I am preaching in the Berliner Dom this evening in a Lent series of sermons under the general theme of 'Reformation and Politics'. I was given the theme: 'To whom does the city belong?' and prepared the text (in German) before being given the biblical text on whcih to base it. So, it will possibly be a little tangential…
Sitting in the Dom this morning I was struck again by the text engraved above the chancel steps: “Lasset Euch versöhnen mit Gott” – “Be reconciled to God”.
This – along with all other texts inside and outside the building – was chosen by Kaiser Wilhelm II. I wonder what he understood reconciliation with God to mean. What did he expect people to do when they read this text above a crucifix on the altar of this grand cathedral church?
I ask the question because the answer simply isn't obvious. We always filter our understandings (and the assumptions that generate them) through the worldview we inhabit and the experiences we enjoy or endure at a particular time, as part of a particular culture in the context of the particular period of history in which we live. In other words, the practical outworking of reconciliation with God – it can never be simply an individual pietistic act of the spirit – involves real other people in real places and at real times. It can never be disembodied.
So, as Germany found itself heading towards war in 1914, how was this text read by those who worshipped in the Dom? Or, again, during the Weimar Republic? Or, again, between 1933-45 when the Third Reich adopted a particular view of religion and Christian identity? Or, again, during the Communist dictatorship of the GDR between 1949-89? Was 'reconciliation with God' an act of conformity to a private piety, or an invitation to political and ethical rebellion… at inevitable personal cost?
When I stand in the pulpit this evening I will do so with the humility that comes from recognising the complexity of history and context. Even though I will preach in German, I cannot know how I will be 'heard' by a congregation whose historical associations and personal, social or familial memories are different from those such as mine that have been shaped by an island existence.
In other words, things aren't simple.
I am writing this with the Archbishop of Canterbury's references to gay marriage and the suffering of Christians in Africa in the background. Some ethical questions look clear and simple when seen from one clear perspective. However, look through different eyes and the clarity gets dulled by complexity. Some of us need not worry too much about what happens to Christians in Africa if the Archbishop of Canterbury expresses support for gay marriage (let's drop the 'equal' word as it isn't); the Archbishop has to worry. When there is a direct link between what one says and what happens to other people, words have to be chosen carefully and with a very big pause.
The problem here is that there are two evils: oppression of homosexuals (particularly in parts of Africa and the Middle East) and oppression of Christians by those who will use gay identity or approval as sanction for brutality. Working out the ethics here is not simple: if one has an equal obligation to both – and a responsibility not to contribute to the victimisation of either – then how does one decide what to say to whom and when?
I am not writing this to defend the Archbishop or his critics. But, I am defending the complexity of his position. It is a heavy burden to bear knowing that if you say something in England it can lead directly (in practical terms, not in terms of moral causation) to the murder of innocent people in Pakistan or Nigeria. And simply saying that we should abandon the Anglican Communion does not address the dilemma.
Yesterday I got the tram out to Hohenschönhausen to visit the former Stasi prison where thousands of people were imprisoned, tortured and abused – first by the Soviet occupying forces from 1945, then from 1950 by the security ministry of the German Democratic Republic. It finally closed in 1990 and is now preserved as a national memorial to those who suffered under the Communist dictatorship.
There are too many stories to tell. And it feels somehow cheap to stand as a tourist in a cell where people were once interrogated or held in terrible conditions, often not knowing their crime and usually not knowing where they were or for how long they would be there.
The brilliant film The Lives of Others illustrates the soullessness of this oppressive GDR culture. Life was cheap. And just as the film brings home the power of oppression by relating the personal stories of individuals, so it is the stories that impress when you stand one of the interrogation cells at Hohenschönhausen. We can generalise about politics and the cruelties of governments. We can academically abstract from places like this a penetrating critique of Marxist-Leninist dehumanisation and corruption. We can make clever points about resistance – from a place where to do so costs me nothing. But, it is the stories that haunt.
For each individual incarcerated, humiliated and abused here, there were families, friends, lovers, communities affected, torn apart, corrupted and dehumanised. Relationships were distorted, trust was compromised and identity questioned. And for each individual damaged here, others were responsible by what they did or didn't say, by what they did or didn't do.
The story of someone who has suffered innocently is hard to hear, even if a hard ethical choice had to be made which led to that person's suffering. The phenomenon is as important as the ethical content.
Abuse of individuals and groups is absolutely wrong always. Oppression of minorities is always wrong – whatever the context. But the complexity of balancing rights and obligations in matters of life and death is not to be rendered simplistic by turning such conflicts of obligation into a form of competitive ethics.
Those who say that the Archbishop should be opposing all forms of oppression and proclaiming 'love for all' – as if he were doing the opposite – are right. But, how? If we can't agree with him, at least understand the dilemma (as I think Andrew Brown does here).
Now, for the Dom…