For 11 years, I have been working as General Secretary for the German Protestant "Kirchentag", the unique convention and celebration of faith, and of responsibility for our society. Kirchentag has always been a place for controversial and open debate about the future of our society, and thus far has been a place of enhancing political, social and religious life. Kirchentag has been massively influential: in the very beginning of the late 1940s, the presence of international church leaders marked the beginning of a better Germany, and during the fifties and sixties, this international atmosphere brought more openness to German churches and society. Kirchentag was also the first to start Jewish-Christian dialogue in Germany after the Shoah, but the character of Kirchentag in the fifties and sixties was mainly focused on the integration of the people who were chased out of the eastern parts of Germany in the end of World War II into parishes and into society. The founder of Kirchentag, Reinold von Thadden, was himself an expellee from Pomerania. The integration of 13 million people and the reconstruction of a whole country was the biggest political challenge of these decades.
The change of mentality in Western societies at the end of the sixties threatened the existence of the old-style Kirchentag. But it reinvented itself. It became increasingly characterized by participation— a culture of getting involved in the event. During the seventies and eighties, Kirchentag became a hotspot of the civil rights movement. Huge peace demonstrations took place there at the beginning of the eighties. It has even become something of a cliché – Kirchentag is the assembly of the committed, peaceful, and harmless people who want to change the world by their own goodness. Behind every cliché, one might find a grain of truth: in this case, it is true that people seek to enhance their own lives, seek to enhance their ethical knowledge, and seek to enhance their sense of community.
Nowadays Kirchentag offers an excellent opportunity to discuss relevant topics between academia and an open-minded public. One overarching Kirchentag includes more than 2500 single events over a span of 5 days. About 500 of those events deal with current problems of politics, of social and environmental justice, and of integration and bioethics. The panels and roundtable discussions are prepared by groups of volunteers, mainly from universities and other relevant institutes. The meetings of the preparatory groups sometimes turn out to be controversial. The challenge is then to bring that controversy to the public and to invite speakers who are able to discuss their results publicly, as well as with decision-makers and politicians.
Some of the critics of Kirchentag ask how long this form of getting involved will last, and how we will manage to inspire young people to join. Are there enough young people to carry on the idea and ideal of a reflective and self-confident faith in a secular world?
It is exactly this question that we will discuss at this year’s Kirchentag in Berlin, with two political leaders who have their own history with faith, and of whom we believe that their political thought and action is guided by values – Barack Obama and Angela Merkel.
It will certainly be the highlight of my work for Kirchentag to have Barack Obama as a speaker. We began to think about this year’s theme with the idea of the jubilee of 500 years of Reformation—from our point of view, an important step on the long path to modernity, and for the history of freedom. The emigration of many Lutherans from Germany and dissenters from England to America, and the founding of the United States, were driven by the freedom of conscience and self-accountability. The yardstick of freedom has always been freedom of worship.
Today, we live in a globalised world. Many walls have been torn down. Borders that used to seem insurmountable have vanished. However, the many positive effects of globalisation are countered by threatening developments. The ecological crisis, martial disputes (especially in the Middle East), and mass migrations caused by economic distress and military conflicts spread fear and anxiety to the world’s democratic societies.
In this situation of transformation, we need strong communities, we need equal opportunities, and we need people to become involved—for freedom, for a peaceful coexistence within their own surroundings, and worldwide. How can young people grow into this responsibility? What role can communities of faith play to help personalities come of age with a commitment to strengthening freedom and common welfare?
Barack Obama’s “Yes we can” referred to equal opportunities for all American citizens, no matter where they came from or what they believed in.
Angela Merkel’s “Wir schaffen das” referred to the integration of thousands of refugees escaping from war and violence and seeking a peaceful life in Germany.
Both appeals were not directed at institutions, but at every single one of us. To accept responsibilities for our own surroundings, to get involved, and to create strong networks within civil society. The freedom that seems so natural to so many people has to be defended again and again. It may not be abused for causes that undermine or erode common welfare. Freedom is the prerequisite for a life of dignity, but it ends where the dignity of others is harmed. In the same way freedom has to be actively defended, democracy also thrives on the involvement of its citizens. The more that democratic societies come under pressure, the stronger a defense of freedom needs to be. What message will the German chancellor and the former U.S. president pass on to today’s young people, to take with them along on their paths?
The Kirchentag will open the panel, raising these questions to a broader public. Because we are convinced that the question of whether young people can and should take over responsibility for religious or political communities is not limited to Kirchentag, or to church.
Is it useful to learn from former experiences of enhancing life to improve our strategies to enhance life in the future? As long as we agree upon the necessity of ethical reflection, of linking academia to politics, and of learning from former movements towards freedom and humanity, then we should not stop holding conferences and setting up events like Kirchentag.