She thought it was an act of courtesy. A smile would be too much to ask of a government official early on this grey morning in the Kreisverwaltungsreferrat. But she managed an indifferent “Grüß Gott”.
“Um, Grüß Gott…” I replied sleepily, as I handed over my paperwork and Warthalleschein, or whatever they call those little numbers. It wasn’t ‘til I returned to my seat that the full meaning of what had just happened dawned on me.
A civil servant, whose salary my taxes had paid, had tricked me into worshipping a god I don’t believe in.
Bavarians would think little of it. Grüß Gott is simply dialect. It means nothing more profound or worshipful than a schoolgirl texting OMG. Or does it?
What if the woman had greeted me with “Allah be Praised”? What if I had been Jewish, and my religion forbade me from mentioning the word “Gott” at all in reply?
Bavarians dismiss this as a trifle. The greeting, and others like it, are simply cultural remnants of a bygone era. They mean nothing. Most Bavarians are Catholic, but they still fornicate, swear, and dance during lent. Catholicism doesn’t get in the way of a good time.
Nonetheless, Bavarians often fail to understand how deeply offensive this can be to those of differing beliefs, or none at all. In my own native land, the USA, controversies rage when religion enters state affairs. But in Bavaria, it passes with great public acceptance. I am constantly aghast at how blatantly the church in Germany asserts its role in running the show, in Bavaria especially.
The church gets not just acceptance, but active public support. It shocked me to read that the state of Bavaria collects over one-and-a-quarter billion Euro every year in church tax. Many seem outraged that this funds the salaries of bishops and other church bureaucrats, but others point out that it also funds church schools and hospitals, which operate for the public good. And one thing we overlook is that the church tax actually maintains churches—civic buildings of great beauty and grandeur, which genuinely enrich culture and preserve history.
Of course, inside these churches, schools and hospitals, I’ll be Grüß-Gotted, prayed for, and forbidden to party on a feast-day. And thus, at least in part, it helps the church maintain its position as a dominant force in the culture.
If the church is such an important part of Bavarian culture, why does it need the government to act as a collection plate? Surely, we citizens will see such value in what the church does that we will happily pay for it as an act of good conscience. Even I, an atheist, contribute when I use church facilities—this happens regularly in Bavaria, since churches provide concert venues and meeting rooms for community groups.
I suspect this reflects a particularly Bavarian attitude—not unique to Bavaria, but certainly strong here. That religion must be imposed from the top down. Religion is not merely a matter of personal faith. It is a means for maintaining order and civility.
Besides, we#re all filthy sinners. If left to their own devices, people will cheat. They’ll game the system, and get into heaven without paying for it. A colleague recently decided to leave his church, and the bureaucratic hurdles he faced were enormous.
It astonished me to learn that one cannot be buried in consecrated ground if one hasn’t paid the church tax for a sufficient time.
“What about death-bed conversions?” I once asked a believer. “Surely one’s own contrition is enough to get you into heaven. And I assume that one actually buys a plot, and settles one’s account on the basis of the services provided. You know, a user-pays system.”
He replied with a smile, “It will get you into heaven, but not into the cemetery. Besides, there are work-arounds. It’s tricky, but it can be done.”
Then he said something very revealing. “It really doesn’t matter if you believe. What you want is to be buried next to your ancestors. The church tax reserves you a place in the churchyard.”
The recent controversy over a parent who asked for a crucifix to be removed from the public high-school classroom in Regensburg is telling. And not just because the parent who demanded it was reported to be a scientist from an English speaking background.
Much of the public comment smacked of racisim. Gerhard Weber, the CSU Mayor of Regensburg, questioned whether the parent appreciated the nation’s “hospitality” toward him and his family—to call this family a “guest” is an odd choice of word for a fully-fledged, productive, tax paying member of the Regensburg community.
It was revealed that crucifixes are removed, along with prayers renamed as “morning affirmations” and other such window dressing, only if a parent requests it—this, determined by a court order in 1995. If everyone else feels comfortable, then what’s the problem? We accomodate our “guests” grudgingly.
Bavarians embrace the church as a force of order and social cohesion. In German-speaking cultures, order is valued as a moral virtue, rather than just a practical necessity. Sometimes disorder can be a moral virtue, too. It can cultivate flexibility, perspective, and open-mindedness.
The Bavarian Catholic church is notorious for its doctrinaire authoritarianism, and the current Bavarian Pope is alienating Catholics in the rest of the developed world through his inability to see how this might not work in cultures where order is maintained through civil means.
When we think of the Bavaria we love, what comes to mind? For someone from abroad, it’s the sheer good cheer. The celebrations, the music, the dancing, the laughter, the flirting, the fellowship. A warm, open, accepting environment, where the ability to share a beer erases personal differences. Millions of people from across the world come here to experience it.
How un-Bavarian is the church! An institution of rules and restrictions. Of judgement rather than acceptance. Where money matters so much, and grace so little. Where the clergy expect the police to caution you against dancing in the street on a religious holiday.
Luckily, we manage enough wiggle-room to party. You can’t keep a Bavarian down.