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Leiden Law Cast: reverend Ruben Van Zwieten

Leiden Law Cast is a podcast made by Leiden Law School, Leiden University, for everyone who wants to learn more about current legal issues.

This second episode in our series talking to Leiden Law School alumni is a special one. For one thing, the recording didn’t take place at our usual location in Leiden, but at the Nieuwe Poort, a community centre and restaurant for ‘reflection and meeting’ located on the Zuidas in Amsterdam and established by our guest Ruben van Zwieten. So during this recording, Irem and I aren’t hearing the muffled sound of heels clicking along the corridor at the KOG, but instead soft, jazzy music drifting from the audio system. When guests visit the Nieuwe Poort, they can listen to students from the academy of music often playing classical music and admire the books that fill the walls. Ruben tells us they are the complete collection that belonged to Yehuda Aschkenasy, a Rabbi who hid them with acquaintances after he foresaw the book burnings during the Second World War under the Nazi regime. The kitchen of the Nieuwe Poort employs people with poor job prospects: ex-convicts, status holders who were asylum seekers for a long time, and school dropouts. So these are not people you would normally encounter in the Zuidas, perhaps the most prestigious place to work in the Netherlands.

The second thing that makes this episode special is that our guest Ruben van Zwieten didn’t opt for a career in law after graduating from Leiden Law School. Instead, he chose a career related to his other degree from Leiden University which was Theology. He’s currently making a name for himself as a reverend (dominee in Dutch), serving what he calls the upper echelons of Dutch society. He acts as a shepherd to them, but is also a critic – a hybrid role that is not always appreciated in the Netherlands. During his student days, he was also President of student society Minerva. We notice that some student habits apparently die hard, as we find Ruben lounging in a chair, drinking a cappuccino with soft music playing in the background. He grins while admitting that the night before our visit he had quite a night out with his staff. It seems that not only are his student days not over in terms of going out for a drink, his studious mind also remains restless. Besides his work as an entrepreneur/reverend, he’s still working on a PhD on the philosophy of language. Supervised by Rinse Reeling Brouwer, he’s studying whether the language of the boardroom has not been tainted by business administration, and whether biblical language can offer solace here. ‘It’s possible to inspire with words’ Ruben preaches. Leaders seem to be chained to using language related to processes, but they also need to be able to speak from the heart.  

Ruben says his law studies were fundamentally different from his theology studies. Whereas as a lawyer-to-be you can enjoy the anonymity of packed lecture halls, if he missed a class in theology it was very obvious in the small group of students. He is not a fan of the Leiden school of theology, where the focus is on the historical accuracy of the Bible. Instead, Ruben's preference lies in the way the Bible is analysed as a narrative in Amsterdam. He sees the Bible first and foremost as a political pamphlet. To him, everyone has an ‘idol’ they worship: whether it is a favourite football team, or a certain annual income. The Bible actually calls for atheism with regard to such false gods.

An important narrative quoted by Ruben from the Bible is that of the strong and the weak brother, of Cain and Abel. According to him, this is an allegory from which our society can learn the necessary lessons because our ‘vanguard’ and our ‘rearguard’ seem to be diminishing. The vanguard seems more and more preoccupied with pushing their offspring through expensive private education, while guarding their precious shares and assets. People don’t seem to want to belong to the vanguard, the elite, anymore because of negative associations. But Ruben believes it’s very important to face up to one's own privileges and to take responsibility, something he also stresses in the book Elite Gezocht (Elite Wanted), of which he is co-author. This division between the ‘front’ and the ‘back’ of society is also damaging our meritocracy. It’s increasingly more important where a person’s cradle stood, instead of what their personal merits are. This is something Ruben is particularly worried about. No one wants to be the allegorical weak brother, but everyone is at some point – even if only at birth and just before death.  And the vanguard is almost by definition the strong brother in society. People in that position should reach out to the weak brother who turns to them, because he has no other option.

From the above, it is clear that Ruben’s allies are most often to be found among poets, singer-songwriters and comedians. He wants to speak the language of imagination, which leaders so often seem to be lacking. Another group that he finds lacking when it comes to language are lawyers. They are masters of close reading, comprehensive reading, but that makes them literalists. Sometimes the language of facts, in which lawyers are most adept, is not enough to achieve justice. Then they get stuck on lawfulness, but as Nazi Germany taught us, lawfulness and justice can slip away from each other with disastrous consequences. Then the language of Martin Luther King (judging by the number of times Ruben refers to him, an inspiration for him) must be employed: behind the red hills of Georgia, Martin Luther King did not actually see the descendants of slaves and slave owners. But that language was the instrument to bring that dream closer.

Ruben is critical of the political climate in the Netherlands. The right-wing thinking of the VVD party has led to many cutbacks in knowledge and skills in the civil service, something that will take years to rebuild. The same thinking has reduced public office to a position that has no stature. Working for the government should be an honourable position, something cool. Then those positions would be filled by strong leaders who don’t panic as soon as someone like Sywert van Lienden puts pressure on the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport via Twitter, causing them to be deceived and costing millions on a face mask deal.

Ruben believes that a new party in the middle of the political spectrum could fix this. But a more structural solution would be for society to have a metaphorical church: a place where life and death have a place, where the ‘front’ and ‘back’ in society come together. That would make it easier to look out for each other, to talk with each other, even outside the government. And also listen to stories together, for example, the Easter story. Passover is a rite of passage, just like baptism. To be baptised is to become pure, to drop the yoke and then to wander through the desert away from Egypt to the Promised Land. A road where you can sometimes make a mistake, which doesn't matter at all because everyone wanders through that desert.

The conversation then returns to Ruben’s position as entrepreneur/reverend at the Nieuwe Poort. He speaks about how he buys old churches and converts them to catering establishments, all located at European port cities. He’s aiming for twelve in total, because in Biblical terms, twelve is the whole world. Ruben kindly invites all listeners to drop in some time.

After our enlightening conversation, Ruben finally has a message for listeners who are practising lawyers, or training to be lawyers. A lawyer is already a master of the language of what is lawful and what is unlawful. But why not delve into the language of what is just and what is unjust?

Listen to the Leiden Law Cast:

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