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Spirituality in the context of violence and peace

Remarks by Olav Fykse Tveit, as part of the Spiritual Centre event on the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace at the German Protestant Kirchentag, Stuttgart.

11 June 2015

Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace

Olav Fykse Tveit, 6 June 2015, Spiritual Centre

German Protestant Kirchentag, Stuttgart

Pilgrimage – resistance from faith

1. The Call

Dear friends, sisters and brothers,

We are aware:

The church needs to go out - to where Christ is present in the Holy Spirit:

to the poor at the margins of society;

to all those who have lost loved ones because of violence and war,

whose homes and livelihoods have been destroyed and who yearn for peace.

You and your children, but also the church itself, we all need each other, to create hope again and to be credible witnesses to the good news of the Gospel.

In the name of Christ and for us all, I therefore call on you:

Get ready to set out on the way!

Be guided by God's Spirit!

Join the pilgrimage of justice and peace!

Stand up for the creation that is threatened, for justice and peace,

so that people can draw hope and life will flourish.

Resist the powers that lead us only deeper into injustice, violence and the destruction of our livelihoods.

Those who join us on the pilgrimage are ready to follow Christ in solidarity with those who suffer, and to confront the powers of death.

Those who join us on the pilgrimage will not give up after the first setbacks and disappointments, but will set off again each day, seeking God’s presence each day in prayer, looking for companions, standing up for life.

Those who join us on the pilgrimage will not lose sight of the goal: to live the promise of a world within which peace and justice dwell.

With you and many others around the world, we want to walk together, work together, pray together

so that people may hope once again - hope for more justice, more peace, for new life.

2. A spirituality of companionship of justice and peace

Here in Germany you have the tradition of the Confessing Church and the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was murdered 70 years ago in the Flossenbürg concentration camp. His spirituality of committed fellowship in Christ is able to encourage you and to give you strength for the way ahead. Those who called the German Protestant Kirchentag into being after the Second World War and the hell of Dachau and Auschwitz wanted it to become a place for the renewal of the church and a credible and effective witness for justice and peace in the world. This is also the reason why I myself and many friends from the ecumenical movement come regularly to the Kirchentag. We are all aware that the world and the church, action and spirituality, service to the world and faith belong together.

When these two poles become separated, both the church and the world lose out. Insecurity and fear accompany a church that does not know where it is being led by the God of Life. We are then all too easily manipulated and become the plaything of the powerful, the fashions and the forces that seek advantage for themselves. To resist them, we need the fellowship of those who are with us in faith on the pilgrimage of justice and peace.

“Pilgrimage – Resistance from Faith” is the theme that has been given me for this address as part of this podium on spirituality in the context of violence and peace. I would like therefore to become a bit more specific. For example, if you type the keyword “spirituality” into a well-known search machine, you get 108 million results in 0.34 seconds; “justice” produces 633 million results in 0.54 seconds, and for “peace” it is actually 748 results in 0.40 seconds.

The concept of Spirituality is experiencing a boom. There are thousands of offers of meditation and spiritual accompaniment on the market with very different cultural and religious backgrounds. Unlike this market of spiritual offers, I have, following Dietrich Bonhoeffer, spoken of the spirituality of a committed fellowship in Christ. In the Christian context, the word spirituality points to the presence of the Holy Spirit and the power of the spirit, which joins together and preserves all of life, even the whole creation. The Holy Spirit creates a network of living relationships among us. The Holy Spirit provides the power to stand up for human dignity, justice and peace. The Holy Spirit is the comforter and advocate sent by Christ, when we ourselves are at risk of becoming paralyzed or remaining silent because of our experiences of oppression, violence and defeat.

Spirituality includes prayer, meditation and contemplation, not as ends in themselves, but to deepen the readiness to engage in symbolic action and to develop a common witness in the world. We spoke many years ago in the ecumenical movement of the spirituality of resistance and combat. M. M. Thomas, the Indian who coined this concept, was inspired by the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, and surely by the proclamation of Jesus at his first appearance in Nazareth, through to his action in the Temple and to his death on the cross. Another allusion for M. M. Thomas was the Apostle Paul’s letters, in which he spoke of “discerning the spirits”. Such discernment between God and idols, between the power of love of the Holy Spirit and autocratic powers, is needed to develop the capacity to affirm life and to engage in resistance to everything that threatens and destroys life.

Thus the spirituality of resistance is in reality a creative spirituality of justice and peace. With these two concepts we are also dealing with the tradition of the Bible. Jesus and the prophets point us towards God’s Kingdom of justice and peace, the tzedaqa and the shalom of God. We are guided on the pilgrimage of justice and peace by the image of Psalm 85:10-11 in which God’s justice and God’s peace together make their way upon the Earth. The time is fulfilled when they embrace and kiss, as the Psalm describes.

This focus on God’s kingdom of justice and peace guided the assembly of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam in 1948. The delegates declared: “War is contrary to the will of God.” Later came the condemnation of the production of weapons of mass destruction and the logic and practice of deterrence. Another example was the Programme to Combat Racism, which unequivocally opposed racism in Southern Africa.

