Welcoming address to the ACT Alliance Assembly
20 October 2010
Development cooperation and humanitarian assistance in multi-religious societies from an ecumenical perspective
Welcoming address to the ACT Alliance Assembly by the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Arusha, Tanzania, 20 October 2010.
1 Cor. 12:12-26: We need one another – the one body of Christ.
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
In Norway we have a saying that you may “come late, but well”. For me this has a double meaning today. I came late to the process of the formation of Action by Churches Together, the ACT Alliance. We both started in our new roles on the first of January. And now I also have come one day later than planned. But I was well received here in Arusha and in this Assembly, and now I look forward to our journey together. I am proud of being part of your work, and honoured to participate in the moderation of this Assembly.
I see ACT Alliance as a gift to the fellowship of the churches in the WCC, so that we can better fulfill the call to be one. Now is the time to stand together in a common response to one anothers’ needs and to be good neighbours to everyone in the global village, whatever their faith. ACT Alliance is more than an instrument. It is a fellowship of churches and partner organizations, called to use our different gifts so that the body of Christ can serve this world as one.
ACT Alliance is a new actor in the ecumenical movement, and we are all looking forward to seeing it grow in strength and effectiveness. Today, the world needs strong alliances to support the struggle of communities which suffer ongoing poverty or have become victims of disasters. The support to our fellow human beings in need has always been high on the agenda of the ecumenical movement. To strengthen the ability of the churches to do so is a task for the World Council of Churches which has endeavoured to give leadership to this movement over the past 60 years.
Therefore, I want to congratulate the board and the members of the Alliance represented here in this Assembly for the great results of the work done in recent years to form the ACT Alliance by bringing together ACT International and ACT Development. I know this has not been an easy task. Yet your commitment and your eagerness to bring together development work and humanitarian assistance in one coherent approach supported by one alliance have helped you to overcome organizational obstacles. I am proud that the WCC was able to contribute to this unification process through the work of my predecessor, by hosting the secretariat of ACT Development and by making one of its senior staff members available as moderator.
The World Council of Churches is committed to continue its support to enable ACT Alliance to become a strong actor in the ecumenical movement. The Council’s executive committee, in its meeting in Scotland a few weeks ago, accepted a document which elaborates the cooperation with ACT Alliance for the coming years. The Council and the Alliance have different roles in the ecumenical movement. The WCC gives strategic leadership to the ecumenical movement though theological reflection, by inspiring, convening, coordination and encouraging ecumenical cooperation. ACT Alliance is facilitates, supports and undertakes the coordination of development work and humanitarian assistance. These complementary roles can help both organizations to grow in strength and effectiveness. One example of the areas in which WCC and ACT can strengthen their cooperation is supporting churches as they develop their diaconal capacity. Another area for stronger cooperation is advocacy. The WCC and ACT are working together on plans to strengthen the capacity of the WCC Liaison Office to the United Nations in New York. A strong office in New York can help the churches and members of ACT to have a more effective access to the United Nations, and to public debates in general.
Looking at the present situation in our world, these joint efforts are extremely important. A few weeks ago, the United Nations discussed the efforts regarding the Millennium Development Goals. The reality in many countries shows that these goals will not be achieved in the near future. The struggle against poverty is not showing the results hoped for. Too many young children still do not have access to basic education. There is some progress, but not enough, in the so badly-needed change of global and national economic structures to promote a just and sustainable development. Many people have lost their hope, especially in situations where ongoing poverty is aggravated by natural disasters. Churches and their ecumenical instruments cannot afford to accept this reality which for too many people is a reality of pain and despair. Changing this reality requires a close cooperation between the WCC and ACT Alliance to work together in solidarity and hope (as the title of the photo book published at the launch of ACT Alliance says).
Assembly of the ACT Alliance
The board and secretariat of ACT Alliance have made a wise decision to use this assembly for strategy development. What is the direction the Alliance needs to take in the coming years? How can the cooperation in the areas of development, humanitarian assistance and advocacy be strengthened in the coming years? And how can the quality of our work be improved in order to serve those who need our assistance and support? Identifying a clear direction and articulating a relevant agenda is extremely important, yet it is also a challenge. There are still a number of areas which need further deliberation and a profound process of discernment.
From the history of the WCC, we know that building up a global fellowship on the basis of equality is not an easy task. Our churches are rooted in communities, societies and nations which are heavily divided for all sorts of reasons, historically, culturally, economically and politically. We are not working together on a level playing field. Economic and political power, but also cultural power, is not equally distributed between the different parts of the world. It would be a great mistake to deny this reality, and assume that the reality of power struggles does not affect our fellowship of churches and alliance of specialized ministries. The WCC had to learn that we can only contribute to change towards justice if we take this reality of power struggles seriously, even in our own fellowship, and try together to find ways forward.
