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To Be One Voice of Advocacy for Peace and Justice

The Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, WCC general secretary, delivered a speech to the CCIA meeting in Tirana, Albania, 2-8 October 2010, in which he called on the churches to speak with "one voice of advocacy for peace and justice".

04 October 2010

Meeting of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA)

2-8 October 2010, Saint Vlash Theological Academy - Durrës, Albania

Speech by the WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit


Warm greetings to all of you here present for the meeting of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs. It is a pleasure and an honour to meet in this academy of the Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania and to be hosted by one of the WCC’s presidents, His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana, Durrës and All Albania. Thank you for hosting us and participating with us in the reflections in which we will be engaging on behalf of the worldwide fellowship of churches. Albania is an example of how changes can happen even where once they were hard to imagine. The Church in Albania has become an example of the power of the cross and the resurrection, a sign of the political relevance of hope and of worship, and how important it is to worship God and not humans’ self-made Gods.

1. The call to be one and to deal with “international affairs”

The overall work being done by the CCIA-related programmes cannot be seen as separated from the integral vocation and mission of the Church as we share them within the fellowship of churches in the WCC.. The Church, through its various ministries, prolongs the ministry of Jesus Christ who came, as he proclaimed at the synagogue of Nazareth, “… to preach good news to the poor, … to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour” (Luke 4, 18-19 - NIV).

The expansion of the Church, from its origins in Jerusalem, was not only geographical. Through the ages, the Church has tried to reach all the realms of God’s creation. The germinal contents of what we have called in the ecumenical movement “Church and Society”, namely, the relation between God and Caesar, e.g. the issue of slavery and the solidarity among the early Christian communities, are reflected already in the New Testament. The role of the Church and of Christian witness in relation to the political powers of the world cannot be explored once for all times and contexts, but must be discussed and addressed every day and in each context. But we have some guidance in our ecumenical legacy. The ecumenical impulse of Christian witness to society builds on the Life and Work Conferences of 1925 and 1937. The Oxford Conference (1937) established early criteria for Christian witness in relation to contemporary social and political issues, going beyond the affirmation of general ethical principles. It expressed concern for the economic order and clarified the principles on the relationship between church and state, stating that “since we believe in the holy God as the source of justice, we do not consider the state as the ultimate source of law but rather as its guarantor. It is not the Lord, but the servant, of justice.” Ever since Oxford 1937, justice has been at the core of the witness of the ecumenical movement in international fora.

Together with this centrifugal force which pushes the Church to respond to challenges coming from all domains of human life, the Church has had the mission, inspired by the Holy Spirit, to hold together the various dimensions of its ministry. Both are at the core of the mission of the Church, and expressed in the advocacy work, the work for peace, justice and reconciliation, before, during and after violent conflict situations, the efforts toward disarmament, respect and implementation of human rights, health and healing, the struggle for eco-justice in its various manifestations. Actions taken in these areas by the WCC and its member churches are, in fact, a matter of dealing together with what is ultimately relevant for the individual, ordinary human being in his or her daily life.

The call for unity from the gospel of John, when Jesus prayed for his disciples “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” is followed by the sentence, “May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17, 21). Jesus’ prayer expresses simultaneously the mystery of the communion between the Father and the Son and between them and Jesus’ followers. The core of our existence is our belonging to a wider fellowship with the triune God and with our fellow human beings. The ecumenical movement, and the WCC within it, tries to builds this “us” through the visible unity of the Church. And the public witness, the work for justice and care for creation, as well as interfaith cooperation, are converging avenues in this path towards visible unity.

Mutatis mutandi, this task of establishing an inclusive “we” made up of all who belong equally to the same category – human beings created in the image of God – is also the vocation of the United Nations. The UN Charter begins: “We the peoples...” The driving force of the international community is to achieve this unity while respecting the diversity of ethnic groups, cultures and religions. The unity of the churches is not against the unity of the world, but a sign and foretaste of how God can unite different peoples in the whole world.

