Kirste, R.: Christianity and the Equality of All Human Beings, 2008

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1.  Historical Insight

The Human Rights belong to the essentials of ideologies in rights and state since the Enlightenment. They refer on the liberty and equality of all human beings. The are the foundation for the tasks and limits of the modern state. In the antiquity people were bounded in social positions and groups which were clearly defined, though already in the Greek antiquity, especially by Platon modern conditions were created. Also Christianity in the Roman Empire took over the Roman Right more or less since its promotion as state religion (381 a.C.). It is true that the idea of God’s image of each human being leads to the principal equality of everybody, but in the concrete case also St. Paul, the apostle, did not claim for elimination of slavery, but encouraged only the slave owner Philemon to take again in his home the slave Onesimus who had run away, but had converted to the Christian faith (St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon).

Generally the idea of the universal human rights developed relatively late in the European thinking. The famous Magna Charta Libertatum from 1215 was a treaty between the king and the nobility. But it secures already an increased conscience of right for a part of the society. After all it emphasizes the protection from arbitrary arrest. Though further declarations in this direction stayed limited on special people and groups, as the Petition of Right from 1627 for the English people, the Habeas-Corpus-Act from 1679 and die Bill of Rights from 1688, these are in fact already true declarations of human rights. John Locke (1632-1709) accompanied this development philosophically, because he saw in the duty of self-preservation a right, this means concretely looking on life, freedom, and property. Here begins also a development which has lead to separation from the church. The Scholastic theology of the Later Middle Ages had to deal with the colonisation and mission of the Americas. We remember the famous protest of Bartolomé de las Casas  who – together with some other theologians and priests stuck to the opinion, that the native people should be recognized as human beings (sic!). Therefore they must also have special rights. The mission of the Indians and the baptism of the (forced) converts as signs of salvation – to which the Indians were compelled more or less –brought no rights fort them, and at the same time the transport of slaves from Africa into the New World got enormous dimensions. The emphasis an human reason developed to concrete tendencies by Humanism and Enlightenment, i.e. on the base of a general order which was given by God. Though Martin Luther had denied a free will (De servo arbirtrio) in the controversy with Erasmus, who postulated a free will in his essay “De libero arbitrio (1524), nevertheless the reformer had built the identity of man only on the mercy of God and the faith and not on bourgeois Christian or salvatoric privileges of the church (sola gratia, sola fide). He had grounded this directly from the Bible (sola scriptura). The religious wars which followed the reformation had indeed the contrary effect, because the mutual consent in the „Religious Peace of Augsburg“ (1555) („to whom belongs the country so must be also the faith) didn’t lead to a pacification, but to the accomplishing of political claims and to an immense misery of the refugees who were expelled from their home because of their faith. The point of culmination of this misery beyond every description was reached with the „Thirty Years War“ (1618–1648), in which two thirds of the European population were extirpated. Absolutistic (mini-)states emphasized partly a tolerant politic of religions, as can be shown most impressionable the example of Prussia. The idea of tolerance of Frederic the Great (1712-1786) was indeed developed from above to down, but showed some positive effects in managing the equality of man. The Prussian king carried the same rights out for the Catholic Church against the protestant city of Glogau (July 23, 1749). In the same year he answered on a petition of the city-council of Francfort/Oder, if a Catholic merchant can receive the citizenship:  „All religions are equal and good, if only the people who profess them are honarable people. And if Turks (i.e. Muslims) and pagans ( = non-Christians) will come and wanted to populate the country, then we will built for them mosques and churches. Everybody can believe what he wants, if he is only honourable”. The Enlightenment developed in total an understanding which became more and more critical to the churches. Lessing postulated in his drama „Nathan the Wise“ nothing minor than that Christianity, Judaism and Islam are equal in worth and that love to the Highest will „stamp“ them all. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe sharpens this tendency with the dictum: „Tolerance should only be a temporary sentiment; it must lead to acceptation. To tolerate means to insult”. Though several states tolerated step by step different religious traditions, it could not be prevented, that expulsion increased, especially in the Catholic states of Europe. As already shown many of the migrants found a new home in states with tolerant sovereigns, e.g. migration settlements in Hesse and Brandenburg. Many of the refugees preferred to emigrate to America. These ware in most parts Christian groups, considerated from the main stream denominations (Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed) as heretic. This was shown also by the unions of emigrants in building up state infra-structures (e.g. Pennsylvania).  The declarations on the rights of the citizens in the North American state foundations, first the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776, and also the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 stressed the rights of the individual in the frame of a union-state. They found their break-through in the French Revolution, which  turned against the feudal sovereignity and against the church which was connected to it. The revolutionaries formulated already in 1789 the Declaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen. They referred on the philosophical preparatory work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.There was a forced counter-reaction in Germany against these new basic right for the citizens which where implemented partly by the Code Napoleon and the democratic movement after 1815. Therefore the National Assembly of 1848 fixed the basic rights. The practical realisation failed in some parts by the foundation of the “German Reich” in 1871. The “Weimar Republic” after 1918 – standing under the dictate of the treaty of Versailles had not the energy to stop the nationalistic and national-socialistic powers which destroyed the young democracy.The decisive change began in Germany after the World War II. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights became the model, which announced the United Nations in 1948. There were laid down rules and standards which must be current for all people: Rights of individual freedom, protection of the person, condemnation of slavery and racial discrimination. The Constitution (Grundgesetz) of the Federal Republic of Germany (May 23, 1949) is based on human dignity which is not allowed to hurt. This dignity still refers to God in connection of Christian and human values. By this the state power is limited und is secured by the Federal Constitutional High Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) as highest instance.

