This is the only relatively free day I have at the Kirchentag in Hamburg. I started work this afternoon with an interview on the 'Red Sofa'. This is a stage in front of the Congresshalle in which people are interviewed, interspersed with music from Chris Paulson and his band (which turns out to be his two sons). I only ever see Chris every two years at the Kirchentag and on the Red Sofa.
Following Margot Käßmann's Bible Study this morning, we stayed put to listen to a discussion including Joachim Gauck, the Bundespräsident. Moderated superbly by a ZDF TV presenter, Gauck engaged with Samuel Koch (a quadraplegic actor who had been an athlete), Rainer Schmidt (a pastor/cabarettist and Paralympic winner) who was born with no forearms, and a business woman called Monika Labruier. The theme had to do with creating a 'strong society' and focused on disability issues. It was intelligent, moving, challenging and very, very funny. Again, the hall was full – 7,000 people – and many were locked out.
The remarkable thing about this conversation was the lack of self-pity on the part of the disabled participants… and their refusal to allow any romantic idealising of them or their attitude to life. And nothing was considered out of bounds.
One interesting question revolved around the identification of victimhood. According to Gauck and his fellow interlocutors, responsibility has to be taken by those whose lives are 'diminished' insofar as they are active players in shaping their life; but, society also has a responsibility to provide for and create optimum space for people to thrive. This involves making space in schools for the development of proper provision for disabled children – and this cannot be done over the heads of disabled people, but in discussion with them. Cost should not be a tool for making life hard for disabled people (but, try saying this to parents of disabled children in England – some of it would sound like a conversation from a different planet).
The discussion concluded with questions of how we cry against God. Gauck made the point that we all cry against God for what 'might have been', but asked how much do we need? Schmidt put it this way: “Ten fingers or just my single thumb? I can do what I need to do.” Schmidt went on to describe how he 'discovered' at the age of six that he was disabled and described an inclusive society as one in which different people are enabled to live together and thrive.
It is impossible to do justice to this. Whatever I write here is open to question and the language to criticism. So be it. Gauck ended by saying that he thanks God that he is here to hear this conversation.
Music at this event was provided by a rock band of mentally-handicapped people.
Schmidt went on to discuss abortion in a way that would not be possible in England without polarising people immediately. Noting that if he had been expected now, he claimed he would almost certainly have been aborted. This then led to debate about abortion and the grounds for it in Germany – including discussion about the reasons why fewer children are being born in Germany today.
What is striking is how the Kirchentag encourages and allows intelligent debate about serious matters without people having to polarise. The ethical divides are not ducked, but nor do they force people behind barricades. It is a model of intelligent and respectful difference.
Anyway, the afternoon for me involved visiting the huge book hall and then heading over for my interview. I caught the last 45 minutes of a podium discussion between Israelis and Palestinians before going to eat with friends and get back to the hotel to bung up this blog.
Now for bed. Tomorrow is busy and looks like hard work.