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Keynote lecture by Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia

07 June 2007

Keynote lecture by Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia - general secretary, World Council of Churches

Dear friends,

What a joy to be with you and so many German Christians again at this 31st German Kirchentag in Cologne! The Cathedral on the other side of the Rhine river reminds us of the many centuries of Christian presence in this country. The faces of the many young people here at the Kirchentag signify that there is life and future for the churches in Germany. May God bless you all and be among us this morning!

"Religions living together" is the theme for our deliberations this morning. Living together, however, is about people and is not just an abstract concept stemming from the different religions - as if books about Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or other religions could talk with each other from their library shelves. The question is rather:

  • How do people of different faiths live together as neighbours and not as enemies? or

  • How do we share our common home, this planet, as people of different faiths?

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the global media has emphasized the tensions between the "Western" and the "Muslim" world. Samuel Huntington's theory of the "clash of civilisations" has become the framework for seeing and interpreting the current situation1. These perceptions are further fuelled by almost daily news on violence in the Middle East and in other places around the world.

But there is also the other side of the story. There are communities in Indonesia rediscovering their ancient ways of peacemaking in situations of conflict. There are intense efforts to work for peace and reconciliation between communities in northern Nigeria, in Lebanon and in so many other countries. There are also the many, many families - even here in Germany - which include members of different faith communities who live in peace and harmony with each other. Multifaith households and extended families are becoming an increasing social phenomenon in many parts of the world.

This is in brief what I would like to talk about. I will do this in three steps:

  1. I will share with you a story from the life-experience of such "inter-religious families".

  2. I will then concentrate on reflections on the role of religion in violent conflicts and what we can learn from research done on this, and

  3. I will conclude with some examples from the work of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and its member churches how we complement inter-religious dialogue with inter-religious co-operation.

Living together as people from different faith communities

When I started talking to some of my colleagues in the WCC, I was surprised how many of them actually count people from other faith communities to their family members. My assistant, a Christian from the USA, is married to a Muslim from Egypt. They are now a wonderful family with two children who learn Arabic at the Geneva Mosque and also participate in the worship of the English-speaking Lutheran congregation in Geneva. While the rest of the family displayed some hesitation in the beginning, this has changed in the meantime.

There are colleagues from India with Hindu brothers-in-law, those from Sweden with Jewish family background, those from Germany with a cousin who is living here in Cologne as the wife of a young Turkish Muslim.

I could go on with these examples from the staff community in the WCC. I am sure that some of you also share similar experiences. But for those among us who do not have people from other faith communities in their families, let me briefly speak about my own family in Kenya. It has now been several years since my niece married a Muslim from Uganda. It was natural to all of us that he would be with us when we celebrate Christmas, as he would invite us to celebrate together the Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan. These are the moments when we talk about our faith journeys and grow in understanding of each other.

I have come to believe that there is a distinctive African way of being Christian or being Muslim. It is rooted in our African understanding of the ubuntu, of life in community, and of God as the supreme power and origin of all life. It is very strange for us to think that God would want us to fight for him. God the almighty does not need us to come to his defense. We depend on God and not God on us. The very fact that we believe in God should unite and not separate us across religious boundaries.

A colleague from Tanzania told me the story of a German missionary from the Berlin Mission. When the Germans occupied the region of the Kilimanjaro Mountain, this missionary destroyed the trees of the ancient African shrine and built a church at the same place. When they started to cut the trees, an old man stood in their way, asking them: "what kind of God is this who wants you to destroy the holy places of others?"

It is one of the sad chapters of Christian mission history that in the name of Christ the presence of other religions was oppressed in often-violent ways. Just as the memory of the crusades is not forgotten in the Middle East so the oppressive side of Christian mission in other regions. If we do not own up to this history, turn around and repent, this part of our past will always haunt the relationships among us and with people of other faiths.

Living together as people from different faith communities requires that all of us overcome histories of domination and oppression and learn to live as neighbours and friends who share our lives in a common home - planet earth. Only then we will become one human family, which, I believe, God wants us to be.

