Simone Sinn, Peniel Rajkumar, Rudolf von Sinner and other participants in religion in public space meeting. Photo by Odair Pedroso Mateus.

Simone Sinn, Peniel Rajkumar, Rudolf von Sinner and other participants in religion in public space meeting. Photo by Odair Pedroso Mateus.

In an age of religious pluralism and of religious justification of all manner of atrocities, how do religious communities contribute authentically to the public good?

The plurality of religions, and of a wide diversity of standpoints within Christianity itself, does not demand retreat from but heightened engagement in the political sphere by Christian communities, argued Brazilian theologian Rudolf von Sinner at a recent visit to the Ecumenical Centre, Geneva.

Von Sinner reflected specifically from the context of a maturing democracy in Brazil. In the contemporary context of liberalization and democratization, he said, Brazilian Christians and other religious actors must alter their earlier paradigms, forged in response to and after the military dictatorship of 1964 to 1985, to nurture stable, radically inclusive, democratic institutions.

Von Sinner espoused elaborating a Christian public theology, anchored in an emancipatory vision of citizenship, in which “all have access to the public space for…fullness of life.”

“Citizenship has indeed become the key concept of democracy in Brazil since the 1990s,” he explained. “It is far from being something given through a document of national citizenship or written laws. Rather, it is a field of constant struggle of all people in a determined territory for their rights and for the well-being of the society in its entirety, be their members nationals or not. Its effectiveness involves profound transformation of people, society, institutions. For this, the ‘learning’ of democracy and education are always of central importance.”

“By “citizenship” [cidadania], von Sinner was referring to something that the word citizenship in English does not convey, namely the struggle of the very poor to change their immediate context, which prevents the affirmation of their human dignity, such as through good education for all, access to health care, to the instruments of justice such as courts etc,” said Rev. Dr Odair Pedroso Mateus, WCC director of Faith and Order.

Von Sinner contrasted the constructive citizenship paradigm with the quietism of traditionalist Christianity, the vapidity of modernizing Christianity, and even the sometimes unrealistic utopianism of prophetic Christianity.

Von Sinner criticized religious traditions that are so certain of their “truth” that they can justify violence in the name of religion.  “Truth is often abused by fundamentalists and other authoritarian religious traditions,” he said, “while love grounds respectful, rational argument and regard for the common good”.

“Argument, not decree or force, must prevail,” he said citing the work of Paul Freire, Hugo Assmann, and Jürgen Habermas.

Von Sinner is a native Swiss who has lived in Brazil for 14 years and is Professor for Systematic Theology, Ecumenics and Interreligious Dialogue at the Lutheran School of Theology (Faculdades EST), São Leopoldo/Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, where he also directs an Institute of Ethics.

His visit was sponsored by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) as part of its larger study process of consultations and formulation of a statement on religious diversity and public space. Rev. Dr Simone Sinn, Study Secretary for Public Theology and Interreligious Relations for the LWF, responded to von Sinner, as did Rev. Dr Peniel Rajkumar, the WCC's programme executive for inter-religious dialogue and cooperation.

An authentic contribution to the public good, argued von Sinner, has real consonance with historic Lutheranism’s emphases on the intrinsic dignity of the person, the centrality of trust, acknowledgment of the genuine ambiguity of everyday life, the imperative of loving service, and appreciation of distinct public and religious spheres.

In response, Sinn stressed the critical function of religions, especially in discerning concrete ethical criteria, beyond labels of “good” and “bad” religion, to inspire and guide religious action in the public sphere. She queried whether public theology ever sufficiently “allows us to get out of our own language games” and truly engage the larger public sphere.

Referencing situations in India and the US, Rajkumar cautioned against misuse of the concept of citizenship by nationalistic religious majorities to bully and marginalize minorities.

Von Sinner’s current research builds on the citizenship model and compares the public roles of churches in Brazil, South Africa and Germany.