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Religious leaders conference, Cologne

Speech on "Enhancing Life in Dignity for the Poor" by Rev. Samuel Kobia

05 June 2007

by Rev. Samuel Kobia
General secretary
World Council of Churches


Enhancing Life in Dignity for the Poor

Our primary source: the Bible

Our commitment for social justice and the eradication of poverty has been and must continue to be rooted in the Bible. The Bible is our primary source that all Christians have in common. It is our starting point that is not exclusively ours, but also links us with the Jewish tradition and with the Muslim faith.

In his first public sermon Jesus quotes from chapter 61 of the prophet Isaiah: "the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release of the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour" (Luke 4, 18-19). Jesus came to the world so that all may have life and have it abundantly.

Jesus stood in the great prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible. Prophets like Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah were well aware of the constant problem of the accumulation of wealth and concentration of power in the hands of a few at the expense of the majority, the poor. The prophets insisted that the future of the community as a whole requires that poverty is overcome and all share with each other what is necessary for life in dignity. The early Christians, as we see in Acts chapter 2-4, applied this tradition in a radical way in their community and addressed newly emerging inequalities (Acts 5-6).

The ecumenical movement has always been centred on the Bible in its work on economic justice. Over many decades during the last century it has built a solid foundation of ecumenical social thought and action. Already in 1937 an ecumenical conference on Church, Community and State in Oxford stated,

"The forces of evil against which Christians have to contend are found not only in the hearts of…individuals, but have entered into and infected the structure of society, and these also must be combated. Individual acts of charity within a given system may mitigate its injustices and increase its justice. But they do not absolve the Christian from seeking the best possible institutional arrangement and social structure for the ordering of human life." 1

In other words, for the poor of the world to enjoy God's resources like the rest of humanity, structures and economic models that marginalize them must be changed. Aid and charity will not eradicate poverty as long as economic, financial and trade policies continue to favor the rich. People in poverty need justice, not just aid. This is the challenge that the churches and the wider ecumenical family are called to address in the 21st century.

Justice and sustainability

Again in 1974, the WCC began to advocate a paradigm shift from the concept of human development as the goal to a new focus on just, participatory and sustainable societies. This shift firmly placed on the WCC's agenda the need to reconcile economy and ecology. A decade later, the member churches of the WCC engaged in the Conciliar Process on Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation focusing on three major themes that are now recognized widely as the most pressing interrelated concerns of humanity and the earth at the beginning of the 21st century.

It was through this process that in 1990 the WCC began to work systematically on climate change. It became crystal clear that the plight of the poor was worsening because of devastating natural disasters such as violent storms, floods and droughts. I have just come from the celebrations of the World Environment Day in Norway where we again heard the testimonies of those affected in drought stricken areas of Africa, those from ice-melting region in the Artic Circle and from the potentially ecological migrants from the Pacific Islands that are bound to disappear because of rising sea levels.

Together with our member churches and their development agencies we have learned that climate change is a development issue. We cannot deal with eradicating poverty without addressing the consequences of climate change. Our work on economic justice is, therefore, focusing today on wealth, poverty and ecology. We are convinced that the very methods our societies use to increase wealth are, in fact, counterproductive and contribute to growing inequality and environmental destruction. After four UN development decades, we must come to the conclusion that the approach to eradicating poverty based on economic growth has failed completely. I am afraid that the more this approach continues to be followed, the greater the number of poor people and the wider the gap between rich and poor.

Concrete steps for change and transformation are needed

While societies in the rich industrialized countries must shift away from a fossil-fuel based development path and over-consumption to sustainable production patterns and life-styles, and in the eve of the 2007 G8 meeting, we, people of faith, must renew with increased urgency, the call to rich countries to increase their contribution to eradicating poverty up to 0.7% of their GDP. It is a shame that none of the G8 members has reached that level since the call was first issued around two decades ago. This call is misunderstood if it is just seen as a call for financial aid. It must focus on poverty eradication and therefore the need for working out new rules of engagement beyond economic flows of finances and commodities. Certainly new arrangements are necessary to prevent poor countries from getting trapped in growing debts.

From the time of prophets until today, there can be no doubt that poverty is a serious moral and ethical issue, which, for Christians, cannot be delayed any longer. The means to solve it are here. The time to do it is now. What is lacking in order to effect profound change, is the political will and the co-operation of all actors concerned. We need new social contracts between governments, civil society and religions in individual countries and among them. I am convinced, it is time for a new international multi-lateral support of the poor of this world and the suffering creation.

Thank you.


1 Christian Faith and the World Economy: a study document from the World Council of Churches, WCC Publications 1992 p.6