World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

Welcome Remarks

By the Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, WCC general secretary

10 September 2008

World Council of Churches
Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches
Reformed Churches Bern-Jura-Solothurn

Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum (PIEF)

INTERNATIONAL THEOLOGICAL CONFERENCE
“Promised Land”

Church Center Bürenpark, Bern, Switzerland
10 - 14 September 2008

Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia
General secretary
World Council of Churches

 

It is my great honour and privilege to welcome you to this extremely important theological conversation on one of the most critical questions of our time. In the ecumenical initiatives addressing the Israel/Palestine conflict, this meeting is unprecedented.

 

In June 2007, at an international conference entitled “Churches Together for Peace and Justice in the Middle East”, the World Council of Churches launched the Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum (PIEF). Following serious reflection and analysis, 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 we were still at Amman, the first churches to offer an invitation to help move the PIEF forward in its theological dimension were the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches and the Reformed Churches of Bern-Jura-Solothurn.

 

The success of the PIEF depends on the churches working together in a renewed effort to contribute to a just peace. The invitation from the Swiss churches heralds a new and welcome methodology: churches working with the WCC to implement 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 Israel/Palestine. In Amman we embraced two tracks for ecumenical action, both urgent and imperative: peace building and peacemaking. 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 that the Swiss churches so effectively embraced and that brings us all here today.

 

We are deeply appreciative of their invitation, 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 centre of our urgent actions for peace and justice. The churches have a key role in resolving this long and bloody tragedy of suffering and struggle. The conflict is not at its core a religious conflict, but it has a deeply enmeshed religious dimension. Religion is used to justify and legitimize military and political actions, themselves ideologically motivated. The churches have a role in demystifying and exposing the manipulation of religion, while working for the respect and the 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.

 

The important presence of all the Jerusalem and Middle Eastern churches in Amman last year reminded us all 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 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 multiethnic and religiously diverse reality of Israel/Palestine. The Christian presence has been a force in ensuring the rights and full participation of women. Without a viable indigenous Christian community, the aspiration for a religiously diverse and a culturally pluralistic society in Israel/Palestine and the Middle East will be endangered. The Israel/Palestine conflict could be even further polarized and falsely presented as Jew against Muslim.  For these reasons and more, we keep the Palestinian Christian community at the centre of our call for costly solidarity.

 

We have sought to embody that in this conference by the presence of a strong Palestinian and Middle Eastern delegation of theologians and church leaders. 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 to 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 to differences within the family. 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 voice. At the same time 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.

 

Lifting up the theological viewpoint on a situation that is at its root political, military and ideological is a significant contribution to peacemaking. We believe that our theological reflections can and should make a difference to this political, social and cultural conflict by going beyond its explicitly religious dimensions. We can help reframe the essence of critical life situations and thereby make them more susceptible to just resolution or transformation. The key to do exactly that is “desacralizing” 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, totally intertwined with the social, economic and political struggle over land. However, it is our religious perspective itself that requires us to reframe the 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 them as God’s will. We have in fact a strong tradition of self-criticism, confession and repentance that reminds us how frequently we have sinned by attributing national or group interests to the God of life.

 

It is clear that there are differences amongst us in our readings of the biblical texts. This conference will not resolve those differences and doesn’t intend to try. We come together, however, convinced 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 others or contribute to their suffering. We need to take responsibility for the social and political 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 the ministry of justice, healing and reconciliation.

 

This conference is a vital contribution to an ongoing theological process that is badly needed by our churches precisely because we are seriously divided on Israel/Palestine and have not yet embraced an intra-church dialogue. Here theology is made alive, not as academic theory 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 question 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.” Almost too many theologians accepted our invitation to participate. My hope is that this signifies renewed energy in participating in the struggle against another situation of apartheid. We are grateful to our cosponsors and to all of you who have come rigorously prepared for presentations and participation. I am confident that we will truly embody the Amman Call to make a difference, together in this conference, at the end of which we shall give thanks to God who gives us the dual gifts of unity and the hunger for justice.

 

Thank you.