The Evangelische Kirchentag (Protestant Church Congress) is a biannual festival where the church descends upon a city for a weekend of learning and worship. The long weekend stared off with me standing in a crowd of thousands in front of the Brandenburg Gate, who were anxiously anticipating the arrival of international superstar (and serial drone striker) Barack Obama chatting with his old pal, Angela Merkel. The topic was about democratic engagement and what role faith plays, but the discussion focused much more on foreign aid, the refugee crisis, and international terrorism. Obama defended his legacy, saying he didn’t get it perfect, but it was a step in the right direction, encouraging the young people to carry the torch forwards. The topic of drones did come up, being asked by one of the young people who was chosen interview the guests. I wasn’t totally convinced by the response from Obama, in the same breath talking about how they had a strict process with regards to intel and civilians before authorising drone strikes, he conceded that they hit more civilians than they ought to have. I’ve got to say, I’m a bit sceptical of those processes. That being said, he did (rightly) mention the people they were targeting would have no issue with setting off a bomb in the crowd we were standing in. I’m still not convinced that that kind of moral equivalency argument holds up. I got sunburnt.
(Short aside, Angela Merkel is actually hilarious. At one point the Archbishop – referring to Obama – remarks that it’s not often he sits next to the once most powerful man in the world, to which Merkel gives him a look. Confused he pauses and mentions something about the translation, to which Merkel responds, “no, I was just noticing that I’m the person sitting next to you.” Hilarious. You had to be there.)
The lectures I attended were surprisingly political in nature, ranging from responding to right-wing populism in the west with a focus on welcoming refugees, to how communities of faith play a role in recovering from trauma, which was a discussion headlined by the Archbishop of North Uganda, reflecting on the resolution of the conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army (the Joseph Kony people in whom everyone was briefly interested in 2012). I also stumbled across a seminar from Uniting World about theological responses to climate change in the Pacific. In the meantime, there were heaps of concerts and performances, as well as a lot of interfaith stuff. A true smorgasbord.
Finally, I caught a train Saturday evening to Wittenberg, generally considered as being the birthplace of the reformation. In a field just off the banks of the Elbe river we were to celebrate the 500th anniversary (well, it was a bit early, Luther did his thing in October 1517) of the start of the reformation. It was a good 1 hour trek from the train station to the festival grounds, so it had an air of pilgrimage to it. The evening was a Taize prayer service with brothers from the abbey, at the end of which everyone got into their sleeping bags to sleep under the open sky. Being totally unprepared for this situation, I got on a late train back to Berlin and set my alarm for an early Sunday.
The worship was a huge event. Around the main stage there was a grandstand filled with people playing instruments, which made for an awe-inspiring music element to the whole affair. The event had a great spirit of ecumenism – thankfully, in great contrast to a lot of the history the reformation came with – with many Catholics taking part in the affair and a warm invitation to the Katholischen Kirchentag next year. Archbishop Makgoba of South Africa gave the sermon and encouraged us to be radical while invoking the other Martin Luther (Dr King) and spoke of his dream to see a more just world based in love, where we do not build walls around ourselves and welcome the stranger in our midst. I got sunburnt.
~ Kai Strobel