How things have changed.
It is a week ago that I headed off to Stuttgart for the Kirchentag – the amazing conference put on across a German city every two years. I have been going for a while and it gets ever better. In 2013 in Hamburg I was invited to preach at the closing service: a congregation of 130,000 and televised nationally. This time I was asked (among other events) to take part in a conversation with Kofi Annan (former Secretary General of the United Nations) and the German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The theme of the two-hour discussion: ‘The world is spinning out of control’.

Actually, I was not really needed in this discussion. Like the audience of ten thousand in the huge arena, I really wanted to listen to the two stars discussing what is going on in the world – in the hope of learning something. I did learn, and they deserved the standing ovation at the end. (I was also uncomfortable, though, because I went straight off to hospital after the event to be told I had an “atypical pneumonia” (chest and throat infection) and had to stop. No wonder I wasn’t firing on all cylinders.)

Introduced by the excellent moderator, television journalist Arnd Henze, Steinmeier began with the sort of intelligent paper to be expected from a serious German politician. One of his basic points was that Germany’s behaviour in the twentieth century had caused the world to spin out of control and that Germany now had to take responsibility in the world – not standing back where there is need. He was realistic about the demands and expectations of solutions. Both principled and pragmatic, he passionately articulated the moral obligation to be engaged in the seemingly intractable conflicts and troubles of a changing world.

Having quoted the former Chancellor Willy Brandt, he asserted:

Heute, 32 Jahre nach Willy Brandts Rede ist diese Welt keineswegs friedlicher geworden. So lange ich denken kann, kann ich mich an keine Zeit erinnern, in der internationale Krisen in so großer Zahl an so vielen Orten gleichzeitig auf uns eingestürmt wären wie heute. (Today, 32 years after Willy Brandt’s speech, the world has not become at all more peaceful. As long as I can remember, I cannot think of any time when so many international crises in so many places have simultaneously piled in upon us.)

In his paper later, Kofi Annan wanted to put this into perspective, claiming that the world is a safer and better place today than it was in the past. Urging everybody – particularly the younger generations – to take their responsibility in leading peaceful change in the world (starting small and local), he demonstrated the patient pragmatism that made him able to lead the United Nations through previous crises. In the later discussion I tried to put this into perspective: only 75 years ago nearly 80 million people died in a global conflict – every generation faces its own crises and every generation fears it might be the last

Steinmeier, however, summed up the approach when he said:

Vieles hat sich verändert in diesen Jahren – die Aufgabe nicht. Die Aufgabe von Außenpolitik ist geblieben – wie Willy Brandt ohne jedes Pathos beschrieben hat, nämlich: dass illusionsfreie Bemühen, zur Lösung von Konflikten beizutragen. In einer streitbefangenen Welt voller Krisen und Konflikte, voller Missgunst und Hass, dem Frieden auf die Sprünge zu helfen. Und Frieden lässt sich nicht herbeiwünschen. Er entsteht nicht durch öffentliche Erklärungen; nicht einmal durch Resolutionen der UNO. Selbst die Frage, ob ich Recht habe ist unerheblich. Frieden will erarbeitet werden, meistens dann wenn das was man braucht zum Friedensschluss: Vertrauen, schon restlos ruiniert ist. Deshalb, wenn die Konfliktparteien nicht mehr zu einander kommen, dann kommt es auf Dritte an.

(Much has changed during these years – but the task has not. The task of foreign policy remains the same – as Willy Brandt described without any pathos: the illusion-free commitment to contribute to the resolution of conflicts; in a world of disputation, full of crises and conflicts, filled with resentment and hatred, to lend a hand to peace. And peace doesn’t just happen. It doesn’t come from public statements; not even from UN resolutions. Even the question whether I am right or not is irrelevant. Peace must be worked at, particularly when what is needed for a peaceful conclusion – trust – has already been totally destroyed. Therefore, when the conflicted parties cannot approach each other, that is the time when the Third Party comes onto the stage.)

My contribution was miniscule. But, despite the limitations of such a format, it was a privilege to be invited to take part in this discussion with people who are so deeply engaged in a world that I (and the churches) touch on mainly because of our deep international partnerships and links across the continents.

I began with a statement about how things have changed. This pertains mainly to the fact that I have blogged my way through previous Kirchentags – in order to give wider access to the riches experienced and heard there. These days there is little time for writing this blog – something I regret and hope one day to recover.