Exploring the Intersections of Religious Freedom and Dependency

Exploring the Intersections of Religious Freedom and Dependency

Insights from a Collaborative Block Seminar between Theologische Hochschule (TH) Ewersbach and the University of Bonn

In every civilization, from the earliest times, questions related to religion and spirituality have shaped the historical narrative and aided in developing a sense of community, collectiveness, and unity. Religious belongings have also served as mechanisms by which communities set themselves apart from others either to establish a sense of dignity for a marginalized cohort or to offer spiritual justifications for oppression.

Ultimate questions about life, including those of religion, proliferate beyond beliefs about dogmas, doctrines, and sacred texts: they traverse alongside processes of politicization, polarization, and institutionalization. Within the confines of history, religious communities, norms, and discursive patterns have developed within societies; they often employ power, including State power, to achieve their aims.

In many contexts, dominant religious orthodoxies have determined how history has been constructed, propagated, and archived. For a few of the many examples that can be drawn from the experiences of the authors of this blog, we might consider the complex power dynamics involved in the composition of the Hindu canonical text Rig Veda or, in the Aksumite kingdom in Ethiopia, the acceptance of Christianity in the 4th century AD, all the way down to modern history.

In these stories and in many others, careful reflection on historical developments reveals that questions about religion are inseparable from concerns about power, asymmetry, and dependencies.

Though religion is often neglected as both a nexus around which academic discourse can take place or an impulse that can drive collective organization for social action (liberative and otherwise) in contemporary ‘secular’ academic discourse, religious questions, ideas, and communities have long been and remain matters of ‘ultimate concern’ (to quote the German Theologian, Paul Tillich) for billions of people around the world.

The matter of religious freedom is thus a key talking point in many discussions of historical and contemporary asymmetrical dependencies.

This basic revelation was both the impulse behind and key takeaway from the Bonn/Ewersbach Block seminar, which was held from December 7th to 9th, 2023, at the Theologische Hochschule Ewersbach. The seminar was organized by Rev. David Brandon Smith (BCDSS PhD Researcher), Prof. Dr. Matthias Ehmann (Professor for Mission Studies and Intercultural Theology, TH-Ewersbach), Rev. Dr. Matthew R. Robinson (Director of the Department of Intercultural Theology at the Faculty of Protestant Theology in Bonn), Jakob Lange (Researcher at TH-Ewersbach), and Laura Schäfer (Researcher at the University of Marburg).

The ‘Bonn Crew’ sets out for Ewersbach early on December 7th (photo by David B. Smith)

The seminar welcomed five masters-level students from TH-Ewersbach, five students in the MA in Ecumenical Studies Program at the University of Bonn, and five students from the MA in Dependency and Slavery Studies program at BCDSS. Adiam Tadele Abadi, Jin Luo, Prateeti Mukhopadhyay, Ishita Sarkar, and Jaiannantpreet Singh represented the BCDSS.

Prof. Dr. Matthias Ehmann leads a tour of the Allianz Mission offices, housed at TH-Ewersbach (photo by David B. Smith)

The three-day seminar offered a sanctuary for open-minded academic dialogue on religion and religious freedom. Participants engaged in spirited debates and posed thought-provoking questions, fostering an atmosphere of intellectual exploration by acknowledging bias. These discussions prompted reflection on fundamental concepts such as the definition of “religion” and nuanced understandings of “freedom” within varied contexts.

After lunch, the first session of the seminar began with an ‘ice breaker’ activity in which participants shared their current understanding of religious freedom and related issues (photo by Matthew R. Robinson)

Primarily due to the expertise of the instructors, Christianity emerged as a focal point of discussion, inviting participants to interrogate its complexities and challenge prevailing stereotypes. Through lectures and presentations, we delved into the significance of religion and religious practices in daily life.

In the first full session, we focused on religious objects. The talk by Laura Schäfer, Researcher at the University of Marburg, “The Concept of Religious Freedom and Dealing with the Religiously Different: On Archival Research with Religious Materials in Marburg,” introduced the participants to the idea of “religious object sensitivity” that should be practiced when handling culturally sensitive objects in museums. Such objects may include human remains, ceremonial objects, symbols of power, holy texts, and weapons of war.

