A Conversation with Sturla Stålsett

With: Sturla Stålsett Berkley Center Profile

May 3, 2022

Background: Solidarity and social justice are central concerns in reflections on religious dimensions of development and humanitarian work. Sturla Stålsett has engaged these issues over several decades, in several world regions including his native Norway. During a brief sabbatical as a visiting researcher at the Berkley Center, he pursued several interests including an extended study on vulnerability. In a discussion with Katherine Marshall, he touched on many of his areas of interest that include refugees and migration and the situation in Central America and, notably, El Salvador. The exchange on recent changes in religion-state relationships in Norway is of particular interest.

You’ve spent the last two months at the Berkley Center. How did you plan your sabbatical originally, and what has it become, as you're nearing the end?

I'm very grateful to have had this opportunity to be here and grateful to the center for hosting me. The original plan was to be here for a year and continue to do my work on vulnerability, which has been an important theme for me in theological, ethical, and political contexts. I particularly wanted to look at migration and the significance of religious belonging and religious practices, looking especially at how religious resources for migrants are involved and how they are seen on the receiving end. There is a tendency I see in Europe and many places either to neglect the religious dimension of displaced people and refugees, especially, ignoring how much it means to them, or even fearing it a bit, seeing it as a problem for integration or radicalization or whatever it might be. I was interested in looking at the ways (if and how) on the receiving end of migration, there might be a positive recognition of the significance of religious resources for the migrants themselves.

For many reasons I did less on this than I had originally planned. The COVID-19 pandemic especially, forced me to postpone my sabbatical and I had to break it up into smaller parts. But I have had a very fruitful year, starting in Rome, at the Norwegian Institute in Rome, and doing research and writing there, and now ending it here, two months at the Berkley Center, including a trip for four days to El Salvador. I have focused much attention on my continuing work on the topic of vulnerability: I'm writing a book on political theology of vulnerability.

During the year, I finished work on two books, both in Norwegian. One is on faith policy in the context of Norway, assessing and discussing new legislation on that topic. The other is a book that I have co-edited with two colleagues, Kristin Graff-Kallevåg and Sven Thore Kloster, on populism and Christianity. The compilation examines the interface or the tension between populism in its variety and Christian practices and Christian belonging or Christian communities in their variety, first and foremost in the Norwegian context, but also with a view to selected countries and contexts abroad, in particular Russia, Latin America, France, and the United States. We have chapters on each.

Could you talk a bit about the first book, the one on Norwegian policy towards religion. What are the issues now and how is that playing out?

Norway has had a long history of a great deal of homogeneity in the faith arena. Since the Reformation, the country has been Evangelical Lutheran, including in its constitution, up until 2008. The constitution was changed on this issue for the first time in 2008. So that meant that until then, Norway was, as a country, confessional. It had a public religion that was constitutionally decided to be Evangelical Lutheran. That meant also that an Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Church of Norway has been the state church or established church up until recently, 2008. The real changes in this church came in 2012, since changing the constitution requires the decision of two consecutive parliaments. Now the changed constitution says that the Church of Norway in the new formulation, is the “volk church” of Norway, and will continue to be supported "as such," meaning financially supported as well, by the state.

What is meant by the “volk” church? Of the people?

Folkekirke” -- literally, people-church. It's an almost technical term, multilayered. And it's not clear whether this is a juridical term, a legal term, a theological term, or a political term. And who decides what it means to be a people's church or a folk church? But it is in the constitution for the first time from 2008. And the constitution dates from 1814, so it's an interesting change. But it also says that for all other faith communities, there's freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Norway. In the relevant paragraph in the constitution, it also says, "All other faith communities shall be supported in likewise." So, in an equal manner. So that means that there should be some kind of not just theoretical treatment of equality, but also practical, in terms of financing and facilitating services in the public institutions and so on, so forth.

I was asked by the government in 2010 to head the commission that was to work on the questions around what next? How should the government deal with this new situation, where it doesn't have a church, but there is a majority church that constitutionally has a particular role, and there is this total commitment to equal treatment? How could this be balanced? How should it be legislated? What does it mean in terms of different questions? Finances is one thing, but furthermore, all the dilemmas of symbols, of non-discrimination, and the difficult sides of religious practices that come into conflict with human rights of others and so. It was very fascinating work that I headed for three years. We handed over our white paper to the government in 2013. Then first came first debate, then silence, because there was a new government. They didn't know what to do with this, because it involved a proposal for new legislation, new policy. A long process followed.