Despite the fact that the Charter was written more than 60 years ago, the United Nations is still in the process of building this “we”, and we all know the shortcomings it has had over the decades in its efforts “to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security”, as the Charter proclaimed. In fact, the building of the architecture of the UN is still a work in progress. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the various Conventions and other instruments, are far from being universally ratified and/or implemented. And we need a new and wider commitment to protect each individual human being from the arbitrary and sinful violence that formed the background for the establishment of these important documents. In a discussion about the conventions’ authority, we must not allow them be reduced to protect a merely western interest. They are about protecting you and me. And about your need for the protection I also expect from you.

Protection of rights should never be seen as a purely secular responsibility, in the sense of its not being a duty of the Church – the Church is not exempted from upholding the value, dignity and rights of every human being who is created in the image of God. It can never be outside the calling of the Church to try to protect and remind states of their responsibility to protect every human being! We shall never ask the question of Cain (Gen 4:9): Am I my brother’s keeper? Thus it is all about our daily lives, where we are, what we are discussing in the CCIA.

It was not by chance that the CCIA was established in 1946 at the same time as the process leading to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The CCIA and the UN share a vision for promoting unity as a way to protect individuals and for the peace of all. The CCIA as an instrument of the WCC, and the ecumenical movement at large, has a most relevant role to play in this context.

When the WCC, through its CCIA, speaks at UN conferences and on other global stages, when a statement is adopted by the WCC governing bodies, it is the cry of the victims in member churches from the farthest places which is echoed, and the ethical principles that derive from the Bible and theological reflection which are stated. The fellowship of churches is expressed and at the same time nurtured by the common voice of the churches at this level. The long history of commitment in work and advocacy in various areas of the council’s programmes is part of the mandate of the CCIA.

The CCIA faces several challenges in conveying a holistic message regarding international concerns, bringing the perspectives of, and at the same time sharing information and guidance with, WCC member churches, the national and regional ecumenical organizations and Christian world communions, as per the CCIA by-laws. In undertaking all this, the CCIA strongly contributes to these outstanding roles of the WCC: advocacy and accompaniment, convening, developing partnerships, educating and communicating.

The WCC needs to refocus our work. I have asked all programmes to identify the unique added value of the work of the WCC as a global, ecumenical organization. We are a fellowship of churches. Everything the WCC does must come from and be related to what the churches are doing locally, nationally, regionally, globally and ecumenically.

How can the CCIA fulfil this requirement in the coming years, as you are called to give recommendations to advise the governing bodies and the General Secretary (as leader of the staff)? How can you bring a unique added value by your clarifications, discussions, discernments and advice?

2. Jerusalem as source, matrix and challenge for the ecumenical movement today

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Holy Land. The visit was intensive and enriching. While in Jerusalem, I found myself reflecting again on the meaning of Jerusalem as source, matrix and an ecumenical challenge today. It is also an inspiration for what it means to be the Church. There are many situations of conflict in the Middle East and around the world, but it is very clear in the Israel/Palestine conflict that some are suffering from what others have done elsewhere in the world. We also see very clearly that the Church is a part of this story in many ways and that there are different ways of being the Church. I am more and more convinced that Jerusalem can teach us what it means to be the Church together. The presence of both the cross and the empty tomb in the same church in Jerusalem serves as a reminder of how each of those two central images in Christianity takes its significance from its relationship with the other. There is no meaning of the cross without the empty tomb, and vice versa. They stand together as the source of our faith and our ecumenical commitment.

The witness of the churches of Jerusalem is a witness of what it means to carry the cross and live in the life of the resurrection today. Even as I was inspired by Jerusalem for myself as a Christian believer, representing many Christians all around the world, I also felt the pain that today Jerusalem is not the city of peace, justice and joy. However, it is a symbol for the nature of ecumenical faith and witness in the world today, and it is a specific focal point for the work of the ecumenical movement at this moment in time. We are called to pray for the peace of Jerusalem and to work for the peace of Jerusalem and all peoples living there. The WCC’s role in this particular context reflects our faith – what unites us every day in our work, how we order our lives together, how together in Jerusalem and other places in the world we as Christians can become a sign of the cross and the resurrection, and a genuine expression of what we have received.

