Consultation on New Waves of Life-Centered Theology, Spirituality and Mission in the 21st Century

Address by Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, WCC general secretary

Chang Seong, Korea, 13 August 2007

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

Psalm 85:10

Marks of Vital Ecumenism in the 21st Century

Dear friends,

It is wonderful to see all of you here in Chang Seong, a place so close to the city of Gwangju. We will never forget the date of 18 May 1980. "5.18", as Koreans often say, stands for the beginning of the Gwangju Democratization Movement. The movement started with demonstrations by courageous students against the introduction of martial law in the country and the closure of universities. More than 300 000 citizens later joined the protesting students.

They were stopped on May 27th by the massive intervention of military power in the form of five airborne and infantry divisions. We shall always remember the victims of the Gwangju massacre as martyrs and heroes of the struggle for democracy in Korea, a struggle that finally overthrew the dictatorship and gave to the whole world a sign of hope for transformation.

As we begin to work on the theme Transforming Theology and Life Giving Civilization, we should keep the memory of 5.18 in our minds and thoughts. It will help us to remain grounded in reality, even as we refuse to give in to the powers that be. The memory of those people and events will nurture our commitment and our hope for change.

And so I wish, at the outset, to remember and honour these martyrs and heroes even as I express my deep gratitude and appreciation to

-        Rev. O Chang-Kook and our hosts of the Hanmaum community, for their wonderful hospitality;

-        Prof. Dr Park Seong-Won, who has provided insightful leadership to the organizing committee. He is also a WCC Central Committee member from Korea; and

-        Rev. Dr Keum Joo-Seop and Nick Curley from the Council for World Mission, and Rev. Patricia Sheerattan-Bisnauth from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, for their wonderful support, their partnership and their good co-operation with those of us from the WCC.

In many ways these are more than just introductory remarks, I am already indicating some basic characteristics of ecumenism in the 21st century. Ecumenism in the 21st century will be vital only:

1.     in focusing on theologies of life that are relevant to contemporary men and women, showing transformative power because they are rooted in peoples' lives and experiences, in their faith-traditions and cultures: theologies of life that reflect the practice and teachings of Jesus, the incarnated, crucified and risen Christ;

2.     in linking local, regional and global ecumenical engagement in convincing ways, because the diversity of vital local realities is always seen in the perspective of the community of God's greater household of life, the oikoumene;

3.     in providing places and opportunities for shared prayer, worship and Bible study to nurture the ecumenical dimension of diverse spiritualities that are all inspired by the life-giving and community building power of the Holy Spirit;

4.     in fostering partnerships and co-operation among the fellowship of churches and between different ecumenical actors; and

5.     in promoting ways of learning and working together that are marked by

-        an holistic, inter-active and integrated approach,

-        mutual accountability with shared but differentiated responsibilities,

-        inclusiveness of marginalized groups,

-        the deliberate involvement of young people and women, and

-        mutual trust and friendship.

New Challenges

Ecumenism in the 21st century must grow beyond the confinements of the historical streams of the ecumenical movement, which took shape primarily as attempts to overcome divisions within Christianity that had occurred in European history. This tradition of ecumenism played an essential role in fostering a relevant witness on the part of churches in the context of two World Wars and the anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century. For decades ecumenism was heavily affected by the conflict between capitalism and socialism and the so-called cold war between the two super-powers of the last century.

The world and the ecumenical movement of today have taken on a different appearance. The most vital and fastest growing churches are not in Europe or North America, but in Africa, Asia and Latin America, with many of them belonging to the families of charismatic or Pentecostal churches. The church in South Korea, having been transformed from a missionary-receiving to a missionary-sending church, is challenged to discern new ways of doing mission in the 21st century. The old doctrinal divisions are not the main concern for churches in India that are pushed to find new forms of belonging to the church in response to the social and cultural realities of the Indian sub-continent. The post-denominational church in China represents a profound challenge to all denominations and Christian World Communions. But a pointed question arises: to what extent have these realities and experiences really shaped the approach and agenda of the ecumenical movement?

The 20th century's belief in economic growth and development has lost much of its attraction and appeal to people who are becoming more and more aware of the deeper crisis of life. The growth oriented development paradigm, especially when it is married to neo-liberal economics, has not only aggravated the exploitation of nature, but is undermining the web of life on which existence depends. The outdated paradigm of development has also created a new class of extremely poor and dispensable people without access to money, land or other resources. It makes sense to ask the question: To what extent have the crisis of life and the reality of the poor and excluded really shaped the approach and agenda of the ecumenical movement?