2.  Positions of interfaith dialogue

When we discuss an adequate understanding of tolerance in a multi-cultural world it is senseful to consider, to which theological positions Christianity has referred to stress the equality of all mankind. We have also to ask which interests have Christian groups looking onto the values of other religions and cultures. Then it cannot be neglected, if special theological attitudes prevent the living together of different religions and cultures or intensify conflicts. Finally we have to find out where Christianity has developed also theologically grounded attitudes to make peace with other religions.
Today we see three mainstreams of dialogical positions in theology. They show their diferences in the answers to questions of truth, salvation and peaceful living together. There also can be seen how they have transferred the demands of the French Revolution for liberty, equality, and fraternity. To say it shortly: These are three positions which compete in some parts with each other: exclusives, inclusivism, and pluralism.
In fact you have found in the Christian dogmatic from the beginnings only the exclusivistic position ("beyond the church there is no salvation), to which belongs the Protestant variation: "Beyond Christianity there is no salvation“. This position have begun to change in the second half of the 20th century. This attitude of superiority has not been totally out till today, and you find it in some parts, not really openly declared but cautiously formulated under post-colonial conditions and with an evangelical drive amidst the fundamentalistic groups of Protestantism and Catholicism.
The inclusivistic positions (to say it in a reduced manner) lay a Christian understanding under the other religious traditions. The Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, also counsellor of the Second Vatican Council, therefore spoke from the anonymous Christians – a phrase as famous as problematic, because by this it will be expressed that people of other religions are unconsciously Christians. They are not accepted in their own frame of life and values. Here the Christian side demands a matter of obligation to which the other religions should be subordinated. In other words: Christians suppose – more ore less concealed – a higher value  of Christianity.
Opposed to it the positions of religious plurality try to give each religious tradition its right, that means to accept each honorable religion as own way to salvation. „All religions needs another, not only in their common subjects, but furthermore in their differences by which they complement each other. We should be at home in our own religion and guests in the other, guests not foreigners“. Here is described exactly to which goals interfaith dialogue have to follow, i.e. to break down strangeness and to learn to be more confident to each other by encounter. The understanding of mission (especially in the Christian faith) must therefore be interpreted in the sense of personal testimony and engagement without trying to convert the other to one's own expression of faith. Therefore theologies of religious pluralism emphasize that the different religions do not express the ultimate truth. They are linguistic, ritual, and spiritual approaches to the transcendental. Their message is temporary, and they require revisions. The reason is why religions form part of various cultures and different ways of thinking. The English theologian and religious philosopher John Hick belongs to the protagonists of such a theology of religious pluralism.

