Speech by Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth at the ceremony in Strasbourg launching the Luther Decade 2016 theme year “Reformation and One World”

31.10.2015 - Speech

-- translation of advance text --

President Brasseur,
Ms Mühlmann,
Mr Bedford-Strohm,
Mr Albecker,
Mrs Köhler, Mr Köhler,
fellow parliamentarians, Senators,
ladies and gentlemen,

Today we are launching here in Strasbourg the ninth and last Luther Decade theme year prior to the celebrations for the fifth centenary of the Reformation in 2017. Some may be wondering why also the state and politicians should wish to commemorate the life and work of a man of the church. The fact is that it was not just the church which the Reformation profoundly renewed. It also brought about ground-breaking political, social and cultural changes whose consequences – not just for Christians but also for those of other faiths and non-believers – are still with us today. The Reformation is something that concerns each and every one of us.

Under the heading “Reformation and One World”, the 2016 theme year will focus first and foremost on the global dimension of the Reformation. And for good reason.

When Martin Luther in 1517 nailed his 95 theses – as legend has it – to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, he lit a spark that would transform first Germany, then Europe and eventually the whole world.

But the Reformation was not just the work of one man. Other parts of Europe had their own reform movements. Just think of Huldrych Zwingli and Johannes Calvin in Switzerland, Mikael Agricola in Finland or Jan Hus in the Czech lands. They and many others, too, stand for the Reformation as a global happening.

And yes, what would the Reformation be without Strasbourg? Luther’s writings were quick to reach Alsace, where they fell on fertile ground. In those days the free imperial city of Strasbourg was a magnet for preachers, scholars and religious refugees. Martin Bucer, Johannes Calvin, Wolfgang Capito – the list of those who lived and worked here is long. What they all shared was the idea of Reformation, even if to each of them this meant different things.

In Strasbourg they found a safe haven where they could work on and develop their ideas for a renewal of the church. Reformist thinking flourished not just behind study walls, however; thanks to Strasbourg’s many printing presses it spread among ordinary people as well. That was what enabled the Reformation to become a genuine mass movement.

One of the leading lights of the Reformation in Strasbourg was Martin Bucer, who saw himself as a mediator between Luther and Zwingli. He had a major hand in drawing up the “Confessio Tetrapolitana”, a Protestant confession of faith treading a theological middle way between the teachings of Luther and Zwingli, which Strasbourg along with three other cities submitted in 1530 to the Diet of Augsburg. It was not until some years later that the Wittenberg Concord negotiated between Luther and Bucer moved Strasbourg closer to Lutheran teachings.

At the time of the Reformation Strasbourg not only attracted preachers and scholars, it also sheltered persecuted Protestants from all over Europe, especially Huguenot refugees from France. From 1530 on French Protestants were victimised and oppressed by the Catholic hierarchy and the king. Draconian measures were introduced to force them to recant. Over 200,000 Huguenots in the 16th century sought refuge in the Protestant-dominated parts of Europe, particularly the Netherlands, Switzerland, England and Germany.

These religious refugees did not come just to Alsace. Many also settled in the area I come from, northern Hesse. During those years thousands of Huguenots found in Kassel, Bad Karlshafen and many other towns in Hesse asylum, religious freedom and economic assistance. Several German rulers – including the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel – issued so-called freedom charters granting the refugees important rights and privileges.

In essence, what these said was “Come here, you exiles, in our lands you are welcome!”

Of course then, too, there were mutterings and resistance among the locals. Craftsmen feared competition from the newcomers, the high cost of integrating them was a further cause of discontent. Nobody knew whether all the effort would really pay off. It was an experiment with uncertain outcome. Only in retrospect do we know all the fears and worries were unfounded. Thanks to the Huguenots, not only Hesse experienced an economic and cultural golden age. And in their new homeland the refugees soon became exemplary patriots.

Similar tales of success can be told of Strasbourg, too, where Huguenot refugees likewise played a major role in the life of the city. This all goes to show how integration can succeed and how beneficial migration can be also for the new homeland.

Centuries later this question is as topical as ever. Just as during the Reformation many were forced into exile because of their faith, so now millions are once more fleeing war, terror, religious oppression and political persecution. Here in Europe they hope to find a new and better life, enjoy peace and freedom.

Right now that is facing us in Europe with enormous tasks. This year Germany alone is likely to take in more than a million refugees. And it is rather strange that Germany should now be criticised for treating refugees as our shared values indeed require – that is, with decency and humanity. Germany is dealing not naively but responsibly with one of the greatest challenges of post-war history. And in this connection German politicians have received tremendous backing and support from tens of thousands of citizens.

We are not going to apologise to anyone for our actions. It is our duty, after all, to treat people who come to us in dire straits with respect and open-mindedness, to see them as people and not as some anonymous mass – quite irrespective of whether they will be allowed to stay permanently or not. What we need in the European Union is an asylum and migration policy grounded in solidarity and respect for human dignity, one that is genuinely worthy of a European community of values.

