Sermon at the Commemoration Service on the occasion of the repatriation of human remains from former German South West-Africa

Bishop Petra Bosse-Huber, Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), at Französische Friedrichstadtkirche, Berlin

2 Cor 4:5-10

An elderly Rabbi asked his students: “Can you tell me how one determines the hour at which the night ends and the day begins?” One thought he knew: “Perhaps it's when, from afar, one can distinguish a dog from a sheep?” “No”, answered the master. “Or is it, when one can discern a date tree from a fig tree?”, asked another. “No”, said the Rabbi. “So, when is it then?” asked the students. “The night ends and the day begins”, answered the Rabbi, “when you are able to look into the face of a person and recognise your brother or sister in them. Up until this point, the night is still with us.”

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

this day moves me greatly. We intend to do something today which should have been done many decades ago: namely, to give back mortal human remains of people who became the victims of the first genocide of the 20th century, to their rightful descendants. I am filled with deep sadness and shame at the fact that this has taken so long; and also that the task is by no means complete, as not all mortal human remains have been returned from institutional and private collections to Namibia. At the same time, I am shocked that not even missionaries, pastors and Christian churches adequately faced up to, or even opposed, the genocide.

Our forefathers thought they were tasked with the mission of bringing light into dark Africa. They were inspired by the thought of bringing enlightenment and liberation, thus freeing people from bondage to darkness. They had – as the Bible verses which we have just read indicate - seen the bright light of the gospel and were firmly convinced that they knew how the gospel might also enlighten the hearts of the so-called heathens.

Subjectively, they were confident that they were doing the right thing and yet, they were deluded to the worst degree. The light of the gospel was perverted to deepest darkness through the arrogance of their cultural pride; the message of God was distorted beyond recognition by their nationalist beliefs that they were the “chosen ones”. Like the German regional churches that sent them, these clergy members understood the conquest of the colonial territories to be a national project which would secure and strengthen Germany's position as a global power.

Whilst members of the clergy did not themselves directly call for mass killings, a deep-seated racism poisoned their speaking and acting. It was based upon a cultural sense of superiority and a deeply established fear for their own potentially endangered identity which distorted their theological thinking and practical action.

Through the theological justification of an imperial claim to power and colonial rule, they prepared the ground for the death of many thousands of members of the Namibian ethnic groups. Countless people lost their lives in military operations as well as through the incarceration in the concentration camps set up by the German colonial forces.

The witnesses of this deluded belief that a nation had been chosen in a special way are, today, right in front of our very eyes. They have been subjected to a double degradation: they were not only killed in the most brutal way, but they were also illegitimately brought to Germany, disrespecting their human dignity and the religious and cultural traditions which were holy to them, for the sake of pseudo-scientific, racial and eugenic “research”.

This is a great sin and not to be justified at all. As successor organization of the former Prussian Evangelical High Church Council (Oberkirchenrat), which, at the time, acted on behalf of all regional German Protestant churches, we, as the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD), acknowledged our responsibility in an official declaration in April 2017. Today, we expressly repeat this acknowledgement before this congregation and ask the descendants of the victims, and all those whose ancestors suffered under the exercise of German colonial rule, for forgiveness for the wrongs committed against and the suffering inflicted upon them, from the very bottom of our hearts.

At the same time, we, as the Protestant Church in Germany, are aware that we cannot undo the wrongs that have been done. We also know about the brokenness brought about by guilt-laden memories, which - as the text for the sermon illustrates - makes us, as earthen vessels, more vulnerable still. At the same time however, we also know of the power of God, which allows us to face the truth and our guilt. This power has been given to Christians in the mystery of Jesus Christ's passion and resurrection. In this light, we ask for forgiveness and hope for a new beginning. I was touched by a story which a pastor from the Southern part of Africa told me. He found a small message on the notice-board of a hospital's casualty department which read “Blessed are those who are cracked – they let the light through” – “Gesegnet sind die, deren Leben Brüche hat – sie lassen das Licht durch“.  I find it very comforting that it is precisely our cracks, our wounds, which make us receptive to, and transparent for the light of God's grace. This grace is so precious that no-one can earn or win it; it can – like forgiveness – only be requested and given.

This light of God's grace is the beginning of a new day. In its radiance, we can look into one another's eyes and recognise our brother or sister. In the light of undeserved grace, we can take hold of the opportunity for a new beginning; and do so also as an expression of our continuing historical and ethical obligation. Together with the descendants of the victims, we intend to keep their memory alive, to publicly advocate the acknowledgement of the genocide and to work towards overcoming the wrongs committed by the German colonial rule, as well as their enduring effects.

We have already begun doing just that, together with many churches and missions agencies in Germany, as well as in the Southern part of Africa, engaging in: an academic process to review the colonial past; consultations regarding our acknowledgement of guilt; visible signs of restitution and reconciliation; and the joint preparation for this service of remembrance alongside our ecumenical brothers and sisters in Namibia.

The journey however, is still a long one, and it requires our full commitment. May the light of God's truth and grace help us to see a new day, when we gratefully gaze upon the face of a person and thereby recognise our brother or our sister. Amen.