The story of Jesus is the single greatest factor in shaping Europe’s past.
Each time I take masters students on a ‘heritage tour’ through Europe, I am overwhelmed by the profound transformation the arrival of the gospel message brought to people groups across the continent. A worldview in which a God of love created humanity, thus granting every human dignity and value, displaced such ideas that ‘might was right’, or that one race was superior to others.
Not that the presentation of the gospel was ever perfect. Nor the expression of the faith as it became rooted in society and culture. But the latent values of equality, brotherhood and freedom over time profoundly shaped European civilisation. These values were later ‘borrowed’ without acknowledgement by the Enlightenment, but were first introduced with the story of the One in whom there is neither Jew nor gentile (equality), who came to show the way back to our Father (hence ‘brotherhood’) and to release us to do what we ought (freedom).
Last week’s masters module held in Amsterdam was a hybrid of lectures and field excursions. We started in Dublin with the Irish Celts, ‘travelled’ through Ireland, Scotland and England before crossing with Willibrord and Boniface to Holland and Germany. After walks through Utrecht and Amsterdam, we drove to Friesland where Boniface’s missionary career was abruptly ended, and then on to Zwolle to encounter Thomas a Kempis (The imitation of Christ) and others. On the trail of ‘creative and faithful minorities’, our trip crossed Germany through Luther country, and down through Prague back to southern Germany, Switzerland, France and finally Brussels in Belgium.
The legacy of this story has left its indelible imprint. The cross, a gruesome execution instrument transformed into a symbol of hope, healing and hospitality, is still seen everywhere across Europe on flags, hospitals, pharmacies, cemeteries, jewellery and even tattoos.
Even something as common place as the Bluetooth icon, now seen on our phones and laptop screens, is connected with the spread of the gospel. In the heart of Utrecht, by the entrance to the university, we read on a four-metre high carved stone the story (in viking runes) of how the Norwegian king Harald (nicknamed ‘bluetooth’ because he loved blueberries) introduced Christ to the Danes. This was a replica of the 1000-year-old Jelling Stone considered by the Danes as the birth certification of Denmark, the first record of the country’s name and of its christianisation. On one face of the stone is the oldest depiction of Christ in Scandanavia, an image reproduced on the inside cover of every Danish passport. The symbol of the Bluetooth technology which converges digital languages, inspired by this story, overlays the initials “H” and “B” in viking runes – the initials of Harald Bluetooth who ‘converged the Norwegians and Danes’ under Christianity.
Dig below the surface almost anywhere in Europe and we can find something of the legacy of the gospel – if we have eyes to see. However, as someone observed recently, while everybody loves apples, you can only have apples if you have trees with roots. The fruit of equality, brotherhood and freedom come from biblical roots, even if they have been ‘borrowed’ by other traditions. Those roots have been largely forgotten or ignored.
To rediscover these roots is why we run these masters courses in Missional leadership and European Studies, with ForMission College in Birmingham.
Freedom and peace
Why shouldn’t this same story of Jesus also shape Europe’s future? At the State of Europe Forum each year held in the capital of the country holding the presidency of the European Union, we aim to convene believers from many backgrounds to evaluate Europe today in the light of Robert Schuman’s vision for ‘a community of peoples deeply rooted in Christian values’.
Right now the EU presidency is held by Sweden, one of the Nordic countries which all share the cross on their national flags. With Protestant roots, it is no accident that the Nordic countries hover near the top of global indicies for transparency, corruption, democracy, education, economic competitiveness, civil liberties, quality of life and human development. They are generally followed by other countries with Protestant histories, then by Catholic background nations, then Orthodox nations and eventually by Muslim, Hindu and other worldview backgrounds. By and large, however, today’s Swedes have forgotten their roots, many being agnostics and atheists.
At this year’s State of Europe Forum in Stockholm, to which anyone concerned about tomorrow’s Europe is welcome, we plan to jog memories about Europe’s roots as we address the theme, The price of freedom and peace. In Stockholm’s historic Santa Clara Church on Friday evening, May 5, we focus on the place of forgiveness and reconciliation in laying foundations for the last seventy years of peace in Europe. On Saturday, May 6, in the Bethlehem Church, plenary sessions and workshops will address challenges to freedom and peace in Europe today, including the Ukraine war.
Save these dates and watch this space for more information.
Till next week,