A Discussion with Jørn Lemvik

With: Jorn Lemvik Berkley Center Profile

October 12, 2012

Background: This exchange between Katherine Marshall and Jørn Lemvik builds on a discussion titled “Norway Takes God Seriously” that was held on October 12, 2012 at the Berkley Center. The discussion was led by Jørn Lemvik, secretary general of Digni and a visiting fellow at World Faiths Development Dialogue. In this follow-up to the event, Mr. Lemvik recounts a series of exchanges about religion and development among the leading ministers of the government of Norway. He notes that the mention of religion—or even speaking about one’s faith—has long been taboo in Norway. This has blinded Norwegian public and private actors from recognizing the spiritual and religious dimensions of development and the world view of most poor people. Mr. Lemvik’s recommendation to change this blindness to religion was presented in several public exchanges and met a surprisingly positive response. Minister of International Development Erik Solheim wrote an article in response titled “Norway Takes God Seriously” to launch a further exploration of the topic. The new, more open approach to religion has been established within the various bureaucracies but recent government changes raise doubts as to future leadership on the topic. The first secretary of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Norwegian Embassy to the U.S., Marita Sørheim-Rensvik, was also present in the discussion with Mr. Lemvik.

How do you approach the question of the role of religion in development?

I am not an academic. I have no papers or reports for you. I am a storyteller, and so I will tell you a story about my work. But mostly I will tell you the story of Norway. It’s truly a good story.

I spent 13 years in Ethiopia and a year in Kenya, followed by many more years traveling around the world. My field includes work with churches on organization and leadership, communication, conflicts, and partnerships in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. I am now secretary general at Digni, an umbrella organization with 19 church-based members, where we are taking on Norway’s efforts to fight poverty with dignity. We at Digni have initiated partnerships with 20 African church leaders to transform local development work and find new ways of sharing responsibilities.

How do you tell the story of Norway and religion?

Norway is a small country: it is the little nail on the little finger of the world. But its story is important.

For some hundred years we have had strong links between the state and the church. The history of this relationship is necessary if Norway is to be understood, and it is also relevant for the question of how Norway and Norwegians view international development. There have been some notable figures in the history of Norway’s relationship with religion. Hans Nielsen Hauge stands out. He lived in the 1800s in Norway and was an entrepreneur and a preacher who took a holistic view of mankind. He did not just use economics, or statistics, or theology separately to help others—he believed in looking at issues and circumstances as a whole. And he changed Norway. He challenged power. Priests were not happy with him and the government was not happy with him. He worked in tumult for years and was imprisoned for 10 years. He then lived in peace for the few years before he died.

After his death, many mission movements in Norway took ideas like Hans Nielsen Hauge’s approach abroad. However, they had a sort of dualism in their relationship with development and religion. For most, the spiritual life was most important. Helping others was important, but sort of second in line. There was a time when missionaries from Norway were taught that “the schools and hospitals” should not take focus away from the most important part of all: the spiritual dimension. These missions were at the core of Norway’s early development programs, but that ethos has been largely submerged.

How do you see secularism in Norway today?

Today the Church is almost invisible in Europe. In Norway, 80 percent of the population may be members of the Church, but probably less than 7 percent are active members. We have developed a “privatization” of religion. We think that secularism is neutral, and thus it is okay to ignore religion and expect that all parts of society except very private beliefs are secular. But that idea is increasingly being challenged, with Muslims, especially, saying now that they do not agree to this forcing of secularism or rationalism upon them.

Where does development come into the picture?

Development work financed by the Norwegian government really took hold in the 1960s. But the government soon made a clear and sharp distinction between religion and state in development work. The way that worked was a clear understanding that you could not get money if you emphasized any religious affiliation. And much development work was carried out by churches, or church-affiliated groups, financed by the government. So this mattered.

Religion was not an issue back then. But what I find especially interesting is that when religion is not an issue, there is no conversation about it. It is as if it isn’t there.

What is Digni’s role?

Digni was founded in 1983. Our 19 church-based members fund part of their development work through Digni, which funds 120 projects in 40 countries.

In my work there since 2008, and even before that, the identity issue was one of the main challenges. Religious identity was not seen as an asset; in fact, many people thought that for Christians in Norway an open religious identity was a liability.

