Open University of Cyprus – Archdiocese of Constantia and Ammochostos

January 10, 2019, Paralimni

By Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit,
WCC general secretary

Your eminences, distinguished participants, dear friends,

At the outset let me thank especially you, Your Eminence Metropolitan Vasilios of Contantia and Ammochostos, for your gracious and generous hospitality and for this occasion to address such an eminent audience during our meeting in Cyprus.

I am also grateful that you asked both of us, His Eminence Metropolitan Gennadios of Sassima and me, for presentations. I trust that His Eminence will base his lecture on deep theological reflections on the Holy Trinity and the love of God rooted in biblical and Orthodox traditions and that he will approach the two other dimensions of the theme – freedom and justice – from this perspective. This allows me as a Lutheran theologian from Norway to focus more on ways that Christian faith can inform the morality and ethos of societies and contribute to legal frameworks that ensure freedom and justice for all people in the public witness of the churches together through the WCC. Celebrating last year the 70th anniversary of the WCC, we were also remembering the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


1. From Law to Morality and Faith

1.1 Freedom, love, and justice – the theme that was chosen for this event – deeply interests me. With its reference to love, it relates closely to the theme for the next assembly of the WCC, in 2021 in Germany, which  we are discussing during the meeting of the Assembly Planning Committee here in Paralimni: Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity. It is timely and necessary for us to consider carefully the vital role of love as the moral imperative at the heart of our vision of God’s reign to come and God’s promise of life in abundance with freedom and justice for all.

Freedom, love and justice - in political ethics, I would expect the slightly different sequence of freedom, rights and justice. In political ethics we see rights at the centre, regulating the relationship between the freedom of citizens over against the state and ensuring everyone’s just share in the wealth and life of the society. Exploring this sequence of freedom, rights and justice further, we would need to analyze the self-interest of different actors in the society and the power relationships among them. In this context, we would turn to human rights and address the inter-dependence between the essential freedoms of individual human rights and the shared responsibility for the implementation of economic, social and cultural rights.

That we have to do both – defend freedom and care for justice - has been a hallmark of all ecumenical engagement for human rights over decades. Confronted with the realities of climate change and the loss of biodiversity, we have also learned that we need to add to the individual and social dimensions of law the rights of all living beings on planet earth.

1.2 Freedom, rights, and justice – There is more to be said about this later. Speaking instead of freedom, love and justice, however, we are required to move from the area of law and rightsmore deeply  into the area of morality and the ethos of a given society. Anthropologically and socially, the term “love” reminds us of the communal bonds and the relationships of a community.[1] Law and rights point to the institutional set up of enforceable obligations and rules that ensure social justice and cohesion while recognizing the dignity of human beings and their freedom. Law and rights are means to establish social order and to resolve conflicts of interest and power peacefully. Love, on the other hand, is a fundamental value, guiding modes of behaviour that establish a reliable framework and basis for the recognition of rights and dignity of everyone in the community. The affirmation of justice and freedom based on love leads to corrective and transformative action in cases where life is threatened and rights are being violated. This has critical importance in the struggle for liberation from structural injustice and oppression. Structural injustice leaves no space for loving relationships, but favours and imposes exploitative and anonymous patterns of exchange.

Law and morality, rights and love are supporting each other in the quest for life in viable and sustainable communities. Traditionally, both are deeply rooted in the cultural and religious heritage and ethos of a given community. All too often, though, there is the tendency to limit and reserve the gifts of rights and love just to one’s own community and not to extend them to others. We see this today in the rejection of refugees and migrants and claims for privilege and superiority, which are poisoning more and more relationships between and within nations of this world. In the face of such realities, we understand the vital importance of rights and mutual love that together affirm human dignity across boundaries and motivate the struggle for liberation and just relationships.

