“Reformation and politics” – speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Johanniskirche, Magdeburg

26.06.2014 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Lord Mayor,
Bishop Mengéle,
Dean Hoenen,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you very much for inviting me to Magdeburg and to the Johanniskirche. I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak to you, especially on this historic date – 490 years after Martin Luther stood perhaps on this very spot – and on a subject that I have already encountered on numerous occasions this year, the motto of which is “Reformation and politics” in the context of the reformation decade. I’m sure you can imagine how many invitations I receive to speak at events on this subject, being a politician whose affinity to the church of the Reformation is public knowledge. However, as I have been busy with other matters entirely in recent months, I am very happy that I can be here with you today and that other commitments did not get in the way of my visit.

I was back in Kyiv again as recently as Tuesday. We are working hard with the possibilities available to us at European and international level to divert onto a peaceful and politically controllable path the most serious foreign policy crisis that Europe has had to face since the end of the Cold War. But Ukraine is not the only conflict keeping me busy at the current time. The war in Syria and the difficult situation in the refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan, as well as a new war in Iraq with horrifying reports of new deaths each day, need solutions.

All of you who are here today know this better than I do, and Magdeburg knows better than most cities what war means. This city has been destroyed several times over the centuries. Five hundred years ago, Magdeburg was one of the centres of the Reformation, where world history, so to speak, was played out. Thanks to the actions of Martin Luther in 1524, Magdeburg became Protestant. But this came at a price. Converting to Protestantism also came at a price. The people of Magdeburg spoke out in favour of conscience and against the papal church, and they took a stand. But standing up for what you believe can be dangerous and requires courage. On imperial order the opponents of the Reformation, led by General Tilly, descended upon Magdeburg in 1631 to crush by bloody means the freedom of thought and belief that the people of Magdeburg were claiming. The city was razed to the ground and the population reduced from 35,000 to 450 people. Magdeburg was the Hiroshima of the Thirty Years War – the terrible destruction of a proud and powerful city. This city is the proof that courage, intervention and swimming against the current are important, but that they sometimes come at a price. Courage is dangerous, but without courage history cannot move forward.

As Member of the Bundestag I have my constituency not far from here in Brandenburg an der Havel. It was where Lothar Kreyssig took over the position of guardianship judge during the Nazi regime. He gradually began to notice the terrible crimes of the Nazis, started to denounce the euthanasia killings and stood up against the Nazi regime. Lothar Kreyssig was not only a judge and an agriculturalist, he was also a Protestant, a member of the Confessing Church and he worked in Magdeburg from 1946 as president of the consistory and later praeses of the provincial synod here in your city. Perhaps this is rather a bold thing to say, but if there had been more courageous people like Lothar Kreyssig everywhere in Germany then maybe the second destruction of the city of Magdeburg in January 1945 would not have happened.

This serves as a reminder. Christians are responsible for their actions, but also for their FAILURE to act. Choosing not to take a stand can also mean shirking responsibility.

There is a nice part in the Gospel of Matthew about the Last Judgment: “For I was hungry and you gave me no food; I was thirsty and you gave me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take me in, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” (Matthew 25, 42–43) “Assuredly I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (Matthew 25, 45)

This is a key section. It is a reminder to Christians not to remain on the sidelines and not to look away when people are in need.

Reformation and politics, practical Christianity and politics – what do these two worlds actually have to do with each other? Sometimes the answers are so obvious at first glance, and not until you look more closely do things seem more complex.

Let us think back, by way of example, to the swearing-in of the new Federal Government in December. Not one minister – including those present – wanted to forego the help of God when taking the oath of office. The parties that make up this Federal Government had recently negotiated a coalition agreement that recognised in a prominent position the importance of the churches for society. And if we look at our Basic Law, we immediately see in the preamble the mention of our “responsibility before God”. Political life in Germany is shaped by Christianity – but this is hardly surprising in a country where more than half of Germans still belong to a Christian denomination and our landscapes and towns are characterised by church spires.