But I wanted to say, “We are Christians, and we do good work, and we are proud of what we do.”

Beginning in 2009, we approached the government departments that had funded us and did just that. We approached them and said that in order to work with us, they needed to appreciate our religious aspect. Frankly, to my surprise, they were receptive. They showed us that they did not seek or need blind loyalty. They did not want us, as a civil society organization, to simply say whatever they wanted to hear. Rather, they wanted organizations like ours to challenge them in order to truly produce good work.

What, then, was the issue blocking discussion of religion?

There was an image, especially in the government departments responsible for development, of a clear separation between what I will translate as evangelism and development, with a red line separating these sectors, a line that could never be crossed.

But what I proposed was a new model: a circle that is holistic and shows that values, faith, and real work are fundamentally part of a single whole, not separate fields divided by a wall. We said, let’s forget about theory and look at real life and let’s look at what we do. Let’s consider our footprints. And if you see that what we do is good, then let’s continue doing it.

We emphasized that all organizations, even non-religious ones, send messages and reflect in their approach and work their own beliefs. It is not just the religious organizations. So why do we have to be silent about our beliefs? The United Nations has been “evangelizing” for years in its own way. The Norwegian government has been using the power of money to “evangelize.” They have a message of secularism that they have been putting across much louder than our message.

We had these conversations in 2009, and in 2010 we were called to a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Ministers of Development and for Foreign Affairs challenged Digni and 30 other NGOs with the question: How can we reach the MDGs? Every participant, as they were called on one by one, had a very similar and clear message: “We are doing good work, but we need more money.”

When it came to Digni’s turn, I said, “If we are going to reach the MDGs, we need to relate to religion. No matter where we work, religion is the pillar of so many lives. It determines what people do, what people say, what is allowed, and what is not allowed. If we are going to do good development work, we need to be able to relate to religion, not necessarily to accept it, but to relate to it, and to our own beliefs.” When I said those words at this meeting, everyone became silent and looked down at the table and seemed to be embarrassed about the topic. But Minister Solheim said, “Digni, please continue challenging us on religion in these discussions on Norway’s development work.”

And suddenly, just like that, religion was allowed to be spoken about.

What happened next?

We followed up the MDG meeting with a letter to Minister Solheim, saying that we needed a language to talk about religion in development. We had found that when we tried to talk about religious dimensions of development in Norway, people could not understand because there really was no language to communicate across religious and secular lines. We also needed guidelines on how to deal with religion in development and emphasize the significance of what we were saying.

We then invited Mr. Solheim (along with Katherine Marshall and several others) to a conference in 2010. We tried to make the focus non-Christian as well as Christian, because we knew that if we only fought for Christians, we would lose the larger fight. So we asked the Islamic Council, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Norwegian Church to join Digni in emphasizing more conversations on religion. When we say religion in Norway, the media immediately thinks “Christian,” but we emphasized that we are talking about more than that.

Suddenly all of them were saying, “Religion is interesting and we need to talk about it. It’s important.”

The article, “Norway Takes God Seriously,” by Minister Solheim was probably the first time in Norwegian history when a minister was able and willing to say such a thing in public.

Minister Solheim asked the Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights to focus on religion and development in the context of this article and the government’s new interest in religion. But in bringing together people to start the conversation, we still didn’t have the right language to communicate between academics, faith leaders, and government representatives.

What kind of change was involved?

We wanted to shift the paradigm from the thought that mixing religion and development was unprofessional to beginning to think that you couldn’t have the conversation on development without considering religion.

Media and academia has said, “You’re just trying to make more money and put more focus on yourself.” But we have been trying to say that this is much bigger than us and vitally important to how we work and reach better results.

In 2011, the minister gave an interview in which he said that organizations that do not take religion seriously in their work will lose support from the government. Suddenly, religion was not only on the table—and on the minister of foreign affairs’ agenda for the annual meeting with all the ambassadors—but was also a necessary part of the conversation on development activities.

Can you explain what Digni is and does?

Norwegian Missions in Development (BN) was our old name, but we changed it to Digni (Latin for “dignity”) in 2011 in order to raise this wider-reaching issue of dignity. Because dignity is at the essence of who we are and what we do.

