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"The most important thing that I do is to proclaim the gospel" Interview with WCC president Rev. Dr Soritua Nababan

04 September 2006

By Stephen Webb (*)

The Rev. Dr Soritua Nababan has long been involved in the ecumenical movement. But his election as a WCC president at the Porto Alegre Assembly has only heightened his enthusiasm for ecumenism and for sharing this with the Christian community.

Born in 1933, graduating from Jakarta theological seminary in 1956, and from Heidelberg University with a doctorate in theology in 1963, he served from 1987 to 1998 as ephorus (bishop) in the three million member Protestant Christian Batak Church in Indonesia, the largest Protestant church in Indonesia and the largest Lutheran church in Asia.

His international ecumenical involvement has included service as a member, and then vice-moderator, of the WCC central committee, from 1983 to 1998, and as president of the Christian Conference of Asia from 1990 to 1995. He was general chairman of the Communion of Churches in Indonesia from 1984 to 1987 (and its general secretary from 1967 to 1984).

He has been vice-president of the Lutheran World Federation and member of the LWF Executive Committee and was the first moderator of United Evangelical Mission, an international missionary communion which currently consists of 34 member churches in Africa, Asia and Germany.

Dr Nababan is married with two sons and a daughter, and two grandchildren.

You have been involved in the ecumenical movement for many years in a variety of roles. What do you hope to accomplish now as a president of the WCC?

As presidents we have the responsibility to help explain what is the ecumenical movement to the member churches. Also our role is to interpret the role of the World Council of Churches - to promote ecumenism as a concrete task. It is happening locally, it is happening nationally and regionally, and it is happening internationally. Wherever we have the opportunity, we interpret the work, what has been done and what is starting. That is what I see as the task of a president of the WCC.

You are president for Asia? What do you bring from Asia or Indonesia specifically?

I don't think the qualification "Asian president" is correct. Because there is no Asian president. There are presidents of the World Council of Churches. Every region proposed a name but that does not mean the person is only the president for the region. That is very important.

Nevertheless, with my background from Indonesia and Asia, I will be feeling more responsible to help the ecumenical movement see the Asian problems more comprehensively and the Indonesian problems more objectively.

We know well that information in the world is dominated by the powerful who publish only what they want to hear and what they want the people to know. So it is the task of the church and the ecumenical movement to do exactly what they refuse to do; that is, to tell also the other side of the stories.

I think I have a lot of things to do. For example, in the 21st century, the question of inter-religious dialogue will be very important. It will be more focal than in the past. I am proposing, for instance, to widen the paradigm of Christian-Muslim relationships. It should not be caught up in the centuries-long paradigm of Crusade against Islamic sabil or jihad, Islamic war. It should be widened, starting from the point that the majority of Muslims live in Asia and the biggest number of Muslims living in a country is in Indonesia and the most moderate are there.

I think it is our task in our interreligious dialogue and cooperation to strengthen the role of moderate Muslims in their own communities, rather than letting the extremists take over.

We also need to review the paradigm of Islam so that it not just understood in terms of oil or terror. That is the wrong approach.

What will you take from here that will contribute to or help guide churches in Asia?

We can interpret the work of the WCC. And now a new discussion will start on how the regional organizations will cooperate with the WCC. There will be intensive dialogue on this, because I think we have to avoid overlapping. We cannot afford it in terms of finance, time or human resources, especially when we are aware that the number of Christians is not big in Asia. So I think there should be more serious discussion on how we as councils of churches cooperate in the future.

Where do you see the ecumenical movement now? What is the role of the WCC and has that role changed in any way?

We are in a very critical situation everywhere, nationally and regionally. Critical in the sense that many Christians prefer to see more concrete actions, like charismatics and fundamentalists. I think that is a challenge to the ecumenical movement. It was from the beginning and is so now. It depends now on our integrity, on our sincerity, on our concern for all.

Crisis is always for me an opportunity. When I say critical, it is also an opportunity to make a choice. Either you change, you transform yourself in order to be able to cope with the new challenges, or you continue until you find yourself in a dead end.

I think there is still a role for the WCC in all this, despite the criticism from all those who disagree with us. I think now, for example, we manage to cooperate with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others in terms of world peace; that is something that concerns all churches. I think they may not understand it now, but they will understand it later on. As I say to Christians in Indonesia who are interested in a sectarian party or initiative, "What is the Christian interest which is not an interest of others? You want food, they want also food. You want justice, they want also justice."

The best thing to do now is overcome this prejudice, to overcome this fear and to show them that they can trust you. I think trust is the most important terminology here. And I can tell you that I enjoy mutual trust with almost all Muslim leaders in Indonesia.

Do you worship in a local congregation? What do you enjoy about that?

Of course, but my activity now is more as an [itinerant] "wanderer-preacher". I am invited by congregations and I always suggest that a rally or worship should be ecumenical. So, since Porto Alegre I have had three big rallies, at least 7,000 people, ecumenical, where I've preached more than one hour on an ecumenical theme, in a very simple way. I try to bring to the common people our deep concerns. And I am sure they appreciate it.

Wherever I go I ask, "Why do we need to be concerned with ecumenism? You can be charismatic, you can be Baptist, you can be Catholic: one thing you cannot deny - that we are on the way to the one realization of the one church. Because this is Jesus' prayer, it is what you confess every Sunday. With all our differences, come along."

After all this time in the ecumenical movement, it is only now that I communicate directly with the common people so much about ecumenism. Before, I would come from a WCC meeting and call my staff and give them information to act on. Now I do it myself and it is very nice. I tell you, I wish I were younger so I could do all this again. To tell the people about the war in the Middle East, how we are for peace.

What I am doing is concrete now. I am a free man. The most important thing that I do is to proclaim the gospel. And when a Muslim invites me for a dialogue I am always ready.

(*) Stephen Webb is media officer for the New South Wales Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia.

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