On Saturday, to mark Reformation Day, Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands gave the annual Protestant Lecture held in the Kloosterkerk in The Hague. For the original, see here. It is an intriguing lecture for a number of reasons: PM Rutte is not affiliated with any of the Netherlands’ three major Christian Parties (the Christen Unie, the Staatskundig Gereformeerde Partij, or the Christen-Democratisch Appèl). Rather, he serves as Leader of the Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy), a more or less secular political party. That PM Rutte gave a Reformation Day lecture in which he discussed the Bible, Jesus, Luther, the Reformation, his own Christian upbringing, and spoke directly as a person of faith, is all quite significant and fascinating.
What follows below is my translation of his lecture. It is not an authorised translation, although I think it is accurate.
Is a good life a perfect life? Protestant Lecture by Prime Minister Mark Rutte
Online Protestant Lecture by Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Reformation Day, October 31st, 2020, recorded on October 29th, 2020, in the Kloosterkerk in The Hague.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
If I were to be given the impossible task of saying in one word what the church means to me personally, I would probably say: ‘Togetherness’, because it is in the church that people come together as a congregation. In person, with each other.
And how strange it is to address you by camera from the Hague’s beautiful, but almost empty, Kloosterkerk. We know why that is necessary. We know what we are doing this for, but we also feel just how much more we now need that togetherness.
That is immediately the most important reason that I gladly said ‘yes’ to the request to deliver the annual Protestant Lecture on this Reformation Day, with its form of delivery having been adapted, in a certain sense, because of the circumstances, but not, I hope, in its meaning and reception. Today, I very much want to underline that necessity of togetherness, and with that, also the important role that faith, the churches, and especially the people who together form the church, fulfil together therein.
We cannot get around it: the coronavirus has imposed an incredibly heavy burden on our society. On everyone who has to miss a loved one because of corona. On people who are now very ill with it, or who are struggling with the physical and mental after-effects of the virus. On young and old who have to have to deal with domestic tensions due to all sorts of social challenges, with loneliness and depressive feelings. Or on all those employers whose businesses are on the verge of going under, and on the people who fear losing their jobs.
Corona is, in summary, more than a virus, more than just a disease. It is also mourning, it is loss, it is disruption.
But I am convinced that the tradition in which we stand helps us to come through this difficult period. Each of us individually, and our country as a whole. That tradition is, of course, not exclusively Christian, but it is so for an important part. And that takes effect very directly and personally, because the one who believes in God may have hope, and an enormous comfort comes from that. It works like that for me, in any case.
And it also takes effect collectively, because of the well-known Biblical saying: ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ For me, this means: look out for each other, help each other, comfort each other. Precisely what we immediately saw during the first wave of corona. And more recently still, dozens of churches and Christian organisations from different denominations sent a letter to the cabinet with the offer of helping during the second wave of corona, for example, in the fight against loneliness. Thus, faith makes us stronger together, in the social sense.
And naturally, in this second wave we see tension growing amongst people, but beneath this, the Netherlands is and remains a land of volunteers and mutual help. A land of doing the shopping for each other and of [making] a pan of soup for the ill woman next door. Also during this second wave, there have been more people with patience and compassion than with a short fuse. We read little of that goodness and patience in society in the newspapers, and we don’t hear much about it on the various talk show panels, but it is not therefore any less of a reality.
In these times we are forced to look long and hard at the facts. All of a sudden, attainments that we always took for granted seem, this spring, to be immediately less obvious than we thought. Suddenly, by necessity, we are living with limitations that only a short time ago seemed barely imaginable.
That raises the question: what really matters in a person’s life? Or to formulate it with the question that I was asked to reflect on today: is a good life a perfect life?
The short answer is obviously: no, thankfully not. Because perfection is a norm that very few people can satisfy.
Alongside that, what is perfect? That varies from person to person, it seems to me. For one person, it is a glittering career with lots of visibility and riches. For another person it is an attractive appearance or sporting accomplishments. And for another still it is a harmonious family life or the satisfaction of voluntary work.
A definitive answer cannot be given. For me personally, the word ‘perfect’ is another word for boring. Imagine: a perfect life and nothing more to wish for? Honestly, I must not think about it!
But the question remains: what, then, is a good life? To this, there is obviously no right or wrong answer. But what the corona crisis teaches us is that life, as it goes on, does not revolve around ‘more, more, more,’ and absolutely not, ‘I, I, I,’ but rather, it is about ‘together,’ about responsibility and attention for the people around you. We all know the saying that nobody lies on his deathbed and says that he wishes he had spent more time at work, or that he had gathered even more possessions. In 2020 we also have to add to this, [that he had] maybe added a number of followers on Instagram or Facebook. But life does not revolve around cash or consumption. It revolves around contact. Around real human contact. That is ultimately the only thing that counts, not riches or outward appearances, but what you have done with and for others.