Ms. Laura Schäfer, Researcher at the University of Marburg, gives the opening lecture of the seminar (photo by David B. Smith)

Ms. Schäfer honed in on an essential practice of exercising religious freedom in institutions like museums and other heritage sites. She emphasized that since objects often possess spiritual significance, they must be handled within a conceptual and practical framework that acknowledges the importance of freedom of religion or belief.

Next, the first of several lectures by Rev. David B. Smith on religious freedom and belief in Europe and the United States focused on how institutionalized religion has often been intricately connected to the exercise of State power. He thus explored the historical role of various institutionalized churches as State-aligned actors.

An intriguing aspect of one of his lectures was how he demonstrated that religious freedom has a “long and complicated history.” As he argued, “Some key themes in the religious discourse of Western Europe and the United States are built upon historically grounded concerns over freedom of conscience and debates over the complex relationship between Church and State, religious establishment, and disestablishment that spans several epochs.”

According to Rev. Smith, religious freedom discourse, as articulated by international law (in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example), is “a historically grounded and contextually shaped ideal that emerged as a result of, not apart from, complex interactions between religion, politics, law, and social networks. Thus, it always involves a negotiation of competing interests…”

Indeed, religious freedom discourse, in all of its cross-contextual complexity, “does not follow a linear progression from unfreedom to freedom (or vice versa); It exchanges and negotiates alternative (but entangled) dependencies” (Smith, Lecture II).

Rev. David B. Smith lecturing on the historical development of religious freedom discourse (photo by Matthew R. Robinson)

Brimming discussions spilled over beyond the scheduled sessions and continued during breaks and informal gatherings. An academic exchange was indeed crystallized on the first day. The day wrapped up with Prof. Dr. Matthias Ehmann’s session on “International Development Policy, Religious Freedom, and Asymmetrical Dependencies.” During that session, we continued our discussion of how questions related to religious freedom policies are contextual and fluid. The effectiveness of foreign political pressure campaigns in contexts where religious freedom is most notably violated was discussed, and the need for them to be more realistic than idealistic was emphasized.

Prof. Ehmann raised important questions about the assumed “secularity” of State power as a result of postcolonial understandings of religion in the context of democratic rule.

On the second day, we were fortunate to have the company of Frank Schwabe MdB (German Federal Commissioner for Global Freedom of Religion at the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development) and his team via Zoom.

Seminar participants on day two with Frank Schwabe, MdB (photo by TH-Ewersbach)

Before opening the floor for a town hall-style discussion of religious freedom, Mr. Schwabe introduced the German Federal Government’s Third Report on the Global Status of Freedom of Religion or Belief, which was ‘hot off the press’ at that time.

The report, which locates the German commitment to religious freedom within its broader concern for universal human rights and democratic values, reflects the German government’s interest in “tapping the potential offered by beliefs and religions and wants to strengthen cooperation with religious actors all over the world, for example, as part of crisis prevention and crisis management, as well as the transition to sustainable development” (pages 1 and 2 of the English summary).

In this way, the report is very much in line with related efforts of the United Nations and other international bodies, including, for example, the ‘Faith for Rights (F4R)’ Framework Initiative, which seeks to galvanize support for human rights protections in faith communities around the world.

The report is quite innovative, at least for an official document, for three reasons. First, for its engagement with the use of religion in political discourse, for example, regarding long-standing intra-Orthodox conflicts brought to the fore after the most recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. Second, for its emphasis on the rights of peoples described as indigenous, as well as indigenous beliefs and spiritual practices that have been historically overlooked in discussions of the universal human right to freedom of religion or belief.

Without diminishing the other points, Mr. Schwabe was most excited about the report’s emphasis on “religions’ contribution to sustainable development.” Before taking up his current post, Mr. Schwabe served in various positions and on various committees of the Bundestag with responsibility for environmental policy.

His passion for sustainability showed through as he proudly asserted, “This is really the first [official] document that I know of which links religious freedom and sustainability so clearly” (from contemporaneous notes of attendees).

In the discussion that followed his more formal presentation, Mr. Schwabe spoke openly and honestly about the complexities involved in international conversations on religious freedom and human rights. He shared about his international travels and the need for government actors to exercise self-criticism while sticking to their commitment to holding up a mirror to regimes that perpetually abuse human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief.

