Religion and Care

Dutch journalist, columnist and writer Stevo Akkerman reassesses religiously motivated care practices in a neighbourhood where the poor live. In the postscript Brecht Molenaar provides some background information to his blog.

Religious motivations and worldviews are at odds with care ethics. Some, like Virginia Held, argue that religion always has a divisive effect and must therefore be eschewed in care ethics. Others take a different position; Annelies van Heijst and Sander-Staudt, for example, have outlined both positive and negative aspects of religion. But what happens if we take a bottom-up look at the issue, starting from actual practices of care? And if we take into account neoliberal political background rhetoric?

Stevo Akkerman’s Blog: Theology of Care

It was after the midterm elections for the Senate in the Netherlands that I lost my belief – the belief that we are a non-religious country. Seldom was a political speech more religiously laden, and full of doom-mongering, than the victory speech of Thierry Baudet, leader of the right-wing populist party ‘Forum voor Democratie’ (Forum for Democray). Even our confessionalist parties wouldn’t go as far as he did. And whether or not Baudet’s audience grasped all of his biblical and mythological references, it is amazing that he is able to inspire his followers with such language. To me it sounds fascinating and frightening, in equal measure.

Baudet had preached before, but back then – late 2017  his sermon was not broadcast live on television. At that time, he gave a long lecture about the loss of the ‘cosmological order’ that I – apart from the overheated terminology – could appreciate: he was not afraid to address the big issues. The loss of God, that’s what his speech then was ultimately about. It is a bit disappointing, then, that he apparently intended to fill this void with a bloated version of man and culture.

Now, after his stunning success in the midterm elections, he painted an apocalyptic view of a ‘boreal’ (i.e. white) culture under threat from ‘masochistic heresy,’ ‘immanent religion,’ ‘political theology,’ ‘the cult of death’ and a ‘secular deluge doctrine.’ In other words: climate policy and immigration. But this ‘twilight of the greatest civilization in history’ will be halted now that Baudet has entered politics. ‘We have been called to the frontline, and we know that you don’t have to subscribe to the metaphysical dimension of Christianity to accept its leading motive of resurrection. On this rock bottom we will build our movement.’

If this does not count as a godless gospel, what does? Or maybe Baudet himself is meant to be that God, that Messiah. It must be his reference to a ‘spiritual void’ that is attracting voters who feel that politics these days lacks soul, although they might not use such wording. The end of history, proclaimed after the collapse of communism, has created a technocratic culture in which politicians can boast of not having a vision; Baudet’s answer to that is a gospel of his own making. Or perhaps his derailed version of the Good News is not a gospel but an utopia. This is why Baudet’s all-encompassing, cosmos-redeeming rhetoric frightens me. It promises more than any politician can deliver and dismisses the truth of our existence as a muddling through, in which we are forced to try to coexist with people of different convictions and faiths. Moreover, his concept of a return to a glorious past is nothing but a false paradise. It is blind to the shadows of its own nation and culture and seeks to reserve salvation for a chosen people.

In such a paradise, a serpent is sure to be lurking in the shadows. Baudet’s theology is an uncaring one, and the prospect of its emergence threatened to lower my spirits. It was therefore a good thing that, following Baudet’s speech, I spent an afternoon at a party in Delfshaven, the old neighbourhood of Rotterdam where I live. There was music and handshaking, beer and wine, and people from all corners of the earth, all of whom had ended up here in Delfshaven one way or another. We were celebrating the 5th anniversary of ‘Wijkpastoraat-West,’ a charity that offers pastoral care in the urban area of Rotterdam-West and has its roots in the mission of the Dutch Reformed Church. Here, Muslims, Hindus, Christians and everyone else came together like it was the most natural of things – just as it should be.

