First we are human beings, said my old friend Ingrid Eide in an email recently. Secondly, she said, we are men and women, and then all the other things that follow in our definitions of roles and categorisations, the way we label ourselves and others label us. We somehow seem to find order in doing that, but often it hinders communication and contact between people in one’s own community and sub-group, and more so across to those who are a bit different in tradition, faith and more, at home and in the wider world. Yet, the deeper experiences of living and being, the existential questions that perhaps have no definite answers about this life and the hereafter, are in the end the same or very similar everywhere, for every human being. So, let us remember, first, we are human beings and quite alike, yes, equal before God.

Ingrid Eide is a Norwegian social scientist and politician. She is the co-founder of the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), with Johan Galtung. When she wrote to me this time, just before cutting short the chilly Nordic autumn, going to Portugal for a week’s time, we had already been exchanging views on some of the important issues in our time, notably immigration, integration and refugee issues, and on disarmament. Ingrid has among other things been chair of Norway’s association ‘Nei til atomvåpen’ (No to nuclear weapons). She underlined that we human beings are equal and the same, irrespective of creed or cradle, success or failure, achievement or lack thereof, we are much the same – and we have a lot of free will and should use it.

Ingrid also told another story which I will share with you, notably that when she as a Norwegian deputy minister had travelled to Bangladesh a good while ago, she had visited the director of a large publishing house in Dacca. He was so pleased that she had come and talk about something else than literacy campaigns and Education for All, albeit important, too. But he was glad to be treated and talked to at the same level as his guest.

When Ingrid wrote to me, she made reference to my recent articles about education and immigration, where I underlined how important it is that we always treat each other as equals; a child who is better in sports than in mathematics is not worth less than the other one, or an immigrant from Gujrat who has arrived in Oslo with not much more than a shirt on his back and his bare hands. This is obvious, but we have to repeat it lest we may forget, especially in our time when the Western ideology of success and money has become universal, yes, also amongst the Pakistani culture many times dominated by traders and climbers.

I am grateful for having had the opportunity to know such steadfast and intelligent women, with a mind and heart of their own, never giving in or giving up. They speak what they believe is important. Sometimes, I think women do that better than men. A mother never lets a child alone and will always encouragement; a mother always believes in her daughter and son, even when no one else does.

That leads me to the second woman I will mention today, the Archbishop of the Church of Sweden, Antje Jackelèn, a German born naturalized Swede, and the first woman to be that country’s highest religious leader of what used to be the state church, but is since 2001 independent from the state. In Sweden, with a country with twenty percent of the ten million inhabitants being immigrants and refugees, it is probably good to have a foreign-born person in that post, and it is likely to be good that the incumbent is a woman.

Being a teacher, researcher and diplomat myself, allow me, dear reader, to give some background about the Protestant-Lutheran Scandinavian churches. The people are secular people nowadays, yet, with some three-quarters still being members of the former state-church, and others, maybe privately and quietly, have faith, without belonging to a faith society. Of the newcomers over the recent generations, there are also a good number who are Muslims or belong to other religions.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the beginning of the establishment of the Protestant church, a process that was led by the Catholic priest and professor Martin Luther in Germany. I have therefore this year come learn more about faith issues, about being steadfast and stubborn. Luther was that - although he was a man. Of course, it was not about gender, because, first, we are human beings.

In connection with the schism in the Christian Church, which lead to two the establishment of the two branches, the Catholic Church and the Protestant Church, the latter with hundreds of sub-groups, I have reflected more on the role of religion and ideology in society, not only faith. I have also come to learn that much of what the church has stood for has not always been right. The church has not always been the ‘custodians of God’s will’. Sometimes, the church, as other organised religions, too, have been a hindrance for our understanding of God’s love for every human being, and for all of us to love one another. That is the essence of all religions.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a religious leader of his time, and his ideas also had secular and political aspects, maybe even more so than religious. The church rose up against centralization, the pope’s control of faith. The German kings and people wanted a greater say themselves. However, the kings and other leaders of the time, centralized religion in ways that Luther had not foreseen. In that way, the Reformation was a step backward, leading to dictatorship in state and church. We should note that, it is only about a hundred and fifty years or so that Scandinavia and Europe have had religious freedom. Let me add that Protestantism, which came at the time of the invention of the printing press, also led to a process towards democratisation, at least in due course. The use of the mother tongue became possible in religion and society. The movement that Martin Luther was the front man in, was a precursor for the introduction of the teaching of reading and later, primary education, as well as the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment and our modern times.

I shall leave it to you as reader, to tie together the various elements of my article today; the information about Martin Luther and the Reformation, the words of wisdom from my two Norwegian friends, and the role of the Swedish archbishop. Also, you may refer to my two previous articles about education and immigration, and obviously, your own knowledge, values and analysis. Let me again underline the importance of equality, tolerance and respect for others, and the essential people’s participation. It is only this way that we can make progress in society and in faith associations.

In our time, new groups become more important and visible than before, indeed women, but also people from other countries. First, we are human beings, said Ingrid. Multiculturalism and diversity can only make each country and community stronger. It is when we hide and live separate that we more easily go astray. Openness, dialogue, and participation are essential, within and between cultures, religions and groups.


The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.