Here in Magdeburg, the Regional Parliament recently held its session in the Johanniskirche. So now it is a concert venue, banqueting hall, even a plenary chamber, and no longer an official place of worship. This is a manifestation of a change that can also be observed in other areas. In Germany you can see church spires wherever you look. But does this fact still reflect the inner state of many people? Things aren’t quite that simple, and this becomes obvious to anyone who, like me, has been spending a lot of time in Eastern Germany for some years now. As I have already mentioned, my constituency is in Brandenburg. There, only one in five people still associate themselves with Christianity – in terms of formal church membership, visits to church services and also actual faith. If anything has survived, then it’s the cultural traces – the singing of Christian Christmas carols or the commitment of villagers wanting to save their local church. But in the face of such realities, it is probably going too far to talk of the power of Christianity, let alone Protestantism, to shape society and politics.

A third snapshot: a glance at my Facebook page. Like almost all politicians, I was persuaded by my staff a few years ago that anyone wanting to keep up with the times has to be present in social media. Ever since I have regularly been writing about my work and travels and publishing photos, speeches and interviews. I sometimes also talk about my commitment to the church. And what can I say? Every time the reactions are almost alarmingly hostile, disparaging even. “Religion belongs at home and not in politics”, “The church has too much influence in this country”, or a simple “I don’t like it” were the most harmless comments on my latest entry about the anniversary of the Reformation. I will spare you the numerous remarks that were much more unfriendly.

Three snapshots, many realities – all of which can be found simultaneously and in parallel in our country. Many realities that show that the question about the relationship between politics and the church is not quite so easy to answer.

The anniversary of the Reformation is therefore a good opportunity to reflect on what task, what role we as citizens would like the churches – and the Protestant church in particular – to play in public life. And to switch the question round as it were – what demands do our Christian faith, our Protestantism and the Reformation make of our politics? In a nutshell – how much church and what kind of politics do we want 500 years after the Reformation? I have already talked about the first point on numerous occasions and I have asked my church to go ahead and raise its voice in the political debate. Today I would like to discuss the second question: what does the Reformation mean for me as a politician and what does my Christian faith mean for my politics?

Let’s go back to the roots of the Reformation. For Martin Luther the issue was fairly clear. He not only saw himself as a monk and a reformer, he was also very active as a political adviser – albeit sometimes for his own particular purposes. Whether it was financial matters, recruitment matters, legal matters, politics on a large or small scale – he stood up for what he believed, made his position clear and defended it in countless letters to the political authorities, above all to the Count of Mansfeld and the Elector of Saxony. These letters included the “Appeals for the Establishment and Maintenance of Christian Schools”, interventions on behalf of destitute widows and observations on the legitimacy of the occupation of soldier. Time and again he took a stand on the behaviour of Christians towards authority, their duty to obey, but also their right to resist. And unfortunately, it was to be said, we also find the inflammatory works against the peasants and the various writings on the Jews, all of which are shockingly anti-semitic.

But Martin Luther’s political engagement was not only historically significant. That’s not why I’m mentioning it here. I am mentioning it because it shows that the Reformation was a turning point for the relationship between Christians and the world. Although Luther did not – or did not want to – formulate a consistent theory, he at least had a clear message: take a stand! Take your responsibility before God and the world seriously!

In the words of Bishop Hermann Kunst, his theology places every Christian in a position of responsibility for the world.

The Reformation broke with the doctrine that people’s primary concern in life should be their own salvation: through charity, penance and the purchase of letters of indulgence. On the contrary: we cannot bring about justification through good deeds. God’s grace alone, “sola gratia”, will embrace us and bring us onto the right path.

In this sense, the Reformation was above all a deliverance – we no longer have to look out for ourselves because God will do that. And no one can call into question this freedom – no society and no authority. Because it is not dependent on people, it comes from God alone. But deliverance does not mean that we are now all completely free to do and not do what we always wanted to – the freedom to be idle and lazy. Martin Luther does not let us off that lightly. Quite the contrary: because we no longer have to look out for ourselves, we can and, perhaps he would say, we must look out for others. We bear testimony to our freedom by taking on responsibility for the world and the people who live in it.

Four hundred and fifty years on, the Lutheran, Reformed and United churches are still invoking precisely this shared legacy. The Leuenberg Agreement states that “This message [of Jesus Christ] makes Christians free for responsible service in the world and also ready to suffer in that service. [...] They stand up for justice and peace on earth between individuals and nations.”

