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200th anniversary of the University of Oslo

The Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, spoke at the University of Oslo in the context of a series of presentations on justice, peace and the role of religion in global perspective marking the university's 200th anniversary.

20 September 2011

Address at the 200th anniversary of the University of Oslo

By the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches

Oslo, 20 September 2011

Honourable Deans, Your Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, and Partners in our Reflections,

1.    Introduction

It is an honour to participate in this august hall at the 200th Anniversary of the University of Oslo. I bring greetings from the WCC; we over many years benefited from the contributions of this theological faculty. Among the most outstanding contributions is the many years your former dean, Turid Karlsen Seim, served as vice moderator of Faith and Order.

The establishing of a University in Oslo gave access to available sources of information about global international traditions and practices in justice and in religion. This was a religion (Lutheran) developed through and influenced by European culture, which had also encountered and included traditions and competence originating from cultures and religion in what we today commonly call the Middle East. The theological context, the Church, was defined by a national, confessional system of religious authority by the King. With some few exceptions, like the Sami people, the people of the nation were rather homogenous, their political freedom and particularly their religious freedom strongly restricted.

Today´s seminar at the 200th anniversary of a University in Oslo is marking the needs for global perspectives on justice, peace and the role of religion in the national context of today and tomorrow, and it is right to do so. It is noticeable that the needs which led to the founding of the university have been actualized in a new way in recent years as the growing multicultural context within Norway has become a reality and a challenge.

The 200th anniversary of the Theological Faculty of the University of Oslo happens in the same year as the 50th Anniversary of the first ordination of a woman to become a pastor in the Church of Norway. Ingrid Bjerkaas received theological education and the inspiration to fulfil her calling to minister to the people of the church and country.  She was a remarkable woman whose calling to priesthood was strongly connected to her commitment to overcome injustice, particularly during the Nazi occupation of Norway. I am proud and glad to mark that 50th anniversary – as well.

2.    Global Justice and Global Symbols in a National Context

The combination of the two themes framing the reflections this morning session brings me to invite you to reflect on two Norwegian symbols. One is old; one is very modern. However, when more thoughtfully scrutinized, they really are not Norwegian but global symbols. They are in different ways linked to religious themes, as well as issues of justice. And - they are quite ambiguous symbols.

What is global? The sense of being global in terms of living on a globe is not a new concept for Norwegians. Although living in the outer parts of any map - if depicted on the map at all, here in the «Ultima Thule», generations have had a good knowledge of living on a globe. Without acknowledgement of the world as a globe, navigating and sailing between lands and continents would simply not have been possible. Living at the coast line on the way north, the curved line of the horizon has been visible and significant throughout our history. The idea of belonging to a global order, a global justice that goes beyond the relationships between neighbours and local kings («nessakongar») is also expressed very early in the symbols of the Norwegian nation. The globe or orb that the king, St Olav, Rex Perpetuus Norwegiae, is holding in his hand on paintings from the Middle Ages is a miniature of the world. It was a symbol of power other rulers of the times also regularly used. Sometimes even the three parts of the world known to them were indicated by demarcation lines and the three letters E (Europe), A (Africa) and A (Asia). In the hand of the Christian kings the orb, or «rikseplet», had a crown and a cross on the top. The Crown regalia of the Norwegian king and queen today include a globe of this kind.

The other symbol is a bottle of water, which, generally speaking, has a lot to do with the potential and significance of religious symbols and practices. One of the few brands of Norwegian products that you become aware of as you travel around the globe is a special bottle of water. Some weeks ago as I boarded an aircraft in Sydney, on my way home from Samoa to Geneva, I was served a bottle of water, tapped in a lake in Southern Norway, bottled and still with that sense of purity and freshness in its clear and cylindrical bottle. But as you drink it, it gives you considerable pause for thought. This bottle has been sent across the world so that I, as a frequent traveller, can drink pure water. The question of global justice becomes much more than merely theoretical as you reflect on what is beneath you as you fly from Sydney to Geneva. Looking at the map and the landscape under you, you are reminded that among the Indian population of 1.2 billion people, many are living under the poverty line; further looking at the extreme dry lands between the rivers in Iraq where our Abrahamic religions originated, now in a post-war trauma after an invasion instigated on false premises, even claimed as a crusade, but now a country where a substantial portion of the Christian population, as well as others, are fleeing the land; being not far from the millions starving and thirsting in Somalia due to a famine caused partly by political actions which hold hostage the most vulnerable people.