I myself am the product of a not very strict Reformed [Hervormde] upbringing, and so I need to be careful when referring to the Bible or interpretations of it. But is what I just said not also a line that runs through that beautiful book? For example, in the parable of the rich man for whom it is harder to enter the Kingdom of God than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle? To me, this is a clear message: possessions are ballast that you must ultimately leave behind.
Or, for example, where Jesus says: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ That is a beautiful, positive restatement of, ‘What you don’t want to happen…’ And in this there also lies a message that is crystal clear: in everything that you want and do, think about others.
In the Bible, the answer to the question of ‘what is a good life?’ is perhaps nowhere formulated more clearly than in Romans 12, in one of the epistles of Paul. He writes there straightforwardly that a good life is in service of the will of God. In the New Bible Translation [Nieuwe Bijbelvertaling], it is stated literally: ‘You should not conform yourself to this world, but your disposition must be changed, in order to discover what wants from you, and what good, complete, and pleasing to him.’
In this, I hear an echo of one of the core values that I learned from my parents: always be thoughtful, take responsibility for your own actions, and don’t follow the crowd blindly. Just as Luther did on the first Reformation Day in Wittenberg, 503 years ago, when he set himself in the direction of Rome—just as Paul did—with his theses. Thinking, choosing, and accepting the consequences.
And as such, a great deal of the faith of my youth, and of the church in which I grew up—the Nieuwe Badkapel in Scheveningen—is found in this text from Romans 12. A church that drew people from every level of society, from government ministers and top officials to fishermen from Scheveningen. As a child, I felt at home there.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul lays a strong accent on the fact that people have different gifts, in which there is no hierarchy. ‘We have different gifts, according to the grace that is given to us,’ it says. And he then compares that to a body, in which each member has its own function.
That speaks to me powerfully. It means that everyone can do good in his or her life, and thus, can lead a good and meaningful life, and that the total of everyone’s contribution is more than the sum of the parts.
In following Frits Bolkestein, I gladly call this the ‘rousing connection’ [het bezielend verband] in society, the power and energy that lies within people, that keeps us together and makes us stronger as a whole. Everyone’s contribution matters. No-one is more important than any other. Or, as I learned from my parents: you should not look up to the professor and look down at the bin man. Each makes his contribution according to his capacity.
As an extension of that, I learned early on that you do well to relativise your own role, that you should not always take yourself very seriously. ‘Keeping yourself in the background,’ [gewoon op de kleine steentjes lopen], it was called in my house. And Paul calls us to this in Romans 12. He writes, ‘…you should not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but with sober judgment.’ And, one more citation, ‘…consider others more highly than yourself.’ And for whoever has not yet understood, there is a very literal call: ‘…do not be haughty, but fix yourself on humility.’
Briefly, Paul’s answer to the question of what makes a good life, contains a sort of Droste effect. A good life is a life that has meaning in the lives of others. We do not exist without others. And what I find most attractive about this conclusion is that with this, Paul also gives an implicit answer to the question of what a failed life is. Or better said: to the question of whether such a thing as a ‘failed life’ exists. I say to you honestly: everything within me rises against [such a thing], as a person of faith and as a liberal, because it would mean that we write people off, and that does not fit in our society.
Naturally there are people who have struggles in this life, who, for example, are afflicted with illness, an accident or some other calamity. People who don’t succeed at getting along in a digital information society that asks more and more of us. People who for whatever reason also need help, and who, thankfully, can get help in our country. But that says nothing at all about what they mean in the lives of their parents, children, friends, neighbours, and colleagues. Exceptions aside, everyone means something to someone. Everyone’s life makes a difference. I am deeply convinced of this.
And what I want to have said today, in conclusion, is this. As the coronavirus now confronts us with our smallness and vulnerability, the important role of the churches is clearer than ever.
And then I return to the word ‘togetherness’, with which I began this address. This period makes me think of the plaque that John F. Kennedy had on his desk in the Oval Office. On it was this line from an old Breton fisherman’s prayer: ‘O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.’ The original can still be seen in the Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. This uncertain feeling in that vast sea shall certainly be recognisable to many people during the corona crisis. In the church we feel [this]: we are not sitting alone in that little boat, we are sitting in it together, and in the past we have stood in hotter fires still. And as such, we will come through this period. I think that in this time, we cannot hear that message often enough.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am afraid that I cannot give you the definitive answer to the question of what a good life is. But hopefully you did not expect that you would get that answer. From what I have said, it may well seem that for me, it is about equality and togetherness, about the ‘rousing connection’ in society that lies within us as people who all make a contribution through which the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts.
A good life is thus not per se a believing life. That would be enormously arrogant, and simplistically reasoned. But speaking for myself, I do indeed dare to say that faith makes my picture larger and deeper. Quite simply, it helps me to look a bit further and—hopefully—to do the good in my life, as much as is possible.
 Droste effect: an artistic effect in which a picture contains a picture of itself, which contains a picture of itself, ad infinitum.