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HTS Theological Studies

On-line version ISSN 2072-8050
Print version ISSN 0259-9422

Herv. teol. stud. vol.66 n.1 Pretoria Jan. 2010




Prophetic witness and public discourse in European societies - a German perspective



Heinrich Bedford-Strohm

Otto-Friedrich University Bamberg, Germany. Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa

Correspondence to




The role of prophetic witness of the churches in the public discourse of modern civil societies is analysed on the basis of three public memorandums of the German Protestant churches on economic questions and their impact on the public. Among the ten systematic conclusions which are drawn from this case study is the importance of the specific context for the role of prophetic statements. The article tries to show how prophetic witness is a necessary element of a public theology, which is not based on fundamental criticism, but develops both critical and constructive perspectives for politics and society. If such public theology is liberation theology for a democratic society it is the task of the church to get involved in the public debate in a 'bilingual' way, that is, on the basis of its biblical-theological sources but at the same time with the ability to engage in the secular language of pluralistic societies.

Keywords: Public Theology; public discourse; civil society; prophetic witness; option for the poor; economic ethic




The power of prophetic speech

One of the most troubling but also impressive stories of the Bible is the so called 'Nathan Parable' (2 Sm 12). It is the story of a prophetic witness. After King David's misuse of power to support his affair with Bathsheba, God sends the prophet Nathan to see David. The prophet tells the king the story of the rich man who has many sheep and the poor man who has only one sheep which he holds 'like a daughter'. When the rich man has a visitor, he wants to prepare a sheep to eat with him. And since he cannot get himself to give up any of his own sheep he goes to the poor man, takes his sheep and prepares it for the visitor. When the king hears this, he gets very angry and says: 'As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die' and Nathan says to David: 'You are the man!'

The most challenging and thought-provoking aspect of this story is not the substantial critique of David's behaviour; it is not even the courage of the prophet confronting the most powerful man of his time. The most challenging aspect is the moral outrage of the king. David is honestly angry and upset about the clearly unacceptable behavior of the rich man. And he does not even notice the analogy to his own behavior. It does not come to his mind that his power abuse in his desire for Bathsheba is of the exact same quality as the rich man's abuse of power against the poor man.

It is challenging for us today because it directs our attention to those injustices that are so much part of our daily behavior that we do not even notice. It makes us aware of the fact that with every finger we point toward another person, four fingers point back to us. It reminds us of our tendency to look at the speck in our neighbour's eye, but not notice the log in our own eye.

It is obvious that this has manifest consequences for political life. It is no coincidence that it is a king who is addressed in the story. It is certainly also a story about two individuals, but behind that, it is definitely a story about the relationship between church and state raising urgent questions for today: how can the churches critically accompany the political process? Should they speak up to power in ways which are more shocking than comforting and sustaining? Or should they cultivate a relationship to government and its officials which is characterised by solidarity and support?

When I speak about this question as a European, I am very aware of the contextual dimension. Firstly, I speak from a context which is in most cases characterised by a history of close partnership between church and state. In Germany, there is a separation of church and state, but to this day, most of those who share political responsibility consider themselves Christians and that means as members of their church. In most cases this self identification has to be considered sincere.

Secondly, I speak from the context of one of the most powerful economies in the world. I speak from the context of a country which, despite the existence of winners and losers in this context as well, has as a whole greatly profited from the processes of globalisation. I speak from the context of the affluent world and, as an university professor, from the context of the more wealthy segment of society in the affluent world. Everybody will agree that this is of considerable significance. If the poor and starving Lazarus in the famous gospel story (Lk 16:19-31) accuses the rich man of not sharing his wealth with the poor, an answer faithful to the gospel could certainly not be: 'Why do you see the speck in your neighbour's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?' The same biblical sentence which is highly impressive in the right context can become cynical in the wrong context. The context matters (Boesak 2009:62-63).



Three case studies from the German context

The public voice of the church in Germany

Being aware of this context, I want to give an insight into some of the discussions made on several highly significant public statements by the Protestant churches in Germany on the economy, which reflects the complicated relationship between prophetic witness and prophetic speech. I will look at three documents. The first one is a memorandum on overcoming poverty issued by the Council of the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKD) in July 2006 (Council of the EKD 2006). The second one is a memorandum on business ethics from a protestant perspective published in July 2008, which sparked a heated debate (Rat der EKD 2008), and the third one is a widely recognised public statement by the Council of the EKD in reaction to the economic and financial crisis in July 2009 (Council of the EKD 2009).

