FORT WAYNE, Indiana – The American Association of Lutheran Churches (AALC) recently held talks with representatives of Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (Selbständige Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche – SELK) on October 10-11, 2017 to discuss entering into altar and pulpit fellowship, as well as to consider potential opportunities for partnership.
Representing the SELK at the meetings were Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt and Rev. Dr. Werner Klän. Representing the AALC were Presiding Pastor Curtis Leins, Rev. Richard Shields, and Rev. Joseph Dapelo.
The meetings began the morning of October 10 on the campus of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where the AALC has its national headquarters. Presiding Pastor Curtis Leins of the AALC led opening devotions. Discussions the first day focused on confessional basis and ecclesial identity, as well as the doctrines of Holy Scripture, God, sin, the Son of God, the Holy Spirit, justification and sanctification, the Church, and the office of the Holy Ministry, with general agreement on the issues discussed.
Leading the SELK’s delegation was Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt, who also serves as Chairman of the International Lutheran Council (ILC), a growing association of confessional Lutheran church bodies worldwide. Both SELK and the AALC are member churches of the ILC. The second day of meetings between SELK and the AALC began with devotions led by Bishop Voigt, followed by discussions on the sacraments, worship, ethics, and eschatology, with the two sides finding consensus in these areas.
Each group plans to encourage their respective church bodies to vote on entering into fellowship at coming conventions (SELK at their pastoral convention in November 2017 and the AALC at their general convention in June 2018).
Earlier in 2017, the AALC also entered into fellowship talks with Lutheran Church in Norway (Den Lutherske Kirke i Norge – LKN). March saw talks between the AALC’s President Pastor Leins, Rev. Dapelo, and Rev. Jordan Cooper and the LKN’s Bishop Torkild Msavie and Rev. Eirik-Kornelius Garnes-Lunde. On the basis of those talks, the LKN decided to enter into fellowship with the AALC. The AALC will bring the matter forward for a vote at the AALC’s general convention in June 2018. The LKN, like SELK and the AALC, is a member church of the International Lutheran Council.
GERMANY – While most Canadians celebrated the Christmas season in relative comfort, that wasn’t the case for all people across the world. In particular, one German pastor is raising the situation of Iranian and Afghan converts to Christianity living in Germany, who are facing mass deportation despite the dangers they will certainly face if they are returned to their homelands.
Rev. Dr. Gottfried Martens is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Berlin-Steglitz, a member congregation of Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK). This congregation, along with several other SELK churches, have welcomed hundreds of converts to Christianity in recent years, mostly Iranian and Afghan refugees living in Germany. Dr. Martens and his congregation were widely covered in international media in early 2016 for their work among refugees. But the German government has recently begun to deny en masse the refugee claims of many of these converts, following what Dr. Martens is calling deeply flawed refugee hearings.
“Desperate reports have been reaching me from members of our congregation,” he writes in a letter released December 23. “At this time, the Federal Ministry for Immigration and Refugees is rejecting almost all applications for asylum from our Iranian members, and in many cases also from our Afghan congregational members and candidates for baptism, and is sending them deportation notices.”
Germany has recently increased the number of personnel responsible for hearing asylum applications—a necessary change, given many refugees have been waiting three years for their first hearing. “Yet not even in our worst nightmares could we have pictured what this change would entail,” Dr. Martens says. “Many [of those hearing the cases] are manifestly clueless about the situation of Christians in Iran and Afghanistan, and worse yet they are utterly clueless concerning questions relating to the Christian faith. But all of this does not prevent them from assuming the role of self-appointed experts, whose questions ‘unmask’ the supposedly deceitful Iranian asylum applicants one after another, even when those hearing the cases don’t even know the difference between the [Apostle’s] Creed, and the Our Father [Lord’s Prayer].”
Instead, refugees are being tasked with obscure or even irrelevant questions to determine the “authenticity” of their conversions. “Questions are put such as the names of the two sons in the parable of the Prodigal Son, or what Martin Luther died of, or the occasion of Queen Margarethe of Denmark’s recent visit to Wittenberg,” Dr. Martens reports. “In this way, Christians who learned the first elements of the Christian faith in their house church in Iran are well and truly hung out to dry. Many hearings are more like kangaroo courts in which our congregational members and candidates for baptism have absolutely no chance of presenting what is important to them.”