Two years ago, at the beginning of the COVID period, the new law was decided upon and the new legislation was effective from the 1st of January 2021. In many ways, it follows up the report that we had delivered to the government, but in other ways it does not completely do so. What I did in the first book I mentioned was to try to take a step back, although I was an actor in the process, and to assess what is new in this new policy.

There's a new concept which is very awkward to translate directly, and difficult to translate: “Det livssynsåpne samfunn.” The sense is important in the way it's phrased in Norwegian, linked to and alternative to another term. But then basically it says, "A society which is open and inclusive and engaged with, positively recognizing a plurality of religions, including non-religious beliefs." So it relies on two principles, that there should be not a secularist default position, saying that the best for society is not that religion is sort of taken back from the public policy and public space. Instead, religion and diversity of religions and beliefs should be positively, openly invited into the public sphere and recognized. and even positively supported. But that should always be balanced with or dependent upon the equal treatment of all beliefs, both religious and non-religious.

There is an overall concept, which directly translated would be something like life view, view of life, view of... We talk of world views, but “life” is an important part of this concept. And it can be used in two ways. It can be used as a term for secular or those non-religious "religions," or it can be used as an overarching term over similar personal commitments at this profound level.

What is roughly Norway's current religious demography?

About 67% of the population is today a member of the Church of Norway. And then you have more or less 18% or 19% of the population who are not members of any faith communities. You have a humanist organization, which is quite strong in public and has a strong effect on public policy issues. And it's big in comparatively in the European and world context, but it doesn't have more than around 100,000 members (we are now 5.3 million inhabitants in Norway). The Church of Norway has about 3.7 million members. Then among the faith communities that are not members of the Church of Norway, you would find that among the non-Christians, the Muslims are the biggest community. One figure that is used is that more or less 4% of the population is Muslim, but these figures are indicative as this kind of information is supposed to be confidential, so you never know exactly. Also, the mosques tend not to have the same kind of membership that the churches have, but they're encouraged now to have that because they're also funded by the state, and when they're funded by the state, they need to show how many members they have.

What about Roman Catholic?

Quite a small number, about 170 000 members, though of course it is increasing among the refugees. We have many Polish migrant workers in Norway, and also historically from Vietnam and from Latin America, not that many, but with the increasing migration within Europe also, due to the economic crisis, and so from Southern Europe. The Catholic Church is a very vivid church, it's a very lively church. There are more Catholics than Pentecostals (under 50,000 members).

Is there a specific indigenous community that is considered part of the religious landscape explicitly?

We have the Sami population, whose traditional lands or territories go from Norway, Sweden, Finland, crossing into Russia, the Sápmi, as they call it. It's recognized legally (The Sami population is recognized legally as an indigenous people in Norway; whereas the Sami territories as Sápmi is recognized without of course being independent of the nation-states involved). There is a distinction between a recognized minority and an indigenous people. An indigenous person has even stronger rights as the indigenous people, and they have their own parliament, and there is legislation, which is important with regard to for instance territories and hunting rights. There is a cooperation in that area across borders, which is of course now very much complicated by the conflict in Russia. Relationships between faith policy and indigenous independence, however, are not particularly strong, as the Sami population has tended to belong to the Church of Norway.

Your overall account of the history helps to give an idea of where tensions might arise, and how change is taking place. Could you help clarify how finance works, and religion and education?

Financing of religious communities is a part of the general taxation system. That is different from the Swedish system, for instance. We have many similarities with Sweden and Denmark but also interesting differences. In Sweden, there is a distinctive church tax that you can distinguish from the rest of the taxation on your tax bill, so to speak. In Norway, we have never had that. It's part of the general taxation. But there is a conflict of interpretation. Norway came very late to freedom of religion and belief. We tend to think of ourselves as a very tolerant and human rights embracing nation, but in fact it was not in the constitution before 1964. And because there has been this self-evident Lutheranism of Norway, and even in the constitution of 1814, there was a particular paragraph forbidding Jews and Jesuits to enter into the kingdom of Norway. And there was a struggle for decades about getting rid of the anti-Semite clause. That was changed in 1851, whereas it took another century before the clause against the Jesuits was removed, in 1956.