In general, commercializing of water makes the poor even more vulnerable. I’m glad to see how Norwegian Church Aid has opened free wells of water. One of the great issues of global justice today and in the coming years is the access to drinking water. The welcoming fountain in the middle of every Swiss village with its beautiful sign of “Eau potable”, offering for free running, clean water to anybody and everybody, is not a reality in the global village. Drinkable water is a limited resource, and it has become a source of income for gigantic industries. Another discrepancy is that for example in drought-stricken Kenya, water is used and polluted at the expense of local communities to produce beautiful flowers that decorate our tables here in Europe - maybe also sometimes the altars in our churches. We know that one of the very difficult issues in what is called the Israeli/Palestine conflict, is exactly the right to and access to water.

We cannot limit the issues of justice and peace to military conflicts, violence, tensions and divisions among groups, peoples or nations, which sometimes may also be related to their religious identity. The issue of peace among people is connected to the question of peace with the earth, with its resources and how we share them.

Justice, both in terms of restorative justice and transformative justice, certainly has to continue to be seen as a global imperative; but, it also has to be made concrete in the life of local communities and national states. But no justice can be only for one group, or for one nation against another, whether they get the right of their neighbour to call themselves a state or not.

The symbol of the orb, the globe, shows that there is a need for every nation to have uniting symbols, relating to power and to the exercise of common justice. However, national concepts of justice usually should not exist without a sense of general, global, ideas of justice. How does a symbol like the orb function in a time like ours, in this country when there is not only a multi-clan, or multi-regional unity to keep together as long ago, but also today’s multi-cultural and multi-religious reality the authorities are called to represent and bring together in a unity. After the horrible events of terror in Norway, the world has seen with admiration how wise leadership of the nation managed to manifest and create a sense of unity with some values, some common symbolic actions, and common spaces for mourning and mutual support to one another. The role of the church and of other religious leaders have been widely recognized and commended to me.

3.    Religion Source of Conflict – Source of Reconciliation

A couple of years ago a Muslim speaker in another European country started a lecture by saying that if he had tied a bomb to himself and blown it up in a train station, he would have been called a fundamentalist if he were a Christian but if he were a Muslim, he would have been called a terrorist. After July 22 this picture is probably shifting, for two reasons. One is that the terrorist who produced the bomb and committed the acts of shooting, killing and wounding innocent young people at Utöya, claimed that he somehow was a new crusader. Another is, that now many Christians understand better the need many Muslims have to make it very clear that 9/11 has nothing to do with promoting the values of Islam. I noted that when I declared that it is blasphemous to claim that the actions of 7/22 have anything to do with promoting or protecting Christian values or a Christian Europe, hundreds of media outlets picked up this comment in the United States. Indeed we know that the majority of acts of terror in the USA are conducted by individuals or groups claiming to protect true Christian standards.

The victims of September 11 and of July 22 should be remembered with a new urgency of condemning any link between religion and terror, or in other words, to forever make it impossible to legitimize any concept of “holy war”, whatever faith, religion or culture we might belong to.

However, the victims should also be honoured by a deeper self-critical reflection on the ambiguity of religious expressions and traditions. Let me here quote from The WCC’s Ecumenical Considerations for dialogue and relations with people of other religions, published in 2003, which addresses this issue.

While religious traditions reflect wisdom, love, compassion, and saintly lives, they are not immune to folly, wickedness and sin. Religious traditions and institutions sometimes support, or function as, systems of oppression and exclusion. Any adequate assessment of religious traditions must deal with their failure to live in accordance with their highest ideals. Christians are particularly aware that history testifies that our own religious tradition has sometimes been used to distort the very meaning of the gospel we are called to proclaim. [para 11]

Whenever religious plurality gives rise to communal tensions there is a possibility of religious sentiments being misused. Religion speaks for some of the deepest feelings and sensitivities of individuals and communities; it carries profound historical memories and often appeals to uncritical confessional solidarities. Religion is sometimes seen as the cause of conflict, while it is in fact more likely to be an intensifier of conflict. Interreligious relations and dialogue are meant to help free religion from such misuse, and to present opportunities for religious people to serve together as agents of healing and reconciliation.

Too often religious identities are drawn into conflict and violence. In some parts of the world, religion is increasingly identified with ethnicity, giving religious overtones to ethnic conflict. In other situations, religious identity becomes so closely related to power that the communities without power, or who are discriminated against, look to their religion as the force of mobilization of their dissent and protest. These conflicts tend to appear as, or are represented to be, conflict between religious communities, polarizing them along communal lines. [para 6 and 7]

I would like to suggest that part of the answer to the conundrum of the relationship between religion and violence – is that it is only when religion is open and honest about being ‘part of the problem’ in relation to violence, that it can also fulfil its role of becoming an important part of the solution. I would have to say that in my experience religious leaders – of all faiths – are perhaps not sufficiently willing to admit to the former. I have been present at a number of gatherings for inter faith dialogue in which the participants are able to agree that religious leaders can be agents for peace in and between societies. But somehow the conversation and thinking seems to remain at a superficial level – all too often there is no real engagement with the reality that religion and peace have not always been obvious bedfellows or soulmates. We can allow religion to become a source of healing and wholeness when we are more aware of how basic symbols and doctrines can provide inspiration to work for justice and peace—and we are willing to use that in our practice of our religions.