Dr. Martens further reports that those hearing the cases are dismissing or even mocking the refugees when they express their faith in the importance of Christ dying on the cross for their sins. “What the applicant says here makes absolutely no sense,” one official is said to write in his official reports. Those tasked with translating for the court—mostly Muslims with little knowledge of the Christian faith, and in some cases reportedly hostile to it—are also accused of incorrectly or even falsely translating what the refugees say during their hearings. Such improper questioning and translating seriously damages the applicants’ claims for refugee status, as the final decision is made elsewhere in Germany on the basis of these reports and transcripts.
Dr. Martens says the flaws in the system are so great that the situation must inevitably be raised to a higher court. “Orders have obviously been given from above no longer to recognize Iranian converts as having the right to asylum in our country,” Dr. Martens suggests. “The systematic failure of the Federal Ministry in hundreds of cases must come to the light of day through the efforts of the superior courts.”
The challenges come after a year of other difficulties, as converts to Christianity have faced increasing persecution from Muslim refugees angry at their conversions from Islam. “This year many of them suffered violent attacks from Muslim residents of their institutional homes and from Muslim watchmen once they learned of their conversion. Time and time again—most recently last week—we have had to collect people from residences, in order to prevent worse from befalling them,” he notes. The attacks even led SELKS’ bishop earlier this year to call on the government to give Christian refugees to be given separate accommodations from Muslim refugees. “But our congregational members and candidates for baptism are continually finding that those who attack them and threaten them with death have no problem securing the right of abode here in Germany, while they themselves—the ones under attack—are ‘exposed’ by the Federal Ministry as not entitled to asylum.”
As an example, Dr. Martens notes the case of six Christian converts who were beaten by a group of nearly 100 radical Muslim asylum applicants in February 2016. Police dogs had to be released in order to protect the Christians. And yet the police investigation was eventually dropped. Now, the six Christians are among those receiving deportation notices.
Despite the challenges, Dr. Martens reports good news too for his congregation. In his letter he goes on to explain the process by which refugees are instructed in the Christian faith prior to baptism—or excluded, if a genuine conversion is not evident. Currently baptisms sit at between 30 and 40 a month. And renovations to the building to accommodate more refugees continue apace.
Dr. Martens ends his letter with a request for prayer. “Please keep praying for the work here in Stegltiz,” he writes. “It is and remains in many ways a spiritual battle loaded with many afflictions and temptations. And yet for me personally, even after 25 years, it remains the most beautiful service in the world, which I would never exchange for anything else. Pray above all that all the members who have found their way to our congregation in the last years may continue to hold to Christ and not let their love for their Lord falter!”
You can download Dr. Martens’ full letter here. The translation is by Rev. Dr. John Stephenson of Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary (St. Catharines, Ontario).
SELK is a member church of the International Lutheran Council (ILC).
GERMANY – The Sixth World Seminaries Conference of the International Lutheran Council (ILC) opened Tuesday, October 11, 2016 in Wittenberg, Germany. Representatives from more than 30 ILC churches from all world regions are in attendance. In addition, nearly 30 guests representing other church bodies and institutions are present for the conference, which runs through the end of Thursday, October 13.
The choice of Wittenberg as the site of this year’s conference on theological education is an apt one. Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon were both professors at the University of Wittenberg, and it was in this educational environment that they developed many of the teachings of the Lutheran Reformation.
The theme for this year’s gathering is “Shaping Confessional Lutheranism for the 21st Century: The Impact of the Lutheran Reformation on Mission, Worship, and Worldview.” Professor Dr. Werner Klän, Rector of the Lutherische Theologische Hochschule (Oberursel, Germany), gave a keynote address on the conference theme Tuesday morning, following a service of Matins. “In all these areas, like mission, worship, and worldview, the witness of the Lutheran Reformation must be promulgated untiringly and without fear,” he said. “That is why with gratitude I realize that we share a multitude of points of view amongst our partner churches throughout the ILC, concerning the tasks that lie ahead for confessional Lutheran churches in post-modern and in some parts of the world (like Europe, as it seems to me) even post-Christian times.”
