Message from Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth for the Summer Reception of the Evangelische Akademie Abt Jerusalem, Braunschweig

25.08.2016 - Speech

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am afraid I cannot be with you in Braunschweig this evening because I have had to travel to Turkey at short notice. However, I would like to take this opportunity to address some words to you.

Your Academy’s namesake, Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Jerusalem, also known as Abbot Jerusalem, was one of the most important theologians of the Age of Enlightenment. In the 18th century efforts were being made to preserve Protestant doctrines by adapting them to the ideas of the Enlightenment – and what a project that was!

The way in which religion and society interact with each other is not only a subject of interest to theologians such as Abbot Jerusalem, but also to politicians such as myself. I have often asked myself – and not only since becoming Minister of State for Europe at the Federal Foreign Office three years ago – what my Christian faith really means for my political convictions and decisions. How can we shape politics – for Germany, Europe and the world – in accordance with a Christian sense of responsibility? You can’t simply leave your faith at the door when you enter into Parliament or an office in the Foreign Ministry.

You will have noticed that I want to raise some fundamental issues here, even though I know that the rest of the world is busy talking about Brexit! On your website I saw that this Academy is a place in which questions of faith and ethical challenges are reflected on and discussed publicly and vigorously. You hope that differing opinions will be openly expressed and compete with each other to provide perspectives on how we wish to live tomorrow and today.

It would be my pleasure to contribute to this debate! I would thus like to use this speech today to share with you five thoughts on the interrelationship between politics and religion.

Firstly, I believe that being a Christian means, above all, not looking away. Not being blind to what is going on in the world around us.

We live in a world in which at present more than 60 million people have fled war and terror. We live in a world in which horrific human rights violations are still committed in many places. We live in a world in which people are oppressed and persecuted for their political beliefs, their religion, colour or sexual orientation.

You might say that these things are all happening far away from us here in Europe, and that they are nothing to do with us. But I say, as a politician and above all as a Christian, yes, they are! Because sooner or later we will feel their impact here in Germany too.

It is an illusion to think we can barricade ourselves off from the problems affecting other parts of the world by putting up fences and walls. We couldn’t, even if we wanted to. Refugee flows don’t stop at national borders, they keep on moving – right up to our doorstep, to the point at which we can no longer ignore them. War and terrorism also catch up with us sooner or later, as we have to send soldiers to the trouble spots or when terrorists unleash violence and destruction in our midst in Europe.

It is indeed just the one world we all live in. Perhaps we ourselves haven’t been focusing on this principle too closely recently, having been beset by our own problems such as the euro crisis and Brexit.

Secondly, being a Christian always also means that I want to intervene where I see there is work to be done and take action. Faith is, of course, a very personal and private affair. But as Christians we bear responsibility not only for ourselves, but also for our fellow human beings.

Martin Luther, for example, was inclined to intervene. Luther was a man of words and a man of action. He considered himself to be not only a monk and a Reformer, but also a political individual. He took his stances, argued for them with those in charge, and acted accordingly. He had a clear message for us all: intervene for the common good! Take your responsibility before God and the world seriously!

What does this mean in practice today? In my view, Luther’s imperative is also a clear mission statement for us all: Let us stand together, let us work together to tackle these trials of our times! Withdrawing into a national shell and closing the hatches is not an option. What we need now is the willingness to reach out to other people and jointly assume responsibility for peace, freedom, justice, and preserving the integrity of Creation.

Thirdly, in my opinion, being a Christian also involves treating the people who have fled their homes and come to us in their plight with respect and sincerity, seeing them as human beings and not as an anonymous mass – regardless of whether they will be allowed to stay or not.

Acting thus is also a question of Christian responsibility. Don’t you think it is strange that Germany has been criticised in part because we treat refugees in accordance with our shared values – i.e. humanely and decently. We will continue to do so, and won’t apologize to anyone for doing so.

Fourthly, I feel that being a Christian also means taking a clear stance against any form of religious “racism”.

Claiming that all Muslims may be terrorists following the dreadful attacks in Paris, Brussels, Nice, Würzburg, Ansbach and elsewhere, can only be described as a form of irresponsible populism. Anyone who makes claims of this kind is simply trying to instrumentalise the attacks for their own political ends. That is not only shameful, it is also extremely dangerous.

If we were to be hoodwinked by these demagogues, the terrorists would have achieved their goals: to divide us and to foment a religious “war”. The issue here is not a conflict between religions. The divide does not run between believers and non-believers. It runs between a small minority of barbaric extremists, who seek to sow hate and distrust, and an overwhelming majority of people – regardless of their religion, culture or ethnic background – who simply want to live in peace and respect one another.

I strongly disagree with anyone who says that Islam and democracy are incompatible. The facts belie this claim. The vast majority of Muslims around the world live in democracies – in India, in Indonesia, in Malaysia, in Tunisia, as well as in the US and in the European Union.

My fifth and final point concerns the future of our country in this age of migration. The question under discussion is one to which I myself have yet to find a conclusive answer. How can we live together in a multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multicultural society now and in the future? I think this will be one of the crucial tests for our society in the years to come.

It’s true that societies which are open to diverse cultures, religions and ethnic groups are demanding. This is because they require a willingness for change. They require it not only of the people who come to us. We ourselves must also change. In the long term, simply saying to the immigrants, “We’re the majority! You’ve got to adapt!” is unlikely to work.

Change always implies the loss of familiar ways, of points of reference. This can lead to insecurities and ultimately give rise to fears, causing people to retreat and barricade themselves in.

As we all know, fear is not a good counsellor. If such a social model is to function, what we need instead is an intensive dialogue between religions and cultures, in order to break down the stereotypes and fears that exist on all sides, and to develop a shared set of values. What I would like to see is mutual tolerance which is more than simply the absence of discrimination and marginalisation. What I would like to see is acceptance in action, acceptance that is capable of leading to empathy. However, this presupposes that we are really interested in each other and willing to genuinely interact with each other.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to conclude by expressing my gratitude. Gratitude for the engagement of so many brothers and sisters in our church communities. Staff members and volunteers. At the height of the refugee crisis, there were those who worked to the point of complete exhaustion. For humanity, for respect and tolerance, for a culture of welcome. That is love of your neighbour put into practice. And I would like to encourage you to continue to be so actively engaged.

One quote attributed to Abbot Jerusalem can be translated as follows: “How light, how serene, how calm everything becomes in my soul as soon as it is touched by the thought that the world has its origins in a higher being.” This trust in God should be an example to us and should inspire us not to lose heart but to take action, notwithstanding the trials ahead. With our faith as an inner compass which emboldens us to go on our way with hope, even when aware of the difficulties.

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