1.3 Christ’s love – But that is not all we have to say as Christians. The sequence of freedom, love and justice again changes its meaning, when we look at it in the light of the theme of the forthcoming WCC assembly that I mentioned before. Love than carries a name; it is first of all Christ’s love that informs our lives and reflections, indeed our whole being as his disciples who are called to follow in his footsteps. Such understanding of love puts the person and power of Christ in the centre of our considerations. It shapes how we think about freedom and justice in relationship to him and the community of the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Looking at freedom, love and justice in the perspective of faith in the Triune God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit moves us from law and morality to faith. The theme of the next WCC assembly in 2021 is a faith affirmation centring on Christ’s love: Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity. Against all powers of destruction and sin, it sees the person of the crucified and risen Christ at the heart of this world. In him “creation… will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8: 21). In him “all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (Col 12:20), will be reconciled with God. “Bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4: 2-3), everyone and everything will be made new. The shackles of sin will be lifted. The shattered image of humanity will be fully restored. And life in community will flourish in justice, peace, and freedom.


2. Love – A Gift of Faith and a Moral Imperative

2.1 The example of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. – With my reflections so far, I have moved from law to ethos and faith, from rights, to love as moral imperative and as a gift of faith in Christ. I now want to change the perspective, moving the other way around from faith to ethos and law, from love as an issue of faith to love as a moral imperative and life in community based on rights. I want to do so by reflecting on the life and witness of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Last year, we also remembered the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Uppsala assembly of the WCC. On 4 July 1968, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. should have entered the cathedral of the city to preach at the opening service of the WCC 4th Assembly. But he never came. Only weeks before on April 4, he was murdered in the city of Memphis in the USA.

During his final years, Martin Luther King Jr had broadened the focus of the civil rights movement by creating the “Poor People’s Campaign.” The protest movement fighting against racial discrimination was to become the core of a broader movement for social justice and freedom for marginalized and economically disenfranchised people and communities. He was visiting different cities all over the country, mobilizing people to participate in a national march on Washington later in the year. In 1963 several hundred thousand people had listened to him at the Lincoln Memorial in the capital city of the USA when he spoke of his dream of overcoming racism and economic injustice – “free at last.” In 1968 he probably would have gathered an even larger number of people. There were some who were afraid of him.

2.2 Love beyond sentiment. King mobilized people for freedom and social justice, rejecting hate speech and building his message on the moral imperative of love.[2] I believe, this is as crucial today as it was fifty years ago when we look at the realities especially in North America and Europe. He saw love as key to creating just and inclusive communities where everyone would care for each other, that would benefit all and not just the few at the expense of the many.

When King spoke of love, this was not a sentimental echo of love songs in the charts. He was far from calling the oppressed to feel love for their oppressors as they felt love for their children and partners. A story teller and a preacher, he spoke of love based on the biblical message of Christ’s loving presence in the world, putting those at the margins at the centre. “Agape,” he said, referring to the Greek Bible, “is a willingness to go to any length to restore community.…” Love for him was first of all the love of God that had taken shape and was revealed in Jesus Christ to reconcile and renew this world. Love was the movement of God’s presence with and in the world, of God’s reconciling and healing power in the Holy Spirit, of God’s continued blessing of all life.

Strongly rooted in faith, King’s notion of love  demanded us to confront sin in all its forms, the destructive consequences of hopelessness and despair, the brokenness of communities, and the lack of solidarity. Love, in King’s reckoning, would empower the oppressed to stand up and tell their oppressors what was wrong, to struggle for change, not giving in to the terms of those believing they were in power and control. Love rooted in faith would embody the moral imperative for change.

2.3 The wider struggle. – This moral imperative for change had to be translated into the political struggle for more justice and freedom for all. It had to influence and to change legislation and structures that would privilege a few and keep the many in poverty. Addressing poverty and discrimination on this larger scale, the civil rights movement had to become a movement for the basic human rights for all, surely fighting racism as the de-humanizing sin it was and is, and surely struggling for freedom from oppression, for economic justice and equality before the law for all human beings irrespective of race, gender, or religion.


