Speech given by Federal Chancellor Dr Angela Merkel in Lutherstadt Wittenberg on 31 October 2017 on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation

Tuesday, 31 October 2017 in Berlin

Federal President,
Esteemed Presidents,
Honoured guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

We are gathered here today to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation. We recall the pugnacious Augustinian monk Martin Luther’s decision to publish his views in 95 Theses. Martin Luther appealed to the conscience of many people – people who until then perhaps lacked their own courage or their own words for expressing their doubts and apprehensions about the dogmatic rules in place at the time.

We do not know with absolute certainty whether the nailing of the 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517 actually took place in precisely the way that has been handed down to us in the history books. However, what is certain is that, with his Theses, Martin Luther set a ball rolling that was unstoppable and which was to change the world forever. Whether politics and law, language and social affairs, art and culture, hardly any area of life was spared the Reformation triggered by Martin Luther – and far beyond the borders of Germany and Europe. It is therefore not for nothing that the Reformation is also called a true “citizen of the world”.

However, the Reformation was, at first, primarily a movement of religious renewal that aimed to achieve a fundamental reordering of the humankind’s relationship with God, with itself and with our fellow human beings. The liberating message that mankind can solely find salvation before God by grace and through faith alone took centre stage. Mankind cannot buy God’s mercy nor attain it by good works, rather it is given as a gift to those who believe.

With this belief, the Reformers considered themselves to be free from the paternalism of church authorities and, by extension, also secular hierarchies. And so an understanding of humans emerged that was to have a profound impact on the modern era – the concept of emancipated humans called unto liberty, assuming responsibility for themselves and for others.

This is wonderfully expressed by the song that we sang today – “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (A mighty fortress is our God) – which was composed by Luther and based on Psalm 46. Its core message – God should and can be our fortress – is the reason why it became the stirring anthem of the Protestant movement and was hailed by Heinrich Heine as “the Marseillaise of the Reformation” in 1834.

Every democratic order is essentially based on this understanding of humanity. Even though, of course, no straight line can be drawn from the Reformation to democracy and to a constitutional state as we know it today, the Reformation and the notion of freedom on which it is based proved to be a driving force in the ongoing process of social and political renewal. It is therefore important to keep its intellectual, cultural and religious heritage alive – not least because the Reformation, taking faith as its starting point, offers important impetus for shaping social coexistence in the 21st century.

It is precisely for this reason that it is so vital to seize this anniversary as an opportunity to engage in an intensive debate on the Reformation in society. The great number and diversity of the events taking place throughout the country, which have met with most keen interest, continue to give expression to this. They were and continue to be impressive. Permit me to thank everyone who has played a part here, often with great passion. One event that occupies a special place in my memory is the service of reconciliation in Hildesheim – a wonderful symbol of ecumenism, irrespective of everything that continues to divide Catholics and Protestants today. Thank you once again for the cross that you presented today.

The Federal Government has also supported a wide range of cultural and educational projects together with churches, the Länder, municipalities and countless civil society actors. Our involvement in the preparations and implementation of the Reformation anniversary celebrations was and continues to be an expression of our efforts, beyond this anniversary, to facilitate a rich and lively religious community in Germany in general. The freedom of religion and faith as well as the unhindered right to practise religion for all believers and every religious community are protected under our Basic Law.

Just as the freedom of religion must always be protected against religious fanaticism, the freedom of religion also requires religions to be protected against efforts to play them down. I consider the cause of religious freedom – both here in Germany and around the world – to be a common task facing politicians and churches. This in no way contradicts our separation of politics and the state that is necessary in accordance with our concept of the state; on the contrary, even though our country is, without any doubt, committed to religious and ideological neutrality, politicians may not under any circumstances dispense with their responsibility to protect and preserve a shared foundation of values that is vital for thriving and peaceful coexistence – both within a country and between nations. Our country is committed to the universal task of respecting and protecting human dignity. This is the basis of our duty to respect and protect religious freedom, alongside other liberties enshrined in our Basic Law.

People of different faiths and ideologies live and work in Germany. The fact that they encounter each other with tolerance, are there for one another and assume responsibility for their communities is an essential precondition for ensuring that society as a whole develops for the better – and that means supporting the cohesion of our society. That may sound almost banal, but it is not. Rather it is the result of a learning process that has gone on for centuries and which has sometimes been very painful. We have not forgotten that the Reformation did not herald the dawn of an era of peace and freedom – the root of our identity – but that it was first followed by a long story of conflict in the course of which the wars of religion inflicted terrible suffering on Europe. At the same time, these conflicts also made it necessary to seek viable, i.e. humane, solutions and regulatory approaches to enable the coexistence of the various different faiths. The Reformation therefore gave rise, indirectly, to the perception that questions of faith needed to be legal relationships guaranteed by the state within the framework of a secular order.

We know that the discovery of the freedom of Christians in the Reformation was not initially a question of the freedom of religion, a concept that the Reformers did not accept at all. It was inconceivable for them for different notions of faith and truth to exist alongside each other. The Reformers remained firmly rooted in the Middle Ages in this respect. Luther’s raging against those who thought and believed differently, especially against the Jews, is a clear yet shameful testament to this. I therefore very much welcome the fact that the commemoration of the Reformation has also encouraged a historical examination of this issue.

It is vital to call to mind this centuries-old learning process when talking today about the importance of tolerance in our open societies, in our globalised world. Those who preach diversity must practice tolerance. That is what our continent’s historical experience teaches us. The fact that tolerance is the basis for peaceful coexistence in Europe was learned the hard way. We have thus learned that tolerance is the soul of Europe. It is the basic principle of every open society. There can be no open societies without tolerance.