All three of these are different responses to our question of prophetic witness and public discourse. The first two statements were written by the EKD Advisory Chamber of Social Order in which numerous representatives of public life are represented, appointed by the Council of the EKD. The secretary of the German employers association is as much a member of this chamber as the then vice-president of the German association of labour unions, but also several members of parliament, a former cabinet minister, professors of economy and of course some theologians. What connects them all is their sincere aspiration to live as Christians in their daily lives and in their professional existence. Yet the differences in profile of the persons mentioned and their plural backgrounds make it difficult to issue clear prophetic statements. Such documents are the result of a long process in which a small redactionary group goes back and forth into the chamber with different versions of the coming statement. If the Council of the EKD thinks that the statement has the necessary quality and that it represents the views of the Council, it is then published as a 'Denkschrift' which means, literally translated, a 'thinking document', because it wants to initiate or support a thinking process among Christians. If the Council remains unsatisfied it can also end up in the waste paper basket.

The third of the three statements has a slightly different history of origin. It was written by a small group of people from church administration, from the EKD council itself and only two people from the chamber. Maybe this different history is part of the reason why this document is - as I will argue - the most prophetic one.

Just participation: Empowerment for personal responsibility - the poverty memorandum

I will only briefly present the first document. It was written in the context of a growing gap between rich and poor in Germany due to continuingly high numbers of unemployment (around 10 per cent). Due to the shift of untrained jobs to countries with labour cheaper than in Germany, more and more people among those with a low level of education were in danger of losing their jobs indefinitely. The statement elaborated on the preferential option for the poor and interpreted it as a call to just participation for each member of society. It made a plea for 'enabling justice' as complementary to distributive justice, which meant a call to massively invest in education and various forms of empowerment especially for those who did not have equal chances due to a long time poverty background of their families. The emphasis, thus, lay on empowerment to take responsibility oneself, but the statement made very clear that the basis of such self-reliance was the solidarity of society to enable every person to take personal responsibility.

The last chapter challenges congregations to face their exclusive existence as communities for the educated middle class rather than being inclusive communities and living examples for just participation. It calls for new initiatives to include the poor in the parishes. The document affirms:

Individual Christians, as well as the church and diaconal institutions, are especially challenged in regard to fighting poverty. The acceptance of involuntary poverty in society represents a societal and individual failure before the claims and commandments of God. Our society enjoys access to a greater wealth of resources than ever before in the history of humankind. Therefore we have no excuse - we must be resolute in seeking to overcome poverty and the lack of participation in society. A church that does not demand justice, whose members know no compassion and do not open their hearts to the poor - or even go as far as to deprive them of opportunities to participate in society - such a church, despite any external success or social recognition, is not the Church of Jesus Christ.

(Council of the EKD 2006:5-6)

If one takes into account that these sentences were not only supported by theologians but also by political representatives and professional bankers, all members of the Council of the EKD, this statement was a remarkable input into the public debate and maybe something like a 'representative new consensus' for society as a whole, found by the church on the basis of the gospel. It did indeed generate and foster an intensified debate in the German public on poverty and its overcoming. It represents prophetic elements but also analyses the situation very carefully and makes concrete political proposals which had a chance to find consensus also among those who bear political responsibility. A program for 100 000 jobs for unskilled unemployed people financed by the government followed soon after the publication of the document and there are reasons to believe that the churches' public voice was one of its midwives. While the poverty memorandum was widely praised across political parties and societal milieus, the second statement I want to refer to generated a heated debate, especially within the church (for the most recent and comprehensive account see Reihs 2009).

Entrepreneurial activity in Protestant perspective - the business ethics memorandum

For a long time, the relationship between people working in business (especially owners of companies, Chief Executive Officers (CEOs), as well as small business people) and the Protestant church was characterised by tension. The aspiration to make a profit from business seemed to be in conflict with the biblical commandment to serve your neighbour without expecting revenue. People whose daily job it was to generate revenue did not feel welcome in the parishes, or even felt excluded. They perceived the Protestant church as a community which was politically biased to the political left and which did not take into account the concerns of entrepreneurs and business people.