The WCC’s mandate is to respond to Christ’s call to be one. Unity of the Church should be a sign and a foretaste of the unity of humankind. Visible unity between churches has to be understood as a challenging, relevant contribution towards just peace at all levels in this world. That makes the ecumenical movement in itself a laboratory for relationships which go beyond the power struggles due to which so many people are suffering. In other words, the ecumenical movement is the instrument to transform power struggles into caring relations inspired by God’s love for this world.
Throughout its history, the WCC as a fellowship of churches has struggled with this reality in many different ways. Many times the Council has tried, but never succeeded, to replace the traditional funding mechanisms with a truly ecumenical model of sharing of resources. The guidelines for ecumenical sharing developed in the famous consultation on diakonia, in El Escorial, 1987, were intended to share resources and power so that all may fully participate. These guidelines were apparently not strong enough to break through the structures of economic and political power that cause inequality. Our churches are entangled in these structures as members of the societies in which they exist. Like the WCC, ACT Alliance must now address this reality, especially as it is engaged in development cooperation and humanitarian assistance. It has to struggle with it and develop mechanisms, but above all, develop a spirituality and a culture within its own structures which allow power differences to be transformed into mutual respect and care.
I could mention many other issues where ACT and the WCC could learn from each other on the road towards unity. Unity serves the cause of a just peace at different levels in our societies. As time is limited, I would like to highlight only two concerns which in my opinion are important in the process of developing strategic directions for the work of ACT in the coming years. The first concern relates to the identity of ACT, Action by Churches Together; the second relates to the multi-religious nature of the realities in which ACT members do their work.
Action by Churches Together
One of the strengths of the ecumenical movement is that it has a broad structure, from the local level to the global, and from the global to the local. No other organization or network is so deeply rooted in the local realities of people while at the same time having widespread, well-organized structures at the national, regional and global levels. Many other organizations, including development organizations, would like to have such an extensive global-local structure. Such organizations approach the WCC from time to time asking whether the Council could facilitate their access to these structures. ACT Alliance, being an ecumenical organization, has access to these local, national, regional and global structures. This gives ACT a unique added value compared to its secular counterparts.
ACT Alliance has this access to the local, national, regional and global structures… at least in principle. The founding document says that churches and church-related organizations working in humanitarian assistance and/or development can become members of the Alliance. My hope is that many churches will become members of ACT. It will help them to be more fully engaged in development work and humanitarian assistance. However, during my visits to churches, several church leaders have expressed their concern about the exclusiveness of ACT. Their concern is not only related to the formal criteria for membership. It is true that several churches, which have been engaged in diaconal work on their own terms for decades or even centuries, do not qualify for membership. Some do not qualify because they do not have a strong national structure and are focusing primarily on work and life at the congregational level. Others fail to qualify because they do not have a tradition of reporting and accounting, as required by ACT and its supporting donors. Their main concern is that in times of crisis they are not seen as valuable local partners.
For instance, during my recent visit to Haiti representatives of churches told me how after the earthquake several agencies, including ACT members, had come to provide humanitarian assistance. Their relief work was impressive during the first months. But when the WCC called for a meeting, it became clear that the churches were not involved in the work on the ground and that they were not included in the ACT Alliance’s day-to-day deliberations on the future of Haiti. I received similar messages from churches in Pakistan after the recent flood. Stories like these show that ACT Alliance is not yet in a position to use most effectively the national and local structures of churches. That is unfortunate as the cooperation with local and national churches would give ACT Alliance precisely the unique added value that will make it relevant and more effective in its work.
My feeling is that the ACT national forums could play a crucial role in strengthening the relations between the churches and ACT members. The excellent cooperation between the WCC and ACT Alliance at the global level could be a model for a stronger cooperation between the ACT national forums and the local churches and their national ecumenical structures. As I understand it, the guidelines for national forums allow members to invite guests to their meetings. This is fine, for a start, but probably not enough. Models of strategic cooperation between churches and councils of churches and ACT forums need to be explored. It is important that ACT forums will find their place in the life of the churches. Such integration can help ACT’s work to be more effective at the local and national levels and to strengthen its identity as an ecumenical alliance.
