At the May 2022 meeting of the Forum Young Theology in Europe 20 participants produced various workshop outputs on the theme of nationalism and cosmopolitism. First, they developed nine theses on inclusive identity in Christ. With a spiritual guide for worship and a lesson outline, the participants show how to put the theses into practice. Finally, they composed and wrote a canon.
“Every person has local and/or regional roots and lives in such a context…” This is the sentence with which nine theses begin that the Forum Young Theology put forward at its conference in Vienna. With it, the young theologians acknowledge that nationalism exists. Belonging to the church does not mean that one has to leave behind one’s national, regional, sexual or any other identity. However, nationalism can become “toxic when it becomes exclusive and is used to manipulate a people.”
The participants of the conference also compiled an inspiring collection of building blocks for worship services, you can work with, mix and match. The authors used these to show where people from different cultures meet in the Bible. We Christians, they say, are specifically invited to “celebrate our linguistic, tribal and ethnic differences in church and worship as well as in everyday life.” The Gospel and common love is expressed in different ways in every nation, tribe, people and language, they say.
The conference team has also developed a lessonoutline for 13 to 15-year-olds. The goal of this lesson is to sensitize young people to how their identity can be seen from an inner and outer perspective. Using examples of images provided, the young people ask themselves what has shaped them, what has made them who they are, where they come from, and what their roots are. They select images, engage in conversation, and present to the class.
With much praise and fresh impetus, 22 young theologians from 12 countries look back on an eventful meeting of the Young Theology in Vienna in May 2022. The topic sounds rather difficult: “Protestantism between nationalism and cosmopolitanism”. Is there nationalism in the Protestant Church? “Yes,” says Volkmar Ortmann, Privatdozent in church history at the University of Giessen, Germany.
“The Protestants are not everywhere as cosmopolitan as they like to claim.” That has a lot to do with the local historical developments. Ortmann, who organised this conference of the Protestant Federation of Hesse together with European partners, knows that Protestantism in Europe shows many traditions of its own, up to and including nationalistic currents. “But,” adds his colleague Mirijam Sauer, “language, nationality and identity naturally belong closely together.” Thus, Protestant minorities, as in Transylvania, find strength through their cultural imprint with their own identity.
And because identity is far from being nationalism, the conference team developed the term “toxic nationalism” and distinguished it from “national identity”: “We can’t help it, says Anna Lerch from Switzerland, “where we were born, what language we learned first and what costume we wear at festivals”, but she is of the opinion that we are responsible for ensuring that this healthy “national identity” does not become toxic.
On 25 May 22, the third programme of the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation reported on the Young Theology Forum, which the Protestant Federation of Hesse hosted with its partners CPCE and ZEO: “Not least because of their national church structure, Protestant churches are usually also closely confronted with the respective political leadership of their country, not only with regard to their positioning in the Ukraine war…” Listen to the whole contribution in this recording in German language
The 22 participants from 12 countries look back on the conference in Vienna with much praise and fresh momentum. The date for a follow-up conference has already been set for 19-22 April 2023 in Sibiu, Transylvania, Romania. with the theme of participation and Protestantism. Further activities are planned until then.
“All those who were present in Vienna are also very welcome in Sibiu to continue working on the topics of nationalism and cosmopolitanism,” says Volkmar Ortmann from the Evangelical Federation of Hesse. Of course, new participants are also welcome. A large number of the evaluation forms from the Vienna conference have already arrived and show “how much impetus the participants bring new ideas back to their churches and countries”.
In addition to the idea of founding a network, a song on the topic is already in the works. Teaching material is almost ready and there is already a list of Bible passages that are suitable for sermons on nationalism and cosmopolitanism. Before the Sibiu conference, they want to meet in a webinar. The Protestant Federation has made a cloud available to the participants where they can collect and process their results.
The next conference will also be organised by Evangelischer Bund Hesse together with the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe (CPCE) and the centre for Protestant Theology in eastern Europe in Sibiu (ZETO in Transylvania). The Austrian Broadcasting Corporation visited the conference and will report on 18 May. Information on the Young Theology project can be found on the website www.young-theology.eu.
At the Young Theology in Europe Forum conference ending in Vienna on 14 May 2022, participants dictated the idea of a network to continue after the conference. The young people want to deepen the connection between their churches on a practical level. In the end, a book is to be produced. The spokespersons of the 24-member group from twelve European countries are Vittorio Secco from Italy and Frederik Grüneberg from Germany.
Initially, the participants have connected in a WhatsApp group. As early as summer 2022, there is to be a first online meeting. Then, in autumn, an online lecture of the Forum for Young Theology Europe (FYTE) will start. In spring, they want to use the conference in Sibiu/Hermannstadt already planned by the Evangelical Federation of Hesse for their new network. And starting in 2024, there will be an annual meeting of the newly founded network.
The annual meeting will be held every year in a different country, that will be the host of the others. The meeting is to allow the participants to visit the host church in its context, giving the opportunity to attend a worship in that tradition, but also to give a space for academical research, that can deepen the links and the relationship the history and experience of every church involved. This should lead the participant to collect all this researches in a publication for next generations.
Theses about Nationalism, Identities and Christian Churches
Everyone has local and/or regional roots and is living in such a context. A cosmopolitan way of life tends to deny these roots and contexts. Identifying with a „nation“ seems to overcame this tension.
Nationalism can turn toxic, when it becomes exclusive (working with in- and out-groups) and can be used to manipulate a people. Nationalism (inclusive or exclusive) offers an identity, which a free global environment can’t provide.
The positive alternative – we call it bottom-up communitarism – tries to build open and inclusive communities and nations.
Any identity has two sides – it is a social construct, which can be experienced in context, and it may be a strong feeling. Institutions (churches, states) always highlight a certain identity. For a non-beliefing politician, who is using religion in politics, religion will be only a social construct, while for the believer religion has an additional transcendent aspect.
The core of churches‘ identity is Jesus Christ. Belonging to church does not mean to leave behind national, regional, sexual or any other identity. (refer to Gal 3,28 and/or Romans 3,29-31).
As Churches we cannot stay for ourselves, but need to be ready to serve society (diaconia) and to build up relationships with other Christians/churches (mission and ecumenism) – Math. 28, 19-20.
Inspired by Martin Buber and Emanuel Levinas we see, that the encounter with Christians from other traditions has a transformative power – this is Gods work in people.
Nobody and no institution is alone an executor of Gods will. God is acting in the world through the hands of different people.
The message is higher than the language. National languages and cultures are a vehicle for the Gospel (inculturation). Experiencing different languages and cultures leads us to the catholicity (one undivided christian) of church. Speaking different languages is often weakening the national identity, in Christianity the opposite is happening.