The old bi-polar world system has been overthrown and replaced by the drive to imperial hegemony of the sole remaining super-power, the USA. What is needed to secure and sustain the American way of life dictates the fate of nature and of many nations around the world. At the same time, US power is confronted by the growing economic, political and military power of nations like China and India. Some non-state actors have demonstrated increasing resistance to US control and dominance, sometimes even in the form of terrorist actions. And again we need to ask ourselves: To what extent have US imperial power and the multi-faceted response to it really shaped the approach and agenda of the ecumenical movement?

The Call for a Life-giving Civilization

The heated debate in the AGAPE process (Alternative Globalization Addressing People and Earth) that the WCC has undertaken in close co-operation with the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, Regional Ecumenical Organizations, as well as other partners, has addressed some of the most pressing of these challenges; e.g., the devastating consequences of poverty, and the destruction of nature's life-sustaining functions and capacity.

"Business as usual" is inappropriate, if humankind and creation are to survive on planet Earth. The prevailing development trajectory leads to destruction. This is the lesson taught by four decades of failed development efforts that have left the world with serious unresolved and newly emerging problems. Persistent poverty and growing social polarization, political erosion and the breakdown of the moral and social fabric of communities, the threats of global warming and the dramatic loss of biodiversity strangle the so-called developing world and also affect developed countries.

But this is only one side of the coin. There is also hope. At the dawn of the 21st century, we witness an epic drama unfolding at the grass-roots. The poor are overcoming their long-standing oppressed consciousness as they attain, instead, a liberated consciousness. Indigenous Peoples of all continents, farmers and others who have realized the life-threatening consequences of the prevailing growth-oriented economic development paradigm, are re-discovering the wisdom and life-affirming values of their own cultures and civilizations as they engage in alternative projects. Their associations, co-operatives, unions and movements have become a multi-faceted, growing phenomenon in many countries around the world.  I am happy to see that the Hanmaum community here in Chang Seong is one of them!

Slowly but steadily connections and linkages are made from country to country, and from continent to continent, for mutual learning and support. Farmers have formed the global "via campesina" network. The World Social Forum has been a platform supporting networking among them. Joining hands with other movements for social justice and for peace and reconciliation in conflict situations, they are becoming a political factor. These initiatives flourish in countries that do not force upon their citizens policies promoted by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, but allow space for alternatives.

These are small but significant developments which point the way to the desperately needed shift from the present domination of Western culture, and the development paradigm it represents, to a new life-giving civilization that nurtures dialogue and co-operation, with the goal of peace and justice, among diverse cultures and religions.

As Ubuntu and Sangsaeng Meet Together

It is for just this reason that I have insisted on developing stronger linkages between Asian and African theologians and ecumenists. Afro-Asian solidarity and co-operation is an important contribution to the search for a new paradigm of ecumenism in the 21st century. The core of it is very well expressed in the subtitle of this consultation: "As Ubuntu and Sangsaeng Meet Together".

Ubuntu stands for the African anthropology and cosmo-vision of life in community. The South African Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes Ubuntu in the following way:

"It is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness, it speaks about compassion. A person with Ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole. They know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as if they were less than who they are. The quality of Ubuntu gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them."

Sangsaeng recalls the ancient Korean concept of a sharing community and economy that allows all to flourish together. When Ubuntu and Sangsaeng meet together, justice and peace kiss each other, and the Biblical vision of life in God's shalom shines in the light of two congenial cultures of this world and speaks to people of Africa and Asia -but not only to them!

Transforming Theology

Ecumenism for the 21st century must finally overcome euro-centric confinements of theology and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, discover the mystery of God's presence in other cultures and religions.

The mission practices of the past have forced people in the various regions of the world into un-reconciled double identities - one consistent with one's culture, the other with one's faith - that may weaken confidence both in Christian teachings and in the social fabric of communities. In order to heal this rift, the mission of the church that has gone to the ends of the earth must now become the one mission of God to all of God's people and to all of creation. God's presence in the world requires the churches to go beyond themselves and to discern the will of God as it relates to their neighbours of other religions and to the wider household of life, encountering the other in truthful and loving ways and sharing life with life.

The churches themselves are actors in the world, but they are not at the centre of God's engagement with humanity and the whole creation. The churches are instruments of God's will for the world. Mission does not belong to the churches, but to the triune God - it is "mission Dei". This insight, that has gained much ground in mission theology, must also guide other dimensions of ecumenical theology and practice that have the tendency to centre on the churches themselves. While it has proven to be an important step forward to emphasize that the WCC is essentially a fellowship of churches, its member churches must never lose the sense of the urgency of God's mission to the world, and the truth that they respond faithfully to their calling only if they become what they ought to be as the one body of Christ in this world.