This is what was so revolutionary about the Reformation, and this is what still resonates in me today: not an abstract call to politics, but a call to each individual to stand up here and now for love over hate, for reconciliation over war. When we say in the Lord’s Prayer “your kingdom come”, this does not relieve us of responsibility; instead we are all responsible for taking steps along that path. This harbours a huge power for renewal, a readiness to change the world. But above all it contains the certainty that the future is open! This is the core of Christian trust in Protestant understanding.

And yet in foreign policy, the phrase “your kingdom come” almost sounds like a euphemism – or at least like an extremely far-off goal. People know and sense, of course, how far apart ideals and realities are. Unfortunately, and specifically in Germany, people turn their backs on the major foreign policy trouble spots and say: “The situation is so messy – what can possibly be done to resolve it?”

In a recent study carried out by the Foreign Office in collaboration with the Körber Foundation, we asked Germans about their view of foreign policy. We were faced with the result that 37 per cent of those asked wanted to see more responsibility on the part of Germany, in other words more involvement in international crises and conflicts, whereas the majority, 60 per cent of those asked, expressed the view that Germany should not get involved.

As Foreign Minister, but perhaps even more as a Christian, I certainly do feel a responsibility in the sense that – in a world with growing problems and in a changing world that is still struggling to find a new order – Germany is a bit too big and has too strong an economy not to get involved.

I say that not because I want to claim a position for Germany that we’re not entitled to, and certainly not because I want to parade new “strength” or “resolve”, but because I believe that Germany hasn’t yet really found its bearings in this new and changed world. And that because of this a lot of people in Germany shy away from foreign policy in the face of crises in the world, they shrug their shoulders and say: “Syria, Iraq, Ukraine – what’s it got to do with us? There’s nothing we can do!”

Yet the well‑known theologian Dorothee Sölle once wrote, ‘We must not allow ourselves to be overcome by powerlessness. “There’s nothing we can do” is a godless phrase,’ she says.

And that is why I keep repeating that foreign policy can achieve something even in conflicts which seem to be in stalemate. We need sound judgement, patience, integrity and the unfaltering willingness to negotiate and acknowledge other positions. And we need to be aware that there are always alternatives to war.

But of course Reformation stands for more than this. Not just a neutral, “Come and join in”, but also, “Be driven by Christian principles.” Our Protestant faith gives us a foundation, a guide for what we do. That doesn’t mean that I practise politics with the Bible in my hand. In topical day‑to‑day political discussions on the transformation of our energy system, the changes in pensions or how to intelligently combine electricity sources, that wouldn’t be particularly helpful. Neither the Old nor the New Testament contains the answers to these questions. The Christian faith does indeed also have something to contribute to current political issues. But more in the sense of a compass than the precise directions of a sat‑nav, as Nikolaus Schneider recently summed up very aptly.

A few weeks ago, when I was speaking in Berlin, I was lambasted as a warmonger. I was vociferous in denouncing demonstrators who have still not understood how long the fight had to be fought for what Europe now represents: peace, freedom and security. I am not proud of the fact that this speech was broadcast all around the world on YouTube, but I am glad that people perhaps realised how important it is to stand up for what you believe! Passionately and emotionally, if you have to!

For me personally, there are actually four fundamental principles from the Reformation, from my Protestant faith, that I have transferred to my politics and which help me to set my compass for my day‑to‑day political activity.

The first one is this: For me, Reformation involves standing up for what I believe. Having the courage of my convictions. And standing up for them even when they are unpopular. The supporters of the Reformation in Germany were known as Protestants. But their attitude was always more than one of mere protest. Martin Luther had the strength to say “No” because God’s “Yes” was real for him. “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” His hope was founded on these words of Jesus. And these words are still valid. Not that I would place the impact of decisions made by a politician today on a par with the courage that was required in Martin Luther’s day or with the danger he put himself in when he declared in Worms, if not word for word, as we now know, at least in essence: Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.

Those involved in politics today – fortunately! – no longer have to fear for their lives. However, personal dedication to your own convictions, an upright stance and conscientiousness are not necessarily part of every politician’s essential toolkit, these qualities are not always acquired on the way up the ladder, and sometimes they can even be a hindrance. Yet that is precisely the reason why the example of the Reformation is still relevant, that is why we would do well to remember that the maxim of the moment, the current zeitgeist, is not the final truth.