In this situation, the Council of the EKD decided to put the relationship with the business world on a new footing and asked the chamber to work out a document on the ethics of entrepreneurial activity, which could be a basis for a new dialogue between church and business. In a way, one can say that one of the leading intentions was pastoral rather than prophetic: by saying yes to their daily professional existence, business people were to be drawn into a dialogue on the ethics of their professional activities. The yes was not a general approval for their activities but a 'conditional yes'. On the one hand, the document, which was then worked out by the chamber, indeed recognised entrepreneurial activity as an activity that potentially serves the community by generating wealth. On the other hand, it gave clear guidelines for making a judgment as to whether it really served the community or whether it only served the greed of some to maximise their profits. The background idea was a social market economy which sees the market and private entrepreneurial activity as a vital source of wealth, but demands a legal framework which makes sure that the fruits of such wealth are widely distributed so that each member of society profits from it.

Its basic theological point was a new understanding of freedom as 'communicative freedom', which means that freedom is never the freedom of the individual only, but always includes service to others, as Martin Luther explained it in his famous treatise 'On Christian Liberty' in 1520 (Luther 2003). From that, the statement came to the conclusion that the dignity of the human being must always be the basic criterion for entrepreneurial activity, meaning that human beings can never be purely means to an end but must always be an end in itself, as Kant's (1911:43) famous formulation states. Also invoking the United Nations (UN) pact of 1966 on social human rights, it affirms that employees may never be purely instrumentalised. The document then continues:

When employees are disregarded in their fundamental human needs, when their dignity is thus ignored, they are reduced to being purely means toward an end. Such a reduction to being means towards an end happens when lay-offs are not only used as a very last resort, but as a way to further increase already high profits. It happens when companies employ people in emerging markets for starvation wages and let them work under conditions which endanger their life or their health, or when children have to work without a chance of education. It happens when employees in our country don't dare to stay at home when they are sick or to go to the doctor or when there is a climate in the company in which all human communication is strictly subordinated to the economic interest of the company, and the social fabric plays no role anymore.

(Rat der EKD 2008:43)

The document affirms a social market economy approach in which free enterprise is framed by government regulation that institutionalises its social responsibility. Briefly before the outbreak of the global financial crisis, it calls for 'well regulated capital markets' (Thesis 6:77), implying the necessity of new regulation (for which concrete proposals are made), but also avoiding a fundamental condemnation of capital markets.

Such social market economy is seen as a model potentially helpful for a humanisation of globalisation:

The concept of social market economy catches increasing interest in more and more countries worldwide, especially in those emerging markets which profit economically most from globalization. Especially these countries recognize that the onesided emphasis on a rapid economic growth can lead to grave internal disruptures in their societies and endangers their social cohesion. They note an enormous backlog demand in the social realm. It is especially Germany from which effective help and even concrete advice is expected. Thus the model of social market economy could prove to be a model to strengthen the social dimension of globalization. It also remains the guiding principle for entrepreneurial activity and the decisions connected with it. It should lead to the reorientation of global competition on labour markets and production sites along the criteria of fairness, justice and humaneness.

(Rat der EKD 2008:57)

If one takes into account the strong emphasis on social responsibility which these passages show, one might be surprised that the reaction among some of the socially engaged Christians in Germany was very critical. Those who expected a fundamental criticism of capitalism instead of a call to responsibility to entrepreneurs, which of course implied the acceptance of markets as an instrument for generating wealth were disappointed, some even shocked. They understood the document as a document promoting neoliberalism and saw it in fundamental opposition to the ecumenical process of confession expressed in the Accra document. A group of critics led by German theologian Ulrich Duchrow published a book against the statement (Duchrow & Segbers 2008) and initiated a signature campaign calling for the 'revocation' of the document by the EKD. They collected about 1100 signatures in the year following the publication of the document.

One can very well interpret this reaction as the expression of a deep dismay about a perceived lack of prophetism in the public voice of the church. Instead of fundamentally criticising the system they thought the document accepted the existing framework of our economy too much and thereby betrayed the fundamentally critical impulse of the gospel.

The question behind the conflict is a fundamental question about the place of prophetic speech in public discourse: is it a special sign of faithfulness to the gospel if the public voice of the church is characterised by a condemnation of the existing system, which would include the daily activities of those who have responsibility in this system? Or is the more faithful way a call to their conscience to act along specific ethical criteria in their daily activities while at the same time engaging in a debate about the best ways to improve the political design of the economy in favour of the poor? Or do both approaches have to be related to each other?

It has to be noted that, very differently from the openly visible, daily dehumanisation of human bein