In an interview, the heads of Germany’s Protestant and Jewish communities discuss Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism, growing fears after the Paris attacks and whether Islam truly belongs to the country.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Bedford-Strohm, Mr. Schuster, when you took over your posts at the end of last year, Europe was seen as a much more peaceful place by the rest of the world. In the wake of the attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, how do you explain to the members of your groups that religion and violence are often closely connected?
Bedford-Strohm: We have been asking ourselves this question self-critically for a long time. People have also gone to war in the name of Jesus, and we Christians have come to terms with this terrible legacy. Fortunately, it has led us to try to stand up for human rights and be a force for reconciliation today.Schuster: Unfortunately, violence is again and again carried out in the name of religion. Religions themselves have had to, and must now, grapple with sections of their writings that call for violence or in which violence is named as a legitimate tool — and think about how people should deal with it today.
SPIEGEL: Writer Michel Houellebecq recently told SPIEGEL in an interview that “the Enlightenment is over. Humanism is dead. Religion is a step ahead.” Does that please you?
Bedford-Strohm: That is of course an artificial and completely incorrect statement. We now know, of course, that the church owes a great deal to the Enlightenment and to humanism. And that the modern constitutional state is, conversely, based on the fundamental ideas of Christianity. For me as a Christian this is crucial: Jesus died on the cross a victim of torture, and called out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That’s why I led sermon in a church in Northern Iraq: God is with the people who are suffering. He is definitely not the one guiding the hands of those people committing the acts of violence.
SPIEGEL: Researchers distinguish between soft and hard religion. The Religion Monitor of the German think tank Bertelsmann Foundation, for example, has measured a much higher intensity — a greater degree of enthusiasm — among observers of the Islamic faith than in other religions in Germany. Are you envious that the mosques are often better attended than your synagogues and churches?
Schuster: If I was a Turkish or Arab immigrant in Germany and I, for example, didn’t speak the language or didn’t yet feel at home in Germany, I would first of all go to a place where my language is spoken — which is to say, the mosque. That is completely normal. People experience the same phenomenon in other diaspora communities. The content of what is occasionally preached in mosque communities, that is a different issue. On that subject I definitely have some very critical questions. But on the question of whether Islam does, in principle, inspire people more than our religions — I don’t see that.
Bedford-Strohm: A lot of people in our churches have a very intense connection to their faith and express it with a great deal of engagement. We can always use more of that. But it’s important to me that we respect the varied ways in which people practice their faith, and that we don’t glibly assign grades to them. Fortunately, people today have the freedom to express their faith in whatever way they want. I don’t want to go back to a time in which people only joined a Christian church because the state forced them to or because they feared social repercussions if they didn’t. But I would be happy if people chose to have a new enthusiasm for the Christian faith.
SPIEGEL: People who are not religious are also looking to faith for comfort in the wake of the Germanwings crash. Do you find it disillusioning when religion becomes popular after a big disaster and it is then often quickly abandoned again when everyday life returns?
Bedford-Strohm: It is good that people know where they can turn when these kinds of catastrophes take place. Religious traditions give voice where we fall silent. During this time, the Holy Week, we are especially aware of this. That God is close to us when we suffer also sustains us in our everyday lives. In modern societies, religions — as Jürgen Habermas has suggested — preserve the knowledge, which has been expressed over many generations, about the abysses and vulnerabilities of our existence. And they give people the power to come to terms with them in a constructive manner.
Schuster: I see it as something positive when people draw on religion during existential situations and use it to find solace. One of the central challenges for both church clergy and rabbis is to convey to people that religion will also sustain them in everyday life.
SPIEGEL: And how do you want to bring your faith closer to people? In the secular German society, interest in Judeo-Christian traditions is often more rhetorical.
Schuster: I would especially like to communicate that there is now once again an energetic Jewish life in Germany. Jewishness isn’t restricted to the period between 1933 and 1945. In Cologne, a thousand young people recently took part in Jewrovision, a big, joyous musical competition for the communities’ youth centers. Religion is also nourished by joy and confidence, that’s important to me. By the way, it shouldn’t be lip service when we talk about Judeo-Christian traditions. The values of our society didn’t first come into the world with Christianity. Their roots lie in Jewish ethics.
