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St Egidio Panel Discussion Experts in Humanity

WCC General Secretary's contribution to a panel discussion "Experts in Humanity: The social and political challenge to believers" at the International Meeting for Peace, St Egidio, Sarajevo, 10 September 2012

14 September 2012

Contribution to a panel discussion

Experts in Humanity:  The social and political challenge to believers

St Egidio - International Meeting for Peace

Sarajevo, 10 September 2012

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit

General Secretary

World Council of Churches

One of the greatest challenges to preserving the healthy relationships that are necessary for maintaining a strong social community has always been humankind. According to the Christian understanding of the world, God created man and woman according to God’s image. (cf. Genesis 1:26) According to the Christian Bible, the reason God created both man and woman was because “It is not good that the man should be alone” and so decided to “make him a helper as his partner.” (Genesis 2:18) According to the Biblical account of the first social community, humankind was created to coexist and to be each other’s helper, ensuring that the God given mandate and blessing to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28) was fulfilled. As the recent Global Forum and AGAPE celebration organised by the World Council of Churches in Bogor, Indonesia in June of this year affirmed, “The belief that God created human beings as part of a larger web of life and affirmed the goodness of the whole creation (Genesis 1) lies at the heart of biblical faith.” Furthermore, “The whole community of living organisms that grows and flourishes is an expression of God’s will and works together to bring life from and give life to land, to connect one generation to the next, and to sustain the abundance and diversity of God’s household (oikos).”

However, from the very beginning humankind sought to have more than what had been given. Humanity succumbed to the temptation to believe that having more, becoming more powerful and smarter would ultimately lead to a happier and more prosperous life. As a result, man and woman sought to take that which was not theirs to have, and as a consequence, the relationship between man and woman, and subsequently the relationship between humankind and God as well as humankind and nature became distorted and dysfunctional. The world we live in today continues to reflect this seemingly insatiable temptation and human desire to have more. As the participants of the Global Forum mentioned above noted, “People and the Earth are in peril due to the over-consumption of some, growing inequalities as evidence in the persistent poverty of many in contrast to the extravagant wealth of a few, and intertwined global financial, socio-economic, ecological and climate crises.” They agree, with a deep sense of urgency and concern, that “life in the global community as we know it today will come to an end if we fail to confront the sins of egotism, callous disregard and greed which lie at the root of these crises.”

Such warnings of an impending crisis are not new. As early as the 1990s, and particularly during its 8th Assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe, the World Council of Churches noted that “injustice and inequality have taken new and more aggressive forms” as a consequence of which “many more people are dying of poverty today than ever before.” In addition, “Mother Earth is groaning because of the many ways in which we continue to exploit her.” In developing a programme called “Alternative Globalisation Addressing Peoples and the Earth” or AGAPE, this challenging question was posed to the WCC itself, its member churches and many partners around the world, and the global community: “Can we remain in comfortable silence when over three billion of God’s people are caught in the web of poverty and death?”

Similarly, many scientists and NGOs have been warning of the dangers that climate change bring to life on earth. Time and again, the global political structures which claim to govern our lives for the mutual benefit of all have been called and challenged to take up a decisive plan of action which would seek to reduce the unsustainable patterns of consumption and pollution that prevail in today’s world. Time and again, individuals have been encouraged to “go green” and to adapt their ways of life in a way that would seek to restore the relationship with nature and human society. Time and again, we have seen government representatives meet to discuss matters and fail to reach a decision. Time and again, we have seen agreements made, only to be crippled and become irrelevant because societies continue to succumb to the temptation and desire to have more than what they have, even at the expense of their neighbours and the death of the very planet on which all of humankind depends for its survival.

The theme for the 2011 Global Economic Forum was “Shared Norms for a New Reality”. I think this hints at the awareness that appears to be rising among political policy makers and business leaders. They are realizing that it is impossible to present direction, hopes and alternatives for a new reality without norms and values that are commonly held by society. In today’s highly inter-linked world the need to establish common values and norms that can guide our actions as well as give direction and meaning to our lives must, necessarily, be greater than any one nation or peoples. It must have a universal character that can appeal and reach out to peoples beyond ethnic, geo-political and socio-economic boundaries.

It is precisely in this area that religions, especially the broadly recognized world religions can and must play a more significant role in the social and political context of today. Indeed, religion has, in many ways, contributed to the crisis facing the world today. I would be one of the first to admit that churches and church members have also been complicit in the unjust systems of today. Although we have worked hard over the years in the ecumenical movement to present a Biblical hermeneutics and strong alternative theological theses, there are churches which continue to preach theologies of prosperity, self-righteousness, domination, individualism and convenience. Other Christians and churches even go so far as to legitimize systems and injustices founded on unlimited growth and accumulation and ignore the reality of ecological destruction and the plights of the victims of climate change and resource exploitation.

However, in spite of all these shortcomings, religions in general, and in my view Christianity, still have a unique contribution to make. The spirituality of humility, and particularly the Christian teaching of metanoia, which implies a total turning away from sinfulness and taking a wholly new path towards righteousness in repentance, can be a source of spiritual strength for the radical transformation that is necessary today. The WCC and the ecumenical movement have continually sought to call the churches and Christians to commit ourselves to be transformative churches and congregations. Over the years of its commitment and work relating to the issues of economic and ecological justice, the WCC has labored to cultivate the moral courage necessary to witness to a spirituality of justice and sustainability, building a prophetic movement for an Economy of Life for all.

The challenge to itself, as an instrument in the global ecumenical movement, as well as to its member churches to identify, name and overcome structures and cultures of domination and self-destruction that are rending the social and ecological fabric of life, continues. The awareness of the calling that the church and Christians have received from God to not only be transformed and transforming communities is guided by God’s mission of healing, reconciliation and renewal of the whole creation made possible through the cross of Christ. It is this awareness and recognition of the need to persevere and continue in this mission which has led the WCC to select as its theme for the 10th Assembly which will meet in Busan, Korea in 2013, “God of Life, lead us to justice and peace”. The social and political responsibility of the faithful Christian is to pray for life but also to live as one prays, “God of Life, lead us to justice and peace.” Amen.