In trying to translate how we begin to talk about religion’s role in development, we at Digni agree with the recommendations from the recent report of the Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights, which states:
- Training on religion/faith should be given to staff at Norwegian embassies, both in general knowledge and local knowledge of regional effects of religion.
- Strategy and policy discussions on religious-related issues should be included in discussions at ministry level.
- Sharing of knowledge must be undertaken between ministries and departments.
- We need to have checklists on religion to ensure that when we do analyze development work, that religion is a part of it.

How do you summarize the story? Positive and hopeful or tentative?

This is a fantastic story in many ways—moving from a place where religion was not an issue to where it is suddenly a huge focus. However, this is not the end of the story. We have a new minister now, so we have to see if there will still be interest. There is also much to be done in other sectors. There is the possibility that focus on development work will be threatened, as a shift in government to the right could bring a “trade not aid” approach which would bring complications to our work. We have started to work with the right wing parties to lessen the risks of abrupt change.

Maybe the expansion will reach further than development just for Norway. Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian Mission councils will be coming together soon to discuss what is happening in Scandinavia. And we have had psychologists approach Digni, asking whether they could apply similar approaches for health or psychology. They say that they also don’t have a language for discussing religion professionally in those fields.

At the end of the day, many people are speaking about religion more naturally, and recognizing that is important. But language and guidelines are still a challenge. Overall, we don’t know if Norway is taking God seriously right now, or if the process of bringing faith into the conversation with expand or disappear. But I think that the process is irreversible in regards to bringing religion onto the agenda, even if it doesn’t remain as the most important item on the agenda.

Why did Norway lose its interest in religion? Why is it coming back?

The answer is that this is complex and there are many reasons. The privatization of religion has been going on for more than 50 years. Up until recently, all Norwegians were Christians so we never had stand up and challenge our beliefs or our style of secularization.

First secretary at the Norwegian Embassy to the U.S., Marita Sørheim-Rensvik, was also present in the discussion. She added: 

In Norway there tends to be a focus on individual beliefs rather than on communities’ beliefs. There is, of course, a focus on community service and church fellowship, but we are realizing that we have had a tendency to believe as individuals, rather than defining ourselves as part of a practicing community.

In this way, the Lutheran faith has often been more person-oriented than fellowship-oriented. And in the revival movement that Jørn spoke about, we saw an increased focus on the individual. It became an issue of asking, “Am I saved? Is my child saved?” The faith became inward-looking. This did at times lead to confrontations and hurtful experiences. As a consequence, faith became a private issue to a large extent. Thus when science became a part of the public debate and secularism became more common, people tended to simply divide their world in two. There was public life and then there was the private faith.

As a reverend, I was recruited to be a diplomat in 2006. I might be wrong, but it seemed very clear to me that I was recruited because of the changed political climate after the publishing of the cartoons in a Danish newspaper that portrayed the Prophet Muhammad. Ministers began to visit mosques and public prayer houses. Religion had become foreign affairs.

Part of the reason why we are seeing this renewed focus on religion is not only these contentious, difficult issues. It is also due to the fact that we are a less homogenous society now. People are challenged to define themselves and their individual beliefs.

Back to Mr. Lemvik: Could you give more specifics as to what it means to put religion back on the agenda?

It seemed at first as if most conversations on religion were made up of secular Norwegians talking with other secular Norwegians about Islam. Now we are trying to put religion on the agenda in a way that is seriously understood and discussed, and where faith and secularism can meet and talk. We try to establish meeting places, and we challenge through newspaper articles and seminars.

In Digni we fund projects after much research and discussions with other local religious groups involved. We ask: How will religion influence the projects that we are funding? What are these local groups asking from us? We are pushing for reporting based on local understanding and to stimulate dialogue between different faiths on issues that influence what is going on in the project.

Norway is well known as a leader in gender equity. Your minister speaks proudly of the revolution in attitudes and education that made this possible. How far has this affected Norwegian churches: are they leading in this area or following? And how does this translate into development policy? Do the churches, when they work in situations where women's roles are constrained, take up the cause of equality within a religious framework?