With the Reformation, the government basically took over all that was church property with the commitment to finance everything the churches would need, because now church and state were together.

Including the salaries of clergy?

Absolutely. That was from the Reformation, up to 2012 or even later, 2016, because the constitution was changed in 2008 and 2012, takes two periods. And then even the process went slower, in order for the Church of Norway to become first a juridical entity in itself, and then to have that the ministers of the church were paid. The bishops were appointed by the government up until 2012, and the ministers were paid by the government up until 2017. But then to keep up with the increasing minority rights and the FoRB demands of the human rights, at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s it began to be very clear that the government would finance the registered faith communities outside of the Church of Norway, with an amount that would equal the amount that the Church of Norway got each year, per member. There was not a set sum for each member, but the opposite way. The Church of Norway receives support from both the government and the municipality levels for their needs. That's a part of the general negotiation on budgets. And then afterwards, that amount is counted per member. So each year the number of members in the Church of Norway is counted, and then all the other faith communities included in that finance system need to report to the government or to the authorities, how many members they have in order to get back their money, or to get the support from the state per member, that equals the support that the government gives you.

And that includes the humanists?

Yes, that includes the humanists. And that's an interesting difference from Sweden and Denmark. Sweden and Denmark do not include the humanists. One way of seeing that is that there is a different translation of what belief means in FoRB. We follow that interpretation that that is non-religious or non-theistic faith, whereas at least in terms of legislation in Sweden and Denmark, they see religion and belief as synonyms more or less. So, this is the way the financing works.

But the conflict of interpretation is that from the very beginning, the churches that were not the Church of Norway, even Lutheran Free Churches, called "dissenters," claimed to have their church tax, which was not signaled as a church tax, but they interpreted with a certain merit, that the money they got back from the state or the money they got from the state was their own money coming back to themselves, since they did not belong to the Church of Norway. They then financially were not obliged to support the Church of Norway. Today, the non-Church of Norway faith communities in general continue to understand the support from the state, not as a support but as a recompensation, to have their own money back. The problem with that interpretation is that, if so, it would imply that almost 20% who are not members do not get anything back because it goes through the faith communities.

So, the interpretation that our commission had on this, also on historical grounds and from seeing the tax system as a whole, is that this is equivalent to the way in which pacifists still have to pay tax to the military, people living in the south of Norway still have to pay tax for roads in the north of Norway that they never use, and the like. In this way the faith and policy economics, if you like to call it that, in Norway, sees this as a public good. Even for those who are not believers or committed or members, even for them, it's considered politically to be a good thing that basic FoRB rights are protected and facilitated. It gives a better basis for a harmonious society. That's the kind of argument you will hear.

What about education?

Education has also been a conflicted area. As long as we had the state church and the constitution's paragraph number two that says that "Norway has a public religion, which is Evangelical Lutheran, and all citizens who belong to this faith should or are obliged to teach their children to live this religion." And that was then interpreted through the school system. In some sense, the public school's teaching on religion was the catechism of the Christian (i.e., Evangelical-Lutheran) faith.

That was the case up until the 1980s, and it was seen as such. The theological way of seeing this, the theopolitical way, was that the government was the head of the church, not in function of it being a political body, but because among the people of Norway were a Lutheran Evangelical people who selected the government. Then, only government members who were members of the Church of Norway decided upon church issues in the government. There was a sort of a church board within the government, and they decided, most importantly, on appointment of bishops.

In an analogous way, schools were also playing a sort of a church role in teaching its members to become good Evangelical Christians. Of course, this became increasingly difficult, and was changed in the 1980s. So the subject taught in school was not seen as a way of making the pupils into good Christians, but as learning about Christianity and then increasingly about all religions. The title of the subject was shifted, from Christianity to Religion and Ethics, and it was very clear that it should not be the way in which the church educates its membership. Then the government designated separate funding for the church, as well as for other faith communities, to do the job, that the school could not any longer do.

