Speech in the panel 'Living Together in the XXI Century', Thirst for Peace International Meeting in Assisi

What kind of background do I come from? My country Finland is one of the Nordic countries, where the Lutheran tradition of the Christian faith has had a particularly deep impact on our societies. In the year 2000 more than 90% of Finns were members of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church. Right now, slightly fewer than three out of four still are. Immigration is only a very minor factor in de-churching and secularization.

My country differs from other Nordic countries in that we speak a completely different language. Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians can all understand each other even if everyone is using their native language; Finnish, however, is not only not-closely-related, it is not even Indo-European. Also, taking a look at the map of Europe quickly tells you that for the majority of Europeans, Finland lies beyond a sea. It is easy to reach the conclusion that Finland has for an exceptionally long time remained an unusually monocultural and monochrome country, one where Lutheran Christians speak a language understood by no-one else than themselves. And in the process turning their back to the rest of the world.

However, Finnish society is changing rapidly. Religious indifference and negative attitudes towards religion are waxing—in this, Finland is simply following an established “Western” trend. And as Finland is a wealthy, free, and stable society—according to some, perhaps even the most stable in the whole world—Finland is today attracting growing numbers of asylum seekers, of which a substantial number are Muslims. For a certain period during last autumn, Finland had more asylum seekers per citizen than any other state in Europe.

Reactions to this have been not unlike those seen in other European countries. On the one hand, religious communities have spoken in defense of loving one’s neighbours and of the equal worth of all human beings. Since the resources of my own Church are sufficient – or more than sufficient – for it, we have been able to offer help and make our buildings like camp centers and facilities and parish homes available, working together with state and municipal as well as third-sector  actors. On the other hand, social media in particular are teeming with hate speech. I am sad and ashamed to tell that right now, during these very days, there is a debate going on in Finland about the death of a young Finnish man. He gave some critical comments about a demonstration of the so called “Finnish Resistance Movement”, a small but aggressive group being hostile not only against asylum seekers but to all immigrants. He was pushed down and hit his head to the ground. He died a couple of days later. This is the most tragic and radical side of it, but there are more of those to whom immigrants are perceived as a threat — to jobs and to Finnish culture. And who says “culture”, says “religion” as well.

Last week, in an article in the Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat, Nordea Bank Group Chief Executive Officer Casper von Koskull had this to say about the effects of globalization on society: “In a country like Finland it is likely that income inequality will grow to some extent, but it is very important that this growth can be justified to the populace. If this is not the case, answers will be sought in religion or nationalism. Democracy and liberal market economy will then end up being the losers.”

This may be a gross simplification, but it seems that von Koskull is of the opinion that a Westerner must have enough material goods and economic well-being—otherwise the Westerner will go both religious and undemocratic, they grow hand in hand. I find it likely that what von Koskull is really thinking about is a particular kind of religion—mentioning “nationalism” in the same context is suggestive. Yet, for us who represent “religion” this is of course a challenge: is this the inevitable role of religion? Is religion there to feed xenophobia and regressive nostalgia? Is it there to build subcultural identities for people who are thus pushed further and further away from each other into mutual alienation?

One ”Western” answer or an attempt to find a solution is French-style laïcité, where society seeks to contain religion by squeezing it away from the public sphere. This model is a child of the early 20th century; in the eyes of today it is also inappropriate and discriminating. It limits freedom of religion, for after all it is characteristic of religions—it is of their very essence—that they are practiced in a public and communal manner. The recent bans on burkini imposed by certain French cities are a glaring example of how a laïcité-based uniformitarian monochrome culture fails to solve the problems of living together in a globalized world.

I am a vice-Chair of the Finnish National Council of Religions. As a body, we have emphasized the importance of realizing that multiculturalism necessitates noticing and acknowledging the fact of multireligiosity. Interculturalism needs the interfaith reality.

Religion is a fundamental part of a person’s identity; it is an entire life-form; it is practised publicly and communally — all this makes religion also a foundational factor of cultural cohesion. Peaceful and orderly life in society is always at risk if or when a member of any group—religious or otherwise—feels that because of his or her identity she or he is deprived of certain rights or not given equal chances to live a good life. This kind of experience is constantly created by a changing world: economic depression, a toxic environment, global or local redistribution of wealth, resources and power… If there is a lack of resources – and in the 21st century this is what we are going to face – there is a temptation present to be divided into us and them, them seen as privileged and more or less our opponents if not even enemies.

“Living together in the 21st century” will not be easy. Globalization has so suddenly pushed us so close to one another. It is my faith, however, that we can make it, if the diversity of people’s fundamental identities can be respected; if solutions can be sought through contact and encounter rather than through limiting or forbidding identities or excluding plurality. In facilitating these contacts and encounters religions are irreplaceable.

In his opening contribution philosopher Zygmunt Bauman asked for a culture of dialogue and for a just distribution of the results or fruits of human labor. Justice or righteousness is in the core of any religion; my own Christian and biblical tradition has been depicted as a history of dialogue, God seeking more and more near and intimate relationship with the humankind. That is why both culture of dialogue and just distribution of resources are essential religious realities, too.

If we are supposed to “live together in the 21st century” in peace and perhaps even in harmony we have no other choice than the “spirit of Assisi”, where we welcome each other again and again on all possible levels: dialogue and encounter cannot be replaced. And that is why we are here today.