From that we can derive a second fundamental principle: the practice of asking questions, thinking for oneself, not simply accepting the opinions of those in power and adopting them without further reflection. A second aspect of Reformation for me involves thinking for myself. That is the deeply democratic heart of the reformatory idea. Even Luther’s goal was to give people the wherewithal to get to grips with their faith, instead of just swallowing what had been put in front of them. His Bible translation was designed to provide barrier‑free access to God, as Bishop Markus Dröge recently put it in our modern‑day vocabulary.

Melanchthon and Calvin then introduced these ideas into the European world, thus giving birth to an educational movement that spanned the whole of Europe, no less. Everyone is capable of learning, of forming their own opinion, regardless of their status or background – this firm belief is for me not only an important point of intersection of the Protestant faith and my second ideological home, social democracy. It also remains highly relevant. For example, when we are challenged to foster progress through education for children from immigrant families or for Hartz‑IV recipients who have supposedly been left behind.

But also when we are called to look more closely before we unquestioningly accept the views of the mainstream. I have thought about this a great deal at the Federal Foreign Office in these past few weeks. In public debate, particularly in the area of foreign policy, we often tend to provide answers that are too simplistic. We define everything in terms of good and bad, black and white. The ongoing conflict in Syria shows all too clearly that these categories don’t always fit. Our tidy little distinctions just don’t apply here. Initially the longing for a democratic opposition and freedom was the dominant sentiment. And so many observers were too hasty to regard Syria as a continuation of the Arab Spring. And in so doing they unfortunately overlooked the fact that alongside this, another side of the opposition is growing, one which is no different from the regime in terms of brutality and ruthlessness. Yet from the outset the conflict in Syria has also been a proxy war for supremacy in the Islamic world and a struggle over the expansion of Sunni and Shiite spheres of influence. If that is correct, the debate we held a few months ago on a possible military solution to the conflict was really absurd!

The Reformation warns us to take a closer look, to think for ourselves instead of merely reeling off opinions we have absorbed from others. This is as applicable today as it was 500 years ago, and that is one reason why I am delighted that the next Kirchentag in Stuttgart next year will bear the motto “That we may become wise”. The motto is both a warning and a reminder of the Reformation.

The third meaning of Reformation for me is: knowing my limitations and having the courage to take small steps. For despite the idea of the liberation, improvement and empowerment of each individual, we Protestants are hardly now at risk of suffering from delusions of omnipotence. On the contrary. God has given us as humans the capacity to shoulder responsibility. But we remain limited and fallible. Martin Luther himself was far from perfect. His famous two kingdoms doctrine was a double‑edged sword. “We ought to obey God rather than men,” but also: God alone can save this world, not we mortals. That is at the same time both liberating and empowering: If I wake up each morning with the feeling that I have to deal with and overcome all the injustices in the world, I will ultimately be incapable of achieving anything. But Martin Luther now gives me a dual incentive to act – because thanks to him I know that I bear responsibility for my immediate neighbour and don’t have to save the whole world. The theologian Hans Scholl wrote that despite all the freedom in its attitude towards authorities, Reformation policy is not simply revolutionary impatience. Reformation policy simply means keeping your eyes firmly on the goal, but also not losing heart or running out of patience in the face of setbacks and diversions along the way.

And that, too, chimes in well with my own experiences in politics, especially now in my role as Foreign Minister again. For in foreign policy, amid all the suffering, misery and bloodshed, we are even less able to fulfil expectations of rapid successes and fair solutions than domestic policymakers. Our job is rather to cultivate tiny shoots of progress even when confronted with an apparently hopeless situation. I was in Ukraine only the day before yesterday. How many people said at the beginning of the crisis, let the Russians have their way, we’ll impose sanctions and then just let things take their course. But that was not my position, and that is not the way I deal with conflicts. It is sometimes worth taking very small steps, otherwise it is not possible to pass through the valley. And during my talks with Ukrainian President Poroshenko, a note was brought to him stating that Putin was willing to rescind the intervention law. This seemed to me to be a breakthrough in this hopeless situation. But after my flight from Kyiv to Brussels the first news I heard was that a Ukrainian helicopter had been shot down, claiming the lives of nine people. Just as a spark of hope appeared, it was snuffed out. But that is what it is all about – dealing with setbacks and finding the strength to carry on. It isn’t always about the big solutions. Some small solutions are much more important, such as a few more days of ceasefire. Keeping our eyes firmly on the goal but also not losing heart or running out of patience along the way.

