Germany has elected a new president. No, this is not the same as appointing a new chancellor – Angela Merkel is still in charge of the German government, but instead the President is the head of state, in a role rather like our Queen. His name is Joachim Gauck and he is a former Lutheran church pastor.
Mr. Gauck is not the member of any political party, but has a reputation as a charismatic speaker who is not afraid to address controversial issues. In Germany he is recognised as a man of moral authority and integrity.
He grew up in East Germany. In 1951, when he was 11, his father was deported to a Soviet Gulag in Siberia for his civil rights activism. As a result of his family’s experiences, Gauck refused to join the Communist Youth Organisation when he became a teenager. He had wanted to study journalism at university but was refused because he was not a member of the Communist party, so instead he chose to study theology as the church was one of the few institutions in East Germany where communist ideology was not dominant.
Following this he became a Lutheran paster starting a church from scratch in the 1970s. He is well known for holding services in 1989, which preceded the demonstrations that eventually toppled the Communist government. He encouraged his congregation to dream and be bold. At this time he would listen to their concerns in order to reflect on them in his sermons. The texts of these sermons frequently used the words ‘‘vision,’’ ‘‘imagination,’’ and ‘‘dream’’.
Since the fall of the Berlin wall he has championed democracy and campaigned against both left and right extremist threats to Germany’s democratic system. This week he was elected to the position of President by an overwhelming majority.
So of what interest is this to us in our country?
Joachim Gauck through his experiences growing up realised that faith is a powerful force that shouldn’t be confined to church buildings. His faith has driven him to be political, initially fighting the injustices of the Soviet Communist regime and then turning his energies to upholding democracy in his country. Instead of his fellow citizens accusing him of meddling in politics as a church leader, they have turned to him in respect because of his willingness to fight repression and injustice in public.
Fortunately in our country we have not had to deal with oppressive regimes in the same way as the Germans have, but there is still injustice and failure that needs to be fought, whether it is in the UK or abroad. How many of our church leaders are willing to inspire their congregations to be radical in their living and lead by example. There are some, but do they have the standing of someone like Mr. Gauck with the general public? Integrity and moral authority are recognised and respected by good people whatever their beliefs. Is the church willing to step out into the public realm more and lead by example?
If and when the Coalition for Marriage holds a protest march in London to show the government the strength of feeling over it messing with marriage, which vicars and priest will be holding services beforehand encouraging people to stand up for their beliefs? If the church is serious about this and other matters, how radical is it willing to get? It is more likely to get respect by standing up and making its voice clearly heard than if it mumbles and complains in the background. Its message may not be popular at times, but its integrity will capture people’s imaginations. Just ask Joachim Gauck..