my part, must confess that in this region of Europe I have not found answers to many of my questions. No quick ones, at least. In situations of war and crisis, life develops its own dynamics. I have come into contact with thousands of refugees. I have met hundreds of them, and they have described their personal tragedies for me. They have challenged my life with their sorrows and still continue to do so. Day and night, circumstances which I had no control of have determined my daily life. As a result, I reached my own limits. The limits of a tension between the dawning Kingdom of God and the tragedy of this world. I am glad about the encouragement from the Gospel of John: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27). – What a word! This peace from another world is given to us. The late effects of war are still severe. The effects of hatred can be seen everywhere. The hopelessness is reflected in the eyes of many people. Exterior reconstruction and aid projects are important, but what about the souls of these people? Who brings them hope? – When I am asked about holistic Christianity, I wish for a dissemination of the Good News, inseparably and integrally linked with practical action. But this requires us to be willing to take risks.


At the mass graves in the Balkans

In 1996, I wrote into my diary: “Last Tuesday I was standing at the mass graves in the Balkans. Children and old people, people of all ages were simply beaten to death and buried as civilians. This happened from 1991 onwards – in the middle of Europe. Where were the human rights? Or even the reference to the God, our Creator, who created man in His own image? These and many other questions move me without me being able to give a quick answer. Therefore, we have to repeatedly ponder the question captured by the verse from Isaiah 51:13: “Have you forgotten the Lord, your Maker?”


Back again – New Paths in South-Eastern Europe

My position as a lecturer for Peace Education in the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Wuerttemberg (Germany), which I have held since autumn 2016, was reduced in 2017 at my own request. In short words, my calling and passion for missions led me to this decision to resume the missionary work in South Eastern Europe. A risky undertaking, since the position is financed by donations. Once again, friends encouraged us. I see it as my responsibility to carry out the spiritual and diaconal mission of proclaiming the Gospel even more concretely, even far beyond our national borders. Especially in a region of Europe that is continually challenged by the issues of peace and reconciliation.


In conclusion, peace quickly becomes fragile. On a small and large scale. But in the name of Jesus it is worthwhile to fight for peace, to even chase after it. Never abandon a conversation, keep trying, cross borders and take risks. And occasionally go the extra mile. Facilitate encounters and practice hospitality in order to bring together even those who have stopped talking with each other. Bring young people together, encourage them to pray and act. Use the know-how of people and organizations experienced in conflict resolution and peace building. There is no formula for quick success and certainly there are no automatisms. But even the little steps and the small progress in conflicts are an answer to prayer. We are guided by the love of Christ, which also includes the love for our enemies (Mt 5:43-45); we are characterized by the hope for eternity and at the same time, with God’s help, we engage in our world to the best of our ability.

Author: Johannes Neudeck, Coordinator of Missions and Diaconia in the Western Balkans, Lecturer for Peace Education at the Pedagogical-Theological Centre Stuttgart, Founder of Hilfe konkret e.V.
Originally published in German in Das Magazin für Gemeinschaften, Hauskreise, Gemeinden und Kleingruppen by die Apis – Evangelischer Gemeinschaftsverband Württemberg e.V.:

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