Who is Sweden’s Patron Saint?

Last night I was at a party (not the picture above). I was clad in green, and wearing a green sign saying Lucky and depicting a pot of gold. Over the speakers, a mix of folk music, U2 and the Cranberries blasted out. Offensive green-coloured beer was served.

Today, 17 March, is St Patrick’s Day. St Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland, is being celebrated all over the world. And just like me last night, people are donning green clothes, dancing to fiddely-diddely music and downing beer.

Out of curiosity, I wondered who Sweden’s Patron Saint is. So I researched and I have to say the answer wasn’t totally clear. One Saint in particular kept popping up, but in only one case did I see her referred to as the Patron Saint of Sweden. She is however one of Europe’s 6 Patron Saints.

Do you know who I’m referring to?

I am referring to Saint Brigit, known in Swedish as Saint Birgitta. She is definitely the most celebrated saint of Sweden. Born 1303 into a wealthy noble family, she entered a Catholic convent after the death of her husband. By this time she was 41 and had 8 children. In 1350, she went to Rome to meet the Pope and there she remained until her death at the age of 70. Her feast day is 23 July, the day she died. Brigit established the Swedish religious community which was to become the Order of the Most Holy Saviour, or the Brigittines at the Swedish town of Vadstena.

Brigit is known for her many influential visions. In her first, at the age of 10, she saw Jesus suspended on a cross. Ages. Her visions of the birth of Jesus came to affect nativity art for centuries to comethe infant Jesus lying on the ground and emitting light himself, the Virgin as blond-haired, a single candle attached to the wall, and the presence of God the Father above. Her visions were recorded in Revelationes coelestes (“Celestial revelations”) and made her a revered and controversial celebrity in the Middle

In Sweden people know vaguely who Birgitta is. I wonder if many know that she is the Patron Saint of the country. She is fairly far from the minds of most Swedes and, unlike the Irish St Patrick, or the Welsh St David, not at all integrated into Swedish identity.

Probably because of her ‘invisibility’, I actually haven’t heard of annual celebrations in Sweden to commemorate Brigit. I’m guessing it’s a low-key affair for the converted. I’m guessing it’s about prayer, meditation and reverence. I’m guessing it’s not about dressing in a unified colour and dancing the jig. And I assume very little beer guzzling is involved.

Diverse Sweden Part 1: Swedish Sikhs

diversity

I remember when my parents visited me in Sweden and remarked in surprise that there were a lot of ‘dark-haired people’ here. Somehow, it didn’t match their stereotype of the Swede as being tall, white, blonde, blue-eyed Christians.

It’s interesting to see the response on people’s faces when they realise who is in fact Swedish. Sure, Alexander Skarsgård, PewDiePie and Robyn all fit the mould. But that Seinabo Sey, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Neneh Cherry are Swedish is often met with a surprised gasp. Stereotypes really are hard to shift.

Sweden is a fairly diverse country – ethnically, religiously and culturally. About 25% of the population is born abroad or has both parents born outside of Sweden. Extend that to one parent and the number increases to around a third of the Swedish population.

I am a true believer in cultural diversity. So, to celebrate the plurality of this kingdom in the north, I am starting a series of posts that will shine the light on various religious and ethnic groups that exist amongst people with Swedish citizenship. My hope is that it will dispel some of those stereotypes of Swedes that exist and that it will broaden your mind regarding what it means to be Swedish.

First out…..Sikhism

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Growing up in the multi-religious UK, as I did, I saw a lot of Sikhs. What distinguished them from others was the fact that some of them wore a turban (known as a ‘dastaar’). Sikh bus drivers, police officers, doctors all wore their dastaar together with their uniforms, and today they are exempt from wearing helmets when riding a motor bike. I remember it causing great debate in the media and the discussion revolving around the ‘ridiculousness’ of this head gear. What ethnic British people failed to realise, and many still do today, is that the Sikh dastaar is not just a means to keep the head warm. The dastaar is an integral part of the unique Sikh identity, representing piety, self-respect, honour and purity of mind. Under the dastaar, the Sikh keeps the hair uncut as respect to the Gurus and to God – the idea being that hair is part of God’s creation and therefore should be kept as God intended it.

In Sweden, Sikhism is a small minority of an estimated 4000 people but in the world there are 30 million Sikhs, mostly living in Punjab in India. Sikhism was founded in the 16th century by Guru Nanak and is based on his teachings and those of the 9 gurus who came after him. The Sikh religion is a hands-on religion – believing in doing good deeds rather than merely carrying out rituals. For a Sikh, the concepts of honesty, generosity and equality are strong corner stones. In Sweden, Sikhs have their places of worship – a Gurdwara – in Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö – and anybody is welcome to these places of worship, regardless of religious belief. The Sikh religious scripture is called the Guru Granth Sahib. Interestingly, Sikhs consider the book a living Guru and it is therefore treated in the same respectful manner that a person would be.

