I spent most of this month in Germany and France. The trip began with a tour sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Institute, a quasi-government foundation named after the first Chancellor of West Germany, who had the unenviable job of restoring government to a society utterly demoralized and defeated, in a land where every large city had been bombed to rubble. Adenauer founded the Christian Democratic Union political party, and with the help of U.S. largesse in the Marshall Plan, led Germany into a new era.
The Institute sponsors exchange trips in order to encourage dialogue between people from various countries who are involved in religion and politics, and it has offices in 70 countries. In this case, they invited and generously paid for eleven evangelicals from the United States to visit Berlin and Dresden and meet with officials in the government and the church. The U.S. delegates included a leading Southern Baptist and the president of the National Association of Evangelicals as well as a political director from Sojourners/Call to Renewal, so it did include some diversity.
We met fascinating people, including: members of the German parliament; Chancellor Angela Merkel’s top aide; Helmut Kohl, who oversaw the reunion of East and West Germany; the screenwriter for the movie Goodbye, Lenin; the Minister of the Interior, left paralyzed after an assassination attempt; the bishop who heads the Protestant Church in all of Germany; and church authorities in Dresden who had lived through decades of hostility under communism.
In one meeting the bishop of Saxony (a state located in the former East Germany) calmly reported that only 850,000 of 5 million citizens had affiliated with a church. He expected that to decline to 350,000 by 2015 and perhaps dip as low as 30,000 by 2030. Church affiliation is important in Germany, as each person affiliated with a church pays a tax surcharge of around 1 percent of income, which the government collects and distributes to approved churches. By choosing against church membership, you save money. This bishop’s job, then, was to oversee a decline that may result in his state’s church virtually going out of business. Four decades of communism created an environment of assumed atheism, and unlike in Western Germany, citizens of the East feel no civic pressure to keep traditional ties with a church.
In the same meeting, a lively pastor showed a far more upbeat spirit. First he recounted personal stories of the difficulties Christians faced under communist rule. His children’s educational opportunities were severely restricted, and he had to take up the plumbing trade to supplement the meager salary he got as pastor. “After the wall came down…” (a phrase we often heard), everything changed. Although less than 20 percent of Saxony belongs to a church, he said that 99 percent of the Saxony parliament belong, and he estimated that 70 percent of those in parliament are active, practicing Christians. Having lived under communism, Christians quickly volunteered to step into a cultural vacuum of meaning and help the newly free society lay a foundation for morality and legal structure. They realized all too personally what can happen when Christians are excluded from the public square.
In my writing I sometimes caution Christians in the U.S. against confusing our mission with political causes; the close association of evangelicals with right-wing politics has, in my view, derailed our mission. Some theologians, such as Stanley Hauerwas, openly critique Christians who get involved in politics. The East Germans have a different perspective, for understandable reasons. The church has a role to play in politics and society. As one of the German politicians expressed it, quoting Jurgen Habermas, Aa liberal democratic state requires of its citizens qualities that it cannot provide.”
(An aside: someone pointed out to me an egregious translation in the French edition of my book What’s So Amazing About Grace. I had written that I firmly believe it is every Christian’s right to get involved in politics, but went on to add my qualifications and warnings. They translated it “I firmly believe in the Christian right” which there means right-wing—the exact opposite of my intent! How important is a good translation.)
And, of course, the German relationship between church and state is entirely different from the strict separation that we emphasize in the U.S.. We met in a Berlin church on Reformation Day, October 31, and heard a series of local politicians take the pulpit to deliver predictable political speeches—something that would jeopardize the tax-exempt status of a church in the U.S.
The current chancellor, Angela Merkel, is a fascinating leader. Her father, a Protestant pastor, chose to move from West Germany to the East in apparent sympathy with communism. Growing up, she saw the failures of that system, earned a doctorate in physics, then plunged into politics when East Germany experienced sudden democracy in 1989. She now heads a fractious consensus government equivalent to the Republicans and Democrats working together to govern the U.S. (ha!). Under Angela Merkel, Germany has been rebuilding bridges with its ally the U.S. Yet her own government has set as priorities an aggressive approach to global warming, an emphasis on human rights, and a commitment to use force as a last resort. In view of the U.S. foot-dragging on climate control, our recent history with Abu Graibh and Guantanamo Bay, and the invasion of Iraq and threats against Iran, the bridges between our two countries must span some major chasms.
