Conference Report: “Verständigung und Versöhnung: Beiträge von Kirche, Religion und Politik (Understanding and Reconciliation: The Contributions of Church, Religion, and Politics)”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 21, Number 3 (September 2015)

Conference Report: “Verständigung und Versöhnung: Beiträge von Kirche, Religion und Politik (Understanding and Reconciliation: The Contributions of Church, Religion, and Politics)” 18th Dietrich Bonhoeffer Lectures, Institut für Gesellschftswissenschaften und Theologie, Europa-Universität Flensburg, July 10-12, 2015.

By Victoria J. Barnett, U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

The role played by religious leaders and institutions in political processes of reconciliation, particularly in the wake of conflicts and wars, is a topic of growing interest, due both to the revival of interest in interfaith work and the number of contemporary conflicts in which religion is a factor. It’s a topic in which the historical precedents are often obscured by the realities of contemporary issues, but it’s interesting to reflect on how those precedents shape our assumptions today. In U.S. popular culture the reputation of the Second World War as “the good war” is based not only on the clear-cut moral and political issues surrounding the war against Nazi Germany but on what unfolded in the aftermath of that war. European cities were rebuilt in what in historical terms seems like record time, Germany was reintegrated into collective European society, and despite the Cold War the Second World War was followed by decades of relative political and economic stability throughout Europe.  One has only to reflect on the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the ongoing conflict in the Sudan to realize what a rare phenomenon postwar Europe was in all these respects, despite the widespread scope of the war’s damage, the millions of displaced persons, and the fact that a genocide had just occurred.

The contemporary challenges of multiculturalism and political stability in Europe and the historical period of reconstruction after 1945 were the topics of this year’s Bonhoeffer Lecture conference in Germany, a two-day conference organized and hosted by the Institute for Social Science and Theology at the Europa-Universität in Flensburg. The German Bonhoeffer Lecture, sponsored by the Stiftung Bonhoeffer-Lehrstuhl, is a biennial program that convenes U.S. and European Bonhoeffer scholars in a wider conversation with European scholars on historical and contemporary issues.

The focus of the first day was “Religious Pluralism as a Challenge for Social Understanding Today,” with a particular focus on Muslim-Christian relations in Germany. Conference host Ralf Wuestenberg, professor of systematic and historical theology at the university in Flensburg, introduced the theme by analyzing the applicability of Bonhoeffer’s late writings about the “scarring over of guilt” to conversations about guilt, reconciliation, and the challenges of inter-European reconciliation today.  Klaus von Stosch, a professor of Catholic theology in Paderborn who also teaches at their Center for Comparative Theology and Cultural Studies, discussed the ways in which theological Muslim-Christian dialogue in Germany today has led to deeper understandings of his own Catholic theology, and the potential of the intercultural programs at the Paderborn Center for a better understanding of pluralism. Çefli Ademi, a postdoctoral fellow for Islamic Theology at the Westphalian Wilhelm University in Münster, delivered a paper on the possibilities within Islamic jurisprudence for co-existence and in some cases integration into western European legal systems. Christiane Tietz, professor of religious philosophy at the University of Zurich whose recent work has focused on interreligious understanding, analyzed and summarized the ways in which interreligious work and dialogue function in today’s Europe.

The second day, “Reconciliation as a Service of the Church and Task of International Politics after 1945,” offered an overview of post-World War II reconciliation in Europe, particularly with respect to the role and responses of the different churches. Konrad Raiser set the foundation by giving an overview of the history of the ecumenical movement in the twentieth century, particularly in terms of its dedication to international peace. My own paper traced the engagement of U.S. churches in postwar Germany, particularly through the work of the Federal Council of Churches and the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Karsten Lehmkühler, professor of ethics at the University of Straßburg, talked about the ongoing process of German-French reconciliation after 1945, and Tim Lorentzen, who teaches church history at the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich, analyzed the role of Christian memorial culture in the process of German-Polish reconciliation.

As the topics indicate, most of the presentations (as well as the discussion that followed) explored theologically-based approaches to dialogue and the ways in which such dialogue can shape broader political discourse. The presentations on the second day, however, illustrated that even theological agendas and discourses are shaped by the historical realities of the respective dialogue partners.  A conference volume is being planned.

(The views expressed in this review are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum or any other organization.)