“There can be no doubt,” he continued, “that as long as we are churches bound to Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions and intend to remain so, we will be aware that effectiveness is not ours but the Holy Spirit’s, through God’s Word and the sacraments. It is and will be Him who creates, preserves, and strengthens faith and brings people from all races, cultures, social groups, societies, and nations to salvation.”
The three areas referenced in Dr. Klän’s presentation—mission, worship, and worldview—are being developed in additional detail through the keynote addresses of three other speakers throughout the conference. Rev. Dr. Andrew Pfeiffer, Head of the School of Pastoral Studies at Australian Lutheran College (Adelaide, Australia), was the first to present, discussing the impact of the Lutheran Reformation on worship. Rev. Roberto Bustamante, Professor of New Testament at Seminario Concordio (Buenos Aires, Argentina), provided a response.
Participants also broke into small groups to discuss the challenges and opportunites facing theological education in their world regions.
The business of the day concluded with Vespers, held in the Castle Church of Wittenberg, where tradition states Martin Luther once nailed the 95 Theses to the church door. Both Luther and Philip Melanchthon lie buried in the Castle Church. A walking tour of Wittenberg followed Vespers.
Germany – The International Lutheran Study and Visitors’ Center in Wittenberg (also known as the “Old Latin School”) bid a formal farewell to its retiring Managing Director and installed his successor in a festival service on Sunday, August 14.
The service, held at the Town Church of St. Mary, the “mother church of the Reformation,” marked the retirement of Rev. David Mahsman, a missionary of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), who served seven years in the position. During Rev. Mahsman’s tenure, the rebuilding of the “Old Latin School” (originally built in 1567) was completed, and the new center dedicated in May 2015. Rev. Mahsman and his wife, Lois, return to the United States around September 1 to live in St. Louis, their former home before moving to Germany.
The service included the formal induction of Kristin Lange as the new Managing Director for the Center. Lange, who hails from Kansas, studied at the Humboldt University in Berlin and works effectively in both English and German. Conducting the formal farewell and induction ceremony was Rev. Dr. Albert Collver, the LCMS Assistant to the President for Church Relations. “The focus of the Managing Director’s work will obviously change now,” commented Dr. Collver, “since the building is complete. Now comes the task of shaping the Old Latin School into an active gathering point for confessional Lutherans to meet, study, and get to know church partners from around the world.” Dr. Collver went on to note that the International Lutheran Council (ILC), a worldwide association of confessional Lutheran churches, is working to intensify its ties with the Old Latin School—a relationship indicated clearly on the building’s signage.
Serving as officiant for the service was Rev. Dr. Hans-Jörg Voigt, Bishop of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany (SELK) and Chairman of the ILC. The SELK and LCMS have been sponsoring churches for the Old Latin School project since its inception. Bishop Voigt was assisted at the worship by SELK pastors from parishes near Wittenberg, as well as by Rev. Dr. Wilhelm Torgerson, who served as the original project director prior to Mahsman’s arrival. Preacher for the service was President Robert Bugbee of Lutheran Church-Canada. In his German-language sermon, President Bugbee emphasized the heartbeat of the Old Latin School’s mission: to introduce needy people to the Good News of Jesus Christ. Luther’s old Town Church reverberated with festive organ music provided by Rev. Dr. Christopher S. Ahlman, an LCMS missionary.
The Old Latin School’s prime location at Jüdenstrasse 38 is just steps away from the Town Church’s main portal. The center includes offices, hotel accommodations, a lecture hall, kitchen facilities, and a chapel. In addition, Concordia Publishing House has many materials for sale in the center’s bookstore. The new director, Kristin Lange, also has her residence in the building, which has a busy calendar going into the Reformation 500th Anniversary year in 2017.
FINLAND – Representatives of the Communion of Nordic Lutheran Dioceses began church fellowship talks with the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) of Germany and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in England (ELCE) during meetings April 13-14, 2016 in Helsinki, Finland. The Nordic Lutheran Dioceses officially formed in 2015, and is composed of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland, the Mission Province of Sweden, and the Evangelical Lutheran Diocese of Norway.
These three churches have attempted to operate within the confines of their respective national church bodies, but have increasingly come into conflict with them as the national churches have become increasingly liberal. The bishops and almost all clergy associated with the Dioceses have been defrocked by their national church bodies for their confessional stance.
