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Closing Remarks PDF Print E-mail

Franklin Littell
Temple University

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Berlin, Germany, May 29-31, 1998

The quick tour through Berlin, which a colleague has just given us, moves me to a great exercise in self-discipline, because he referred to persons and places that are very deep in my own heart and experience. I might mention that one of the greatest addresses which has been given in this century on reconciliation between religious groups, and on finding a new way of relating to each other, was given by the head of his party, Professor Theodore Heuss, at the founding of the Council of Christians and Jews in this country in 1948 in Wiesbaden. The title of Prof. Heuss’ address at that time was “Mut zur Liebe” (“The Courage to Love”). It was a reaching out to overcome the hostilities and the agonies of the years behind, and to look forward to a better, reconciling, and healing future.

I want to pay tribute to those who have brought us together in these three great conferences. Especially, of course, Mr. Joo; but also Dan Fefferman and Bruce Casino ought to be thanked by all of us. We had a conference in Washington in April, an all-Asia conference in Tokyo last weekend, and now we are having a European conference. This creates a high profile for our concerns. It is wonderful, of course, that we can meet old friends, we can talk, and we can catch up on personal and professional affairs. But, what is important for us to remember, is that we have to stand out there in the public eye as champions of religious liberty, in a season when persecution is rife across the whole globe.

In our circles, we take it for granted that we respect each other’s liberty of conscience. We respect the dignity, liberty, and integrity of the human person. This comes as part of our life as persons of religion, and as academics. However, that is not at all a common case looking across the globe. On the contrary, most of the world is still trapped in the traditional pattern. The traditional pattern is that religion—like the army, the police, and the tax gatherers—is part of the control apparatus for some regime. This has been the common pattern in Constantinian Christendom for centuries. Likewise, religions in other cultures, among other peoples, have been part of the control mechanism of those who rule.

It is only fairly recently, one might say within the last couple hundred years, that people have begun to have a glimpse of “soul liberty,” as the Baptists call it, the sacredness of the human conscience, so that some people will stand up and say, “No! Religion is not a tool of government. It is not a way that a ruling class can keep it subjects under control. It is a way of serving God and much more important than any temporal government can be.”

I am proud of the role that America has played in establishing the importance of voluntary religious service, not coerced, not controlled, but in its personnel and in its financial base, voluntary. I am also proud of the role that America has had in standing up for the principles that government should keep its hands off the ultimate questions and the ultimate issues. I am not proud of the fact that my country was the first to use atomic weapons against civilians. I am not proud of the fact that my country is the worst deadbeat in the United Nations in terms of paying its dues. However, I am proud to be able to stand before you, and with you, as one who believes that religion serves the ultimate, and that good government takes care of the pedestrian needs of people.

We have been talking about the importance of religious liberty, and we have been speaking with strong condemnation of persecution across the globe. This brings me to something which is very close to my heart, since I spent ten years here in the military government and in the High Commission and then later in Bonn. The Bundesrepublik has stood forth, from its beginning in the Grundgesetz, with a high position in respect to Glaubensfreiheit, Section 4 of the Grundgesetz is very clear as a noble affirmation of religious liberty. It is a particular pain to me to see how some things have changed in the last two or three years.

I don’t like to speak critically of a host country, and certainly not of the people and land that I learned to love, but I remember Dr. Heuss, who was one of the great men of the post-war period. First in the Budeszentrele fur Heimadeinst in connection with the Bundesamt fur Verfassungsschutz, they developed a new, a very important standard of democratic commitment. He, President Heuss, was one of the first to understand how serious a threat to loyal citizens, their lives and their persons, terrorist movements outside the political covenant had become. A procedure was developed, which was one of the best in the world in identifying neo-Nazi, Communist and other movements that were a threat to free society. That is what it was all about: to protect the dignity, liberty, and integrity of loyal citizens, and to deal with movements, which are destructive of order, and of democratic rule. Unfortunately, this tool, as important as it was as a weapon against terrorism, is now being used against Scientology and other new religious movements of high energy, in a way which is totally different from the vision which led to the founding of that instrument of democratic government. It is a tragedy.

I remember Dr. Kurt Hutten, one of the great scholars of world religious movements. His book Asien Missioniert im Abendland, was one of the first introductions to the work being done by New Religious Movements from Asia in Germany and other parts of Europe. He was—some of you will recognize this reference—the Gordon Melton of Germany. He was the man who came forth as a scholar and said, “We can learn something from these New Religious Movements and their high energy. Why do we have to be anxious, let alone persecute?” He established the first center for the study of new religious movements, Kontaktstelle Stuttgart, and, on his initiative, one church after another across this country established specialists’ offices to study new religious movements. At first, they were studying, trying to interpret, and trying to find what lessons there were that would help the larger religious groups to become more vital. But now, what do we have? We find that these Kontaktstelle, with that wonderful background and a perfectly marvelous scholar and leader as the founder, have become persecutors. When I think of those who have succeeded Dr. Heuss, and Dr. Hutten and his work, I am reminded of the famous phrase in one of Shakespeare’s plays, “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”

To use government coercion to shore up religious establishments is scandalous in this day and age, even when it is done by a democratic government, perhaps especially a democratic government in a republic, which, in so many ways, deserves our respect and our good wishes.