3. The Struggle Continues

3.1 Seventy years after the United Nations agreed on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and 50 years after the assassination of Dr King, I am convinced that this struggle for freedom and justice has to continue. His martyrdom reminds us that there have been others before us who did not ask what such concrete witness for the love of God in Christ would cost them. There are people around us who call us to action. There are still refugees and children of refugees of the war on this island. Cyprus is still divided. The region of the Middle East still finds itself in the middle of violence and war. Children and young people and generations to come will ask us what we have done to witness our faith in God’s love in the face of injustice, violence and destruction:

  • Are we moved by Christ’s love for the common good of all people and this world?
  • Are we ambassadors of Christ in the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5), working for reconciliation, peace, and justice?
  • Are we fully committed to the unity in Christ, so that the churches really become a prophetic sign and foretaste of the unity of humankind and all creation?

These are the kind of questions we are compelled to ask ourselves when we want to engage as Christians for freedom and justice motivated by Christ’s love and when we begin now to respond to the theme of the 11th Assembly of the WCC in 2021 in Karlsruhe, Germany.

3.2 Imperfect unity, redemptive love. – Whose freedom, whose justice, whose love, are we talking about? Never the freedom, justice and comfortable life of just the few. Always the love God and the freedom and justice that flows from it are for eveyone. Motivated by our faith and guided by the moral imperative of love, we struggle for structural change and laws in favor of marginalized and excluded people and the suffering creation. “Jesus Christ frees and unites” was the theme of the fifth WCC assembly in 1975 in Nairobi. Freedom, justice and unity were never seen by the ecumenical movement as static goals or principles. They pointed to the dynamic reality of change that was brought about by Jesus Christ and the coming of God’s reign. “Jesus Christ frees and unites.” We find life and meaning in becoming part of this movement of Christ that is driven by God’s love for this world. The witness and the unity of the church are not static. They cannot be captured in a series of statements and declarations. We are deepening our unity on the way, witnessing together and working for change that is inspired and motivated by the reality of Christ’s love for the world. In this perspective we can accept, even embrace and celebrate, what are imperfect but real and diverse expressions of unity and shared service for justice and peace. Even if our unity is imperfect, it has dimensions driven by the love of Christ for us and for all humankind and for the whole creation.

There has always been an emphasis in the ecumenical movement on God’s promise of life in abundance in expectation of God’s reign to come. Such eschatological espectation has motivated the struggle for justice and peace. The eschatological dimension of our lives, including life eternal, is a matter of both what lies beyond time and what is a matter of concrete qualities, of life in abundance, here and now. What unites the two dimensions are the characteristics and presence of God’s blessings and love.

Without the eschatological dimension, we might become simple materialists or pursue only an imminent, political agenda. Everything would then be limited to what we achieve in this world. The alternative, that is, focusing only on life after death, has been caricatured as “pie in the sky bye and bye.” For many, perhaps most, honest believers it has been a hope that kept them going through many tribulations and pains and losses; and that promise has given strength to be salt to the earth and light in the world. Still, it is a real risk that such a focus overlooks the needs of our neighbors here and now and those who come after us, if we are too focused on the life after this one. This was and remains a real challenge in some Christian faith communities. A much greater risk, however, is that the believer’s focus is turned from “heaven” to the “world,” yet not to the needs of others, but solely to our own health, prosperity, interests, even wealth.   “Why give such priority to stopping climate change when we believe that God will create a new heaven and a new earth?” The question was raised in an article I read recently. Well, what is the answer to that? Because God loves the world, because God loves the human beings living now and those coming after us.

There is a unity in love that also has an eschatological dimension. Love transcends death. We continue to love our loved ones even after they are gone, and their love remains with us as a treasure. Yet there is more to be said. We are called to be one so that the unity that is in the Trinitarian God should also be reflected in the unity among us: The mutual love in God should be the model for our unity, so beautifully expressed in John 17: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (21). “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (26).