3.  Church positions

There are so many controversies, caused by religious and imperial claims in the history and the modern times that the churches are pressed to think over their positions, and they are challenged for systematic reflexions in the context of other religions: Main items are
- the pogroms of the Jewish people in the Middle Ages and in modern times the holocaust,    
- the conflict with Islam, e.g. during the crusades and the Islamistic based terrorism.
Especially the official documents of the main churches und the World Council of Churches (where most of the non-Catholic churches work together) have promoted declarations und basic documents of understanding und discourse.

3.1. The Second Vatican Council (Vaticanum II) and the (official) Catholic PositionThe enormous change in dogmatic positions since 1500 years has performed the Second Vatican Council, which was essentially influenced in the position to other religions by the theologian Karl Rahner, who prepared together with others the „Declaration to the Non-Christian-Religions “(Nostra Aetate), which passed the Council on October 28, 1965. There the Catholic Church appreciates the true and the holy in other religions, but refers on Jesus Christ who is „the way, the truth and the life“ (John 14,6), but she declares also that the other religions do not have full truth but only rays of the divine truth. The consequences for the Catholic Church in Germany refer on the practical transfer of the declarations from Vaticanum II and its positive valuation of the other religious traditions. That means that other religions participate principally on truth of salvation but not in a full and complete sense.  This didn’t change when by the initiative of the Cardinal Ratzinger the document Dominus Iesus tried to close this “mild” inclusiveness of the opened Vatican door in direction to other religions.

3.2. Dialogue and limitation in the Evangelical Church of Germany (EKD)
Already in 1991 the United Lutheran Church (VELKD) and the Conference of Arnoldshain (in which the other Protestant churches of Germany are gathered up without the Reformed Churches = Presbyterians) published a study paper with the title: “Religions, religiosity, and Christian faith”. The authors tried there to clear up systematically interfaith existence as a forwarding model of life in a changing society. This can encourage others, because dialogue is no palaver but a going into the other understandings on the common way to the truth. It is regrettable that the following formulations reduce such pre-eminent phrases. Though the questions of other religions lead to critical considerations und deepening of the own faith it seems if the questions rest without response on the Christian side. The authors don’t even say how the Christian mission mandate in the frame of God’s mission to mankind should be realized. When in summer 2003 the Theological Chamber of the EKD published her guidelines: „Christian Faith and non-Christian Religions“, many awaited that the EKD would have referred on the guidelines of the World Council of Churches of 1979/1991, especially because she wanted to deliver a principal declaration. In total we find here a “hard” inclusivistic position with exclusivistic attacks. You feel remembered the early theological position of Karl Barth: Religions are the sinful attempt to come to God, whereas Christian faith confesses that God’s revelation has come from above down to man in Jesus Christ. Only criterion of true dialogue between religions becomes the Gospel of Christ. That means that other religions have no true access to salvation, more, we must ask, if the document refuses that other religions traditions have got at least some rays of the divine truth. Such light was still conceded to the Muslim tradition in guidelines relflecting the Christian-Muslim dialogue and was produced by a working group of the same EKD (“Living together with Muslims”, 2001). In the text of 2003 you feel a theological arrogance which leads to devaluate other religions, because the authors did not only raise the senseful differences but they construct an exclusive contrast. The following well meant recommendations to search dialogue in respect of others must be seen as the helpless attempt not to marginalize the church herself in a pluralistic society.The top of the limitation course against Muslims was reached, when the Council of the EKD, the highest body of the Protestant churches in Germany edited the document: Klarheit und gute Nachbarschaft. Christen und Muslime in Deutschland (clearness and good neigbourhood, Christian and Muslims in Germany). It has found a vivid echo, but more also sharp protests not only from the Muslim side but also from Protestant and Catholic theologians with concise argumentations from Bible and Coran. This depends on the fact that immediately at the beginning the text considers the interdependence of truth and tolerance. From there the chances but also very quickly the limits of faith to the “one God” can be marked. The intentions emphasize positively the common subjects of Christians and Muslims, but then follows that the traces of common faith don’t found common faith and in consequence no common preaching or practice of piety. The text concedes that the Evangelical Church stresses encounters with Muslims in an atmosphere, in which in the foreground should stand the contribution to harmonious society, but questions on the Christian understanding of mission rest open. Though freedom of mission and conversion must be guaranteed in a democratic society a mission on the base of superiority burdens the relations. Therefore the document neglects that encounters should be done in the way of enrichment and intensifying life of man to better conditions. On one side the guidelines show an open social Protestant profile but on the other side they seem to diminish the social contributions of the Muslim partners, because in the eyes of the EKD there rests some suspicion looking to Islam, because the Christian ideals are compared with bad Muslim practices so that islamophobic tendencies are nourished by such an argumentation. This had lead to a series of damages in Christian-Muslim dialogue since November 2006. The long during work of engaged Christian and Muslims is charged with comments from both sides which have in some parts aggravated the climate, especially from Protestant bishops and high representatives of synods. It was even said that people who have been engaged since many years in interfaith dialogue have undertaken dialogue with “blue eyes” and so dialogue was “washed up softly”. Since spring 2007 the critics of Islam also with church background have increased in direction of Islam refutation. In a such situation well-known theologians of both big denominations and the monotheistic neighbour religions have shown in a well attended publication how thinly the EKD has argued and that the Protestant profile was built up against and not in dialogue with Islam.