There is so much to do to discover and to respond to the presence of the triune God in this world.  Let me give just one example which has inspired the planning for this consultation. As an element of the AGAPE process, in 2004 the WCC co-sponsored an international consultation on life-giving agriculture, in Wongju here in Korea[1], with farmers, food producers and consumers, scientists, politicians and theologians from all regions of the world. This shows how the experience of grassroots communities resonates with basic themes of an ecumenical vision that build on the elements I described before. For participants in the consultation it was crystal clear that life-giving agriculture entails care for the soil, water, plants and animals in a holistic way. They discovered a common spirituality of life as the basis of their engagement. They discerned the contours of an ecumenical vision for a life-giving civilization that:

-        has the cosmic community of all life or the household (oikos) of God as its horizon,

-        reaches out to other people as neighbours, and

-        builds on the basis of spiritually and physically healthy communities of people, churches and faith communities.

The consultation participants were convinced that the shift towards life-giving agriculture and a life-giving civilization would require the churches to transform their theologies, practices and life-styles in order to be relevant for the necessary transformation of communities, individuals and societies towards these goals. This consultation will help to develop this approach in much more focused way.

The theme of the culture of life has been central to all recent efforts to re-articulate the ecumenical vision in the age of globalization. Our sense of direction is much clearer than at the end of last century.  We are focusing on God's household of life. Theological resources for further work on such a vision of the oikoumene as the inhabited and habitable earth can be found, in the first place, in that Trinitarian theology which is at the heart of the Orthodox tradition and provides the necessary anchor in the apostolic faith of the early church. Orthodox Trinitarian theology has been crucial for the development of an ecumenical theology of creation[2], an indispensable element in the required transformation of theology. Another element in creation theology is to be found in the "traditions of prudence" which Aruna Gnanadason describes in her book on the struggles of Indigenous women who help "to preserve traditions of prudent care for the earth in opposition to the modern ideal of ‘development'[3]."

In my own report to the 9th General Assembly of the WCC in 2006 in Porto Alegre, I took up these impulses in concentrating on the theme of God's transformative grace[4]. In this report I emphasized that:

"Within this dimension of spirituality, I am grateful to our Orthodox brothers and sisters in helping the ecumenical movement to recognize the dimension of the earth and nature more consistently. Our spirituality is robbed of a crucial dimension if it does not include our being part of creation as well as co-creators in an intimate relationship with God's earth and all that fills it.

…. According to God's design nature has an in-built self-regulatory capacity. But, driven by insatiable greed, human beings have interfered with God's designed natural order to such an extent as to induce disasters capable of annihilating all life.  Today we have become much more aware that the crisis goes far deeper and manifests itself beyond injustice and war among human beings, affecting all life.

In particular, I point to the challenge to this planet and its species of climate change. Just as atomic weapons changed the very way we thought about life, so too the potential of major climatic changes put life as we know it in danger.

…This divided world needs a church living as one body of Christ. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said "apartheid is too strong for a divided church." I say that this planet, where life is threatened, needs a church which lives unity in diversity as a sign and foretaste of the community of life that God wants to be - God's household of life, the inhabited earth, the oikoumene. …Even though our differences may at times divide us, deep in our hearts we know very well that we belong to each other. Christ wants us to be one. We are created one humanity and one earth community by the grace of God."

Let me conclude with the assurance that I not only urge you to come up with a clear and inspiring contribution to the theme of our consultation, Transforming Theology for Vital Ecumenism in the 21st Century, but that I also pray that you succeed in this endeavour.

[1] A report of the consultation was published in both Korean and English. Part of the material is available on the website of the WCC.


[2] see for instance Lukas Vischer (ed), Spirituality, Creation and the Ecology of the Eucharist, Geneva: John Knox Series, 2007


[3] Aruna Gnanadason, Listen to the Women! Listen to the Earth!, Geneva: WCC, 2005.


[4] The theme of the assembly was "God, in your grace, transform the world" - for the following see Samuel Kobia, Called to the One Hope. A New Ecumenical Epoch, Geneva: WCC, 2006, p. 8ff. Please consult this book for discussion of other implications of my approach to the challenges of ecumenism in the 21st century and the elements of a new ecumenical vision.