On pilgrimage, journeys, and justice

WCC 10th Assembly participant Oubunmi Adedoyin Badejo from Nigeria.

In November 2013, 3000 Christians from 345 Christian churches around the world joined together in Busan, South Korea to celebrate the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC). Formed in 1948, in the shadow of World War II, the WCC is like the UN of Christian churches. The WCC holds it Assemblies every eight years. Listen to the closing paragraph of their message to the churches:

We intend to move together. Challenged by our experiences in Busan, we challenge all people of good will to engage their God-given gifts in transforming actions. This Assembly calls you to join us in pilgrimage. May the churches be communities of healing and compassion, and may we seed the Good News so that justice will grow and God’s deep peace rest on the world.

With these words, the Assembly initiated the work of the next eight years of the World Council by inviting all of its member churches to join together on a Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace.

Pilgrimages are familiar to many of us from The Canterbury Tales or The Pilgrim’s Progress. In both of these classics of Western literature pilgrimages feature prominently. You might remember that Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories represented as part of story-telling contest between a group of pilgrims journeying to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The prize being a free meal at the Tabard Inn in Southwark on the return journey. The Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory about the life of a protagonist named “Christian” whose journey through the story represents the pilgrimage or journey that is the life of the Christian.

These two stories represent the two dominant traditions associated with the idea of pilgrimage. The first involves a specific journey to and from a sacred place in order to honor a person or an event. This type of pilgrimage often has a specific purpose – the pilgrim might seek a healing at a sacred spring or a shrine associated with sacred power or with a saint who is known to heal; or the pilgrim might seek spiritual growth through their encounter with sacred places or people as they seek to move closer to God; and still others might embark on a pilgrimage as an act of repentance or penitence. In these cases, the pilgrims are on a journey with a clear mission that has a definite beginning and end.

The bible is full of journeys and one of the foundational stories of our faith is the story of Yahweh calling Moses to lead the people on an epic journey, on an exodus out of slavery and into the Promised Land. This journey was also a pilgrimage of spiritual growth and maturation for the Hebrew people as their spirituality was tested and strengthened through the wandering, struggles, and trials that gave them the 10 commandments, and a story of salvation history that brought them out of slavery and to a new land, flowing with milk and honey. The exodus was a pilgrimage, a journey with a clear mission and a beginning and an end, but one that took forty years.

The second type of pilgrimage is more reminiscent of The Pilgrim’s Progress where we see that for the protagonist “Christian,” his whole life is a pilgrimage. Examples of this type of pilgrimage can be seen in the life of John the Baptist or Paul, each of whom traveled extensively in service of their mission, their calling. Each of these men understood their life as a journey in service to God. It is also evident in the Irish and Scottish itinerant monks who traveled through parts of Germany and Switzerland evangelizing as they went.

This type of pilgrimage is not a journey to a particular place, it does not have a specific beginning and ending, the purpose of this type of pilgrimage is a radical way of following Christ. We see Jesus call his disciples to this kind of pilgrimage in our gospel text for today, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This theme of “following” Jesus is predominant throughout the New Testament. Jesus calls the disciples to follow him, we often see crowds of people following him, and we know there was a prominent group of women who also followed Jesus.

The idea of Christians as “followers” of Jesus is an ancient one, rooted in these texts where he calls those around him to follow him. But what does it mean to follow Jesus? From his sermons that promise an overthrow of the human order making the last first and the first last; to his ministry to outcasts – widows, orphans, children, prostitutes and tax collectors, and all those on the margins of society; to his challenge to the political elites of the Jewish hierarchy who are more focused on the letter of the law than the spirit; to his threat to the powers of the Roman empire – Jesus’ ministry is a ministry of justice and peace. Achieving justice and peace on earth is promised nowhere in scripture, but following Jesus is a calling to live a life of justice and peace. It is in this way, with our very lives lived as a pilgrimage of justice and peace that we show to the world that we are followers of Christ.

It is in this sense of a Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace as the way of following Christ that the World Council is calling Christians around the world to embark on a pilgrimage together over the next eight years.

So, what does a pilgrimage require? I will lift up three things that this Pilgrimage might require of us as we think about how we might participate in this pilgrimage as part of the larger Christian community in the world.

First, pilgrimage requires movement. The Assembly statement says very clearly, “We intend to move together.” In the context of the ecumenical movement this is a bold statement. Prior Assemblies in 1948 and 1998 declared that the churches intended to “stay” together. The desire to “stay together” implies inaction, perhaps even a fortress mentality in the midst of a transforming world. Perhaps the idea of the churches needing to “move together” represents a new way for us to think about ourselves – as churches, as denominations, as an ecumenical movement.

Second, pilgrimage requires risk. Taking up our crosses or burdens and following Jesus requires considerable risk. Working for justice and peace in the midst of world of injustice and conflict requires us to challenge the status quo, to ask hard questions about wealth and poverty, affordable housing and living wages, police brutality and racial profiling. If the Christian life does not feel risky then perhaps joining a pilgrimage of justice and peace can challenge us to think more critically about what it means to follow Jesus.

Finally, pilgrimage requires kenosis. Kenosis is the Greek word for an emptying of ourselves and our will in order to be receptive to spiritual insight and God’s will for us and for the world. Being open to the transformative power of God is essential for pilgrimage and for us as followers of Christ. This kind of radical self-emptying prepares us for pilgrimage and for joining together with other Christians on this pilgrimage of justice and peace.

Blessed are they who observe justice,
who do righteousness at all times!   (Psalm 106:3)

God of life, lead us to justice and peace!

About the author :

The Rev. Dr Rebecca Todd Peters is professor of Religious Studies at Elon University. Her work as a feminist social ethicist is focused on globalization, economic, environmental, and reproductive justice. Her book, In Search of the Good Life: The Ethics of Globalization (Continuum, 2004), won the 2003 Trinity Book Prize. She has published more than 20 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters and co-edited several books including Justice in a Global Economy: Strategies for Home, Community and World (Westminster/John Knox, 2006) and To Do Justice: A Guide for Progressive Christians (Westminster/John Knox, 2008). She is the past president of the American Academy of Religion, Southeast Region and was Elon University's 2011-12 Distinguished Scholar. She started the Poverty and Social Justice program at Elon and served as its founding director, she now represents Elon on the Board of Directors of the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty.

Ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA), she has been active denominationally and ecumenically for over twenty years and currently represents the PCUSA as a member of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches. She served as co-moderator of the Faith and Order study on Moral Discernment in the Churches and has also worked extensively on many justice initiatives of the WCC, including Alternative Globalization Addressing People and the Earth (AGAPE); Poverty, Wealth, and Ecology (PWE). She is a graduate of Rhodes College (B.A.), and Union Theological Seminary in New York (M.Div., Ph.D., Christian Social Ethics).


The impressions expressed in the blog posts are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.