For the EU is far more than just an internal market. It is a community founded on shared values. Democracy, the rule of law, cultural and religious diversity, protection for minorities, freedom of the media and of opinion – for us Europeans these values constitute a common bond. And that is why particularly in times of crisis like these the EU has a very special responsibility to bear. In the wider world as crisis manager and international mediator. Within the EU by practising solidarity and humanity in our daily dealings with each other and by demonstrating that here in Europe people from very different cultures, religions and ethnic backgrounds can live together in peace and mutual respect.

Our actions in this connection are inspired also by a sense of Christian responsibility, by the way. For the Bible, too, tells of refugees and their plight, it is a book about and for refugees. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Isaac and even Jesus – all were driven from home by famine, war or the threat of persecution. In many places in the Bible we are reminded of what true hospitality means. In Leviticus, for example, we read: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself.”

In Germany we are trying in our dealings with refugees to demonstrate this hospitality and readiness to help. And Strasbourg, too, stands for this culture of welcome – back then at the time of the Reformation and today as well. It is a wonderful gesture of solidarity and humanity that your city has volunteered to shelter a fairly large number of refugees.

In so doing Strasbourg remains absolutely true to its humanistic tradition – and indeed how could it be otherwise? As the seat of the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights Strasbourg is Europe’s capital of democracy and human rights. It is here that day in, day out our European fundamental values are given concrete substance and defended. And since our understanding of human rights owes much also and not least to the Reformation, that is another good reason why this festive occasion should take place here in Strasbourg, one of the major Reformation venues.

For over 400 million Protestants around the world the Reformation is intimately bound up with their faith. The fifth centenary of the Reformation is seen by all of them as an event that relates in quite specific ways to their daily lives. So this centenary is something that brings people all over the world together – and that is why it should also be celebrated all over the world.

During the 2016 theme year we will be focusing on the importance of the Reformation as a global event. Under the heading “Reformation and One World” we also want to examine, however, what message the Reformation holds for us as we tackle the crises and conflicts of the present day.

Whether we like it or not, we live in one world, a world that is increasingly interconnected – and not in different and separate worlds, for example. Television, the Internet and the social media have made our world a global village.

Even the remotest spot at the other end of the world is only a mouse click away. News and images of civil war, terrorist attacks and natural disasters reach us practically in real time on our television screens, computers and smartphones. In the truest sense of the word we can no longer shut our eyes to what is happening in other parts of the world.

We live in a world where currently over 60 million people are fleeing war and terror. We live in a world where abominable human rights abuses persist in many areas. We live in a world where people are oppressed and harassed on account of their political beliefs, religion, colour or sexual orientation.

All this is happening only at first glance far away from us in Europe.

The plain fact is that it concerns us all, what goes on in Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia or Eritrea. Because sooner or later it will also affect us here in Europe – not just virtually but in very practical ways, too. To some extent perhaps we have lost sight of this at times.

It is an illusion to think walls and fences will enable us to keep problems elsewhere in the world at bay. This has been vividly impressed on us by the events of recent months. Refugee flows do not stop at national borders, they carry on undeterred – right up to our doorsteps, until we can no longer ignore them. Sooner or later war and terror catch up with us, too, when we are forced to send our soldiers to crisis zones or terrorists import violence and destruction to us here in Europe.

The concept of “One World” does not merely describe the reality of the increasingly globalised and interconnected world of the 21st century. It is also a clear call to us all to unite and work together to address the challenges ahead. “One World” does not mean retreating into our national backyards and avoiding all contact with others. On the contrary, “One World” denotes a readiness to reach out to others and assume joint responsibility for promoting peace, freedom and justice and preserving creation.

The Reformation shows how this can be done, for it is a true citizen of the world. The impact of the Reformation is felt far beyond Germany and Europe. By the same token, our thinking and action must not concentrate on purely national mini-agendas. Cultivating the heritage of the Reformation, giving it contemporary meaning clearly means more than gazing from one church spire to the next. In today’s world we are connected in so many different ways that we simply have no option but to look beyond our own home turf and take in the big picture, the “One World”. For it is also our world!

The Reformation is not a closed chapter in the history books. It presents us even today with an ongoing challenge. It reminds us to continually subject our own actions to critical review. It encourages us to follow our conscience and take responsibility for our actions.

And that is what I find so appealing today and what, nearly five centuries later, has also lost none of its relevance. The Reformation is always about action. It calls on everyone to stand up for love, not hate; for reconciliation, not war; for solidarity, not egotism. Even when it is tough going, when setbacks occur, something we all experience in our daily lives. But it is precisely then that we must remain steadfast. Resignation or idle self-pity must never be an option!

Martin Luther was a man of the word – the written word as well. Through his words he changed the world. He calls on us not just to talk and lament things but also to act. His credo is action, not fine speeches.

In the beginning was the word – but in the end that must always spell action.

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