Overcoming violent conflict

If this is our goal, we will be aware of the many traps and obstacles that can derail us and block our common journey. To affirm justice and to honour the dignity of the other will always be the basic and guiding principles on our way. It is only destructive to undermine others' life and survival or to humiliate them. It can happen so easily - even through simple caricatures or jokes about the other - there are so many jokes about the Rabbi, the Priest and the Imam going to heaven or meeting someone; about the Pope or a Protestant pastor that might look innocent and rather innocent to us, but such a joke might hurt the other very, very deeply.

Since religion is at the centre of life for many people all over the earth, religion is a very sensitive issue when it comes to tensions and conflict. Historians have noted that more than three quarters of the world's civil conflicts in the period from 1960 to 1990 can be traced to ethno-religious causes. This proportion further increased with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.2 Whether we like it or not, religion plays a critical role in the present context.

Contrary to expectations that, step by step, western culture would replace local cultural environments and marginalise the role of religion, religion is reasserting itself in the public realm. Twenty years ago, social scientists and other researchers expected secularism to spread. Today, they are giving the role of religion more and more attention. But this re-discovery of religion is often accompanied by accusations that religion is the source of evils such as dogmatism, fanaticism, extremism, etc.

I am convinced that this tendency still reflects the underlying assumptions of the secularisation theory. It derives from the massive conflict in European culture that culminated in the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century. To neutralise the effect of devastating religious conflict at the political level was of vital importance for the stabilisation of nation states and the future of Europe. Today, the re-appearance of religion in the public sphere, therefore, is often perceived as alarming, providing a rationale for all kinds of fears and new enemy images. This was apparent even during the first Gulf War.

Attributing outbursts of violence only to religion even where religious symbols accentuate tensions or where religion explains differences among groups of people in a conflict, is not correct. Causes for violent conflicts are usually more complex. They are the result of the inter-action of many global, national and local factors.3 What is called the "resurgence of religion" with reference to new forms of religious fundamentalism is probably most adequately interpreted as a form of collective resistance against cultural hegemony in the context of globalisation. It corresponds to the need of different communities of people to find their place and be recognised in the brutally competitive environment shaped by global economic and political forces.

Studying the brutal conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India, the Indian psychoanalyst, Sudhir Kakar, came to the following conclusion:

"What we are witnessing today is less the resurgence of religion than of communalism where a community of believers not only has religious affiliation but also social, economic, and political interests in common which may conflict with the corresponding interests of another community of believers who share the same geographical space".4

Sudhir Kakar's analysis of the conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India suggests that social, economic, political and cultural consequences of the accelerated process of globalisation significantly contribute to the emergence of new ethno-religious conflicts. Globalisation has social and ecological costs that have become much clearer in recent years, e.g. a growing gap between rich and poor and an increasing number of "disposable" and excluded people corresponds to accelerated extraction of resources, high levels of energy consumption and destruction of spaces and species essential for future survival. These costs as a result of globalisation contribute to emerging conflicts by increasing pressure on local communities and creating new forms of insecurity.5

Sharing the same space, different groups find themselves more and more in competition for control over systemic power. Under the pressure of the social and ecological costs of globalisation, everybody operates with the assumption that you lose out completely if you do not belong to those who have access to systemic power and global flows of capital, goods and information.

Under these circumstances, the politics of identity become the battlefield for social inclusion and exclusion, and the distribution of power.6 Strong symbols of belonging are mobilised and often re-invented, creating communities that can claim power and access to land and resources for themselves at the expense of others. Family relationships and ethnic identities are the first to be exploited together with different religious affiliations and other markers of difference, such as race and gender. For political leaders who have nothing to offer to the poor, mobilising those strong symbols of belonging is a tempting way to create loyalty and influence the distribution of power in society in their own favour.

The WCC - inter-religious dialogue and inter-religious co-operation

It is obvious that religion can be both a source of division and hatred and a liberating force contributing to life in dignity in just and sustainable communities. Which side will surface depends on a number of internal and external factors to religion itself. Saying this, I simply want to describe a social reality. As a Christian theologian, however, I do not surrender to the given circumstances. I am involved in the conflict of interpretation for a meaningful role of Christian faith in today's world in response to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The prophet Zephaniah reminded his people:

Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his commands; seek righteousness, seek humility. (Zephaniah 2:3)

We hear Jesus saying according to the Gospel of Matthew:

Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33)

This message of the Bible led me to say before:

To affirm justice and to honour the dignity of the other will always be the basic and guiding principles on our way.