It is the promise of God’s justice and peace that is the motivation for the critique of a form of economy that plunges huge numbers of people into poverty and erodes the foundations of life. As a creative response to the cries of the poor and the yearning for life, the spirituality of justice and peace has been made manifest:

- in the Conciliar Process for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation,

- in the Decade to Overcome Violence and the Call to Just Peace,

- and not least in the intensive work of the WCC for climate justice together with many of our member churches and ecumenical partners.

As far as the pilgrimage is concerned, we are concentrating this year on climate justice. I was in Rome, where with Pope Francis the Catholic Church has committed itself unequivocally to climate justice. A papal encyclical on this issue is due to be published this month. Both in Rome and in New York, we met the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon. He knows just how little progress there actually is in the negotiations for the climate conference. He told us that the faith and the ethical convictions of the religions are needed to make the movement for climate justice so strong that politics will have to follow.

It is up to us – to me, to you, to us all. “Get up and walk!” is the theme of the ecumenical pilgrimage for climate justice that is also being proclaimed at this Kirchentag. Join this path in the confidence that it will succeed, that with your commitment you will see results. This year is a decisive year. And each one of us should seize the opportunity and make a contribution to the about turn that is necessary.

3. The path of just peace

Another dimension of the pilgrimage that is becoming increasingly important is that of interreligious relations and interreligious cooperation for justice and peace. Together we have to resist the misuse of religion to justify discrimination and violence. The WCC is involved in some very specific projects of interreligious cooperation such as the development of an early warning system about violence and terror in Nigeria, together with Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan. In Egypt we are supporting cooperation between Christians and Muslims on youth unemployment as a means to prevent violence.

The advisory group for the pilgrimage has proposed that in the coming year our common endeavours for a just peace should be focussed on the situation in the Middle East. We hope that such annual foci will strengthen cooperation about the particular challenge and that the work of member churches and ecumenical partners will then carry on independently. The process should thus accelerate and broaden, just as we have seen this year with the focus on climate justice.

Already, the Call to Just Peace picked up the image of the tender embrace of justice and peace in Psalm 85: There is no peace without justice and no justice without peace. This is an insight we have seen confirmed by the situation between Israel and Palestine as well as in the recent clashes in South Sudan and in many other conflicts.

Already, the Call to Just Peace invited people of all worldviews and religious traditions to set out together on the path of just peace, and to share their life on this path. The Call underlined that nonviolent resistance from faith and civil disobedience are important strategies on the path of peace and justice. We know from the great teachers of nonviolent resistance just how necessary for their practice was the assurance of faith and being anchored in the spirituality of the community. As followers of Christ, we should not “sit on our hands” or close our eyes and ears, for the sake of peace and quiet. Working for peace means that we “criticize, denounce, advocate, and resist as well as proclaim, empower, console, reconcile, and heal … Until our longing joins our belonging in the consummation of all things in God, the work of peace will continue as the flickering of sure grace” – according to the Call to Just Peace.

I find the same concern for life and the same love for peace and justice in Desmond Tutu’s “Open letter to the Kirchentag”, in which he calls for an end to the occupation and genuine steps towards peace in Israel – Palestine. From our love for the people in Israel and Palestine, we cannot simply accept the current situation as the outcome of the conflict. New settlements and the building of the Wall create new facts on the ground that only deepen the conflict and increase injustice. We have to work and to pray more intensively for a just peace for all who are in and around Jerusalem – for this we need you and your voice here in Germany. No one should have to live with violence as though it is normal.

In this same spirituality of peace and justice we are working for justice and peace in the whole region of the Middle East marked by violence and war. We are deeply concerned about the future of Christians particularly in Iraq and Syria. We must all support negotiations and the peace process in Syria. The German government must also make its contribution to this.

4. Creating spaces for encounter and reconciliation – places of life

Instead of building walls, we need to create alternative spaces for encounter and reconciliation, in which peace and justice can grow and flourish. Wherever life is threatened, we need to find paths towards each other and spaces to encounter each other that point to the promise of God’s justice and peace. This is how the power to engage in resistance against injustice and violence grows and can overcome enmity and everything that divides.

These are spaces, in which life for all people and creation can prosper. The concept of “Lebensraum” (“space to live”) has a particular history in Germany, however. “Seeking Lebensraum in the East” was used as the euphemistic slogan and “justification” for the attacks on Poland and the Soviet Union. We must keep checking our language and our concepts, what they say and how they will be heard. Places of life are places of sharing, of dialogue, of reconciliation - not places for the predator and being hunted down by violence.

When the second story of creation speaks of the garden that has been entrusted to human beings to care for, the garden of paradise, now looking back, appears as an alternative place of life. As human beings, we have the task as the gardeners and the priests of creation to maintain and to preserve this place of life. In my sermon on Thursday I spoke of my great grandfather, who spent many years transforming a rock-strewn steep slope into a flourishing garden and a pasture for his animals. Unlike many others, he was not discouraged by the sight of the steep slope. He seemed to have a clear idea, a vision of how the garden and the pasture could look. I often think of him, when I am brought close to despair by news of friends who are in the midst of war and violence, losing loved ones and even their own lives. I think of him and of the gospel of the Kingdom of God, of which Jesus said it is coming and is already in our midst.