Sikhs try to avoid 5 vices, in order to live better lives. These vices are something we could probably all think about avoiding: lust, greed, attachment to things of this world, anger and pride.

In a couple of weeks on 14th March, it is ‘Vaisakhi’ – the Sikh New Year. This year it will be year 551 (time begins at the birth of founder Guru Nanak).

Sikhs started to emigrate to Sweden in the 1970’s. Some came as job-seekers, others as refugees. The Sikh population is often referred to as an example of successful integration into Swedish society – as most Sikhs secured good employment and invested in the higher education of their children.

 

 

For more information about population statistics in Sweden, go to https://www.scb.se/en

For more information about Sikhs in Sweden, go to http://www.sikh.se

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Have yourself a Merry Gay Swedish Christmas

With gay men being hunted down and ‘punished’ in Uganda, Tanzania, Russia and many other countries around the world, it is easy to blame religion for the persecution.

And the evidence to back this up is fairly compelling. Countries that have a strong foot in religion are often countries that have strong anti-LGBT policies and attitudes. Not always, but often. Fanatical interpretation of the scripture can be one explanation, as can the crushing concept of sin, and the devouring need to uphold traditional ‘family structures and values’. For example, in a recent comment, the Pope said a lot can be done for LGBT people through psychiatry.

Sweden is a country that separates the church from politics. It is a country where almost 90% of the population identify as atheist or agnostic. It is a place where religious morality does not usually dictate the behaviours and choices of individual citizens. Of course there is organized religion in Sweden, there are churches and there are priests. Of course there are minority religions in Sweden such as Islam, Hinduism and Judaism. Of course there are casual believers, devout followers and extremists. But compared to many other organized religions in the world, the Swedish Church is very liberal.

This was manifested in the recent service at a church in Stockholm, a service called Gay Jul (Gay Christmas). The slogan for the event was ‘come in as you are, come out as you want to be’. As I sat in attendance at this service, I witnessed a welcoming space, filled with members of the LGBT community, the church decorated in rainbow flags, and the words ‘Gay Jul’ emblazoned on the pulpit. I was moved by the openness of the church to welcome the minority group that is so often demonized and persecuted by the Faithful. It was an escape, and embrace, a sanctuary.

However, I was also struck by a sadness as I sat there in that echoing church. I realized the experience was a uniquely Swedish one, occurring in a small city in a small outpost of Europe and an unlikely sight in other churches, mosques, temples and tabernacles around the world.

In that church, amongst the rainbow flags, we were far far away from Uganda, and Tanzania, and Russia.

Sweden’s pink Thursday

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Today, the Thursday before Easter is called ‘Skärtorsdag’ in Swedish. As the word ‘skär’ translates as a shocking pink colour, many people joke that today is ‘pink Thursday’. But the word ‘skär’ in this case relates to something else – something far more biblical.

The word ‘skär’ is an early Nordic word meaning clean and pure. And here, we see a parallel to the English word for ‘Skärtorsdag’. In English, today is called ‘Maundy Thursday’ and it relates to the religious rite known as ‘the maundy’ which involved the ritualistic cleaning of feet. According to Christian belief, today was the day that Jesus performed this act until the recipients had clean and pure feet. It also is the day of the infamous Last Supper.

However, in Sweden today, ‘Skärtorsdag’ is not celebrated in any great religious fashion but in a pagan manner. A old pagan belief in Sweden was that on this day witches would mount their broomsticks to fly away to the legendary mountain known as Blåkulla. At Blåkulla it was believed that the devil held his earthly court. There the witches celebrated their sabbath and danced with the devil.

In modern day Sweden, we see this reflected in the many children who dress up as witches. These kids paint Easter cards and walk around the neighbourhood knocking on doors to wish everybody a happy Easter. In exchange, they hope to receive Easter sweets.

Amazing immigrants in Sweden: Part 7 Mustafa Can 


Negativity. Fear. Concern. These are some of the reactions many Swedes are experiencing about the influx of immigrants to Sweden in the last couple of years. So, I became curious to learn about some of those individuals who came here as refugees or immigrants to make a better life for themselves. People with roots somewhere else who built a home here and who contributed to Swedish society in a positive way.
For the next seven days, I will celebrate these people. My hope is that we can lift our eyes from the challenges of immigration and understand what useful contributions these people can make to society if given the chance. To our society. Our Sweden

 

Part 5: Mustafa Can 

In Sweden, every summer there is a radio series called ‘Radio Talkers’ where various people get a chance to tell their stories and play music. It was in this program some years ago that I first heard of Mustafa Can. His program was very moving and focused around his mother. It was so moving that he won many radio and media prizes as a result.

Mustafa Can works as a prize-winning author, independent journalist and public speaker. His recent work focuses mostly on cultural diversity, identity and xenophobia in Sweden. He provides a controversial voice to the Swedish integration debate.

Mustafa has lived in Sweden for over 40 years. Orginally from Northern Kurdistan in Turkey, he fled with his family when he was 6 years old. He is a great example of someone who arrived in Sweden as a child, became well integrated and uses his position and his voice to try to make Swedish society a better place for everybody.

