Don’t go down that road

Rev. Dr Martin Junge, General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation. Photo: LWF/A. Danielsson
Rev. Dr Martin Junge, General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation. Photo: LWF/A. Danielsson

I was a teenager when it started. It was a time of profound changes in Chilean society, with polarized opinions. People increasingly resorted to a demonization of the other. Hate speech began to spread and became “normal”.

History tells us, that where hate speech prevails, violence follows. This happened in my country Chile, and it happens today in many countries in the world. In Europe too. Hate speech erodes the public space of society. It stigmatizes individuals and groups because of their political convictions, religious believes, origin, the colour of their skin, gender. Hate speech makes the collective moral compass of society to go astray, and eventually leads to the collapse of democracy.

What follows is a nightmare. When individuals and groups demonize the other, they unleash the demon of violence, oppression, and dehumanized treatment of the other. Hate speech leaves destruction in its wake.

The people of Sweden stood with the people of Chile during these difficult times in my country. It is because of my deep gratitude for this solidarity and out of deep concern for the current degradation of public discourse and argumentation in Swedish society, that I write this piece. I have received the news of the recent despicable verbal attacks to the Archbishop of the Church of Sweden with dismay and shock.

I plead with you: don’t go down that road. Do not let hate speech undermine your conviviality and your sense of belonging to each other –despite differences and challenges. Do not let it take away your ability to relate to each other in constructive ways.

Love your neighbour

As the General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, a communion of 148 churches globally, of which the Church of Sweden is not only an active, but a founding member (1947, Lund), I always feel immensely grateful to our forefathers and foremothers, who came together after another of those periods of demons unleashed (WWII). One of their first decisions was to create a structure to serve refugees. In doing so, they expressed the deep spiritual conviction:  to love the neighbour is a deep expression of faith.

Together with Church of Sweden and its structures, the LWF serves today some 3 million refugees and displaced persons globally. Their names are not European anymore, as they were at that time after World War II. And still, they are refugees. Also, today most of them are not Christians, as they were then. And still, they are refugees. In the substance, therefore, all remains the same: we serve them, because they are refugees, and because we are Christians.

A World of Neighbors

We live in a world of neighbours. This is particularly true in our time of accelerated globalization.

As we come closer to each other, we often become aware of the “otherness” of the other. Some of this otherness unsettles us, and even puts into question some of our deep-held convictions, be they individual or collective.

However, even then we continue to be neighbours. The task at hand is to learn being, or becoming neighbours. Negotiating our differences, and defining together what we will identify as a collective public space and its intrinsically democratic nature.

Most of the LWF member churches around the world live and work as churches in a minority situation. Sometimes, they are a minority within an overwhelmingly secular context or with respect to other, larger Christian denominations. Often, they are minority in an interfaith setting.

Lutheran churches will always see and propose dialogue as part of their responsibility to shape the public space. Interfaith dialogue and cooperation are, therefore, a normal feature for Lutheran churches globally. I welcome that many churches in Europe, including the Church of Sweden, are actively promoting this approach, helping to shape neighbourhood in constructive ways.

Dialogue as a way of being

Interfaith dialogue is one of the most urgent approaches in today’s world. For the church, this has nothing to do with syncretism, let alone with betraying the deep foundations of our own faith. It is rather the other way round: by engaging in dialogue, the church follows in the footsteps of the one who the Bible shows as constantly talking, sitting and eating with the “other”. What was seen as a scandal by some, was understood by Jesus himself as a faithful way to express what God wants for this world: that all will find life, and find it in abundance. A church in dialogue, is a church faithful to Christ.

For Lutheran churches worldwide, and the LWF as a global communion, such dialogue is never naïve. Hence, it does not engage with extremist expressions, whether they are secular, ecumenical or interreligious. For this one reason: extremism, by its very nature, denies the notion of a public space, as one that is inclusive, tolerant and democratic by nature. Otherwise, it stops to be public, and dialogue purposeless.

Dialogue breaks the isolation of those who stand for the middle-ground of moderation, tolerance and inclusiveness. Refusing dialogue, pushes them away from that middle ground.

Lutheran theology teaches us not to apply good and the evil as labels of specific people or communities. Instead, it confronts us with the hard but helpful truth that good and evil runs through each of us, through each community and society. That is, probably, the most promising starting point for a true dialogue.

The road we must take

The times in which we live are not easy. The pandemic has added stress and anxiety to communities already grappling with deep existential questions.

Together, as people of good will, we have to promote dialogue and cooperation. We have to call the attention where public speech and public space are degrading, knowing that hate speech opens the floodgate to destructive behaviour. We have to work for a public space open to all, where nobody is silenced, bullied and forced to leave. And we should do this irrespective of faith or no faith, contributing as well as we can to see this vision transforming our daily realities.

This is the road we must take.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of Lutheran World Federation policy.