I am an early modern historian. That means I spend a lot of time wading around in the 16th century, getting to know the people and events of that now-distant past. It also means that 2017 is an important year in my calendar, as it marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. This semester, however, I find myself more frequently occupied with issues of modern immigration, pouring over the crises that are currently happening in the U.S. and in Europe. How did my professional focus move from there to here? As I sat down to contemplate that question, I came to the conclusion that it was actually not such a big move, because these "two worlds" are not so very far apart after all.
In 2015 I published a monograph titled, "Pragmatic Toleration: The Politics of Religious Heterodoxy in Early Reformation Antwerp, 1515-1555." The book was the culmination of research that started 15 years ago on the Reformation in what is now the Netherlands and Belgium. What I discovered as I dug through the archives there, was that religious tolerance and coexistence didn't come about because any ivory-tower intellectuals or wealthy lawyers told people that it should. Rather, I found individual people with different religious beliefs, who learned how to "get along" because they had no choice. The residents of 16th-century Antwerp found themselves in the same place, needing to trade with one another, protect one another, and generally coexist with as little disruption to life as possible. And it was in that situation, in every act of individual cooperation, that the seeds of "toleration" were sown.
Fast-forward 500 years, and we are still trying to figure out whom we want to live with and whom we can't abide. We've not moved very far on the religious tolerance front either really, although the "enemies" have different names these days, and our purview has broadened. But the questions that we ask ourselves as we decide whom to room with, or whom to date, or which neighborhood to move into, are remarkably analogous to those that early moderns asked as they faced the exact same questions.
It is then, perhaps no surprise that Ralston Deffenbaugh will be one of the keynote speakers at Luther College's Liberating Grace conference (March 31-April 1), as part of our commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Deffenbaugh is the assistant general secretary for International Affairs and Human Rights at the Lutheran World Federation, and serves as the ELCA's representative to the U.N. He is a human rights lawyer, who has spent much professional energy in the past years working on issues of European immigration. On April 1, he will give a keynote speech on the European migration crisis to a gathering of Luther students, faculty, staff and community members, as well as alumni and other honored guests.
My work at the Center for Ethics and Public Engagement is bringing me into contact with these issues as well. On April 5, the CEPE will host Social Work professor, Susan Schmidt and human rights lawyer, Yer Vang, to discuss their work here in the Midwest with undocumented, unaccompanied minors traveling from Mexico and Central America. One week later, Dr. Benjamin Stoltenburg, who teaches language and culture classes to asylum seekers in Germany, will give a public lecture about his work. I have no doubt that the themes raised in all three of these discussions will overlap.
As I think back on Antwerp in the 16th century, I find a place in which people of different and antagonistic religious beliefs lived side-by-side, and found ways to work together and even look out for one another in a religiously complex and hostile environment. In our modern world too, we find ourselves surrounded by diversity of all sorts, and hostilities that are sometimes overt and sometimes less easy to detect. And yet the challenges of both worlds remain strikingly similar. As we mark the 500 years that separate us from the people in my book, I wonder how far we have really come in that vast amount of time. Shouldn't we, by now have developed some new questions to ask regarding our neighbors? Perhaps our call is not to decide whom we are willing to "tolerate," but rather, who needs our help and how can we best deliver it? If we could figure out some answers to questions like those, then I think we would really have cause to celebrate 500 years since we "reformed" our world.