Segregation on a Swedish school bus

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In Sweden, the school system contains many independant schools run with a specific focus such as music, sport, art or specific religions. They should all follow the national curriculum and, in the case of religious schools, they should teach but not preach.

Yesterday, it was revealed that a Stockholm junior school with an islamic orientation has been segregating children on the school bus – boys go through the front entrance and sit at the front, girls go in the rear entrance and sit at the back of the bus. The headmaster of the school has claimed to be unaware of this. This act of segregation has caused a hot debate in Sweden about the ‘islamifying of Sweden’, ‘gender apartheid’ and comments such as it being ‘unSwedish’.

The Swedish Schools Inspectorate are planning on investigating the school further to see if any other ‘undemocratic activities’ are taking place. The Inspectorate has previously allowed segregated classrooms and gender-separated sport lessons.

What can we learn from this?

When this kind of occurance happens in society, it is a great opportunity to reflect on what we learn from it. What is our immediate reaction when we hear examples like this?

  • Do we run straight to the barracades and start defending our cultural heritage?
  • Do we condemn the occurance as, for example, undemocratic or unacceptable?
  • Do we weigh up the pros and cons and try to arrive at a balanced conclusion?
  • Do we think people are allowed to do whatever they want, so anything goes?

All of these are perfectly normal reactions, and one is not better than the other. Obviously, we react in different ways.

I think that these occurances in society provide us with a great opportunity to discuss intercultural competence. Being interculturally competent is generally defined as having an open mindset and the cultural sensitivity to see different perspectives so that one is able to flexibly adapt ones behaviours accordingly. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s about accepting that anything is ok. Intercultural competence can also mean balancing up the various perspectives and standing up for what one thinks is acceptable.

Intercultural competence differs significantly from racism and nationalism. Racism and nationalism focus on others being of lower value than myself or the place I come from. Intercultural competence is about accepting everybody’s perspectives are equally as valid – no matter how tough they are and even if I personally don’t agree with some of them.

So how do we arrive at this place of understanding that all perspectives are equally as valid? We can ask ourselves a simple, but complex, question:

‘What do they think is good about segregating boys and girls on a school bus?’

If we can arrive at the answer(s) to that question, we are becoming more interculturally aware and more interculturally competent. We are seeing the situation from their perspective and not only our own. We are presuming they have a good reason, from their perspective, for their behaviour, rather than immediately judging or condemning it.

Once we have reflected over that, we can decide what we personally think. Does it change our point of view? Can we accept their behaviour more easily? Or does it make me hold my view even more stongly? In that situation, we can say something like:

‘I understand why you think it’s good to segregate boys and girls. I understand your perspective. However, I disagree with it. And here in Sweden, we believe in equal treatment of all regardless of their gender, which is why that behaviour is not something we as a society can accept.’

Compared this to the more reactionary ‘the Islamists are trying to take over Sweden!’ and ‘this country is going down the drain’, you see how the ability to perspectives-take creates a more open, less fearful debate.

It is my belief that if we approach occurances like this in a more interculturally competent way, and try to perspectives-take, we can create a society built on mutual understanding and respect for prevailing values rather than a society built on fear and suspicion.

And that has to be a good thing moving forward, doesn’t it?

 

 

 

 

Was Spock Swedish? 

  
According to the World Values Survey, Sweden is one of the most rational non-secular countries in the world: decisions tend to be made on logical rather than on emotional or hypothetical grounds. 
One area in which this manifests itself in Sweden is in the separation of church and state. Policies and legislation spring out of political, and not religious, ideologies. Unlike other countries where religion has a strong influence on how the country is run, Swedish politicians base their arguments on statistical and factual information. God is never mentioned in political debate, not even by the far-right Christian Democrat Party. If they mentioned God, it would probably send them swiftly packing out of the Parliament building. 

This is why what is currently happening in the USA is so fascinating. In the USA there is a strong connection between God and rhetoric. In the USA you simply don’t become President unless you mention God several times in your speeches. With this background, it’s not surprising that extremist Christians can arise, such as marriage registrar Kim Davis in Kentucky. The delightful Ms Davis abuses her position of authority and refuses to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples as it collides with her Christian views. In doing this, she denies these couples their legal rights and interprets the law to suit her own religious agenda. This has caused outrage in the USA and she has been ordered to back down, but continues to righteously defy the courts. And is allowed to do so. Prison is next in line, but she cannot be dismissed as her position is one for which she has been publically elected. 

This is a simple, but insidious, example of how religion, law and social legislation do often not make for a happy marriage. What would happen if we all decided to interpret the law according to our own religious convictions? Chaos. Religious dogma. Moralising power mongers.  In Sweden, Ms Davis would have been stripped of her official duties long ago. 

One secular quote reflects Swedish society in a nutshell. And it’s from Star Trek’s Spock in 1982: 

‘The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.’

It’s logical. May Swedish society live long and prosper.