In our brief experiment with a free-church version of ‘monastic’ living, nestled among the mountains, we shared wonderful meals in the TH-Ewersbach refectory each day. Thankfully, we didn’t have to take a vow of silence (photo by Matthew R. Robinson)

After lunch on the second day, more presentations and lectures followed. These talks asked questions about the extent to which religious freedom can be exercised. In international law, is religious freedom an absolute right, or does religious freedom need to be limited in some situations (for example, when religious leaders use their positions to justify or promote violence)? What happens when religious freedom discourse is used by a majority to oppress a minority community or vice versa? How can claims of religious freedom be (mis)used as weapons to set up legal restrictions for communities or classes that have been historically oppressed?

This portion of the seminar, which was led primarily by Rev. Dr. Matthew Robinson, inspired participants to contribute to positive change in their spheres of influence, fostering a collective commitment to creating a world where religious diversity is celebrated and the rights of all individuals to practice their beliefs freely are respected and protected.

This segment also offered participants a chance to reflect on their own understanding of religious freedom in both technical and existential terms.

Rev. Dr. Matthew R. Robinson lectures on religious freedom and dependency in a global society (photo by David B. Smith)

Ishita Sarkar, a co-author of this blog post, along with the two other attendees quoted below, recalls from her commentary during this session,
A particular interest was the realization that different human rights can sometimes conflict with each other in religious contexts and how religious prejudices can be justified under the guise of freedom of speech and expression. These discussions led us to ponder the overarching question: ‘What should the relationship between international development policy, religious freedom, and attempts to address enduring asymmetrical dependencies be?’ ” (Matthew R. Robinson, 2023).

Prateeti Mukhopadhyay writes, “In the concluding session of the second day, we participated in group activities and discussions to tailor a working definition of the term religious freedom, which was countered with its very ambiguity. My personal understanding was that there is no one definition of religious freedom; rather, it should be highly contextualized and should embrace not only all religious groups but also acknowledge the persistence of social hierarchies. Identifying the power dynamics should be the elementary step to adjourn from an essentially universalized or Eurocentric perception of the same.

Adiam Tadele Abidi, also a co-author of this blog post, remarked, “Reflecting on the discussions and insights from the seminar, I’ve come to see religious freedom as more than just a matter of individual belief or practice. It’s about fundamental human rights, allowing everyone to be who they are without fear of discrimination or prejudice. It’s about embracing the richness of our diverse world and respecting each other’s beliefs and practices. Religious freedom is beyond religion itself; it’s about liberty, acceptance, and understanding. By recognizing and accepting each other’s differences, we can mitigate conflicts often intertwined with religious tensions. For me, religious freedom is about accepting one another in our complexity as human beings.

Rev. Dr. Matthew R. Robinson introduces the ‘promenade-ology’ exercise (photo by David B. Smith)

This high-level ethical and theoretical reflection was concretized by a ‘Promenade’ exercise, for which participants were divided into groups of three (one person from each program). The groups discussed pre-assigned readings that problematized and complexified various aspects of religious freedom discourse. The readings summarized case studies that were drawn from around the world and from across multiple faith traditions. After walking together across the snow-covered campus of TH-Ewersbach, the groups came back together and presented key themes from their discussions to the larger cohort.

The snow-covered campus of TH-Ewersbach (photo by David B. Smith)

Dormitories of TH-Ewersbach, complete with a pool hall and hangout space, where the TH-Ewersbach team hosted the Bonners after the work was done on the first day of the seminar (photo by David B. Smith)

The readings and promenade discussions explored the history of Christian mission, ecumenism, and human rights discourse in Egypt, the role of religious freedom in the treatment of minority religious groups in India, the complexities of religious research and new possibilities for historical research in China, religious freedom and the fight for marriage equality for LGBTQIA+ people in the United States, Native American accounts of ‘spiritual genocide,’ the relationship between religious freedom and the advent of liberation theologies in Latin America in the second half of the twentieth century, and a critical analysis of the use of religious freedom as a soft power heuristic in contemporary diplomatic practice.

The third and final day of the workshop continued the constructive ethical reflection prompted by Dr. Robinson’s talks. After breakfast, Rev. Smith created a space in which the participants could experience the challenges that emerge at the intersection of historic and enduring dependencies, an ethical or legal impulse to address them, and the actual process of developing policy proposals in governmental settings.