ACT Alliance working in multi-religious contexts
The second concern I wish to highlight relates to the multi-religious realities most churches and members of ACT are working in. The WCC has responded to the call to love our neighbour as ourselves, and therefore engaged in interreligious dialogue for many years, even before churches placed it on their agendas. The reason is that the majority of our member churches are rooted in multi-religious societies. Christians are living and working side by side with Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews. The WCC began its engagement with representatives of other religions at the level of dialogue, primarily about the understanding of their respective faiths. Recently, in particular after the WCC Assembly at Porto Alegre in 2006, the emphasis has shifted from interreligious dialogue to interreligious cooperation. The reason for this shift is that we have discovered that churches and Christians increasingly struggle with the reality of multi-religious societies. The building up of societies requires cooperation on the basis of mutual respect and understanding. Dialogue about theological concepts is important but not enough and needs to be rooted in practical forms of cooperation. However, diapraxis or cooperation in itself is also giving us a new theological understanding.
This becomes especially urgent in situations of majorities and minorities. Many of our churches live and work as minorities in multi-religious societies. Examples are the churches in India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Palestine/Israel but also in other parts of the world where Christians are a minority. In these situations cooperation with other religions becomes more and more urgent as tensions increase.
There are several reasons behind the growing tensions in multi-religious societies; some are of a contextual nature whereas others have a more global nature. One of the reasons for tension is that in the process of globalization, the search for individual and communal identity has become increasingly important. Religion can provide significant aspects of identity as it plays an important role in human self-understanding and in the identity of communities. In a powerful way, religion can give meaning to life. In combination with ethnic and political identity, and ideology, religion can become a critical aspect in fueling conflicts.
The work of ACT Alliance and its members becomes very critical in these situations. It can help to strengthen the relations between different religious communities. It can also lead to increasing tensions. A remarkable, but notable, signal came recently from a church leader in Pakistan. ACT Alliance was engaged in disaster relief after the flood. However, ACT’s work was not recognized as humanitarian assistance provided by churches, at least not by the Muslim community which did not see the engagement of major churches. They started complaining: why are you as churches not working with us to help the victims of the flood? The church leader fears that the lack of visible presence of the churches in these times of trial will lead to increasing tensions between the Christian and Muslim communities with severe consequences for the Christians who form a minority group.
I could add other examples to show how critical ACT Alliance’s work is in multi-religious contexts. ACT’s decision not to accept mission organizations as full members is only one piece of this complex puzzle. It might seem to be an important step from the perspective of development organizations which are rooted in secularized societies. However, this division between mission organizations and development organizations is less impressive in other contexts, where all work done by churches or church-related organizations is understood to be missionary in one way or another. This complexity means that more work has to be done to develop a responsible approach to the sensitivities in multi-religious situations.
ACT Alliance does not stand alone in this enormous challenge. It is an area where the WCC and ACT Alliance could work more closely together. The Council is fully aware of the vulnerable situation of churches in, for instance, the Middle East or in Asia. For this reason, the WCC is organizing a conference between Muslim leaders and Christian leaders which is planned to take place early in November. The relation between minorities and majorities in transitional societies forms an important part of the agenda. How can we build structures, locally, nationally and internationally, which form bridges of mutual trust in situations of conflict or amid potential conflicts?
These questions might also recur in the seminar organized by ACT Alliance and the WCC on November 22 in Geneva on the role of religion in development work and humanitarian assistance.
They will also come back in the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation which is planned to take place in May 2011 in Jamaica. The significance of just peace, and the practical ways to promote peace, will be the central theme of this important event at the end of the Decade to Overcome Violence.
The practical work done together by members of different religions could be an important instrument in avoiding conflicts and building bridges. The question here is whether development cooperation and humanitarian assistance can play a role in long-term peace building. To me, it seems that this is a question which relates to the ecumenical identity of ACT Alliance.
I very much welcome the efforts of ACT Alliance to bring together in a coherent way short-term humanitarian assistance and mid-term development work. That is an extremely important step forward which will certainly help communities to grow beyond their economic vulnerability. My question is, could this coherent approach also help to build up, together with churches, long-term peace – or better, a just peace – especially in multi-religious communities?
Answering this question is a matter of identity: ecumenical identity. As I have said earlier, to be one body must imply common action. Such a sign of unity among churches is desperately needed. The WCC is called to be an instrument for building just peace in the broader society. For this we also need a strong and inclusive ACT Alliance.
Through this first year of my service, I have seen several doors being opened for new cooperation and mutual commitment to our ecumenical calling. ACT Alliance belongs to these new possibilities. Now is our time. Let us use this God-given opportunity well, to unite us in our ministry of diakonia and development.
Let us pray that what we do here in Arusha serves God’s will to give every human being dignity and hope.