The content of this new subject within the school then became the subject of considerable controversy. How should that be? And there still is a lot of tension around, for instance, whether or not the school should continue to invite their pupils to come to church for Christmas. This has been increasingly difficult for many. Yet, it continues, the strongest argument rather being that it is good for any Norwegian to know about that Norwegian tradition to go to church.

This is all in the public system. That's the dominant system. But how far are there private schools or religious private schools?

Very few. Only about 4% of all pupils attend private schools at the basic level. There's been a strong consensus policy in Norway, that schools are public for the whole population, including the university system. There are private universities, but public schools are the basic level. There are few religiously-based schools. And this is controversial, a defining issue between a center-right and center-left in Norwegian politics. Every time we have a government from the right wing, which is very moderate in global terms, right? And the Christian Democratic Party has tended to be more right leaning than left leaning, although it always professes to be in the center. But they always open up, they give more permissions for private schools. And whenever there's a Labor-led government, they take this back. So the basic policy of the center-left side of politics is that it's important to have one strong public school system, which is the right of the children to belong to the common community of learning, that should be the public school. And then of course to respect the rights of diversity within that school system. There is a fear of a kind of separateness and division when public schools are based on different faiths. One option would be to have a Christian class, a Muslim class, et cetera, but then the very fact of dividing the class into segments particularly when it comes to religion, then we are suddenly divided. In every other subject we're together, so why separate on religion? That would strengthen the idea that religion is first and foremost divisive in its essence. So that's the kind of discussion we have on that.

It would be interesting to take the eight points you highlighted in your book and just list them.


  1. Freedom of religion or life stance (belief), for everyone shall be protected.
  2. The individual’s manifestation of their religion or life stance shall not violate the rights and freedoms of other people.
  3. Non-discrimination: the state may not subject any person to unreasonable or disproportionate differential treatment on the basis of their religion or life stance.
  4. Active steps shall be taken to enable all citizens to practice their religion or life stance.
  5. Equal treatment: the state shall seek to ensure that every citizen receives – in principle and to a reasonable degree in practice – the same degree of support for the manifestation of their religion or life stance.
  6. The active religion and life stance policy pursued by the government must be evaluated in terms of the fundamental values of democracy, the rule of law, human rights, non-discrimination and equality.
  7. Organized religious communities that receive state support must be expected to be open about their practices and show the practice of other religions and life stances the same respect as they themselves expect and enjoy.
  8. Everyone must tolerate exposure to the manifestation of religion or life stance by others in the public sphere.

How is the refugee and the migration issue playing out and changing? How is that intersecting with religion? That was the original topic you were thinking of as a sabbatical focus. And could you comment on the vulnerability issue. And third, how did you get interested in liberation theology in Latin America?

I will take it in reverse order then, because in many ways it all starts with liberation theology.

When I was a student, I chose theology as my major subject but I was very much in doubt. I liked sociology and political science a lot. I was committed to different kinds of solidarity work and so on. But I was also a Christian, coming from a Christian family but surrounded by many friends who are not Christians or they might be culturally Christians but they would be critical of the church and so on. So, I was challenged on my own faith belonging, what it meant and how to understand that in the context of my friends and of my political commitments. So, that led me to study theology, because I had to figure this out for myself, and I was interested in the topic. But I still had a strong interest in policy issues and global justice issues.

The theologies emerging in South Africa and the black theology in the US and not least the Latin American liberation theology attracted me in particular. So after three years of studying theology, I spent one year studying abroad. I went to Costa Rica to a biblical seminary that was a Protestant setting, with a lot of liberation theology influence in 1985. From there, I went to El Salvador in the midst of the civil war there, and I was lucky to be very warmly received as a youngster 21 years old in the small Lutheran community and church there. They were admirably struggling in the midst of persecution and risk to help the refugees and to be in solidarity with them and to protest against the human rights violations and social injustice. That really changed or strengthened my commitment to both solidarity and political work, basing that on a faith commitment within the church. In El Salvador also liberation theology was evidently a strong inspiration for many. The Jesuit community at the UCA, the university there, was a very leading figure in both practice and theory on this issue. One of the Jesuits had written path breaking books even at that stage on Christology: Jon Sobrino.