Planning for these talks has taken three years and was first only envisioned to include the ELCE and the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland. But as discussions progressed, it was considered prudent to include the other two Nordic Dioceses as well as the SELK so that the scope and breadth of these talks could be increased.
The discussions were held at the Finnish Diocese’s Koinonia Centre in Helsinki.
Meetings began with worship and discussion soon followed on the nature and identity of the Church. Each church body presented their constitution and spoke about how the Lutheran Confessions shape their self-understanding and ecclesiastical identities. Despite the influence of national and historic influences on the wording and structures of their constitutions, it was agreed that a clear and common understanding, founded upon the Lutheran Confessions, existed between the Nordic Missions Dioceses, the SELK, and the ELCE. The definition of “free” and “independent” churches were discussed and clarified, and the Nordic Dioceses made it clear that they were independent of all national church structures, governance, and practices.
The two day conference discussed twelve other topics as well, including the doctrine of Holy Scripture, the Holy Trinity, the person and work of the Son of God, the person and work of the holy Spirit, justification and sanctification, the end times, and ecumenical relations with other churches, both inside and outside Lutheranism. It was agreed these discussions were very helpful and that there was substantial agreement on these doctrines among all five churches.
The area that garnered most discussion was on the subject of the church and church structure. The Nordic Mission Dioceses and the SELK are episcopal, meaning they have bishops and a more centralised church structure. The ELCE, meanwhile, is more congregational and does not have a bishop. Dialogue here led to further discussions on the Office of the Holy Ministry. All participants agreed that while the particular form and structure of a church is important, what is ultimately important is how that structure assists the church to proclaim the Gospel and administer the sacraments as she carries out Christ’s mission in the world.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in England and the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany are both member churches of the International Lutheran Council (ILC), a global association of confessional Lutheran church bodies. The churches of the Communion of Nordic Lutheran Dioceses recently began official discussions about becoming members of the ILC.
WITTENBERG, Germany – On April 7, representatives of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany (SELK) met with the new Director of the International Lutheran Society of Wittenberg (ILSW), Kristen Lange, in Wittenberg’s Old Latin School.
Since the historic building in Wittenberg’s Old Town was restored and renovated as a study and welcome center, it began serving in its new role during the past year. The comprehensive building phase was headed up by Rev. David Mahsman. Now, as things transition into the programming phase, Kristen Lange has assumed responsibilities as its director. The SELK works together in the ILSW with its U.S. partner, The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS). The LCMS’ mission department employs Director Lange as a missionary to Germany.
Director Lange, an academically-trained linguist (in German and English), had opportunity to visit with SELK Bishop Dr. Hans-Jörg Voigt, SELK District Presidents Peter Brückmann (of Berlin) and Thomas Junker (of Weissenfels), Rev. Markus Fischer (of Trinity Lutheran Church, Leipzig, which has responsibility for Wittenberg), Ulrich Schroeder (of Dresden) and Dr. Andrea Grünhagen (of Hannover, a theological resource executive). The SELK delegation took the opportunity to get acquainted and extend a sincere welcome to Germany. Rev. Mahsman also participated in the conversation, which, in addition to information about SELK church structures and procedures, considered upgrading a preaching presence in Wittenberg, as well as public relations, outreach, and preparations for the “World Reformation Exhibition,” planned for Wittenberg as part of the 2017 Reformation anniversary.
Bishop Voigt explained to SELK-News that he is filled with gratitude every time he visits the Old Latin School. “The strong LCMS engagement, which also involved the SELK, has brought results. I wish Kristen Lange a good adjustment to Germany and the Lord’s blessing for her work.”
GERMANY – Minorities are repeatedly targeted by radical Muslims at refugee shelters in Germany. In addition to single mothers traveling with children, Christians are also being affected. Dr. Gottfried Martens, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church—a congregation of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) in Berlin-Steglitz—has furnished multiple reports of radical Muslim attacks on Christians and converts to Christianity. Members of his parish, composed primarily of refugees from Iran and Afghanistan, have appealed to Dr. Martens to rescue them from such shelters. Along with violent physical attacks, Christians are regularly insulted as “Kuffar” (unbelievers); necklaces adorned with baptismal crosses are wrenched from their necks, their Bibles torn up, and access blocked to kitchens in the shelters. As recently as this past Saturday such violent attacks took place in the refugee facility located at Tempelhof Airport in Berlin.