Since the WCC called the meeting of church leaders in Amman, Jordan, in June 2007, and affirmed the “Amman Call”, I have been involved (on the request of my predecessor) as moderator of the Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum. In this task – which, of course, I gave up as I took this office – I have learned quite a lot about the challenges and the potential of the advocacy work of the WCC. Our strength is the active participation of those who live in a particular situation, to understand and address the challenges from within. Together with them, participants from churches in other contexts and continents are willing to accompany the local churches with their experiences and resources, and together with partners like the specialized ministries, with their experience of practical work and advocacy capacity, we can achieve a lot. The WCC has a convening role, bringing leadership to our making of strategies, providing a wider ecumenical space to discuss and reflect, and to coordinate our actions while uniting our voices.

In this particular field - the Palestinian-Israeli context – we as the WCC have a long history of advocacy and a high level of interest and attention from our own constituencies as well as from the world around us. We should not shy away from any discussion in the WCC; whether we reach the required consensus remains to be seen. We already have enough mandates to continue what we are doing, and to be resilient in our advocacy for a just peace so much needed for all peoples in this region.

Part of this role is carried out by the Jerusalem Interchurch Centre which is an important tool for coming together, having a common voice and linking the churches there to the wider fellowship of churches of the world. The JIC helps to get information from the churches on the ground to the churches around the world. In the 2007 statement of the churches, they agreed that Jerusalem can be one – a city for three religions. They challenge the WCC and the Roman Catholic Church to do more advocacy work on their behalf together. The people in the Holy Land cannot be expected to handle yet another failure in the peace process. Important challenges were expressed to me in meetings with Jewish partners. They expect that the Christian-Jewish dialogue will make churches around the world able to understand what we have in common and how this particular situation in Jerusalem affects all the religious communities. I also met Muslim representatives, and I met political leaders, including the prime minister of Palestine, who said very clearly that whatever the WCC can do to strengthen the Christian presence in Palestine will be supported from their side. He said that it was in all the Palestinians’ interest to strengthen efforts to bring the churches together with one voice and ensure a continued Christian presence there, including the development of a Palestinian independent state without discrimination directed against any groups or faith communities.

In the “Kairos” document of 2009, by Palestinian theologians, there is a witness from below, from those who are living in the situation, and there is a call to the churches for a more mature understanding of how we have to find proper relations with Jews and a proper way of working for justice. International law has to be respected and we have to use all the tools we have to make known these voices of justice. Jerusalem is a sign of what the crusades have done. I hope it can again be a sign of what the Christian fellowship in the world can do for their sisters and brothers to bring about a proper relationship among people of faith, for justice and peace. There is today a remarkable movement of theological reflection and of discussing new acts of solidarity and peacemaking. Now is the time to offer a stronger moral support and put pressure on those who can make this peace and justice become a reality. Now is the time for justice and peace.

3. Interfaith Cooperation and Relations

The role of religion in emerging geo-political contexts is rapidly changing. Religions are increasingly engaging national and international political and economic dynamics in many countries. While religion often plays a commendable role as a force for promoting justice, peace and reconciliation, in the 21st century its role has been much more divisive. The task of the WCC is to promote the churches’ engagement with other religious communities as a force for justice-seeking, peace-building and reconciling work in their national, regional and global contexts. During the past two or three decades many religions have seen a spiritual revival. This has led to an embracing of exclusive understandings of religious truths and identities by some who promote revival, and by their new adherents. In some countries, this has led to the emergence of highly politicized religious groups, institutions and movements. Seeking to play a new role on the world scene, these groups attempt to change domestic – and in some cases international – arrangements to position what they see as appropriate religious values more significantly in society and politics. The changing geopolitical contexts provide more opportunities for various political actors to mobilize religion in power struggles and for their own political gain. Religious extremist movements play a significant role in this, creating serious social polarizations and contributing to intensifying conflicts and encouraging extremism. At present, the role of religion is accentuated in various violent conflicts and nationalistic currents, particularly in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, but also throughout the whole globalized world.