Or in words more familiar to all of us:
Love your neighbour, as you love yourself.

In situations of conflict, this Gospel imperative compels us to work for healing and reconciliation among the different groups involved. This often requires healing of memories that are deeply hurt by the suffering and the enmity that have grown in the past and which the conflict has aggravated. Healing is only possible if atrocities and crimes committed in the past are acknowledged. But the process cannot just stay there. It must necessarily lead to restitution and in some cases to reparations in order to arrive at a situation where justice rules the relationships and all can live in dignity.

There are a number of good examples for such processes, not surprisingly with critical involvement by churches and church leaders. What we have learned together in intra-Christian processes of reconciliation - just think of the reconciliation process between Germans and people from Poland and the former Soviet Union; think of Northern Ireland or the Truth and Reconciliation Commission under the leadership of Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa - what we have learned in intra-Christian processes of reconciliation can help us to develop similar approaches between people from different faith communities.

Against this background, the WCC has engaged in efforts to juxtapose inter-religious dialogue with inter-religious co-operation. Perhaps the best illustration for this new way of inter-religious engagement is the life journey of our former colleague, Dr. Tarek Mitri, who was responsible for Christian-Muslim dialogue. Dr. Mitri currently holds a key position in the government of Lebanon. He went back to Beirut when the prime minister called him to intensify the process for reconciliation among the different groups in the Lebanese society. He moved from the ministry of the environment, to the ministry of culture and is now acting foreign minister of his country. He represented Lebanon at the UN General Assembly and the Security Council during last year's Israeli invasion of Lebanon and last week when the Security Council decided on investigation of the killing former Prime Minister Hariri.

Dr. Mitri has taken a high personal risk to serve his country and to live his conviction that dialogue and co-operation between religions is necessary for peace and justice in this world.

At present we are very actively engaging Christian and Muslim leaders in the Horn of Africa. There is the danger that peace in the region and the fragile peace process in Sudan will break apart in a series of regional wars. As a consequence of the situation in Somalia, which has become a battlefield of the "war on terror", tensions between Christian and Muslim communities are growing. This is a very dangerous moment for the countries in the region - also my own, Kenya.

Let me conclude here. I think it is clear, we are

  • Engaging in studies, for instance on the role of churches in situations of conflicts, or

  • Holding conferences such as the "Critical Moment Conference" in 2005 that are landmark events for determining a new approach to inter-religious co-operation, or

  • Engaging in the Decade to Overcome Violence as a platform for the churches to learn from each other and support each other mutually.


All this we do. But even more important is our active work for peace and reconciliation, together with our member churches and ecumenical partners in the most critical and violent places of this world.

So much more can be said about this but I would also like us to have enough time for questions and some discussion. I am eager to hear from you on your concerns and questions. I hope that we can all learn from each other and be enriched by our encounter this morning.

Thank you very much for your attention.


1 Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996

2 Cf. R. Scott Appleby, The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence and Reconciliation, Latham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2000, p58; as quoted by Emmanuel Clapsis in his unpublished paper on Ethnicity, Nationalism and Religion. I am indebted to this paper by Emmanuel Clapsis and our discussion at the recent WCC Faith and Order consultation on Ethnic Identity, National Identity and the Search for the Unity of the Church also for some other insights I share in this paper.

3 Carnegie Corporation of New York, Preventing Deadly Conflict: Final Report with Executive Summary, New York, 1997

4 Sudhir Kakar, The Colors of Violence. Cultural Identities, Religion, and Conflict, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996, p. 186; quoted by Immanuel Clapsis

5 cf. United Nations Development Programme (ed), Human Development Report 1999

6 Graig Calhoon, ed., Social Theory and the Politics of Identity, Oxford: Blackwell, 1994