3.3.  The World Council of Churches (WCC) and the religions
Since the beginning in the sixties of the 20th century the position of the WCC has diverged considerably from the narrow-minded attitude of the EKD. Especially the department of interfaith dialogue stresses the chances of a peaceful interfaith encounter on a global level. This was clearly formulated already in 1979: Guidelines on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies. The chairman of the interfaith office of the WCC, the Methodist Wesley Ariarajah, wrote in the actualized publication of 1991 (in the meantime the 4th edition), a preface, where he sees not only the religious pluralistic situation worldwide as a chance but also that the positions of theological pluralism are motors of dialogue. The guidelines on dialogue of 1979/1991 try to give statements theologically, culturally and practically as orientation for religious communities and on human community in a manner, that theological partners of encounters must be seen on the same level. That means independently of ethnic, religions are migrations backgrounds all religious traditions have the task to diminish conflicts and to give better life chances by stressing multifaith encounters. This does not mean that people of different religions should united to a new uniformed religion, rather on the contrary of syncretism it is necessary to built up platforms of dialogue. The WCC has formulated this in its Ecumenical Considerations for Dialogue and Relations With People of Other Faiths – (2003). They lead in fact from an ecumene of denominations or confessions to a ecumene of religions which enables all partners to see people in their complete human being independently from their religion or culture but in the same time with their special culture and religion also as a sign of human identity. This means also that cultural and religious differences in all societies should not be eliminated but forwarded into the discourse of the society. The WCC has marked some prepositions (not only) for Christians (here a selection):
- The partners of dialogue must have the freedom to describe and to define their faith under the conditions which are important for them. This definitions are not allowed to ignore by the other partners of dialogue. Therefore efforts of enlightenment, respect and understanding in the own community in behalf of other religions are the necessary consequence, which comes true by daily life, also as criterion of a successful dialogue. Where people cooperate there dialogue moves forward.
- The own ideological and cultural obligations provoke a revision of the own religious attitudes, because only in this way it will be possible to serve for justice, liberty and peace in the sense of the Sermon of the Mount.
- Christians are not raised up from the world. They have to take into account consciously multicultural and multi-religious contexts in their thinking. This is why they are children of the one world under the sign of God’s reign. Therefore the inculturation of Christianity must be considered sufficiently in the frame of different worlds of life. It should be further taken in consideration, in how far common celebrations, meditations, and prayers must be possible.
- Christian and churches should discover the different offers and possibilities of dialogue. In contact with other organisations (political, religious, cultural) they should not only participate in interfaith encounters, but they should promote and enlarge them too.