The SELK’s national bishop, Rev. Dr. Hans-Jörg Voigt, has responded by demanding separate accommodations for Christians as long as the state cannot ensure that all refugees may freely practice their faith in asylum facilities without disturbance. “Religious freedom is a constitutionally protected right, comparable to freedom of the press,” Bishop Voigt said. “The state has the obligation and duty to permit, ensure, and protect freedom of religion.” If this is only possible in the short term by providing separate accommodations for refugees according to religion, then this is the necessary solution for the time being. “It must not be permitted that Christians are oppressed in refugee shelters because of their faith.”
The spiritual leader of the SELK added that influential groups in society, various associations, and politicians are either downplaying this abuse or silencing it completely. The problem is that Christian churches in Germany represent a majority over against Muslims and, as a result, are legitimately concerned to protect a religious minority. In refugee shelters, however, the proportions are the other way around so that the Christians form the minority. Their need for protection is urgent. As a matter of principle, Bishop Voigt stressed that integration can only succeed when the faith of other people is respected and tolerated. Despite sharp differences in faith convictions it must be the goal of everyone to shape a peaceful life within the community.
Bishop Voigt, who also serves as Chairman of the International Lutheran Council, a global association of confessional Evangelical Lutheran churches, hailed statements on religious freedom contained in the February 12 declaration of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill I of Moscow and All Russia, signed at the close of their recent meeting in Cuba. Among other things, it states, “In our current context, religious leaders have the particular responsibility to educate their faithful in a spirit which is respectful of the convictions of those belonging to other religious traditions.” In response, Bishop Voigt commented: “We are committed to strengthening Christian refugees in this respectful spirit, but expect that Muslim spiritual leaders will stand up for religious freedom in the same way among their own adherents.”
SELK News February 16, 2016 Translation: Robert Bugbee
ARGENTINA – On September 26, delegates to the International Lutheran Council’s (ILC) 2015 World Conference in Argentina reelected Rev. Dr. Hans-Jörg Voigt as ILC Chairman.
Chairman Voigt is Bishop of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) in Germany, a position he has served in since 2006. He was elected ILC Chairman at the 2012 World Conference held in Niagara Falls, Ontario in Canada. Bishop Voigt had previously served as Interim Chairman of the ILC since 2010, after being automatically advanced from Vice-Chairman when the position of Chairman became vacant.
Despite the modest size of his church body, Chairman Voigt has become a prominent leader in confessional Lutheran and wider Christian circles. His 2013 Pastoral Letter “Discovering Marriage and Family as Gifts of God, along with other public action, won him recognition as “2013 Bishop of the Year” by a German interdenominational Christian news service, and he was likewise awarded a “Declaration of Respect” by the Association of Christian Publicists. In 2014, Concordia Lutheran Seminary in Edmonton, Canada awarded Chairman Voigt an honourary Doctor of Divinity Degree in recognition of his service not only to the German church but to Lutherans around the world.
Also on September 26, the ILC reelected President Gijsbertus van Hattem of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Belgium (ELKB) to serve as Secretary for the Executive Council.
The remainder of the ILC’s Executive Committee is composed of five World Area Representatives. According to the ILC’s constitution, members elect church bodies rather than individuals to fill these roles. Elected to serve as Latin America representative for this triennium was the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Paraguay (IELP), currently served by President Norberto M. Gerke. The remaining World Regions saw the previous triennium’s representatives returned to office. Representing Africa is the Lutheran Church of Nigeria (LCN), currently served by Archbishop Christian Ekong. The Asia World Area will be filled by The Lutheran Church of the Philippines (LCP), currently served by President Antonio del Rio Reyes. Europe will be represented by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in England (ELCE), currently served by Chairman Jon Ehlers. Finally, elected to represent North America is Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC), currently served by President Robert Bugbee.
The ILC’s Vice-Chairman is not elected by the World Conference. Instead, the Executive Council will elect a Vice-Chairman from among the World Area Representatives at their first council meeting.
