How can Protestantism Assume Responsibility in Society? (Dominik Weyl)

I. The framework within Protestantism can assume responsibility

First, I want to talk about the frameworks in which Protestantism can assume responsibility in our societies today. And I want to start with a quote of an unknown second-century author who wrote that “Christians are to the world what the soul is to the body”. The function of the soul isto be our bodies conscience and our emotional and historical memory. Two-thousand years of
history links Christianity and our European societies. For five-hundred years, Protestants have got in the act. This history is not free of conflicts and sinful errors but more or less driven by the yearning to work for the good of all. We see this in our rich cultural heritage to which also belongs a special sense of charity which leads us to a constructive human cooperation throughout
our continent. This special sense is institutionalised in various social and welfare organisations of our churches.

But has this history not come to an end today? Although “religion” is currently gaining social importance due to various factors, the affiliation to one of the Christian churches is obviously decreasing. A British newspaper said a few days ago: “Christianity as default is gone” and reported on “the rise of a non-Christian Europe”. A majority of young adults between sixteen and twenty-nine in twelve countries declare themselves as non-religious. Europe’s religious landscape is deeply changing. In some countries, Christians still keep a relative majority but the trend tends more or less to fragmented societies. If all affiliations are below thirty-five percent the country will be classified as “fragmented”. Germany is a good example for this fragmentation which can
also be called pluralisation. If we have a closer look on Protestantism, we can recognise consequences of this fragmentation, too. Except for the northern countries, the affiliation to one of our churches does mostly not get higher than about thirty percent. At the same time, it is still correct to say: “No other comparable major organizations are so deeply rooted in their respective local contexts yet at the same time and naturally active together across the regions as churches are.” Without wanting to start pessimistic, I think it is important to realise the situation of Christianity and Protestantism in Europe to answer the question, how we can assume responsibility in our societies.
Of course, I think, that we can assume responsibility. And I even believe, that we have to assume responsibility. Because: “Christian faith is an inalienable public dimension. Christians aren’t Christ’s followers just in their private and communal lives; they are Christ’s followers in their public and political lives as well.” We can act self-confidently but with a humble attitude. As we
live in plural societies and secular states, we are today one of many voices. I think, we should not describe this as a loss, but as an achievement – and, of course, a challenge.

From our Protestant point of view, pluralism has to be affirmed in principle. Otherwise, our statements on social or political issues would always intend that society should be quite different from what it actually is. But the crucial theological argument for the affirmation of pluralism is the basic Protestant insight that human beings do not have at their own disposal what they believe in.

Our faith is inspired by what encounters us as credible. Therefore, the religious beliefs of everyone must be respected, as long as they include respect for the others and their beliefs.viii Anyway, debates are raging today about the role of religions in public life. In many European countries this discussion is unfortunately dominated by attempts to prohibit headscarfs or to ban
minarets. Even if I can only refer to this topic very undifferentiated today and even if I knowabout the huge problems we have, this is not a forward-looking way to deal with Islam — and finally with religion itself. It is part of our Protestant responsibility to remind our societies of the freedom of conscience and religion that applies to everyone. This is not only a work of solidarity
with the Muslims. Taking this responsibility has political implications: The freedom of conscience and religion is the basis for a rightly understood tolerance that even includes the possibility of dealing ingenuously and critically with questions of religion in plural societies. In public space, the churches joined in the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe (CPCE) can set a very good example for stable diversity. Our “unity in reconciled diversity” could be understood as a model for the process of European unification. The CPCE stated in 2007: “From a history of centuries of repudiation and rejection a community of churches has come into being which has found its way towards reconciliation. The Protestant churches can and want to contribute to the future of Europe with the experiences of this way of reconciliation.” The diversity between us is based on the plurality of perspectives on God’s saving action as it is testified in Scripture. But due to basic common beliefs the fellowship in which we are closely connected is not questioned for more than forty years. In fact, we are willing to cooperate in witness and service for our continent and for the good of all. In fragmented societies, however, such a fellowship cannot ground on common beliefs. Ideological orientations are fundamentally different. But comparable to common beliefs and able to create fellowship are for example the human rights as they are part of our constitutions. For instance, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union states in its first article: “Human dignity is inviolable. It must be respected and protected.” As a secular text, the Charter must forego further reason of human dignity. That human dignity is inviolable and should be protected is justified “only” through republican values, abstract general insights or very concrete historical experiences, for example the Holocaust. But the Charter can make no statement about why human dignity is inviolable. To fill this gap, it depends on the ideological and religious orientations of the citizens, of us. Representatives of various ideological and religious concepts can – and must – bring their ideas and values into the social community by publicly stand up for them. The maintenance and development of the consensus which is formulated in the European Charter requires the public commitment of the various religious and ideological communities that shape our plural societies. The basic orientations that apply in our societies cannot be well-founded by the states alone, but also – and essentially – by the communities in which people are living. In short: Our secular states and societies are living from presuppositions which they cannot guarantee by themselves.

By being open to such presuppositions of people like us, our countries are taking the risk of freedom. This includes on the other hand that the public exchange on various reasons of issues like human dignity must be possible if these issues should continuously receive fresh impetus. Therefore, our churches need to be identifiable in public debates. They need to be profiled as well as attentive and sensible for the questions of our time. Linked to this, plural societies are facedwith the challenge of ensuring a peaceful coexistence and fruitful cooperation despite the fundamental ideological and religious differences. Our constitutions and the regulations derived from them and create the necessary legal framework for this challenge. Exactly within these frameworks, Protestantism can assume responsibility in our societies.