Or we only need to take a look at Afghanistan. We have certainly not achieved everything we set out to do there; we can hardly speak of lasting peace and democratic stability along western lines in that context. But we mustn’t underestimate what we have achieved. We have helped to build roads, schools and wells. We have helped 10 million children, 40% of them girls, to attend school, we have helped to supply the capital Kabul with electricity, we have helped to establish basic medical care in many regions, we have helped to halve the infant mortality rate. In its Afghanistan paper the EKD has recently reiterated its conviction that military operations are legitimate from a Christian perspective when their goal is “to support the dangerous attempt to establish a state of affairs in which the weak and defenceless are protected.” That was also the aim of the long and perilous mission in Afghanistan. The EKD’s careful formulation reflects both aspects: The vital focus on the principle of charity. And the awareness of our limited – human – capabilities.

Finally, the fourth element of Reformation is, for me, embracing differences. Accepting diversity. Of course I know that the legacy of the Reformation has in the past caused as much division as unification. Bishop Gerhard Feige asked if we should really be celebrating this anniversary. After all, the Reformation marked the start of the division of Christianity, the beginning of a process of separation and alienation with unimaginable consequences, including the wars of religion and their countless victims.

But that is just one part of the story. The other is that we, in our part of the world, have learned from the religious wars and other conflicts of the past. We have learned to manage conflicts and resolve them in a civilised manner. And despite their ongoing differences, the churches have even in a sense become pioneers of the idea of “unity in diversity”. An idea with a political impact! Let’s turn to Europe. The great achievement of European unification is not in fact the promise of homogeneity but the reconciliation of differences: that applies to national identities as well as religious denominations.

The majority of EU citizens are Roman Catholic. But Denmark and Sweden are almost 100% Protestant. Greece, Bulgaria and Romania are mainly Orthodox. The peaceful diversity of Europe’s churches is indeed a model for European society as a whole! That is something we can be proud of, and this tradition is more important to me than some of the confusing calls to defend Europe’s “Christian” values, which often fail to embrace diversity.

And that is why we Christians are also called to remember this heritage and defend this tradition in the current crisis. In my opinion people are all too quick to drag old stereotypes back out in this area: When an economic crisis is regarded primarily as a clash between the Roman Catholic world and Protestant northern Europe. When in Italy, France and Spain calls can be heard for people to rediscover their own Catholicism and take a stand against Protestant hegemony. When in northern Europe there is a mounting resentment of having to serve as paymasters for the wasteful countries of the Roman Catholic south. And when in all this nobody notices how a few glib sentences on the future of Greece and Cyprus outside the euro area and the EU demolish Europe’s Orthodox heritage in passing.

Old denominational divisions we thought had long been overcome are returning in a new, cultural-economic guise. Instead of joining forces to work out how to contain the consequences of uncontrolled financial capitalism, old lines of division between the nations are reopening. Against this backdrop we Protestants must say all the more clearly that the ecumenical movement also has a political dimension! We say “No” to a new division of Europe into north, south, east and west! In this context I agree with Wolfgang Huber, who recently pointed out that the Church’s ability to respect one another’s differences and to treat one another like brothers and sisters in their diversity was a particularly important factor for the future of the European continent.

– Having the courage of your convictions.

– Thinking for yourself.

– Being aware of limitations.

– Embracing diversity.

The Reformation gives us several tools which may be useful for us as Christians for our engagement here in this world. Activity and commitment, with the aim of doing what is in our power to make this world a little bit better. We cannot build the Kingdom of God on Earth. But each one of us can do what we can to prepare the ground for it. Our Protestant faith gives us the freedom to do this.

And the way to the Kingdom of God is through our fellow humans! Particularly those who are less fortunate than ourselves. The Christian principle of charity gives rise to a form of politics which brings concrete improvements for individuals. A policy which not only focuses on the elite, but which lends a voice to those people in particular who need someone to speak on their behalf and support them. There remains plenty to do in this area. In his second letter to Timothy, Paul writes, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear ...” The Reformation has given us as Christians a responsibility for the world. It is our task to embrace this responsibility!

Thank you very much.

Related content


Top of page