The best statement that I know to put the claims of “soul liberty” high was the Encyclical Pacem in Terris, issued by good Pope John XXIII in April of 1963. In it he emphasized, in one way and another, that the dignity, liberty, and integrity of the human person is central to high religion. He specifically cited Section 18 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights. He also cited the Geneva Convention of 1951. That is the mountain peak, from which persons of conscience can meet others coming from other cultures, races, and religious experiences, without anxiety. They are committed on this mountain peak, wherever they come from, to respect the integrity of the human person as central to the whole, interpersonal interaction at any level.

What happens when an individual or a society loses it? The first step in the slippery slide from liberty to genocide is mere toleration. That may seem strange to you, because we often condemn intolerance and praise tolerance when we are talking about persecution. But, tolerance is not the high peak. Tolerance is the first step. “Well, we will put up with them, if we don’t have any alternatives.” This is quite different from looking at the other as someone from whom you can learn. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that the most unlikely person you ever meet, knows something that you very much need to know. Now, as a long time teacher, I know it is awfully hard sometimes to figure out what that “something” is. Still, that is a much different approach from just tolerating somebody.

The next step down is contempt, and the step after that is bigotry. It is beginning to be institutionalized, the stain is spreading. The next step down is prejudice. Then comes the language of assault. We see that in politics in the United States today. You don’t have that in Germany, I am sure, but in the United States, we have such a terrible political atmosphere now. The language of assault has taken over, where one would think that persons who are free and living in a republic would at least respect each other as human persons. The right approach, of course, is the language of dialogue, which my good friend and colleague, Leonard Swidler, developed so nicely for you. Dialogue is the way we go to the other, and touch the other, and meet the other, and learn from the other.

The language of assault is part of the slide down. Then, come harassment, next discrimination, and then repressive measures. This occurs sometimes within smaller political units and then, sometimes, we see the beginning of repressive measures at sovereign levels. Then comes targeting. Certain groups are named. Isolation is the beginning. Then you have ghettoization. Then you have a step, which is fatally important, and that is a military alert or a police alert. In modernity, you have the bureaucracy, the technocrats, and the whole organized, systematized force of industrialized society, fashioned in a way that makes genocide possible.

Genocide, then, is the bottom of the slide. Personal prejudice, which is just nasty and unworthy, has become structured and active. It ends in the targeting of peoples for destruction.

Those of you who are somewhere near my age are, as I was for a long time, accustomed to think of the worst massive evil of our time as being war—international wars and civil wars. But I learned recently from a colleague at the University of Hawaii, who has written several books and articles on the subject, that violence toward persons—violence in which civilians in cities like Hiroshima or Nagasaki are treated as though they are insects—while horrible, is nevertheless, not the most awful and wicked of actions.

As a matter of fact, 171 million people were murdered between 1900 and 1987 by their own governments, by those who were entrusted with the stewardship of power to protect them. This is what genocide is. It is when a state uses its power, its military force, against an internal “enemy.” We are so used to thinking in terms of wars between peoples. We have seen enough of that, too. But, the story of the twentieth century is not the First World War, nor the Second World War. The story of the twentieth century on that side of the ledger is genocide. One hundred and 71 million people is almost four times as many as have perished in all the international and civil wars during the same period.

Therefore, we have to turn our minds and our brains to concentrate on this problem. We need to understand how it starts, and what the final end in the pit is, when you let contempt, bigotry, and the language of assault go unchallenged. It is a slippery slide, and by the time it is 1933 or 1938, it is too late. I remember Professor Heuss, standing there in the pit, with the pounding and the howling, at the time the Enabling Act was passed and the dictatorship was established. He was standing up courageously for human rights. It was too late. You have to start when the evil thing first shows its face.

Let me make a couple of practical suggestions as to what we now need in this situation. I think that we need a European Commission on Religious Liberty. We have just had a marvelous public position taken by seven professors here in Germany. I am sure that there are others—churchmen, academics, and public citizens—who would welcome that initiative. We need implementation of an Early Warning System, so that we act in time against enemies of the Republic and our liberties.

One of the points that Professor Rummel has made so well, is this: that some depotisms and all dictatorships are particularly prone to use brutality against their own subjects, just as they are particularly aggressive and threatening to others. We need an Early Warning System, so that we see these signs in time. Time is of the essence. You don’t have a science when somebody writes a report on an epidemic. You have a science when a group of people can sit down, put their heads together and say, “Unless certain things are stopped we are going to have an epidemic.” That is our scientific situation now, in terms of the slide toward genocide. We know enough to know. Now we have to build the kind of action so that we act in time.

Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish film genius, made a movie on the rise of a terrorist movement, which was called the NSDAP, here in Germany. He called it The Serpent’s Egg. He was asked why he used this metaphor. He said, “The membrane of the egg is so thin that through it you can already see the perfectly formed body of the reptile.” That particular terrorist movement was a reptile in 1923. Only we didn’t see it. The essence of the matter is to perceive and act responsibly—in concert with other free men and free women—in time. I think that is why we have been meeting together, and listening to each other, and teaching each other. So let’s get to it.