International Theological Conference "Promised Land"
World Council of Churches
Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches
Reformed Churches Bern-Jura-Solothurn
Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum (PIEF)
International Theological Conference
Church Center Bürenpark, Bern, Switzerland
10 - 14 September 2008
Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia
World Council of Churches
It is my great honor and privilege to welcome you here to this extremely important theological conversation on one of the - if not the most - critical issues of our time. This kind of meeting is unprecedented in the ecumenical initiatives addressing the Israel/Palestine conflict.
In June 2007 the WCC launched the Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum at an International Peace Conference - "Churches together for Peace and Justice in the Middle East".
At the end of that meeting, and following serious reflection and analysis, together, we issued the "Amman Call". Echoing the voices of Palestinian Christians we said: "Enough is enough. No more words without actions." We affirmed that "Churches are part of the conflict, because churches cannot remain silent while there is still suffering."
While still at Amman, the first church to offer an invitation to help move the PIEF forward in its theological dimension was the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches: the Reformed Churches of Bern-Jura-Solothurn.
The success of PIEF depends on the churches working together in a renewed effort to contribute to a just peace. The invitation from the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches heralds a new and welcome methodology of the churches working with the WCC in implementing programmatic priorities in a concrete and specific way.
The generous and timely invitation is significant also because the contribution of the Swiss churches is focused on the crucial task of biblical theological reflection as it relates to the Israel- Palestine situation. In Amman we embraced two tracks for ecumenical action - both urgent and imperative: peace building and peace making. We emphasized that our contribution to peace building will include, "furthering theological and biblical perspectives and Christian education resources around those issues central to the conflict". That is the urgent task, which the Swiss churches so effectively embraced and which brings us all here today.
We are deeply appreciative of their invitation and their commitment and the practical offering of this "theological space" for the ecumenical family to engage in in-depth conversation and debate on an issue deeply entwined in the ongoing conflict over land.
In Amman we also resolved to keep the churches at the center of our urgent actions for peace and justice. The churches have a key role in the resolution of this long and bloody tragedy of suffering and struggle. The conflict at its core is not a religious conflict but it is a conflict with a deeply enmeshed religious dimension. Religion is used to justify and legitimize military and political actions, themselves ideologically motivated. The churches have a role to play in de-mystifying and exposing the manipulation of religion in this situation, while working for the respect and legitimate place of all religions in the region. As we noted in Amman the role of the churches is to heal and to bring all sides to reconciliation rooted in the ethical and theological imperative for a just peace.
In this regard, the important presence of all the Jerusalem and Middle Eastern churches in Amman last year played a key role in reminding us of the significance of the Christian presence in the region - the presence of an indigenous Christian church whose very viability is threatened by the effects of the occupation. We pledged ourselves to go to new lengths to embrace the gospel imperative of costly solidarity with all those who suffer but with particular attention to the Palestinian Christian community and the Christian churches throughout the Middle East. The Christian presence has been key in providing ministries of health care, education and community service. The Christian presence witnesses to the multi-ethnic and religiously diverse reality of Israel-Palestine. The Christian presence has been a force in ensuring the rights and full participation of women. Without this viable indigenous Christian community, the aspiration for a religiously diverse and a culturally pluralistic society in Israel/Palestine and in the Middle East will be endangered. The Israel-Palestine conflict could be even further polarized and falsely cast as Jew against Muslim. For these reasons and more, we keep the Palestinian Christian community at the center of our call for costly solidarity. We have sought to embody that by the presence here in this conference of a strong Palestinian and Middle Eastern delegation from among theologians and church leaders. For this also, we are thankful that they responded positively to our invitation.
Our methodology seeks to correct an all too frequent imbalance when we speak of the situation without the visible presence and vocal participation of Palestinian Christians. This is a conversation - a debate in the best sense of the word - among Christians. It is, if you will, an intra-Christian theological dialogue where we start amongst ourselves. There is, of course, a crucial importance and a high premium on interfaith dialogue and inter-religious cooperation - especially in regards to this situation. Nevertheless, we have not spent sufficient time or energy attending to our own perspective and differences within the family. This is urgently required. One aspect of this is the opportunity to hear Palestinian Christians speak of their experience and theological-biblical understanding of land and promise. At this conference we would like the voice of the Palestinian theologians to be louder than any other. At the same time it is a crucial, although not so rare an occasion, in which Palestinian and Middle Eastern theologians can hear and engage with others from outside their region speaking theologically about the "Holy Land". This is a crucial topic and even more so because we are addressing it together.
This is a significant contribution to peacemaking by lifting up the theological point of view on a situation that is at its root political, military and ideological. We believe that our theological reflections can and should make a difference to what is a political, social and cultural conflict by going beyond the explicitly religious dimension of the conflict. We can help
re-frame the essence of critical life situations and thereby make them more susceptible to just resolution or transformation.
The key in this conference is to do exactly that by "de-sacralizing" the conflict. As with other historic situations of suffering and oppression the positions of the various actors have been given a divine mandate and polarized as wholly good versus wholly evil. From our religious perspective, we must challenge and dismantle ideological attempts to attribute specific political projects and systems to God's will. We all stand humbly under God's judgment and the plumb line of justice, love and mercy.
The situation we have come to address has acquired a religious dimension that seems intractable and totally intertwined with the social, economic and political struggle over land. However, it is our very religious perspective itself that requires us to re-frame religious dimensions of this conflict and to insist that there is nothing fundamental to our reading of the Bible or to our heritage and tradition that can justify occupation and oppression, much less claim such as God's will. We in fact have a strong tradition of self-criticism, confession and repentance that reminds us how frequently we have sinned by attributing our own national or group interests to the God of life.
This said, it is clear that there are differences amongst us in our readings of the biblical texts. This conference will not resolve those differences and it doesn't intend to try. However, we come together convinced that we can in fact agree that those differences must not be an obstacle for common action for a just peace. Certainly we can agree that our theologies and interpretations of the Bible cannot be used to oppress or contribute to the suffering of others. In this conflict we need to take social and political responsibility for the consequences of our theological and biblical positions, standing as we do under the love and mercy of the God of life. We can no longer be paralyzed by our differences or allow our divisions to render us ineffective in our ministry of justice, healing and reconciliation.
This conference is a vital contribution to an ongoing theological process which is badly needed by our churches precisely because we are seriously divided on this issue and have not yet embraced an intra-church dialogue on the Israel-Palestine situation. Here theology is made alive, not as academic theories but as a critical aspect of loving God with all our minds as well as our hearts and bodies. This is a life and death issue that is the essence of embodied theology - reflecting critically on God's presence in our lives.
The truth of what I have shared with you is reflected by your very presence - not since the time of the struggle against South African apartheid in the 1970s and 80s has the WCC had such an overwhelmingly positive response to the invitation to come to a "conference". My hope is that this signifies our renewed energy in participating in the struggle against another apartheid situation. It was a very happy surprise that almost too many theologians accepted our invitation to participate. We are very grateful to our co-sponsors, and all of you who have come rigorously prepared for presentations and participation. I am confident that all of us, together, will make this a true embodiment of the Amman Call to make a difference, at the end of which we shall give thanks to God who gives us the dual gifts of unity and the hunger for justice.