There is an often quoted saying of Hans Küng about the relationship between religion and peace which goes as follows:

No peace among the nations without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions.

All too often people stop at that point. But Küng continued:

No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundation of the religions.

I see this final point that Küng makes as being an encouragement both to dig deep into the roots of our own religion and also to explore with integrity and learn more about the sources and springs which have given life to the other religions we encounter in our multicultural context. Let me add that the problems of double standards also often are experienced as reality in the actions of states that claim their independence from religion or any faiths but are committed to global justice and human rights. This leads me to some remarks about the concept of a multicultural context.

4.    The global reality as a multicultural reality

The discussion about multiculturality and multiculturalism is really coloured by the perspective you have. The concept of multicultural context or even “multiculturalism” has been particularly used in the discourse over recent years to describe what is seen as problematic with the increasing numbers of people in the European continent who have immigrated from parts of the world called Middle East, the Orient, Asia, and also from Africa. In India some weeks ago, when I was addressing a similar topic to today, I mentioned the challenges to peace and justice in today’s world in the Middle East. The moderator of the event kindly, but clearly commented: “We suppose you mean Western Asia.” And as I referred to these challenges to European societies from the presence of peoples coming from countries further East, I became aware that, seen from India in Asia, it becomes very odd to view the presence of people of Asian origin in another country further West as a problem.

The challenge of coexistence, contact or even conflicts between different cultures in the same area is not a new one, not even in Europe, not even in Norway. The gravest examples of Christian attacks on Muslims have also happened in Europe. We also know of many societies in which so-called European cultures and values have actually been a result of the intermingling of several cultures. The great emigrations in the 19th century from Europe – also from Norway – to other continents like North America, South America and Australia led to multicultural contexts and realities in the new lands among the immigrant populations. We must also not forget how many were brought forcefully by Europeans to these continents as slaves or descendants of slaves and became a part of what could be called multicultural societies. That the emigration from Europe also led to discrimination, and virtual eradication of indigenous cultures and populations has to be mentioned in this perspective.

There is a need for global standards of justice, for something that can be described as common principles of justice. The conventions of human rights are meant to be a universal protection against any, including religious and ideological, legitimation of injustice, discrimination, occupation, war. Even if they are not based directly on quotations of religious texts, these human rights conventions are shaped in a culture of reflection of enlightenment insights as well as religious values. The pioneers of the WCC were quite involved in these processes.

When there is no real willingness to accept the reality of mixture of cultures and peoples with different religions in the same area or context, somebody has to be labelled as unwanted, feeling and being excluded or marginalized due to features as ethnicity, religion, culture, skin colour etc. So it is important to warn that any discussion about groups of people being not wanted almost inevitably leads – at the very least - to some kind of cultural racism. And we already knew the potential for violent expressions of racism well before the significant date we have referred to regarding the terror in Norway.

Religious communities and leaders have a special responsibility to contribute to how the symbols and texts of our religions are used, to avoid them being abused. But we also need to stimulate critical reflection on how the texts and symbols of our religions have been formulated even by religious authorities themselves. We have to acknowledge that this is a challenge for the present as well as the past and the future.

The parameters of Just War theories can be used to be war-preventing, arguing for the immorality of a war, as we saw in the discussions before the last invasion of Iraq. However, as churches our focus should not be on whether or not to legitimize actions of war but on how non-violent actions can replace the use of military force, how we can build just peace from below and from within, and how we can give political leaders moral support and standards to protect their own citizens without using violence. We need strong and clear ideas and concepts to guide us to address the many contexts in which we are a fellowship of peacemakers, but we also need to work, to act, and to create Just Peace in all places as we continue with our reflections and discussion. We also need to give these reflections realistic and constructive inputs and direction.

Let me reflect more on the potential for peace between cultures and religions in two of our most used Christian symbols already mentioned: The cross and the water.

5.    The Symbol of the Cross as a Sign of Global Peace and Justice

In St Paul’s letters, particularly in the letter to the Romans and to the Corinthians, we find significant theological reflections on the cross of Christ as a symbol of inclusivity, of God’s love across every human border or boundary. In Romans chapter 3 we find the claim that the Cross of Christ makes all human beings equal before God, as there is no one who can offer any more sacrifice to God for the sin of the world. The cross makes it clear that no one can stand before God with the honour of not having sinned or not having part in the guilt of humanity – and in particular no one has special prerogatives or preferences over any other group or any other human being. If we do not believe in the equality of human beings we cannot believe in God’s clear and challenging message through the Apostle. (More than any other person Prof Em Dr Jakob Jervell, an outstanding Biblical the scholar at this Theological Faculty, has helped me to see the radical equality of all human beings promoted - and therefore the radical openness - in the theology of the cross of Christ).