Bedford-Strohm: Yes, Jesus was born Jewish. He prayed to the same God as the Jewish people, and for that reason we Christians are always joined God’s biblical covenant with the Israeli people. Unfortunately this was overlooked for centuries, again and again.
Schuster: Was it really just overlooked? My feeling is more that is was very consciously denied.
Bedford-Strohm: It is a burden of Christian theology that people twisted the facts when it comes to this. However, the Christian churches have addressed this failure intensively during the past decades.
Schuster: I also don’t want to place all of the blame on the churches. Still, both the Catholic and the Protestant Churches were a decisive source of anti-Semitism in Germany. Jews were sermonized against for a long time. And what came from the pulpit could not have been seen as very wrong.
Bedford-Strohm: That the Jews killed Jesus was of course a devastating phrase, because the Nazis also later made use of it. Today well-meaning people still perpetuate unconscious clichés about Jews, for example by saying that the New Testament, meaning the Christian message, displays the God of Love while the Old Testament, which as the Hebrew Bible is an essential writing for Judaism, shows the God of Wrath. That is of course completely wrong from a theological standpoint. In this area, there is still educational work to be done.
SPIEGEL: The Protestant Church is preparing for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. How are you addressing with Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic legacy?
Bedford-Strohm: In his later years, Luther expressed some indefensible and crude theses about Jewishness. These aberrations can only be an occasion for sorrow and shame.
SPIEGEL: What does the Central Council of Jews in Germany expect, Mr. Schuster?
Schuster: For me and my predecessors it was important that the Protestant Church clearly signal in advance of the anniversary that Luther will not simply to be celebrated as the greatest, best and loveliest. That, as we have just heard once again, is the case.
SPIEGEL: You grew up in Germany among Christians? How did you experience your childhood?
Schuster: It was so natural that it only later became clear to me that many things ultimately weren’t natural. My family came from Haifa to Germany in 1956, when I was two years old. My ancestors had lived in the Franconian-Hessian border area for centuries. Especially my grandfather wanted to return to Franconia (a region in northern Bavaria). I went to a public comprehensive school. I was also often invited to the houses of my classmates. They all knew that I lived in a kosher household and when the children were offered sausages at kids’ birthday parties, there were always peanuts for me. It was completely unproblematic.
SPIEGEL: And how did you feel when the period after 1933 was taught in history class?
Schuster: If I may say so ironically: It was utterly simple. Every time we made it to the end of World War I, it was summer, and we got time off because of the hot weather. Then summer vacation started, and the new school year would start again with the Ancient Greeks. I never encountered World War II in class. This subject was deliberately avoided.
SPIEGEL: Polls still regularly show that at least 15 percent of Germans have anti-Semitic attitudes. How do you explain this?
Bedford-Strohm: That is surely also because they don’t know any Jews. There are similar figures for our view of Muslims or refugees. When people genuinely encounter one another, when they know about the pain and the fears of the other person, they will generally also be mindful of them. There are always exceptions, but I believe in this potential of humanity.
Schuster: I am less hopeful in this regard. I consider the main problem to be taught patterns. No person is born with anti-Semitic sentiment. But some prejudices are cultivated in a familial or cultural context over generations, without ever being corrected. A person who has experienced this kind of stamping, is perhaps no longer even willing to enter into a discussion.
SPIEGEL: You recently warned people not to wear skullcaps, the kippa, in certain areas. Do you feel that your head covering triggers reactions in other people?
Schuster: No, because since childhood I’m not accustomed to wearing a kippa in my everyday life. Even though I grew up in a traditional family home, it was only normal for us to put it on at the synagogue or at the cemetery.
SPIEGEL: Terror in the name of religion is the most extreme form of religious reservation towards non-believers. Why is this phenomenon currently so pronounced in Islam around the world?
Schuster: In my opinion the cause of that doesn’t have to do with Islam. The politics of some Muslim countries play a much larger role in the perversion of Islam in this sense. They consciously did nothing to counter a corresponding radicalization, and instead supported it. Now it has slipped out of control.
Bedford-Strohm: Fundamentalism offers simple solutions, especially in the division of the world into good and bad. It often seems more attractive than a more nuanced examination of other beliefs. There are comparable situations everywhere in the world: In Asia there is, contrary to what Europeans imagine of the religion, also an aggressive Buddhism. In Africa, some Christians persecute homosexuals with hate. The examination of one’s potential for violence is an important step of theological development for religions. When the modern comes into conflict with the pre-modern world, it is also often accompanied by fanaticism.