Rev. Smith facilitated an hour-long ‘Policy Lab’ in which participants were introduced to the ‘problem-solving method’ as it is commonly employed in ‘macro’ (policy level) social work practice. Participants were divided into groups and asked to identify a policy ‘problem’ related to religious freedom in a particular community that they needed to address.

Rev. David B. Smith leading a ‘Policy Lab’ discussion on the final day of the seminar (photo by Matthew R. Robinson)

The groups then had five minutes to present their proposal to an imagined government official. The practical policy-making challenges involved in addressing the complexities of matters related to violations of religious freedom became readily apparent.

After the conclusion of the policy lab, the group piled into a series of vehicles and made its way to the Coptic Orthodox Monastery of Kröffelbach (St. Antonius). The long drive through a beautiful region of Germany provided yet another formative opportunity for participants to get to know one another, ‘talk theology,’ and expand our conceptual horizons.

Seminar participants gathered after a discussion with a leader in the monastic community about religious freedom and Coptic Orthodox belonging in Germany (photo by author)

We were welcomed by a leading monk of the St. Antinous Cloister who shared about the unique experiences of Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Christians, not only in Egypt but in Germany as well.

As a minority expression (Coptic Orthodoxy) of Germany’s majority faith (Christianity) affirmed by people who would usually identify as either first, second, or third-generation migrants or expatriates, this visit provided an encounter with lived religion and a reminder of the need to uphold freedom of religion or belief in pluralistic societies.

Regarding the visit to the monastery, Prateeti Mukhopadhyay reflects, “What appealed to me was the intent of this visit, where we were asked to situate ourselves beyond a solely academic space to a religious institution and critically discuss what religious freedom entails in a strictly religious place and how it is ensured among the practitioners and the preachers. This attempt to take the dialogue beyond theories and discussions made me understand the need for present-day academia to transcend beyond ideology in a more tangible and practical way to ensure changes at the grassroots level.

Ishita Sarkar recalls, “Even though I’m not a religious person, our visit to St. Antonius Coptic Orthodox Monastery in Kröffelbach was indeed a breathtaking experience for me. To enter the church was pure bliss as we were graciously welcomed by the people of the church community and engulfed by the beguiling sanctuary walls adorned with paintings that meticulously illustrated stories from the Bible and the life of Jesus; the unique Coptic Orthodox cross that looked very different from the popularly known Christian cross was an interesting discovery for me. Eventually, we sat down inside the church, and the calmness, serenity, and smell of the incense made our little learning session through questions and answers all the way more worthwhile.

After a quick lunch break at a doner place in a nearby village, we hastened back to the TH-Ewerbach, had a brief ceremony at which we received participation certificates, and then packed up. Before long, we were on the Uni Bonn bus and heading back to campus.

Bonn/Ewersbach Block Seminar on Religious Freedom and Dependency participants after receiving their certificates (photo by TH-Ewersbach)

The academic space that we were a part of in Ewersbach last December taught us to acknowledge and appreciate diverse perspectives and to navigate discussions with sensitivity and empathy. The seminar was a bold yet very much-needed experiment. We learned to comfortably express our views while also respecting the boundaries of others and acknowledging the academic character of the space. The seminar also provided an opportunity for participants to challenge preconceived notions and stereotypes surrounding religion, religious studies, and theological research.

All in all, this seminar opened questions rather than aiming to come to a conclusion and steered us towards further retrospections. From archival sources like the Edict of Milan to comparatively modern confessional texts like the Barmen Declaration, we were exposed to the evolution of religious freedom as a theological, ethical, legal, and praxiological concept throughout the history of the West and beyond. Indeed, something worth every bit of applause was the usage of primary source materials by the speakers to conjure their claims.

Through our case studies and engagement with philosophical reflections from around the world, we also gained a much deeper appreciation for the entanglement of religious freedom and asymmetrical dependencies in social history, international politics, development policies, law, and diplomatic practice.

The Bonn/Ewersbach Block Seminar on Religious Freedom and Dependency was educationally enriching, socially eye-opening, and politically awakening, but free from unchecked biased opinion or influence. As we reflect on the seminar experience some months later, we are reminded of the importance of continued dialogue and action in promoting freedom of religion or belief and fostering a culture of acceptance and understanding.