Letter from Berlin: Onward, Christian Drunken Dads!

By Stan Persky | June 3, 2003

Exceptionally large herds of human beings were spotted roaming around Europe last weekend, and early this week, mostly in the name of God, governance, and globalization. The most prominent and intrepid clump of bipeds featured U.S. President George Bush and his armed entourage. In a lightning Grand Tour of Old and New Europe, the American leader first hit Warsaw, Poland where he buddied up to Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, one of the prominent "New Europe" members of the tiny "coalition of the willing" that joined the recent American imperial expedition to Iraq. Then it was on to St. Petersburg, Russia where Bush re-bonded with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was celebrating the 300th anniversary of that freshly repainted northern metropolis. Next came Evian, France, home of the bottled drinking water and site of the G-8 summit, where one of the main purposes was a photo-op handshake with French President Jacques Chirac to prove that Bush was still speaking to the Old Europe leader of the coalition of the unwilling. And finally–whew! these junkets are exhausting–there were select Middle East locations where the president was attempting to bang together Israeli and Palestinian heads (of state) in the name of a "roadmap" to peace. But you probably know all that, because it was all over CNN.

Comparably entourage-sized delegations from 45 other countries turned up in Petersburg, too. Then various groups descended on Evian and the surrounding Swiss countryside to petition the G-8 leaders. So did some 75,000 or so other folks to protest the G-8 summit. And in each of these places, migrating prides of security lions, cops, soldiers, and secret policemen roved at will, along with equally hefty contingents of the mass media. All in all, it was a whole lot of people on the hoof.

But of all the mobs that meandered around Europe last weekend, the oddest conjuncture of crowds occurred right here in Berlin. In Germany, the 4-day weekend started on Thursday with a national holiday called Ascension Day. No, I don’t know why Ascension Day is a national holiday, but I think–I’m a little shaky on some of this theology stuff–it marks the Concorde-like take-off of Jesus to Heaven, some time after his Easter crucifixation.

Ascension Day was also Churchday 2003 in Berlin. Again, I’m not completely up on the denominational fine points, but the way it was explained to me down at my local watering hole is that every year or so, large groups of Protestants and large groups of Catholics hold get-togethers. Usually the get-togethers are held separately and are scheduled several weeks or months apart, and the usual venue is at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium way out on the west side of town, so that nobody–at least nobody at my watering hole–has to notice or pay much attention to the Churchday get-togethers.

What made Kirchentag 2003 (as it’s called in German) special, apart from the 250,000 wandering Christians who poured into town to get together, was that for the first time in about 500 years–i.e., for the first time since Martin Luther nailed up his complaints on the church door in 1518 and sundered the Christian church–the Protestants and Catholics held their get-togethers together. What’s more, this Ecumenical Churchday get-together wasn’t stashed away in the remote Olympic Stadium, but held right in the centre of the city, at Brandenburg Gate and all the way up Unter den Linden, the main boulevard in east Berlin.

The quarter-million or more Christians were everywhere, filling up the subways and buses, sprawling in the cafes and bistros, milling around in the middle of the street handing each other religious pamphlets and balloons, and even occupying the pews of usually half-empty churches. The only way to tell the Christians apart was that the Protestants were issued orange scarves–something like the colourful scarves worn by soccer fans–while the Catholics had to content themselves with prim ribbons in papal purple. The Protestant orange scarves, I can report, were a bigger hit with local fashion critics than the starchy Catholic ribbons. One of my pals from the bar where I hang out took me over to observe the religious mill-in and to explain obscure points of faith to me. My crony devoutly believes that one’s relation to God ought to be a strictly private affair–I can live with that–and that organized religions, churches, and formal doctrines of any kind are bad news–which is to say, he’s more Protestant than Luther.

Just so readers wouldn’t miss the significance of this Ecumenical get-together, the best newspaper in town, Berliner Zeitung, devoted the entirety of its Thursday edition to the theme of "What do you believe?" All the news was religious news and every spare cranny of the paper was crammed with a series called "Confessions," in which prominent people explained why they did or didn’t believe in God. The "confessions" were mainly, and surprisingly, pretty sensible. Author Rafael Seligmann, for instance, started off his "confession" by modestly allowing, "For me belief is important because I know nothing." Local businessman Tim Renner took a similar tack: "I believe in God because I urgently hope and think that we haven’t yet finished understanding everything." But he quickly moved to a more-ecumenical-than-thou position: "I don’t necessarily need a concrete person, a friendly Lord with a beard, whom I could possibly meet when I’m dead. The idea of the Buddhists and various Indian religions, which sees God in everything, sounds plausible enough to me."