SPIEGEL: What do you think of the statement, “Islam belongs to Germany”?
Bedford-Strohm: Of course the millions of Muslims who live in Germany belong, with their traditions, to us. At the same time, our European culture is much more strongly shaped by Jewish and Christian religions — and by the Age of Enlightenment. Our task should be to encourage the religious representatives of Islam to interpret their own sources in a way that is oriented towards democracy and human rights.
Schuster: For me, the sentence already creates problems in day-to-day life. Who represents “Islam”? The different streams of Islam cannot be organized under one roof. And within the mosque community you can also then find even further groupings. There are seldom clear jurisdictions. We often do not know with whom we should be talking. However, there are good initiatives in individual cities. In Würzburg, for example, there is an interfaith shuttle bus for students that goes to a Catholic Church, a Protestant Church, the synagogue, the Bahá’í house of worship and a mosque. The young people consciously dive into a religious world with which they wouldn’t otherwise come into contact. They like that.
SPIEGEL: In “Nathan the Wise,” German writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing painted a portrait of a peaceful coexistence between all the major monotheistic religions. Will that always remain a utopian idea?
Bedford-Strohm: It is of course a difficult task, but we need to attempt it every once in a while. Even if it sounds very optimistic: there I rely on the power of Enlightenment. Informed faith protects from fundamentalism. Religion classes in schools can, on this issue, not be important enough. There, it’s not the proclamation that’s the focus, but an existential debate about religion. Students need to learn how to critically examine their own religion, and they need to understand what other people find important about their religion.
SPIEGEL: Can you also imagine that Jews in traditional clothing will again become a part of everyday life on the streets in Germany?
Schuster: Unlike the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Schearim, there surely won’t be any ultra-orthodox Jews living here in the future, there isn’t enough of a Jewish environment for that. That said: Believers from the most diverse streams of Judaism need to closely cooperate in Germany for purely pragmatic reasons.
SPIEGEL: You’ll need to explain that.
Schuster: Most orthodox congregations have many liberal Jewish members. So you need to come to terms with each other. In Würzburg, for example, the 613 commandments and prohibitions of Judaism are observed in the indoor spaces of the Jewish congregation. The kitchen is kosher and on Saturdays a timer is used instead of a light switch. We believe everybody can observe these rules. In the big synagogue in Frankfurt’s West End district, three different groups meet in the main building: one strict orthodox, one conservative and one liberal with a female rabbi — and it works.
SPIEGEL: After the terror attack in Paris, a lot of people began talking about freedom of expression. The fact that this was also an attack against Jews wasn’t at the forefront of the media coverage. How did you react to that?
Bedford-Strohm: It depresses me. And I hear from Jewish people I speak with that their fear has grown — and at the same time in the wake of these attacks that the inhibition level seems to have gone down for insulting Jews. We cannot accept this under any circumstance.
Schuster: This event deeply upset me. It took a long time, after all, until it became clear that the attack on the supermarket was particularly intended as an attack on Jewish people. The supermarket was, so to speak, the prop. And it made me very irritated that this was clearly given short shrift by the media.
SPIEGEL: Has fear grown in your congregations since the attacks?
Schuster: Fear has never been a good guide. But I am noticing a sense of insecurity. Parents are now thinking about which route to take when they take their children to Jewish schools or daycare centers.
SPIEGEL: What do you do when anonymous threats are made against the Central Council or Jewish congregations?Schuster: If they are phone calls, we share them immediately with the security authorities. In my experience, the police take everything seriously, but also sensibly scrutinizes. I feel safe in Germany — and this also because there is a civil society that stands together. I don’t see any reason for the Jews here to emigrate to Israel. If someone decides to move to Israel for religious reasons, I of course have no problem with that. But I definitely don’t see any reason to leave Germany for fear of terrorism or anti-Semitism.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Bedford-Strohm, Mr. Schuster, we thank you for this interview.
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Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, 55, a regional bishop in Bavaria, is seen an expert in matters of social ethics. The minister and former university professor is the Chairman of the Board of the Evangelical Church in Germany and, as such, represents about 23 million Protestants.