Research Associate Peter King reports on the recent German Kirchentag in Nürnberg and the challenges he brings home from it.
With seventy thousand people and a programme of over two thousand events, the German Kirchentag (Church Day) was held from June 7 – 11 in Nürnberg, with the theme “Now is the Time”.
With a programme that extensive, everyone’s experience of Kirchentag will be different but I came away with four main issues on my mind, all of which are relevant to the ongoing work and interests of the CSBV.
The first two sessions I attended were co-led by Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine. In the course of her contribution, Levine cited a number of Christian sources (ranging from Leonardo Boff to Ron Sider to Brian McLaren, and from a Nürnberg church welcome leaflet to the World Council of Churches) all of which, in her opinion, had (albeit unintentionally) misrepresented Judaism in their writings.
It is all too easy to claim, for example, that the Hebrew Bible presents a vengeful God and the New Testament a God of love, or that Jesus makes a stand against a religion of legalism and marks the beginning of a religion of love, but where does that leave Judaism? Levine’s aim was not necessarily to get us all to change our minds about Judaism, but to make us aware of just how easy it is to make faulty assumptions about another faith. As she said, we do not have to agree, but we are better friends when we disagree yet talk together, and whether we agree or not we can still work together for justice and peace in the world.
Though readers of this blog, like the church at large, will have different views of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, we owe it both to ourselves and to our Jewish neighbours to be sensitive and aware in our discussions of Judaism, and to listen to our Jewish neighbours when they question our interpretation of their beliefs and practises.
Another of the sessions I attended sought to engage with the situation in Ukraine. One of the speakers suggested that we might be in a similar situation to 1938 / 39, where we are coming to realise that Vladimir Putin, like Hitler, is not someone who can be negotiated with but rather can only be resisted, someone who is not capable of engaging with conventional “cost-benefit analysis” negotiation, but is driven instead by resentment.
As I thought of this comparison with 1939, my mind went to those, such as the British journalist and novelist Storm Jameson or German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who both turned away from pacifism faced with the rise of the Nazis.
And so the question arises as to whether it is possible still to be a pacifist in face of the invasion of Ukraine? At one point in the session, an Orthodox priest spoke of his faith in God and the Ukrainian army, and I was left wondering whether that was all a faith-based response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine amounted to. However, there is a lively debate within Roman Catholic ethics about Pacifism and Just War Theory in face of the invasion of Ukraine, and maybe those of us in other traditions should join in this conversation, and explore what pacifism might mean in practice faced with Russia’s aggression.
On Friday afternoon I took part in a session on Democracy & Populism where we role-played an E.U. Council discussion on immigration, each of us taking on the role of a leader of one of the member states. Afterwards we reflected together on the experience, and how there was much more talk about economic issues than about human rights and wellbeing even in our simulated meeting.
At one point in our reflections, when we had moved on to a discussion of populism, one of the participants asked whether the crucifixion was a result of democracy or of populism. Thinking about populism, I was reminded of the accusations of “wokeness’ prevalent in US and UK society, and what the term actually signifies. In her introduction to the book Young, Woke & Christian (SCM, 2022) Victoria Turner suggests that:
Woke is the umbrella term used by those who want society to stay the same to describe progressive ideals that challenge the status quo of injustice in society.
Could we not say, therefore, that it was populism that killed Jesus, because it perceived him, in twenty-first century terms, as “too woke” because of his concern for the marginalised and daily mixing with the despised? If that is a valid interpretation of the events of Holy Week, then maybe the church might enter the debate, confront populism, and consider whether it should be proclaiming a Woke Jesus.
Finally, it was alarming, but not surprising, to discover at a session on the Saturday morning that the U.K. had been downgraded in the Civicus Civil Society ratings from “Narrowed” to “Obstructed” and is a “Country of Concern” in their most recent report. The report cites increasing restrictions on the right to protest, threats to pull out of the ECHR and hostile rhetoric from government sources directed against those speaking out against racism and climate change and advocating for migrants’ rights.
This is not something I had heard of, or been aware of, and it was good to see my home nation as others see us. Indeed, our five days together in Nürnberg reminded me of the importance of building bridges between the nations. Only in this way can walls of division be broken down, understanding grow and lies be dispelled.
Hearing speakers from Germany and around the world reminded me that as one humanity we face the same challenges of climate change and migration, populism and division. Carla Hinrichs from the German environmental protest group Last Generation spoke of how disturbed she was by the violence of the reactions to the protests with which she is involved. As she put it, this violent way of thinking and being is there in society and becomes visible through our [Last Generation’s] actions, but the task of deciding how to react to it is for others to work on. As Hinrichs observes, there is indeed much anger and violence in our societies. This is especially so in the UK and USA where so much of the parliamentary and legal system is constructed on an adversarial basis.
What then does it mean to be peacemakers in an angry and divided society ?
We live in turbulent and uncertain times, and it was a moving start to my five days in Germany to take a trip to Munich to see the memorial and exhibition to the White Rose student resistance group. Hans and Sophie Scholl, together with their co-conspirators, were executed in early 1943 after the siblings were apprehended in the grand entrance hall of the Ludwig-Maximilian University having been spotted by the caretaker distributing the latest of their anti-nazi leaflets. The exhibition made the faith-based inspiration of their thinking very clear, and I was moved and inspired yet again by their courage and actions.
So I return from Nürnberg with a renewed sense of the urgency of the Christian imperative. Faced with numerous challenges in both church and society, including those I have outlined above, surely now is indeed the time for people of faith to engage with the issues and concerns tearing our world apart.
Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.STATEMENT BY SOPHIE SCHOLL TO THE PEOPLE’S COURT, 21 FEB 1943
Peter King trained at Bristol Baptist College and was ordained in 1988, serving for eight years at Eynsham Baptist Church, Oxfordshire. He now works for the Anglican Diocese of Chichester in adult theological education. Peter’s work for the CSBV includes producing Bible study resources such as these, and running our preacher’s blog Sunday Sermon Monday Mourning.