GERMANY – The Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) of Germany has drawn international media attention recently as a result of the large number of Iranian and Afghan converts their congregations have received into fellowship in recent years.
Over the past decade, Germany has seen an unprecedented amount of Iranian and Afghan refugees converting to Christianity. For many of these converts, Rev. Dr. Gottfried Martens has been the pastor who shepherded them through the process. A recent Associated Press article features his work among refugees, beginning with a recent baptism service he conducted. “Will you break away from Satan and his evil deeds?” the pastor asks an Iranian named Mohammed Ali Zonoobi, and “Will you break away from Islam?” The candidate answers yes to these and other questions, and Dr. Martens baptizes him in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Dr. Martens is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Berlin, a congregation which has exploded in size due to the dramatic number of Iranian and Afghan converts joining the church. In two years, the church has grown from 150 members to more than 600, with more than 500 of these members being Farsi and Dari speakers. Prior to joining Trinity Lutheran, Dr. Martens served at St. Mary’s Lutheran Church, also in Berlin—a congregation that had, as of early 2014, seen congregational membership and the number of baptismal candidates of Iranian descent grow by 75%.
“These refugees are taking unimaginable risks to live their Christian faith,” Dr. Martens said in the Christianity Today article at the time. “Imagine! Of all places, God chooses eastern Germany, one of the world’s most godless regions, as the stage for a spiritual awakening among Persians.” Persians is another term for Iranians.
Of course, some have questioned the authenticity of these widespread conversions, suggesting a more pragmatic reason for the number of Iranians and Afghans professing faith in Christ. The Associated Press article, for example, hints that “the decision [to convert] will also greatly boost their chances of winning asylum by allowing them to claim they would face persecution if sent home.” In places like Iran and Afghanistan, converting to Christianity from Islam is a punishable offense that can lead to imprisonment, torture, or even execution.
But for Zonoobi and others like him, that threat existed long before they left Iran. Zonoobi converted to Christianity as a teenager while still living in Iran, and fled to Germany only after Christian friends began to be arrested for their faith. The total number of Christian converts in Iran is difficult to pinpoint but is widely understood to be growing. “The proselytizing from Muslim-to-Christian converts in the Diaspora as well as Christian neighbors closer to home has led to the religion taking hold throughout Iran in numbers previously unseen,” The Guardian’s 2014 report suggests. “The underground nature of the Christian conversion movement has made numbers impossible to determine accurately,” they note, but estimates of the Christian population in Iran range anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000.
Perhaps some Iranians and Afghans in Germany are joining Trinity Lutheran and other churches merely in an attempt to increase their chances of a successful refugee claim. But Dr. Martens has confidence in God to work through the Word and the Sacraments even then. “I know that whoever comes here will not be left unchanged,” he says in the Associated Press report. And the numbers bear his confidence out—Dr. Martens estimates that roughly 90% of those baptized have remained members of the church.
And there are plenty more waiting in the wings for their baptismal day. At least 80 more Iranians and Afghans are reportedly working towards their own baptisms at Trinity Lutheran, an event that is first preceded by three months of instruction in the Christian faith. If recent history is anything to go by, a new class of converts will be ready to take their place shortly thereafter.
The Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany is a member of the International Lutheran Council, a worldwide association of confessional Lutheran church bodies.
On July 28, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on the Kingdom of Serbia, just one month after the Austrian heir-apparent, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was murdered by members of the revolutionary underground organization Mlada Bosna in the City of Sarajevo. The major catastrophe of the 20th century ran its course, and it bears the seeds of the beginnings of World War II.
At the end of the European Lutheran Conference (ELC) on May 25, 2014, I and some of the other attendees visited the site of the concentration camp Bergen–Belsen. The camp is in close proximity to Bleckmar, where we had held the conference at SELK’s church mission centre, spending days of very intensive discussions with one another. I had been at the concentration camp several times before, visiting with vicars of our church, but never was it a visit that hit so close to home emotionally in the company of these international guests. On several occasions I was moved to tears in view of the documented heaps of corpses, while a brother from Great Britain and one from Denmark stood next to me. All of this had its beginnings in the events 100 years ago.
