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To Love Earth and Neighbour as Oneself

Sami Church Days Árviesjávrrie/Arvidsjaur, Sweden, 17 June 2017 Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit General Secretary, World Council of Churches A theological reflection on a more integrated way of understanding creation. Some thoughts on being on a pilgrimage for justice and peace, and why we shouldn’t be so afraid of walking in circles.

26 June 2017

Sami Church Days

Árviesjávrrie/Arvidsjaur, Sweden, 17 June 2017

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit

General Secretary, World Council of Churches

To Love Earth and Neighbour as Oneself

A theological reflection on a more integrated way of understanding creation. Some thoughts on being on a pilgrimage for justice and peace, and why we shouldn’t be so afraid of walking in circles.

Dear attendees at the Sami Church Days here in Árviesjávrrie/Arvidsjaur, gathered here at such a beautiful place in the lands of the Sami people, in Sweden,

Honourable representatives for the Sami people and for Sami church life in Sweden, Finland, Russia and Norway, honourable Archbishop Antje Jackelen, church leaders and attendees from the churches of these countries,

Brothers and sisters in Christ,

It is an honour to be welcomed where others have their homes and lands, not least considering what indigenous peoples have experienced in so many parts of the world, having been forced away from their homes and their land. The contributions of the Sami people to the global ecumenical agenda are substantial and significant. One of several ways in which this is expressed is that the leader of our network for indigenous peoples is headed by Tore Johnsen, with whom I’ve had the honour of conversing while here. During the World Council of Churches’ central committee meeting in Trondheim one year ago, we received compelling input from the indigenous peoples’ conference that had been arranged prior to it, delivered by Tore Johnsen and Bishop Mark MacDonald, among others. Several people have stated that this was one of their clearest memories of the meeting in Trondheim, along with how they were able to celebrate the service in the Methodist Church in Trondheim, where the first assemblies of a Sami Parliament in Norway took place. Mark and Tore delivered a powerful declaration about the Sami people and the place of indigenous people in churches and in state affairs, which the central committee took to heart and made their own. In particular, the discussion highlighted that truth is needed to achieve reconciliation and peace.

I am greeting all of you here from our executive committee, which gathered in Geneva last week, and from all 348 member churches on every continent. I often have the pleasure of meeting representatives of indigenous peoples and observing how indigenous culture, religion and challenges are expressed through the churches’ lives. One strong experience in this respect was, for instance, when I visited the churches of New Zealand, and the reception was arranged entirely according to Maori rituals. It was one of the strongest expressions of both respect and heartfelt regard for a guest that I have ever witnessed.

Love is the Measure

In the Gospel of Mark, chapter 12, we read the following:

One of the scribes came and heard them reasoning together. Perceiving that Jesus had answered them well, he asked him, “Which is the first commandment of all?” 29 Jesus answered him, “The first of all the commandments is, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord. 30  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

The double commandment of love tied everything together. The Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Heaven and earth, God and humanity, everything is interconnected through the commandment of love. With that perspective, everything we do should be examined to see whether it is just, and whether it is important. The scribe remarked on Jesus’ response, noting that burnt offerings and sacrifices are not nearly as important. Our different rituals, our systems, our ideas, our theologies, our ethics, our services to the great cause – everything must be scrutinised against this double commandment of love.

Love revolves around feelings, and feelings express who we are and what we are. Sometimes, our feelings are repressed or lead to incomprehensible reactions. More often, they are strong and clear expressions of what is happening to us; what we feel is right, just, and good; what creates good and proper relations between us; what makes us feel good about ourselves; what gives us peace. Conversely, our feelings can tell us that the opposite is happening.

Love expresses itself through what we’re doing, what we’re doing with our entire beings, with our entire hearts, our souls, our minds and our power. Therefore, love goes beyond feelings. Love is an attitude, a way of life, not just for a moment, but continuously, firmly, consciously, and with power and conviction. Love can concern our attitude toward others; love is our attitude toward what’s important to us; love is our attitude toward ourselves; love is our attitude toward God.

We shall not erase anything from the Bible, nor shall we add anything to it. Jesus was challenged on his understanding of what is most important in the Holy Scripture, and he responded by coupling two great ideas about loving God and loving one’s neighbour. He staked out an enormously compelling direction for our lives.

Those who have read and interpreted the Holy Scriptures have always had thoughts that they have written down here and there, sometimes in the margins of these scriptures. But we, too – every single one of us – can and must write in our own notes, our own thoughts, when we face others and the world we’re living in, and respond to the question that Martin Luther also taught us to ask when we’re reading, say, the commandments, or the confession of faith: What does this mean? What does this mean today? What does this mean in our lives today? Indeed, since we cannot place any blame on others, we must take responsibility ourselves for how we use the words of the Bible – or for how we disregard them.

