Germany

Is It A Sin To Be Elite?

Protestants of power and wealth in Germany struggle to balance faith and money, while Church leadership seeks a new way of addressing the modern quest for personal achievement with the greater good – and the Christian gospel.

The Ludwigskirche church in Old Saarbrucken, Germany
The Ludwigskirche church in Old Saarbrucken, Germany
Matthias Kamann

The collection plates aren't filled with the sound of their coins, but the rustle of their bills. They don't mind seeing a portion of their income deducted automatically each month to pay a church tax. In their positions of leadership, they make sure to respect the tenets of their Christian faith. Yet from the pulpit each Sunday, they hear nothing but rants against the greedy exploiters and selfish oppressors of modern society.

For Protestant elites in Germany, balancing faith and money is a tough act.

The Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) has taken notice of this tension, and is now vowing to do something about it. "We don't want to give the impression that the message of the Gospel excludes social leaders," reads a new piece from the EKD leadership entitled "The Responsibility of the Protestant elite."

The 14 authors of the document, among them high-ranking clergy members and church-affiliated intellectuals are surprisingly open about the Church's negligence in dealing with elites. EKD Council President Nicholas Schneider, a staunchly leftist social ethicist, notes in the foreword of the 32-page text: "In recent years, a misunderstood threat of egalitarianism has prevented Protestant elites from fully developing their power and influence."

The authors are aware that such sentences seem provocative coming from a church whose unquestionable commitment to principles of justice often prevent it from even speaking of elites. "It will take people some time to get used to this idea," says Thies Gundlach, vice president of the EKD Church Office. Church Council member Marlehn Thieme, Director of Deutsche Bank, asked herself several times while working on the text "if this reconciliation is even possible."

The constraints of this message are noticeable in the text. The authors address all complications in detail, including the failure of the Protestant elites during the Kaiser and Nazi eras, and the exclusion of an elite without its own power. The text underscores the equality of all believers in the eyes of God. Again and again, the text urges elites to "use their talents and capabilities for the benefit of others." This sentiment is correct, but it leaves the reader wondering whether the development of gifted children for their own sake might then also be a form of worship.

Churches must offer something for the elites

At the same time, the EKD's text takes this topic in a new, much more modern direction. The church does not want to encourage a return to a traditional "top-down" societal structure, but rather a new, dynamic one. "An individual who wants to achieve something for himself will strive for something higher, for education, wealth and culture," states one notable passage. "Any organization that does not want to stagnate must have individuals that strive for leadership and accountability. It's about a community project."

This of course implies not only that the elites can contribute to society, but that society, in this case the church, is able to offer them something in return. It belongs to a "self-understanding as a people's church," says co-writer Wolfgang Huber, the former Evangelical Church Council President, that you operate "not by excluding certain groups from religious communication, but rather by educating them according to their needs. These needs can be fulfilled through "outstanding concerts, intense conversation, or dinners with a bishop."

Regarding one issue, the text remains noticeably vague: how does the Church regard its own elites? The answer "must be in view," write the authors, offering only a few lines of open-ended questions posed back and forth. But the Protestant church needs to find those answers quickly. It not only needs to inspire intellectually elite high school graduates to study theology, but also to offer its gifted pastors attractive new career opportunities. Few pastors want to rise in the ranks of the church -- higher positions these days tend to bring little money and more frustrating formalities. Huber sees the problem quite plainly: at the middle level, the work is easier.

Read the original article in German

Photo - Wolfgang Staudt