The exclusivity of the cross of Christ emphasized by St Paul in the beginning of the first letter to the Corinthians is a reaction to how different individual groups with their favourite leaders establish their own honour and consequently break down the unity of the church – and of humanity. Thus, St Paul argues that there should be nothing among them except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (1 Cor 2:2) Through Jesus Christ’ suffering in solidarity with all victims of sin, with the risen Jesus Christ who has broken the power and circle of sin, evil and death, there is offered a unity for all human cultures and differences. With the cross comes the end of any meaning of sacrifices to God for sin - as he is carrying the sin of all the world, of all groups and individuals. There is thus somebody and something that can unite across all borders of human existence and cultures. If anything, the Christian religion developed in a context when it was necessary to define why we are united when being culturally different. The exclusivity of the cross is, therefore, the inclusivity of the cross. As one of the church fathers expresses it: As Christ stretches out his arms on the cross, he also embraces the whole world.

This is another type of inclusivity that goes beyond the imperial symbol of the orb, the globe with the cross. This is the inclusivity of love, of respect for diversity, but with a demand for remorse, willingness to repent and redirect our lives to the meaning God the Creator has given to all human beings: To love one another, to receive one another, as Christ has received us, to the honour of God (Rom 15:7). There is a lot to be done to explore what this means for a Christian church contributing in a multi-cultural context, and for a nation which has an orb with a cross as a symbol of unity of the nation. It is challenging to explore how this can be an inspiration for unity in diversity, to explore critically what the Christian traditions in a global context can contribute to global justice and peace. This is a task to be accomplished by a church independent from the state, but it is also a task for a nation which needs to come with terms of the future meaning of its own symbols. On the top of the orb, the cross will remain as a challenge which refuses to allow us to be ignorant of victims, and which prevents the establishment of any concept of justice that is not in solidarity with the most vulnerable in a society and in our global reality.

Let me mention another much more problematic use of the cross as a symbol for the nation which I see no reason to continue. It is quite proper that the whole nation and its representatives honour the courage and the commitment of those soldiers who serve the purposes which the legitimate state authorities ask them to do on behalf of the whole nation. However, when the highest sign of honour for military service and sacrifice is a cross with a sword, I have great problems to see this as a proper use of the cross as symbol. Particularly because it can be misunderstood when those receiving the honour have been in conflicts where other groups claiming another religious affiliation as motivation for their fight, especially against what are seen as Christian, Western powers, it is particularly important to raise critical questions. The name “Krigskorset”, “The Cross of War”, in itself should raise a debate about the potential dangerous misunderstandings of this symbol.

The unique Christian contribution to reconciliation and peace should not only be about general moral and political standards, but also how we deal with the fact that there are victims of misbehaviour which we have to name as sin against other human beings, against nature and against God the Creator of all. Christ is not bringing a new concept of sin, but a new reality of a power to forgive sin and thus to break the evil circle of sin, evil, violence and death. This meaning of the cross of Christ should be brought into the particular contributions we can offer as churches when we gather to work for Just Peace – in any context, including multi-cultural and multi-religious contexts. This is a platform on which we can discuss our common human responsibility to repent, to show remorse, to redirect our evil ways and correct our sinful behaviour whether they are connected to individual life or collective actions or even to structures.

This is also an especially important dimension of the use of water as a symbol in the Christian tradition – as well is in other religious traditions. Water is purifying, as it is in Christian baptism. As a symbol of Christian identity, particularly in a folk church like the Church of Norway, it offers a challenge to revitalize the understanding of being baptized. The identification with the death and resurrection of Christ in the act of baptism should serve as a constant reminder of the need to address what can be wrong, what needs purification and correction in our lives as individuals, as communities, and as churches. It should be an impetus for an open and critical questioning of whether we fulfil the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself in a global and multicultural context.

The right to have access to clean water has been a matter of one of our programs in the WCC. Our Ecumenical Water Network brings together churches, ecumenical organizations and church development agencies to campaign and advocate for the just use and sharing of water. In a fruitful cooperation with the theological department, Faith and Order, the theological significance of water as creating reality and as a symbol of transformation, of life and joy has been developed. These common efforts are based on the understanding that access to life-giving water is both a human right and a primordial gift of God – to all humanity and to the whole of creation. For this critical, creative, Christian theology, there is a need for theological studies and education also in the next 200 years. Thank you.