On that basis, I have written my own notes in the margin: The double commandment of love, that is, loving God and my neighbour as myself, entails that I must have a relationship to everything that God has created, to “nature,” and in particular, to everything that is alive, and I believe I need to use the word “love” about this as well. If I’m going to be able to fear and love God, and take God’s will seriously, and if I’m going to heed this commandment of loving my neighbour as myself, then I cannot avoid having a relationship to everything God has created and is creating every day.

Life in the Spirit

An important reason for this is that we believe in the Triune God, and that we do so in a shared Christian tradition, aided by those creeds shaped by the early church when faced with all sorts of other ideas about God and life. The Nicene Creed, which we have in common with all Christians from east and west, north and south, even the Orthodox churches, states in its original edition that, “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father. With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.”

If you recall, there are three words we are used to hearing, that weren’t part of what I read: “and the Son.” The Great East–West Schism of 1054 is related to this. In the WCC, it has been recommended that one use the original text because it can unify us. And what difference does it make? Quite a lot, but in this context, I only want to bring up one important point: The Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father (and not the Father and the Son) makes it clearer that it is the same Spirit who was involved in creation (Genesis 1:1), who creates life all the time (Psalm 104), who has spoken through the prophets, who has come to us in Jesus, and who at Pentecost called and equipped the church to speak the word and commandments of God to all humankind in their own tongues. In other words: To believe in the Holy Spirit is to believe in God as creator of all, not just once, but every day, and to recognize how I face the work and Spirit of God in all life created by God. It does not take away from the importance of the church as a community and as a tool of the Holy Spirit. But it does mean we need to be more open, respectfully, to what we can learn about the presence of God and the work of God in the face of everything created by God.

With your theme for these Church Days, and with how you are conveying the words of Psalm 36:9, you are conveying that it is precisely the trusting, worshipping and loving relation to God that also lets us see the sources of life that God has given us in this world. “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.” A fantastic motto that shows how love unites all: God, nature, humankind.

As we know, this is something that is closely related to the Sami people’s relationship with nature, with man, and with our comprehension of our place in God’s great creation. You get this. And I think that here in the Nordics, there are also many others who also have relationship with nature so strong that it seems natural to speak of both loving nature and of regarding it as an expression of God’s presence. However, this hasn’t always influenced how one has taken care of it, or exploited it, or when one has supposed that the biblical message of being a caretaker of God’s creation has been followed, thereby “subduing it”. We must be honest in saying that it hasn’t always been based on the commandment of loving God and one’s neighbour as oneself.

As you can hear, I’m already starting to move in circles here. But I think that that is exactly what we should be doing. How can we love God if we don’t take care of, respect, and value what God has created? How can we love our neighbours if we don’t care whether there’s something to live from – and live for – on this one planet? How can we love God if we don’t love the world God loves? How can we love our neighbours as ourselves, if we don’t love ourselves and have the courage to be the persons God has created us to be? How can we love nature as God’s creation if we don’t love ourselves the way God has created us?

All of this is connected as part of the circle of ideas that we call “nature” today: earth, plants, animals, air, water, light and darkness, climate, temperature. It has always been part of our prayers of gratitude to God from humans of all cultures and traditions. It is what we have thanked God for with the words from the Book of Psalms in the Bible. It is what Jesus has taught us to regard as the good creation where God “makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good.” It is what we depend on for food, for clothing, for something to drink. And it is what Luther has taught us to discern as the overarching content in the prayer for “our daily bread.”

Again, I think indigenous peoples in particular have had much better expressions for this connection than many others, and know a lot about why loving one’s neighbour, loving God, and loving nature are inseparable concepts.

Indigenous peoples and the ecumenical movement

In the World Council of Churches (WCC), this idea has had a major impact through the programme for “Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation” following the general assembly in Vancouver, Canada, in 1983, a gathering where indigenous peoples were given a position they had never had before. Therefore, it is a great pleasure and an important experience for me, as general secretary of the WCC, to be here during the Sami Church Days and to carry this connection forward. We have so much to learn and to do together.

Indigenous peoples, their situation, and their challenges have played, and do play an important role in the work of the WCC, and it is an important part of the lives and work of the churches that is expressed through the contributions of indigenous peoples. We have a programme and a network of indigenous peoples in the WCC, and several among us represent this through our work, not least Bishop Mark from Canada, who is a bishop with the First Nation Churches in the Anglican church there. It is a particular joy to see that the cooperation on matters relating to indigenous peoples is being promoted and strengthened here in the Nordics.

As former general secretary of the Council on Ecumenical and International Relations of the Church of Norway, I have cooperated with the Sami Church Council on many significant issues for both, some relating to the WCC, not least the matter of how we should understand creation and the constant creative activity of God in a perspective that doesn’t just emphasize humanity’s position in creation. The more holistic understanding has left its mark on how the WCC works and thinks about nature and creation, for instance through the expression “the integrity of creation.”