As a freelancer, I’m not used to sitting in meetings all day. And Germans excel in abstraction and theory, with little room for story or personal interjections. I left there with mixed emotions. On the one hand, when you visit a place like Dresden and realize that this modern, functioning city grew from a place where nothing but rubble stood just sixty years ago (more people died in the fire-bombing of Dresden than at Hiroshima), and that the church must address moral issues in a place where ubiquitous memorials to the Holocaust remind Germans of their complicity in one of the great crimes of history, and that much of the hard work of rebuilding infrastructure and restoring ancient buildings has taken place since 1989, you cannot help but marvel at German resilience. “After the wall came down…”: with all the problems in the world, it’s easy to forget that in our lifetime one of the greatest lurches toward freedom in history took place without a shot being fired.
(We heard several jokes dating from the days of division in Berlin. For instance, the regime had a hard time keeping guards on the Berlin Wall from defecting, so it kept shifting personnel and encouraged soldiers to rat on each other. Two guards were standing together with machine guns gazing across the wall to the bright lights of the West. “What are you thinking about?” says one. “The same thing you’re thinking about,” the other replies. “Then I’m afraid I’ll have to arrest you.”)
The church played a huge role in that change. In Berlin and Leipzig, especially, the church became a meeting place for dissidents, and the wall fell on a night when millions marched through the streets singing hymns and holding candles. Yet the church dangles on the edge of irrelevancy now. It still has an “industry” of hospitals, publishing houses, and seminaries, and the tax structure guarantees that industry will continue for a while. But only five or six percent of Germans go to church on any regular basis, and, as the bishop in Saxony warned, financial support may collapse if more people disaffiliate from the church.
Usually when I travel overseas I’m invited by my publisher or some other group to speak. In Germany, I enjoyed sitting around listening for a change. After the tour in Germany, Janet and I had a weekend with my former college roommate who lives in Hamburg, then flew to Paris for a few days of enjoyment before I had to put on a tie and stand in front of a microphone. We spent the entire time visiting art museums and sipping very expensive coffee in Parisian cafes. (Amazingly, Starbucks offers the cheapest coffee we found in Paris.)
I spoke six times in all in Paris: an all-day seminar on grace, a Sunday afternoon session on prayer, and twice before an annual gathering of evangelicals at a conference center. Before leaving the U.S., I joked with my friends that I would be speaking to a gathering of evangelicals in France who would be meeting in a small closet. Actually, the conference had an impressive exhibition hall filled with booths advertising camps, schools, mission trip opportunities, and books and Christian products, and in the plenary sessions I addressed about 1000 people one day and 700 the next. France has a Protestant population of less than 2 percent, and only half of those would accept the word “evangelical,” but that minority is growing impressively and showing strong signs of life.
I had great interpreters in all venues, which makes a huge difference. There’s nothing worse than telling a story with energy and animation, then having an interpreter communicate as if reading footnotes for a Ph.D. thesis. At the conference, my translator was a skilled, energetic speaker who had feet in both cultures: he has a British father and Canadian mother, and was raised in France by missionaries working with the Muslim population. He heads up an AIDS ministry, another sign of evangelicals reaching across cultural divides. He also has a shaved head, which made quite a contrast to my gray Afro.
Our trip followed an invitation from a man named Gérard, a director at Hewlett Packard who along with his wife Martine works on the side for an organization called Family Life Mission, started by Walter Trobisch. In several living room gatherings, Gérard and Martine introduced us to some of their friends. A young woman employed by the national railroad to counsel train engineers after they hit someone on the tracks (two people a day in France commit suicide by this method). The CEO of the largest seismic geophysics company in the world. Refugees from Rwanda and Cambodia and Vietnam who found their way to France after terrifying ordeals. All have a vibrant Christian faith. In France, as in the rest of Europe, refugees from places like Africa are bringing new energy to the church: believers arrive without the baggage of European history and colonialism and with a more relaxed, boisterous style of worship.
We spent our final two nights with friends who had started two churches in a suburb of Paris. They told stories of red tape and bureaucracy in trying to get approval to build a Protestant church, commonly viewed as a cult by French people. They, too, hosted living room meetings, and for several hours we heard the stories of individuals who came to faith as adults.
In three weeks we experienced some of the best that Europe has to offer: organ concerts in the great cathedrals of Berlin and Dresden, fine food, glorious art, a dinner in an apartment overlooking the lights of Paris and the twinkling Eiffel Tower, an excursion through France’s Champagne district. We also got a reminder that even though the cathedrals, abbeys, and monasteries are mostly tourist destinations these days, God has not finished with Europe yet. Rumors of the death of faith there are exaggerated.Copyright © 2007 by Philip Yancey