Bishop Margot Kässmann

Thundering sermons can produce some surprising results in Germany these days.

Bishop Margot Kässmann, the new head of Germay’s main association of Protestant churches (EKD — Evangelical Church in Germany), reaped a tirade of criticism from politicians after she denounced Germany’s military mission in a New Year’s sermon at the Berlin Cathedral, the city’s huge monument to Prussian Protestantism. A church leader calls for peace — that’s not news. Politicians supporting soldiers at the front — that’s not a headline either.

But then came a few interesting twists.  Instead of simply fueling the polemics, Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg — surprise #1 — invited her to meet and exchange views. At the meeting in Berlin on Monday, he  — surprise #2 — invited Kässmann to visit the troops in Afghanistan soon. According to the Rheinische Post newspaper, they — surprise #3 — agreed to set up a “regular dialogue between the churches and the Bundeswehr (armed forces).” Anyone who has been following Kässmann, the 51-year-old Lutheran bishop of Hannover elected last October as Germany’s top Protestant leader (and the first woman to hold the post), would say the only non-surprise in all this was that she accepted the invitation to Afghanistan. She is not someone to run away from challenges. guttenberg

German Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg visits German troops in Kunduz, 13 Nov 2009/Michael Kappeler

This could get very interesting. Guttenberg, a dashing rising star from Bavaria’s conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) party, is a Roman Catholic. One of the striking aspects of Kässmann’s criticism is her use of the “just war” theory, a doctrine allowing defensive fighting but limiting aggressive military actions that is associated with  Saint Thomas Aquinas and was cited by the Vatican when it opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. We don’t know much about Guttenberg’s personal views, but a discussion of the just war theory between a Bavarian Catholic and a northern Lutheran could be an interesting fly-on-the-wall moment. The sparse Defence Ministry communique after the meeting hinted this debate might go public: “Both sides agreed that the ethical dimension of the Bundeswehr mission in Afghanistan is suited for further critical discussion in the public sphere.”

Kässmann, who has cited the just war theory to challenge earlier military exploits such as the 1991 Gulf War, did not wait until New Year’s to express her doubts about Afghanistan. She was quoted in a couple of German papers in December as saying “There is no just war,” adding she could not legitimise the German mission in Afghanistan from a Christian point of view. Germany has about 4,300 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan and the government is considering whether to send more.