Eastern Germany’s former Democratic Socialist Party leader, Gregor Gysi, was as soft-spoken about his atheism as were others about their belief. "Why I don’t believe," said Gysi, "is really not well-founded. There’s no logical explanation why one person believes and another doesn’t… Perhaps with me it’s just a lack of imagination." Pretty mild stuff coming from a guy whose political party once believed that "religion is the opium of the people." The confessions even spilled over to the sports pages, where Alba Berlin basketball player Joerg Luetcke put the emphasis on ethical-moral values rather than supernatural belief. "I don’t want my fate to lie in the hands of a higher power. I want to have my life in my own hands." Luetcke added that he thought athletes publicly praying on the sportsfield for divine assistance was "really silly." I spent a moment imagining how American fire-and-brimstone professions of faith might compare to these strangely reasonable German reflections. What if the paper in Crawford, Texas–President Bush’s home base–ran a similar edition?

The one bit of news in Berliner Zeitung’s special edition for Churchday was its front-page story and an accompanying poll to back it up. The page 1 headline read, "Churches want to convert the East." No, "East" wasn’t referring to Muslims in the Arabian Orient, but to former East Germany. "We can’t rest easy when more than two-thirds of the people in the new provinces are not Christians," Catholic Cardinal Karl Lehmann told the newspaper. The numbers clearly show one more split between the former two Germanies, even more than a decade after unification in 1990. While 71 per cent of former West Germans profess a belief in God, only 33 per cent of former East Germans share such views. The poll also reported that only one in seven Germans attend church regularly, and that percentages of believers decline by age categories, with a 17 per cent gap between under 30-year-old believers and those over 60. Worse, the majority of Germans don’t regard the church as a moral authority. Again, there’s a gap between east and west, and between young and old.

"Well," I said, noting those figures to the pal who was shepherding me through the ambling crowds of believers, "at least bad old Communism did one good thing." He duly noted my cynicism, and mercifully didn’t remind me that the other half of Karl Marx’s line about religion as the opium of the people also described religion as a "haven in a heartless world."

Now, while God is certainly interesting–and as a college prof who teaches introductory metaphysics, I guess I ought to file my declaration of interest in the topic–the masses of believers visiting Berlin last weekend is not my sole point about crowd conjunctions in the German capital. You see, last weekend was not only Ascension Day and Churchday, but through some strange calendric coincidence, it was also Father’s Day and the German Soccer League final.

In Germany, Father’s Day is celebrated by herds of males getting up early and going out drinking. Like the believers, the drinking dads were also everywhere, from my local watering hole to the main drag of east Berlin, where they were driving around in open trucks, filled with benches filled with drinking dads who were filled with beer and belting out drinking songs. Add to that the 60 or 70,000 soccer fans in town from Munich and Kaiserlautern, wearing their respective blue and red-and-white checked team scarves, and at times, it got pretty confusing. You might walk up to someone and ask, "Protestant?", only to get a response of, "Go, Kaiserlautern!" as you discovered that his orange scarf was actually a red-and-white checked scarf. Or a drunken dad might turn out to be a cleric. Oh yeah, and add to all that about 30 degree C. summer weather, and it was at times difficult to tell if you were encountering dads, denominations, drunks, or other sorts of devotees. You might even be meeting your local earnest Social Democratic delegate, since not only was it Church-, Dad-, and Soccer Championship Day, it was also the Special Party Day for the governing Social Democratic Party, which was debating Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s "reform plan" to cut social welfare benefits to believers, dads, football fans, and other denizens of the working class. The Chancellor had to make a brief dash from Evian to Berlin on Sunday, thus swelling the crowd by at least one more.

After it was all over, the story down at my local watering hole went like this: two Catholic priests wandered into the bar in full regalia, including priestly dog collars. One of them, immediately recognizing he was in a branch plant of Sodom and Gomorrah, fled. The other removed his collar and hung around. Later, when the bartender went off to the can for a tinkle, he found the drinking Father and another customer locked in a fumbling embrace. "Oh, hello, Father," said the bartender, recognizing the priest. The bartender is a no doubt godless former Communist who saw this as an opportunity for a delicious moment of traditional pleasure–the famous German Schadenfreude— in the discomfort of others. The priest, who hurriedly disengaged from his fumbling embrace, intoned the traditional response, "Yes, hello, my son."

Berlin, June 3, 2003


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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