When I got back to Norway and did my theological exams, I wrote on the Christology of Jon Sobrino. I was then recruited to work with Norwegian Church Aid, on solidarity, faith-based development, and emergency work for Latin America for three years. I had the pleasure of following up the projects in El Salvador and the whole region for three years. That gave me the possibility of having a research scholarship to do a Ph.D. And that Ph.D I did on the Christology of Jon Sobrino. I also went to Salvador in that setting.

One of Sobrino’s key ideas that I was looking at was the idea of the crucified people, of crucified persons and communities in the history in our time, and how they relate to the crucified Christ. How the crucifixion of Christ sheds light on the crucifixions going on today, and vice versa. How we can understand the crucifixion of Christ in new ways, living through or seeing it through the sufferings and struggles of people being crucified today. And that resonates also with my own Lutheran background, which has a strong emphasis on the theology of the cross, obviously in a different context and with a different language. Jesuits and Lutherans were enemies or key opponents after the Reformation, which as you could see from the constitution was still very much alive in Norway, this frightening image of the Jesuits.

I was interested to see how these ideas about the cross developed, and to see the cross and the crucifixion today in its horrific reality: tortures, deaths, sufferings. How to be able to see God's presence or to see something nurturing life emerging from within that death bringing reality. And how to do that without in any way idealizing other people's suffering or instrumentalizing the suffering in the world for something good, which I think sometimes you see in theologies of the church, traditionally and today as well. That danger is there all the way: that there can be a sort of wiping out real suffering or covering it up in some kind of spirituality or theology. I think that is a very critical issue. How to say that suffering is never good and at the same time, according to the Christian key story and gospel, that God is present in that anti-human and anti-divine reality in order to transform it.

From that, of course emerged my interest in vulnerability. It came from another perspective as well, because I was on the board of the International Commission of the Church of Norway during the 1990s. We were commenting upon all the international crises of that decade, from the very optimistic start of that decade. At that time, we hoped that the end of the Cold War would open up opportunities for the UN and for something really new and for patient building other kinds of collaboration and so forth.

And then we had the Balkans and then we had the Iraq, Iran, and Kuwait conflicts. We had the Somalia situation and we had worst of all, in Rwanda. And the issue of security came up very strong, and the responsibility to protect line of thinking came along. Human security, as opposed to national security, widening of that concept, was on the agenda. As we came to the end of that decade, we asked ourselves within that commission, "Is it true that vulnerability is the opposite of security? Are these concepts really a working dichotomy?" And we asked ourselves, drawing on these different sources and influences from liberation theology and phenomenological ethics from the likes of Levinas: could we see something different in vulnerability?

We issued a report from that commission that was titled Security and Vulnerability, in Norwegian. It came before 9/11; it was in 1999 in Norwegian, and we translated it in 2000-2001. But then of course, post-9/11, this issue is all over. Why is the only remaining superpower so vulnerable in its very heart? And what should be the lessons from that? One philosopher, a critical theorist who started a different reflection on vulnerability from that experience, was Judith Butler. Drawing on the same Levinasian roots, but with her queer theory approach and post structuralism, of course very different from the theologies that I was working with, this radical questioning of the conventional view of vulnerability seems to merge in an interesting way for me. Also, within feminist ethics, and in disciplines like law, sociology, politics, an alternative account is emerging. Seeing vulnerability not as primarily a problem that should be reduced as much as possible, and at best it should be eliminated. Instead, a much more complex and even affirmative view of vulnerability was emerging, seeing vulnerability as the condition of our life. No life isn't vulnerable; in fact, no life would be possible without vulnerability. An ethical action is also dependent on vulnerability. It is vulnerability that calls us into action as ethical agents, but it's also our own vulnerability that makes it possible for us to act ethically, to understand the call from the other: Recognition of our own vulnerability also provides us with resources to know how to deal with the call from the other. So, these aspects have been interesting for me to develop further in political theology.

Again, with this important caveat or this important condition that we do not instrumentalize nor harmonize, idealize vulnerability or rather not idealize or harmonize the fact of being wounded. Vulnerability is in itself the risk of, or the potentiality of being wounded, but it's also that platform of receiving the other, receiving the impact of the other, for better and worse.

So, beyond empathy?

Yes. Real engagement, and something very embodied, not just mental. So, this is what I've been writing on and trying to see whether we can see resources for resistance and even for the flourishing of life emerging from within the experience of being vulnerable.

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