Tuesday 25. January 2022

Is society loosing track?

On the occasion of the «Long Night of the Churches» in Vienna on 24 May 2019, the former President of the German Bundestag, Dr. Wolfgang Thierse, gave a very noteworthy lecture on the question "Is our society getting out of hand", which we present here in excerpts.

There are countless statements, political-sociological analyzes and survey results - in Germany, in Austria, in the neighboring European countries - whose recurring findings are: We are in a crisis of representative democracy, in a crisis of confidence not only of the popular parties, but of all the major institutions and organizations the churches explicitly included. We experienced a value crisis. Skepticism about democracy, political dissatisfaction, elite contempt, dissolution of traditions are omnipresent. And looking beyond your own country to Europe and to the world does not seem to be comforting. (...)


Deep feelings of insecurity and «the fear of losing the ‹Heimat›»

The simultaneity of changes and contradictions that overlap create a bewildering drama on the whole, and for many people, a deep sense of insecurity, of alienation:

The familiar and self-evident, social habits and cultural and religious traditions: all this becomes uncertain in the perception of many people and seems to be lost. Individual and collective identities are called into question - by the stranger and strangers who have come close to us, by globalization, the open borders, the immigrants, the refugees. The result is (as I call it) "fear of disembodiment," which expresses itself in the mobilization of prejudice, in anger and aggressive protest, as well as in racism and violence. That is our democratic challenge and it is a political, cultural and moral challenge. And also and especially a challenge for the Christians, for the churches. (...)


To be native, to be at home means to have the same opportunity to participate in the public goods of a country, this means to be able to participate in education, work, social security, democracy and culture. It also means experiencing human security and shelter, which is more than politics alone can do. Above all it is the task of civil society and depends on its structures and and different associations, its inviting or rejecting character, on our commitment, our solidarity as Christians, as citizens of our «countries of immigration».


I consider it necessary to have an open and sharp debate about which society we want to live in. In a non-solid, "homogeneous" imprisoned society? We East Germans have not teared down the wall to stay amongst ourselves, in a closed caged society. We wanted to be open and to be free! So, shall we now defend the united continent as a fortress and cultivate prosperity-nationalism or even prosperity-chauvinism? Or do we want to be a society of fundamental values, of human rights? And countries that fulfill their humane obligations. (...)


What democracy needs

For the cohesion of a pluralistic democracy, a contradictory, diverse society (which we already are and will become even more in an open world), it is obviously not enough to just point out all that we first of all must point to: the common language, the recognition of law and order, the much-famed and certainly necessary constitutional patriotism. Neither is it the relationship that society members enter into through the market and through their labour, as workers or as consumers. And of course belong to the elementary conditions for a successful cohesion of a society the visible efforts for social justice, i.e. the fair distribution of opportunities and obligations, of fruits and of burdens.


But beyond all these things that are self-evident and necessary, I think there is a need for fundamental similarities and multiple matches in what we call standards, norms or «values». There is a common need for shared ideas of freedom and its preciousness, the content and scope of justice, the value and necessity of solidarity, common or at least related notions of meaningful and good living, the dignity of every person, the integrity of the person, of tolerance and respect, of the equality of all people.


This not-just-political but ethical and cultural foundation of living together is not given once and for ever, but it is endangered, is controversial, can erode. It must always be re-worked, it must be passed on, vitalized, lived on, renewed. That is the meaning of the often-quoted sentence of the former German constitutional judge Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde: "The liberal, secular state lives from conditions that it can not guarantee itself." (...)


The task of the christians

We Christians are part of pluralism, we do not stand above it and have no place outside. Therefore, in a pluralistic society, Churches and Christians need to understand each other as dialogue partners, they need to be engage in the debate and even in the dispute. But the Churches, the Christians, should not be pussy-footing and not be afraid to represent their own cause. (...)


To be able to play self-confidently a positive role Christians and the Churches must accept a double challenge. First they must face the impositions of an increasing religious-ideological pluralism: to undergo the effort to represent one's own voice, to understand the other and to find a common language. On the other hand, to engage convinced and convincing in pluralism, in the conflict-laden and exhausting diversity of beliefs, world views, truth claims, value orientations, cultural influences. This requires a decided and lived «yes» to tolerance.

But tolerance is a harsh, exhausting virtue. Because unlike her popular misunderstanding, she is not laissez-faire, indolence, disinterest, indifference, arbitrariness. Tolerance as a virtue of practical reason is concerned with the difficult combination of one's own claim to truth with the recognition of the truth claim of the other. She does not mean mere, gracious, patronizing toleration, but means respect! (...)


No, it does not help: everyone - Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, agnostics, etc., locals as well as strangers - we all will have to face the debate over and over again: what are the commonalities that bind and support us? What limits cultural-, religious-, ideological self-determination? What is the basis of mutual recognition and for the ability and willingness to talk of all those who are so different? What is tolerance, how far must it reach? Where is your limit? Do we need prohibitions? How do we affirm the common, in order to live diversity peacefully? (...)


As Christians we are not more clever than others. Nor should we pretend that we have the clear answers to all problems. Christians are not know-it-alls, hopefully. But as citizens, as democrats, we should participate in the debate, in the dispute - and democracy is a dispute - for the best possible and just solution of the problems we are facing. We should contribute to it with our knowledge, our insights, our interests and opinions, with our commitment. But: Christians (and also the Churches) do not always have to agree completely. (...)


But it should and must be self-evident that Christians and Churches agree that they proclaim and live self-confident, unwavering and humble the liberating message of the Sermon on the Mount: the message of charity, the message of the Divine Sonship of all people that established equal dignity of all human beings.


That exactly would be the service of Christians and Churches for the good of the country. It is not the day-by-day political interference, not the representation of one's own interests, even if it is by time necessary and legitimate. That should be the contribution of Christians and the Churches to our common foundation, to the foundational commonalities of our society!


Dr. Wolfgang Thierse,

President of the German Bundestag (1998-2005)

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