The WCC must be at the cutting edge of the Christian churches’ involvement in identifying this trend and addressing these realities. We must stand together and find ways to act on the basis of our faith and together with our constituencies. Here we must develop a high level of mutual accountability among ourselves on how we speak and act and how we can learn from our experiences and mistakes.

On the other hand, the increasing role of religion in emerging geopolitical contexts also provides a renewed impetus for religious activism that mobilizes grassroots religious communities for non-violent social change towards justice and peace. An outgrowth of harmonious interaction between religious communities demonstrates how communities can overcome ethnic and cultural divisions, potential conflicts and communal hatreds, and fosters a new culture of cooperation and co-existence based on quality of relationships between different religious communities. Let us as a fellowship of churches work particularly on how young people can bring changes, build new relations and address the problems young people face in their own contexts. They have a profound involvement in contemporary developments and commitments, for better and for worse!

Let me also address two dimensions of interfaith dialogue on your agenda for this meeting. First, there is and must be a dynamic interdependence between interfaith dialogue and religious freedom. The dialogue must build on a real freedom – you cannot dialogue with tied hands or threats of reprisals.

Secondly, we have to discuss these issues as the World Council of Churches – not as a Western organization – addressing the issues on the basis of what we have learnt from the history of the churches and the history of mission – and from relating to one another as peoples of faith.

Three important dimensions to pursue in the coming November consultation in Geneva are:

1)     We need to mobilize and challenge one another’s willingness not only to respect but also support people of other faiths as people of faith, through our own prayers.

2)     We need understanding of challenges we have as minorities in different contexts, as Muslims and as Christians.

3)     We must urge Muslim and Christian leaders to establish permanent structures of relationship nationally/regionally, to be able to address the potential conflicts when they are occurring.

4. Building Just Peace

Since the beginning of the Decade to Overcome Violence (DOV) – almost 10 years ago – the WCC has encouraged and facilitated the churches in their working together for peace, justice and reconciliation at all levels – local, regional and global. Through collaborating with local communities, civil society actors and people of other living faiths, we can prevent violence and promote a culture of peace. Part of this has included walking with people who are systematically oppressed by violence, and acting in solidarity with all struggling for justice, peace and the integrity of creation. Bringing people from the regions to tell their stories and testify at the UN is a practical way of living this out.

The WCC’s major event in 2011, the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC) in Kingston, Jamaica, 17-25 May 2011, will be coordinated mainly from within this DOV project. A closely related area of work will be the preparation of an “Ecumenical Declaration on Just Peace” (EDJP) as part of the IEPC, a declaration directly relevant to Christian life and praxis and to ecumenical peace work beyond IEPC and towards the Busan Assembly. The IEPC will bring together up to one thousand participants from a cross-section of leaders and practitioners in churches, specialized ministries and peace networks, who will engage with the four themes of the conference: “Peace in the community”, “Peace with the earth”, “Peace in the marketplace” and “Peace among the peoples”.

The goal of the IEPC is to engage more of the churches in the collective ecumenical potential to work for peace, focused around the major peace issues and threats of violence of the early 21st century. The conference will harvest the experiences of the Decade to Overcome Violence, promote collaborative and inter-disciplinary approaches in working for peace and build commitment around the “Just Peace” vision received in the EDJP, which then will be presented to the 2012 Central Committee. We need this event to unite the various sectors of the ecumenical movement – to be one in reflection, action and prayer – for justice and peace.