Acknowledging plurality and dealing with differences and religious and cultural diversity are a key challenge in our globalised world. After all, we are witnessing today that wherever religious freedom is in bad shape, social development as a whole is jeopardised. History therefore teaches us how important it is always to view religious freedom and tolerance as two sides of the same coin. In concrete terms, this means even when religious convictions contradict one’s own standpoint, it is important to remember that they are of vital importance to others. We must therefore ensure that everyone is able to live in accordance with their religious beliefs without having to fear discrimination. However – and this must be just as clear – this can only work when we act on the basis of generally accepted rules that are mutually applicable to all. Put very simply, tolerance reaches its limits wherever our liberal values and human rights guaranteed by our Basic Law are disregarded, or even trampled underfoot.

It goes without saying that politicians have a great responsibility for instilling a common awareness of our basic values and norms. Churches also have a vitally important role to play in this regard. With their message of hope for humanity, they are able to sharpen our focus for the things that unite us – particularly beyond religious borders.

We often know too little about each other, however. And a lack of knowledge can, all too easily, give rise to prejudice and resentment. This is why opportunities for exchange and contacts are so important for an interfaith dialogue. This interfaith dialogue can be successful if we affirm our own belief in order to encounter other religions even more self-confidently on this basis. Religious education can help to serve this purpose, and the many events in this Reformation anniversary year and in the years previously have helped to serve this purpose especially the German Protestant Kirchentag in the spring of this year.

Religious education – be it in the family, religious instruction or in theology studies – is a common task. It is one faced by churches and religious communities, governments and educational institutions, as well as by the media and civil society. Religious education was also one of the fundamental aims of the Reformation. It was Luther’s translation of the Bible and the development of a uniform written German language that made Holy Scripture comprehensible to the population at large in the first place. Thanks to the invention and spread of the printing press, people were suddenly able to understand the key elements of the faith. In keeping with the notion of the priesthood of all believers, each Christian was able and had a duty to be responsible and capable of making sound judgements in their spiritual lives and when talking about their faith. This concept gave rise to a new social responsibility for education. Education was recognised as an important basis for all areas of life above and beyond theological issues.

Philip Melanchthon, that great scholar and colleague of Luther, summed this up as follows in his famous pronouncement: “When you see to it that your youth is brought up properly, it will help you to defend your cities; for no bulwark or city walls are stronger than citizens endowed with learning, prudence, and the other virtues.” This gave rise to an unprecedented educational awakening, which was also spurred by the invention of the printing press. Sections of the population for whom this was hitherto inconceivable enjoyed access to education from now on. Entirely new perspectives for personal and social development opened up.

Equal opportunities, education for all and the value of education for the public good are now, also today, the subject of public discussions and are of paramount importance. This starts with children in kindergartens and schools. Every boy and every girl should be given opportunities, regardless of their social or family background. In order to learn and develop skills, some children must be given slightly more support than others – when sufficient encouragement from their parents is not forthcoming, for instance. It is also important to integrate children from refugee families who have often experienced and gone through terrible things. After school, young people have to consider which course of vocational or tertiary education to take, and ultimately, options for further and advanced training. This is not just about good courses and facilities at these institutions, but is also a question of flexibility, so that it is possible to complete vocational qualifications after a course of studies or vice versa.

Promoting education has always been a major priority for the church. For the church, too, this means being open to new developments that not least digital progress entails, and for which promoting independent thought and critical powers of judgement are required. What we are experiencing today with digitisation is just as much a breakthrough as the invention of the printing press in Luther’s day.

In the face of the almost infinite range of information available, many people are experiencing a growing desire for direction, for support – some have also expressed the desire to close themselves off from the world or to limit themselves to a very restricted number of sources of information. As there is a risk here of perceiving the world only through an extremely selective lens, learning how to programme and operate computers and how to hold your own professionally in Smart Factories or being au fait with Smart Homes is not enough. We must also teach media skills. This is about nothing less than ensuring that each and every one of us learns from as early an age as possible how to cope with this abundance of information sources, and how to distinguish between things that are important and the things that are less important, as well as between serious and non-serious content. It is precisely this that, once again, reflects our understanding of emancipated humans called unto liberty.

“A Christian is an utterly free man, lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is an utterly dutiful man, servant of all, subject to all.” Thus begins Luther’s tract On the Freedom of the Christian. While both statements may appear paradoxical at first sight, the principle that unites both of Luther’s pronouncements is most convincing. It is the principle that each and every individual has the right to free development of their personality and always has an obligation to take responsibility for themselves and others. That is freedom in responsibility. It is an indispensable standard for our actions. Freedom in responsibility does not make us trust blindly that others will step up to the plate and tend to the public good. Freedom in responsibility challenges us to contribute our own ideas, creativity and energy. Freedom in responsibility is the basis for ensuring that our society is fair.

In all of this, let us not forget that humans are always imperfect in all that they do. We make mistakes. However, I find the knowledge that we aren’t destined to crumble as a result of our imperfection, because God bestows his grace and love upon us, to be most liberating. He grants us mercy and love in our daily and ongoing efforts to promote what keeps us together and sustains us. The rule of law, the freedom of religion and the freedom of opinion are precious and give us strength. They must be filled with life day by day. They can be filled with life day by day. The attitude espoused by the Reformers encourages us to see that the future is open and to take our responsibility seriously. Change for the better is possible.

And so I am grateful for the amazing opportunity that this Reformation anniversary presents to strengthen our Christian roots in our social conscience. This task will remain also after the Reformation year and this today's anniversary, perhaps even more so than was the case in the past. We should call this to mind at the latest when, in the Christmas period, we sing “Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her” (From Heaven Above to Earth I Come), Luther’s song with its 15 verses.

Thank you very much.

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