De Zeit ran a piece earlier this week under the title ‘Willkommen, ihr Götter!‘ (‘Welcome, ye Gods!’ but referred to more prosaically by Presseurop as ‘For the Free Movement of Gods‘). In its plea for a ‘Europe of religions’, De Zeit reports on the legal representations currently being made to the European court of human rights by Armenia, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Malta, Russia, San Marino and Cyprus alongside the defendant, Italy. All parties are now being represented by a leading European lawyer who is a practising Jew.
The inevitability of legal action such as this might have been predicted by national politicians and courts that have decided that in a religiously plural Europe, the only option remaining for a secular state is to ban all religious symbols from the public domain.
The future management by European States of religious plurality (and it’s important to remember that polls consistently indicate that on average, over 60 per cent of Europeans self identify as being ‘religious’) cannot be allowed to consist of little more than moves to eradicate all public signs of the presence of religious plurality. The more significant and long term issue is to address the privilege and power that religious majorities readily accrue for themselves and which is to be seen in brazen or ugly attempts at forcing others to acknowledge, venerate or wear a particular religious symbol, irrespective of their personal convictions.
Steering a course between the clumsy policies of religiously illiterate Governments and the oppressive instincts of religious mono-cultures calls for a re-evaluation of the public value of faith in Europe. This seems all too obvious as it’s clear that Europe has not always been a secular continent and there are still many countries in Europe that would consider its citizens to be self-evidently religious. To consign religiosity to the private world of the individual overlooks totally the contribution made every day to public service, public welfare and charity by millions of European citizens due to their religious motivation.
Reflecting on this as a missiologist, I am struck by the continuing European debate with its own Christendom past (and in some instance, Christendom present). Resentment, suspicion, cynicism, disillusionment are common enough reactions to any form of religious expression, yet it seems that these attitudes more readily adhere to state-sponsored, state-approved, majority churches that too readily manipulate or deploy the legal apparatus of the State to preserve their favoured status in the nation.
As the Presseurop report reminds us, in its conclusion, ‘Each cross atop a church in European cities is there to remind us that the way in which we live is not the only possible reality.’
This is deeply challenging stuff, and it reminds me that the cross speaks of an alternative to political domination and economic aggrandisement. To wear or to erect a cross should be, above all else, a gesture that indicates a willingness to serve and sacrifice, in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, for the sake of other citizens with whom we share our European home. That ought to be core to Christian mission in Europe.