It is true that Norway is in the forefront on gender equity. I think now the percentage for those who finish university degrees is higher for women than that of men. Still there is a way to go. If you look into board rooms and ask who holds leadership positions, the percentage of men is still higher. So in terms of numbers there is gender equity—in terms of power, there is still a way to go. As for the church, the first female pastor was ordained in the 1950s. Today the issue is relatively peaceful in the state church, where we find many women pastors. As for the mission movements, there is a debate on the issue, and some of them do not accept female pastors. Digni put the gender issue on the table through a three year program called Women Empowerment Gender Equality (WEGE). In the program, members and their partners in the Global South were challenged on the gender issue. It was interesting to see that one of the remarkable developments within the program was that when gender was put on the agenda in projects, it developed rapidly from a project issue into an organizational issue. We saw women literally straightening their backs and looking ahead with confidence and pride.

This being said, there is a long way to go in development projects in general. But the work has started—and in Digni we will keep up the gender focus until all people, women and men, are experiencing the same worth and are given the same opportunities. It may be that this shift in the focus on religion will affect approaches to the question, but mostly in the Norwegian setting. In the countries where the development projects are located—religion has been, and is, an issue that can be discussed publicly.

How do you see the differences between European and American approaches to religion and development?

There are important differences among countries and cultures. I see your politicians say “God Bless America,” but in Norway that would make people cringe. I look back on the American Revolution and I think that you have a history of a very open minded approach towards religion. We don’t have that history in Norway. We followed more in the line of the French Revolution where religion was more or less banned.

When I was living in Ethiopia, religion was just a part of natural, everyday life. For people there, it affects everything you do. Signs of prayers and symbols of faith surround you. My dream has been to be a part of a push in Norway where religion gets back into public space. It is part of me to be a Christian. I need to be allowed to say that, and I want this identity to be respected.

We have seen that many different kinds of private American funds are behind religious work, and we know that we don’t have those sources of funding in Norway. We are 100 percent government funded and the government often sees us as their instrument. And there isn’t much of an environment for us to find independent funding.

Can you explain the way you are using the word evangelism? In the U.S., it is a term that many individuals are allergic to. Proselytizing is particularly a concern where people who are weak or poor are approached with the motive of converting them because it is possible. The motivation to convert someone to faith in those circumstances seems to be the red line here and in many countries.

This highlights again how badly we lack the right language for these issues. I am using the Norwegian words translated into English. My message to the Ministry was: I want to be able to be a Christian at work. I will not misuse funds to achieve something, or to do good deeds for another motive. I just have to be allowed to bring myself to the people I work with as a Christian. Jesus told us to love our neighbor and love God and that has been the starting point for so much good work. There is no institution in the world that has offered development as much as the Christian church. And if you cut the line between faith and actions, then you cripple the church. This is the case for so many others as well. But we would never seek to use government funds to build churches or to persuade someone to convert to our faith.

A student of mine once wrote about Norwegian missionaries who were “afraid not only of the local faiths, but also of their own faith.” I see this as a problem. I do not endorse proselytizing campaigns as part of the work Digni is funding, but I want to be able to share and proclaim who I am. I want to be able to say that I am Christian and not be afraid of saying so because I may lose money for this important work.

For the last 70 years, government has pushed religion into the private sphere, and the church has accepted this development. Though the government didn’t really touch Christianity, it was fine as long as you didn’t talk about your faith. They just shifted focus away from it. A stigma has developed about Christian faith. We have professionalized and secularized our society to a great extent through government politics. Yet you see the Christian footprint in the Norwegian society and it is part of our history and culture—and important to the country in a way which is stronger than we often understand. But the Christian footprints, though still there, have disappeared quite a bit over the last few years.

Have you seen a similar shift back to religion happening in other highly secularized countries besides Norway?

Switzerland started to work with recognizing religious identities, Netherlands continued to move forward, and England has been running faith dialogues between the World Bank and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Sweden and Denmark have tried to lift the issues surrounding religion and development, but it hasn’t worked out in those countries yet. As I see it, the difference between the three countries of Scandinavia is really our two ministers in Norway: Jonas Gahr Støre and Erik Solheim. We just knocked on their doors and were lucky that they answered. That has been the difference.

In our part of the world, I haven’t seen anything like what is happening in Norway. But it can stop or slow down at any time, especially now with the recent change in leadership in the two ministries. Still, it is my hope and my belief that the focus on the importance of religion in development is so strong that it will continue to influence our discussions and our practice in development work.

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