This conviction has increasingly come to light through our church work, ecumenically, nationally, and internationally. One of the strongest recent expressions of this, for instance, is the program we now have in the WCC called the “Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace,” which was manifested through pilgrimages both symbolically and concretely, from Svalbard and southwards to Paris in 2015. When we handed over 1.8 million signatures from such pilgrims to the people behind the Climate Change Conference in Paris, with the participation of many representatives from Sami church life and other indigenous peoples, it made an enormous impression. It was impossible to discuss climate issues in Paris merely as economic and scientific issues – which, after all, they also are – nor merely as political issues, but also as moral and spiritual issues.

When I was set to deliver a three-minute speech on behalf of all “faith based organizations” near the end of the plenary debate in Paris, my task was to convey something different than what had been said by others from various countries and organizations. The WCC has always had this task of convening and organizing our religious partners at the COP meetings. I stated that rather than criticizing, which we often do with good reason, I wanted to speak about hope. As humans, we have hope, but only if we understand this: to love ourselves and our neighbours, including those who come after us, and to love God, is to take responsibility for our common earth and to show our love for each other through love for the nature upon which we all depend. Pulling out of the Paris agreement, then, is a strong and dramatic expression that one does not wish to follow God’s double commandment of love.

At home in the world

Another ecumenical perspective on the subject at hand is the exhortation penned by Pope Francis prior to the summit in Paris, written from that very perspective of thanking God for all creation, quoting the psalm of Saint Francis, Laudato Si’, wherein he wrote about “our common home.” This is an important perspective, which also makes it particularly relevant to speak of love in this context. At home, one is together precisely because one is called to love one another. In a home, one must preserve what one lives from, and what one lives for, in a way that creates living conditions and happiness for all, permitting everyone to be themselves. The pope’s letter has strengthened the agenda that the WCC, in no small part, has pursued together with its churches. I am happy to know that especially the churches of the Nordic region have taken this seriously and have been voices of leadership in their countries.

There is a further dimension to the expression of home and family that is important to the ecumenical movement. As a home, the church above all else is called to be one, as an expression of our calling to show that we are one human family. We live in a very fragmented world, where new signs of division and many instances of polarization, exclusion, discrimination, violation of human rights, economic injustice, conflict, and violence mark what we learn about the world every single day. This is coupled with the knowledge that we might be passing tipping points in our relation to nature and its sustainability.

The UN has formulated its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which we are trying to achieve by 2030. This is ambitious, but if one is not willing to think big, one cannot make progress, either. It is interesting and important to recognize that these goals are tightly intertwined, and that the issues surrounding conflicts, children, food, and human rights – they’re all connected to how we, too, take care of nature, which we live in and live from. This corresponds to the holistic thinking we have imparted as churches, which indigenous peoples prominently have helped us to understand better and address more clearly. Here, the perspectives they have provided must be a strong influence on our work going forward. Your rights and conservation of the grand perspective are intimately connected.

One in the Spirit

In working for “unity” in the ecumenical movement, we have been aided by this programme of “Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation” and recently, the “Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace.” We’re seeing that it’s not possible to create unity unless it is founded on justice and peace, neither in the church, nor in the greater context in which we live as human beings. Actual ideas of “unity” may indeed seem deeply oppressive, whether they transpire through large empires and their exertion of power – which we’re also familiar with from biblical texts, and subsequently through history – or through nationalization processes, which have affected precisely the Sami people and their right to maintain and develop their own language, culture, traditions, and management of soil and natural resources. It is a good sign that the Parliament of Norway, Stortinget, now is open to an investigation of what happened during the Norwegian assimilation process. However, there is still a long way to go toward justice and reconciliation.

Despite both ecclesial and governmental abuse of ideas of “unity,” or for that matter, failed attempts at creating good expressions for “unity,” we cannot just leave this calling of the church “to be one” on standby. We are called to show exactly that oneness can only be achieved in accordance with the divine pattern of loving one another the way we are and the way we are created, and of loving, respecting, and preserving both our great diversity as well as whatcan bind us together in love. We are created to live in community, and we have salvation in Christ to live in community, to be one, as a sign of God’s mercy and love in this world. We walk together as a community in our pilgrimage through life. But often, the holy sites we seek are where we are, where the holy lives and values of men and women are threatened, where nature as God’s creation is threatened, where our common future is threatened. You indigenous peoples know a lot about false and true unity, and thus are very important witnesses when we reflect more deeply on what that means.

We must not be afraid to walk in circles, in the sense that we’re walking alongside each other and toward each other, continuously learning to be where we are and to love the place in which God has put us. To be one is not to live under coercion of unity but to live in a community that is changing, yet true to its roots.

The big challenges of injustice and the unresolved conflicts of our time cannot be solved unless we face each other as part of a whole. We depend both on each other and on the nature we are living from, and living in.

I think we should at the very least say it today, paraphrasing the commandment: we shall love nature and our neighbours as ourselves. Because God has created others, nature, and us. In the circle of God, we’re not trapped or gone astray, because God still loves the world. Through Jesus Christ we have the boldness to believe that this is true, even as we must confess our sins and what we have neglected. The mercy of God, too, applies to all of us still.

“For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.” Amen.