II. Concretion: How Protestantism Can Assume Responsibility

In the second part of my presentation, I try to concretise, how Protestantism can assume responsibility in our societies. The German theologian Heinrich Bedford-Strohm writes: “As engaged actors in a European civil society, the churches are called on precisely in regard to those issues of European politics which are becoming ever more important for the lives of individuals. This engagement will demonstrate why a strong public role of religion represents a necessary resource for living, even – indeed particularly – in a state that is neutral in regard to world-views.”
The question now is, how can our churches answer this call for public engagement? The Leuenberg Agreement already gives the answer with the keywords “witness and service”. Article 36 of the Agreement defines: “The preaching of the churches gains credibility in the world when they give a united witness of the Gospel. The Gospel liberates and links together the churches for common service. In that this is a service of love, it focuses on human distress and seeks to remove the causes of that distress. The struggle for justice and peace in the world increasingly requires that the churches accept a common responsibility.”
Our churches conceive the public task of witness and service not from themselves but receive it from Christ, the Lord. “Christ must be the center and norm for Christian public engagement because Christ and his Spirit are at work, not just in our hearts, families, and churches, but also in
in our nations and the entire world.”
Proclaiming and witnessing the Gospel is part of our public responsibility. Talking about God’s saving action, about sin and forgiveness is becoming more and more relevant today, because from this perspective the self-acceptance people seek for does not have to be bought by suppressing their dark sides. Only where sin is called by name as destructive self-isolation from
God and the others, the liberating power of forgiveness can be experienced. Thus, people becoming inwardly free. What a healing would be possible in our societies if the willingness to honest self-criticism would replace self-justification and blame?

The far side of this inner freedom is responsibility both for God and for fellow human beings. Martin Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian (1520) basically shaped this Protestant insight. The CPCE programmatically translates Luther’s opinion on the relation of freedom and responsibility as follows: “It is a Protestant understanding that freedom is never without commitment; it is associated with responsibility and love.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was born in this city and imprisoned these days 75 years ago, writes about the freedom which effects responsibility more precisely:

“No one is free ‘in herself’ or ‘in himself’ — free […] in the same way that a person may be musical, intelligent […]. Freedom is not a quality a human being has; it is not an ability, a capacity, an attribute of being that may be deeply hidden in a person but can somehow be uncovered. […] Why? Because freedom is […] a relation and nothing else. […] Being free means ‘being-free-for-the-other’, because I am bound to the other. Only by being in relation with the other am I free.”

For this reason, witnessing the Gospel can develop cultural, social and political power. Our freedom leads us to public actions, which benefits our neighbours as well as creation. Therefore, our faith includes the full affirmation of the world as it is: wonderful and fascinating, fathomless ambivalent and conflicting. On the background of our relationship with God, we ask for and shape the world’s reality which we are part of. If we want to make room for God’s reality, that also includes: Our churches must face the questions of our time. Each of our statements on social-ethical or political issues requires the exact knowledge of reality.

From the world-wide lordship of Christ, however, no claim to power of Christianity or the churches in our societies can be deduced. That would be a blatant misunderstanding. Because Christ has lived – and, of course, lives – his lordship as God’s service for human beings, our discipleship realises itself as nothing else than service. Finally, I can repeat: We can act selfconfidently, but with a humble attitude. Seen from this perspective, churches and states each have their own functions and tasks. The church of Christ has the task of linking the proclamation of the gospel together with giving ethical orientation – in words and deeds. Our Protestant two kingdoms doctrine helps us to reject that “the church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the state, thus itself becoming an organ of the state”. This is an essential limit of the public task of our churches, formulated in the famous Barmen Declaration of 1934. Bonhoeffer, again, wrote already in 1933: “But that does not mean that the church stands aside, indifferent to what political action is taken. Instead, it can and must, precisely because it does not moralize individual cases, keep asking the government whether its actions can be justified as legitimate state actions, that is, actions that create law and order, not lack of rights and disorder.”

For him, legitimate state actions include guaranteeing justice and peace.
For us today, to ‘keep asking’ means: bringing our critical competence to bear.xxix The CPCE states: “For the Protestant churches it is part of their Reformation competence to criticize institutions which become too far removed from ordinary men and women.” Concerning topics of wealth, the environment, work and rest or migration we may ask our societies for example:
▪ What level of material wealth is sufficient for a flourishing human life? What kind of wealth contributes to human flourishing? Which policies, institutions, and so on will actually be successful in creating genuine wealth?
▪ What are the most important forms of environmental degradation to address immediately? To what extent should individuals merely be encouraged to reduce the damage they do to nonhuman creation, and at what point is legal coercion necessary?
▪ What are the required economic, cultural, and political conditions for people to have meaningful work, and who is mainly responsible for creating and maintaining these conditions? How can we best fight unemployment and underemployment? How can we promote a culture that values rest?
▪ Where is the right balance between welcoming the stranger and the goods of cultural integrity and security at a given time and place? What root of mass migration does our societies have in a particular responsibility to help to address?
To ‘keep asking’ is how Protestantism – how we – can assume responsibility in our societies. In asking, and of course in giving suggestions how to answer in words and deeds, Christianity can prove itself as significant part of the soul of our Europe – now and in future. The enquiring commitment for our societies should be guided by courage as well as humility, by justice, respect and compassion. Of course, we are not better people but strengthened for taking responsibility. and freed for service. To the people of Galatia, Paul wrote: “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone”.