As we passed through the site’s remains and remnants of the prisoners’ barracks we engaged in some intensive discussions. Some of the points were the following:
1. To consider your guilt and to confess it is not a sign of weakness but of strength
The Australian historian Christopher Clark has published a book entitled The Sleepwalkers – How Europe Went to War in 1914. It is by now a bestseller in Germany—probably, because in it someone finally says that Germany was not the only country that bears fault for the outbreak of World War I. But I consider this question irrelevant, because from the viewpoint of the Christian faith it is not a weakness but a strength to confess one’s guilt.
My brother works as a master craftsman. His whole life consists of repeated measurements and correcting mistakes previously made; no one has ever accused him of a negative view of life because he corrects his errors. Every day our own life is to be measured by the will of God. Asking for forgiveness through Jesus Christ leads us on the right path. And if that is true for the life of each individual Christian, then it is also true for society as a whole, including in politics. The fact that Germany, at first reluctantly but then increasingly in the open, dealt with the topic of and admitted the horrendous injustice perpetrated by the nation, is a sign of strength and not of weakness, however incomplete that process may still be.
2. Admitting guilt is quite different from accepting responsibility
For Lutheran Christians it is important to speak of guilt in as precise a meaning of the term as possible. Particularly in considering historical complexities we should not use the term
flippantly. I personally am not at fault for the outbreak and consequences of two world wars and the incomprehensible destruction of the Jewish people. I bear no guilt because I did not live at that time. I have to confess enough of my own faults, and Jesus Christ is at work daily to deal with my sins.
But at the same time we Germans bear an ongoing responsibility for the consequences of German history in the 20th century. That responsibility implies that we help relieve whatever sufferings resulted from that history and wherever we face any other sufferings. And we need to remind others of this responsibility. There has been little research to date about what our originally German-speaking sister churches in Canada, the United States, Brazil, Argentina, and Australia had to contend with during those wars. The mistrust they faced from their fellow countrymen in the new homes and the resulting loss of the German language as well as expressions of enmity are part of that.
3. Nationalism is still a problem today
The French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic wars mark the advance of various forms of nationalism. Now the concept of the nation supplants the concept of the Christian religion. Nationalism is one of the main causes for the outbreak of World War I. It was nationalism that blinded churches of various denominations. For example, Roman-Catholic bishops of French and German dioceses both engaged in war-mongering against one another, even though they belonged to the same church. And the Protestant churches were no better. But the soldiers on the battlefields were completely surprised when they found a Bible or a crucifix in the pockets of their fallen opponents.
Nationalism and national egotisms are still quite prevalent in Europe and the rest of the world. Nationalism has not been eradicated and must still be considered to be competing with the Christian faith.
4. The danger of pseudo-scientific convictions
Pseudo-scientific convictions are dangerous. We see that in the Nazi ideology of National Socialism and its devastating consequences. This ideology attempted to use the theory of evolution to establish, by a process of natural selection and the law of survival of the fittest, a racial theory of social Darwinism. But pseudo-scientific notions can still be encountered today, in certain economic and sociological theories. They are in crass opposition to the Christian faith where love of the neighbor is a major tenet. Christ says: “What you have done to one of the least of these my brethren, that you have done to me” (Matthew 25:40).
5. Majorities can be wrong
These days when I see pictures of cheering crowds and soldiers like those that were sent to face a cruel death in 1914, then I often try to convince my children of the following: “Majorities can be wrong.” Those men and women who tried on July 20, 1944, to end the trauma of the Nazi dictatorship by their attempt on Hitler’s life, were courageous enough to stand against majority opinion. 70 years ago they paid for it with their lives. Christian conscience—because of original sin, often an erring conscience—must always be sharpened by attending to God’s word.
Our democratic societies stand in danger of always accepting a majority opinion as truth. German history teaches that the outbreak of the World War I was a mass supported event, and that the election to the German Reichstag in 1933 took place under generally democratic conditions. The result was the Nazi dictatorship. Majorities can be wrong—to know this is today more important than ever, particularly when the majority opinions in today’s society stand more and more in opposition to the Christian faith.
Rev. Dr. Hans-Jörg Voigt is Bishop of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) in Germany and Chairman of the International Lutheran Council (ILC).
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