Issue 1: transforming tomorrow
/ 2: Interview with Margot Käßmann
"Real encounters are often a mutual encouragement"
Margot Käßmann has retired from many offices. Her engagement with Ring for Peace is an exception. Alexander Görlach talks with the former regional bishop about peace, women, fundamentalism and why the assembly in Lindau can make a difference.
An interview by Alexander Görlach
Görlach: You withdrew from many bodies after your retirement. Your commitment for Religions for peace, conference on women is an exception. Why is this topic so urgent for you?
Käßmann: The question of peace has been extremely important since I was 16 and I have always been involved. We know that religion can resolve conflicts, but it can also escalate and add fuel to the fire. If I can be a part of religion contributing to peace, then I am very happy to do so. I once gave the laudation at the Aachen Peace Prize for a Catholic bishop and an imam from Nigeria. I noticed that when two men campaign for peace so clearly in a country, it makes a difference.
Görlach: My impression is that in the past decade the influence on religion by political leaders has increased again and again: China, Russia and Turkey but also in our latitudes through the AfD. Do you see the need to take countermeasures in order to highlight religion all the more as an instrument of peace?
Käßmann: There was talk of an age without religion. That was a mistake. Although it is clear that many people are becoming more secular, especially in western countries, religion still plays an enormous role. We witnessed terrorists laying claim to Islam for their brutal acts – pious Muslims reject this of course. We can observe that, in the case of Putin and the Orthodox Church, religion is once again instrumentalized for nationalism. This is also the case in Buddhism when we see the situation of the Rohingya. No religion is immune from being instrumentalized. That is why the conversation between the religions is so important.
Görlach: The role of religion seems to be much more political than spiritual. Pluralism is a reality for many people: in families, at school, at work or among friends. How can we help religious people understand that they also need secularized people in order to make a plural society viable?
Käßmann: Pluralism also scares some people. In this fear they withdraw to fundamentalism. This is dangerous as soon as other faiths are devalued. That is why everyone benefits from freedom of religion and it is also an enrichment for the religious majority: I am allowed to live my religion, I learn that others live their religion as well as others without religion – and we can all live together. That must be the goal of a democratic constitutional state. That would also be the goal worldwide: you can live your religion. It is important to stand up for this. This contributes to peace in society and in the world; when we learn: I have found my truth, but I can live with the fact that others have a different truth.
Görlach: This form of plurality has already partly established itself in religion. This year’s conference also looks at the relationship between the sexes. Why is it particularly difficult for religious communities to implement equality between the sexes?
Käßmann: Many religions do assume the subordination of women: it can be read from the Apostle Paul that women are subject to men. At the time, when I was elected chairman of the EKD, the Orthodox Church accused that this was an adaptation to the secular western zeitgeist. I find it regrettable that religion is represented almost exclusively by men worldwide. When we look at pictures of religious leaders’ meetings, we see that these are mostly almost exclusively male meetings. At a WEF meeting, 40 religious leaders were invited: 39 men and me. I remember a meeting with the Emir of Qatar who shook my hand in disbelief. We must therefore ask how we can support women to take on leadership roles in religions. The spiritual practice, the transmission to children and grandchildren; this is already usually done by women.
„Real encounters are often a mutual encouragement. I have seen this many times in the Church's Ecumenical Council. Getting to know other women in similar situations can also be empowering.”
When I think of the Catholic Church, there are explanations why women cannot act as representatives of Christ. For the enlightened Western European, this is relatively shocking. In other parts of the world it will always lead to incomprehension.
Käßmann: It is a question of the educational situation. I have seen many women in different parts of the world trying to counter it. When I came as a bishop it was an important sign to see that there are real women as religious leaders. It has also encouraged many women to say I am getting ordained and to study theology. In many places in the Christian churches we are in a great situation of change. In the area of Orthodoxy, however, this change is hardly visible. Education and awareness are key. At a conference in Atlanta, women from the Southern Baptist Convention said their parents were afraid that if their daughter went to college she would lose her faith. I can comprehend due to experiences I made from when I was young. Religion can come across as very authoritarian at times.
The conference that is going to take place in Lindau, if you look at it realistically: what can such events cause?
Käßmann: Real encounters are often a mutual encouragement. I have seen this many times in the Church’s Ecumenical Council. Getting to know other women in similar situations can also be empowering. I remember a conference in Vancouver in 1983: it was practiced how to put a motion to the vote or that it makes sense to relate to each other in plenary, mutual reinforcement. Furthermore we identified three themes: firstly leadership capacity of Women – how can we strengthen and train women as leaders? Secondly the question of peace building in situations of conflict. How can women appear meditatively in conflict?
The naked Portland protester comes to mind during the latest racial upsets in the US.
Käßmann: The photo of a woman sitting naked in front of police forces went around the world – the police were reluctant to take action against her. The film „Pray the Devil back to Hell“ about women in Liberia was tremendously impressive for me. They locked their men in a hotel until they signed a peace treaty. Thirdly the climate issue and education: this is a big issue for women that will be passed on to the next generation. There will be a substantive debate that depicts the different perspectives on religion but also on cultures.
We currently have the corona pandemic: from New Zealand to Taiwan to Germany; where female leaders were in power, the pandemic seemed to be more harmless than in England, Russia, Brazil or the USA for example. Did that show in a magnifying glass how female leadership can make a difference?
Käßmann: I found this study by Forbes very interesting: women are ascribed less objectivity than men. However, female leaders have been shown to have taken the advice of experts very seriously in the pandemic. While men have reacted emotionally: „a mask could reduce my manhood or show cowardice“. This contradicts the popular belief about women in leadership positions.
These are all ethical and no dogmatic questions: the question of the relevance of developing a common theology may be subordinate to that of a common ethics. One hope of such conferences is that there will be a common ethic among religion: climate change, refugee issues, economic distribution issues.
Käßmann: It makes no sense to say we want to align religions. Differences are interesting and exciting.Trying to align religions is a wrong way to me. Hans Küng’s Global Ethic project is now decades old but I still think he is right in theory: there is no peace in the world without peace among the religions and there is not only a world politics or world economy but there must also be a world ethic. Religions can truly contribute to this if they do not position themselves against one another. Küng put this together nicely: in the end, the protection of life, peaceful coexistence, the essence of respect for God’s creation. That is the theory of the Global Ethic Project. Putting it into practice is the approach of the World Religions for Peace.
Margot Käßmann (born 1958) studied theology in Tübingen, Edinburgh, Göttingen and Marburg. She was ordained in 1985 and completed her doctorate in 1989 at the Ruhr University in Bochum. After working as a pastor and later general secretary of the German Evangelical Church Congress, the mother of four was regional bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran regional church of Hannover from 1999 to 2010. In 2002, she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Hanover. In 2009/2010 she was chairwoman of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD). From August to December 2010 she was visiting professor at Emory University in Atlanta (USA). From January 2011 to March 2012 she taught and researched as a visiting professor for ecumenism and social ethics at the Ruhr University Bochum (Max Imdahl guest professorship). From April 2012 to June 2018 she was the ambassador of the EKD Council for the Reformation anniversary in 2017.
Margot Käßmann has been retired since July 2018 and devotes herself primarily to writing books. In addition, she is involved in selected projects such as the international children's aid organization "terre des hommes", the German Foundation for World Population and the social street magazine Asphalt. Since April 2019, Margot Käßmann has published the magazine "Mitten im Leben" on a monthly basis.