The history of tolerance and the dignity of man remembers first the failure of Christianity in the history encountering other religions, but shows second that there can be found in the holy texts motivations to come in contact with the other by opening the own intellect and heart without interest to convert the other to the own religious tradition. So Jesus often preached and healed with the concluding remark: „Your faith has helped you“ without asking catechetical details. So a “service of reconciliation” (as St. Paul says 2 Cor 5,18) becomes possible. That means: wealth and salvation of the world don’t raise up to contrasts, but the world becomes the place of common responsibility based on the different religious traditions, universal ethical values and motivated by the peaceful streams of the own framework of these values. Only by this human rights and religious claims of the different religious traditions– and also the claims of Christianity – can be brought into a trustworthy, kind and human balance in the frame of more and more secularized societies. The other way round a course of limits will threaten which will aggravate unnecessarily the situation for migrants to find a new home, in which they can live peacefully with the surrounding manifold society. When tendencies of limitation and devaluation will still be legitimated theologically, then religion – and especially in its fundamentalistic variations – supplies social dynamite. This leads to counter-productive and dangerous powers of violence. And these powers are often quickly equated with „the Islam“ in the German society. It is true that the peace efforts of religious people and organisations cannot eliminate totally social conflicts, but they can assist to make the present society more human, and they can stress integration of migrants and refugees especially in the context of different religious identities.
Interfaith dialogue rests in this sense as a necessary part to understand and promote dignity of people with different origin and cultural-religious background. It is more difficult for immigrated minorities to establish themselves in the already existing society but they have to find arrangements without cutting their roots and without withdrawing in a ethnic, cultural or religious ghetto. The identity of the individual in a new setting lives from the basic values and ethical standards which are common in all religions. From there the essential convictions of faith have to come true with the others in the daily life. This can only be done by cooperation of the different faith traditions.


Mariano Delgado: Hunger und Durst nach Gerechtigkeit. Das Christentum des Bartolomé de Las Casas. Freiburg (CH): Kanisius 2001

Heiner Bielefeldt: Philosophie der Menschenrechte. Grundlagen eines weltweiten Freiheitsethos (Darmstadt: WBG 1998)

John Hick: God Has Many Names (Philadelphia (USA): Westminster Press 1982)

Reinhard Kirste / Paul Schwarzenau / Udo Tworuschka (Hg.): Neue Herausforderungen für den interreligiösen Dialog / New challenges for interfaith dialogue. Religionen im Gespräch  / Religions in Dialogue, vol. 7 (2002, RIG 7)

Paul Knitter (ed.): The Myth of Religious Superiority. A Multifaith Exploration. (Maryknoll, NY. Orbis 2005)

Michael Rainer (Red.): „Dominus Iesus“. Anstößige Wahrheit oder anstößige Kirche? (Wissenschaftliche Paperbacks Bd. 9. Münster: LIT 2001) the whole document also under (go to documents)

Christoph Schwöbel / Dorothee von Tippelskirch (im Auftrag der Alfred Herrhausen Gesellschaft für internationalen Dialog, eds.): Die religiösen Wurzeln der Toleranz. (Freiburg u.a.: Herder 2001)

Kirchenamt der Evangelischen Kirche in Deutschland (Hg.): Klarheit und gute Nachbarschaft. Christen und Muslime in Deutschland. Eine Handreichung des Rates der EKD (EKD-Texte 86. Hannover, November 2006), as pdf:, here p. 19

Jürgen Micksch (Hg.): Evangelisch aus fundamentalem Grund. Wie sich die EKD gegen den Islam profiliert (Frankfurt/M.: Lembeck 2007)

World Council of Churches (ed.): Guidelines on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies. Geneva: WCC (1979)1990, 4th revised printing, S. VII (= WCC Guidelines)

Dr. Reinhard Kirste, 2008