5. Advocacy and role of the new ACT (Action of Churches Together) Alliance

As you well know, the ACT Alliance was launched at the beginning of this year. The WCC now has the opportunity to work together with ACT, developing complementary roles to enable and empower the churches to serve the peoples around the world. The different roles of the WCC and ACT Alliance are rooted in the identities of the two. The WCC is a fellowship of churches. ACT Alliance is an alliance of (departments of) churches and church-related organizations which specialize in development cooperation, humanitarian assistance and advocacy. However, the WCC and ACT Alliance are rooted in the same Christian faith and share the same ecumenical tradition. Both must be instruments of practice and call one another to mutual accountability between us – in faith, life and witness.

For churches, witness and service to the world are inseparable parts of the identity of the WCC. This was already acknowledged at the formation of the WCC when two former ecumenical movements, Faith and Order and Life and Work, were included in the new council. The promotion of visible unity between churches finds its expression also in a joint responsibility for witness and service. Moreover, the unity of the churches is not an aim in itself, but a sign of God’s coming kingdom and thereby instrumental in promoting justice and peace.

An area where the cooperation between the WCC and ACT Alliance can and needs to be strengthened is advocacy. The WCC’s advocacy is concentrated in peace and conflict, human rights and human dignity, exclusion and marginalization, economic justice, climate change and sustainable development. The ACT Alliance is in the process of developing its advocacy work. Policy issues around humanitarian assistance, sustainable development and climate change on the global level are potential areas for advocacy in the alliance. ACT Alliance is eager to work with the WCC on advocacy. The director and the moderator of the board of ACT Alliance came to me asking to find a way to cooperate in our advocacy work, and particularly in how we can cooperate with the United Nations Liaison Office (UNLO) in New York. ACT does not want to build a separate office there but rather be part of the WCC’s work with the UN. To this end, ACT has seconded a person to the UNLO. The Church of Sweden has in addition seconded a person (Margareta Grape) to the WCC as CCIA/WCC representative to the UN and coordinator of the work of the WCC’s UNLO. In this way, ACT and the WCC bring together their resources and capacity to advocate more effectively at the UN. I am currently in discussion with several churches with offices in New York about how we can work more closely in that particular advocacy role with the UN.

This will strategically upgrade and strengthen the capacity of the UNLO. As the WCC endeavours to fulfil its strategic leadership role in the ecumenical movement, we hope that this office – with additional staffing supported by the churches and specialized ministries – can ensure better coordination of our functions as an important point for advocacy at the international level.

6. To be one Advocating Voice

As the WCC is engaged now in a process of refocusing of WCC programmes amidst the contemporary challenges of the ecumenical movement, it is pertinent that we strengthen our work so that we have one strong advocacy voice for the ecumenical movement, speaking on behalf of those who need us most. There are numerous ways and means that members of the ecumenical family can engage themselves in his process.

I am aware of the responsibility of my office to be such a voice, as well as a voice you can recognize as reflecting our common concerns and our consensus. The processes of discussion and discernment are absolutely crucial. The CCIA must help the WCC do this work in due time. The WCC shall, first of all, “dine and define”, not decide. The churches are deciding what they do, what actions they make their own. This process is the vulnerability and the strength of the WCC! However, we decide what our priorities are in our programmes – challenging one another as churches to do what needs to be done locally. But in the end, the churches have to decide. And we challenge the people in power to make the best decisions.

Let me explain what I mean:

to “dine” is to be together as a fellowship around one table, sharing our human realities and needs, hopefully also gifts of God – even the sacraments;

to “define” is to discern the needs, the priorities, the values, the visions, the challenges to ourselves as churches, the common call God has given us to be one in our love for one another and the world God loves so much.

Let us share our wisdom, let us be listening for the voice of God in the words of the other. Let us be the protectors of God’s creation and every human being. Finally, let us be good advocates and followers of Christ – who come to preach good news to the poor.