As a newcomer to Rotterdam, I was asked to speak a few words at what was in fact a resurrection of Wijkpastoraat-West, although nobody used such weighty language. This charity is the heir to what began in 1944, during the Second World War, when Rotterdam and other cities in the Netherlands suffered a famine known as the ‘hunger winter,’ and churches set out to help people in the impoverished districts of town. Now, seventy years later, this good work was about to be terminated because of secularization and austerity. Self-reliance of citizens has become the new creed. But what looked like an end turned out to be a new beginning. A foundation was established, no longer connected to the church, and private and corporate funding was found, so that the work could continue: projects against loneliness, interreligious services, a dinner group, a women’s club.

A couple of weeks earlier I had visited a building called ‘The Union,’ part of the presence of the charity in the city. Every week, people gather there to share dinner and company. I only caught a glimpse of the place, but I recognized it as an exercise in social coexistence without any financial gain. An exercise in non-profit citizenship. We had peanut soup, nasi and bacon slices, which I had not eaten since childhood – in fact, I always used to push them off my plate, but this time I bravely ate them. For dessert, we had apple-cinnamon custard. We listened to each other’s stories. Names were mentioned of people who were often there, and of people whose absence was felt.  Afterwards I had a talk with pastor Katinka Broos, who has been working at The Union for over twenty years. At first she had to get used to the non-theological language of the visitors, who cheerfully addressed each other as ‘stoephoer’ (gutter slut), for example, something her minister-teaching had not really prepared her for. However, to her it’s not so much the language that counts, but the coming together of people. No doubt she has had many conversations about life and the questions that come with it in her little office.

Theology in action: that’s how I see this work of charity. People are recognized as worthy human beings, or in Christian terms as being an Image of God, regardless of class, race, gender, disability, sexual orientation or philosophy of life. Every individual matters. I would call this a theology of care.

So yes, many things are not going well since the so-called ‘decline of the West’, as Oswald Spengler put it in his book Der Untergang des Abendlandes. But despite all the talk of doom and gloom, many beautiful things are happening as well. And isn’t that actually much more important?

Religion and Care
Postscript by Brecht Molenaar

The Netherlands has moved from a welfare society with a social safety net to a so-called ‘participation society,’ a term used by His Majesty Willem Alexander in his first King’s Speech (2013). Citizens were asked to take responsibility for their own lives and their own social circles. This highly normative ideology is both a political (neoliberal) ideology and an austerity measure intended to reduce expenditures for all forms of social care.

The outcome is that people in particularly vulnerable situations often receive inadequate support and protection. It would appear that policies that speak of ‘being in control of one’s own life’ and similar sentiments disregard the reality of, especially, those sections of the population who are simply trying to survive (the poor and the elderly, the young, people with mental issues, the unemployed, people working under unsafe conditions, etc.). The weakest are growing increasingly dependent on charitable facilities, and it is remarkable that these initiatives are often church-based, even though the Netherlands is highly secularized. The practices of neighbourhood pastoral ministers set an example, , carried out in the field of urban mission, in several poor and disadvantaged neighbourhoods and districts in the Netherlands.

In this (neoliberal) context, more and more Dutch citizens are turning to nationalistic, right-wing parties for salvation, as is happening throughout Europe. How can we explain this development? Does it come from a lack of care? Or should we seek answers elsewhere, as Stevo Akkerman does? Whatever the case, the most recent provincial elections (2019, March 20) represented a major victory for the political party Forum voor Democratie (Forum for Democracy). The Dutch Senate is indirectly elected by the provincial councillors, and as a result, this newly established party has become the strongest in the Senate. The party is conservative, Eurosceptic and nationalist: Dutch culture should be protected and ‘mass immigration’ stopped.

Picture above © Stichting Wijkpastoraat Rotterdam-West

About the author: Stevo Akkerman

Stevo Akkerman is columnist and editor at the Dutch newspaper Trouw. He published several novels, and his autobiographic book 'Donderdagmiddagdochter' was awarded a literary prize both in the Netherlands and in Belgium.

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