3.3 Churches’ support for human rights. – That is also why I think the proposal for the theme for the 11th Assembly brings us back to our common origin in Christ and therefore to the triune God who promises to make all things new. It also connects us well to the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace as a way to describe the ecumenical movement. And it opens up another dimension of the ecumenical movement: as an alternative to the many other approaches to the world, also in the name of religion and our own Christian traditions: the ecumenical movement is an open and inclusive, radical expression of love in our time.

Already the Nairobi assembly underlined in 1975: our concern for human rights is based on our conviction that God wills a society in which all can enjoy full human rights. All human beings are created in the image of God, equal and infinitely precious in God’s sight and ours. Jesus Christ has bound us to one another by his life, death and resurrection, so that what concerns one concerns us all. The 6th Assembly in Vancouver in 1983 underscored the essential Christian calling and motivation for engagement in working for human rights, observing that love of our neighbor is the essence of obedience to God. In this ecumenical work for human rights, we have been particularly focused on responding to the victims of injustice and oppression. The 7th Assembly, in 1991 in Canberra, declared:  “We manifest the life of the Spirit by striving for the release of those who are captive to sin by standing with the oppressed in their struggle for liberation, justice and peace. Liberated by the Spirit, we are empowered to understand the world from the perspective of the poor and vulnerable and to give ourselves to mission, service and the sharing of resources.”

Meeting in the year of the 50th anniversary of the UDHR, the WCC’s 8th Assembly, in Harare in 1998, experienced again God’s call to justice, “and this leads us to reaffirm our commitment to human rights, to the dignity and worth of the human person created in God’s image and infinitely precious in God’s sight, and to the equal rights of women and men, of young and old, of all nations and peoples.” The assembly recognized adoption of the UDHR as “one of the landmark achievements of humanity” but acknowledged “the many shortcomings of the churches’ actions for human rights; ...our unwillingness or inability to act when people were threatened or suffered; ...our failure to stand up for people who have experienced violence and discrimination; ...our complicity with the principalities, powers and structures of our time responsible for massive violations of human rights; and the withdrawal of many churches from work on human rights as a priority of Christian witness.”

The 10th Assembly of the WCC, in 2013 in Busan, called all Christians and all people of good will to a pilgrimage of justice and peace, engaging in transformative actions. It is in this broader horizon of the world that our witness as Christians has to find common ground with people of other faith, indeed with all people of good will. We have our distinct message, but this message is good news for all and not just for us or for a few. Therefore, we welcome allies and partners on our way and are committed to building common ground for transformation. Moving beyond declarations and engaging in transformative actions, the support for and defense of human rights are crucial.

In this spirit, the last central committee meeting in June last year reaffirmed the commitment of the WCC to the principles of human dignity and human rights and to the commitments expressed in international human rights law as codified in the UDHR and the family of international human rights treaties. It stated again that international human rights law is an essential framework for the promotion, protection and practical recognition of the God-given human dignity of every human being. And it called on WCC member churches and ecumenical partners to re-prioritize human rights and active support for the legal instruments of international human rights law as a bulwark against injustice, oppression, occupation, and tyranny.


4. The Power of Love

4.1 Threats to the common good. – I have spoken during the last couple of years on various occasions of the love of Christ that frees and unites us and moves us forward to decisive action.  “The power of love” is a message to the world, to the powerful and to the powerless, to all who are longing for a different reality from what we see in today’s world. This is to be expressed in our quest for the unity of the church and the unity of humankind, serving the sustainability and unity of God’s creation.

We cannot leave the quest for unity on a side-track. The message of the “power of love” has much to contribute in these efforts, bringing other perspectives and dimensions into proper relationships that we need to develop and build in our time. There are many forces promoting conflict and violence. There are enormous powers of division and polarization, widening the gaps between the rich and poor, the privileged and the non-privileged (in terms of wealth, security, health, etc.). There are shocking signs of some powerful nations seeking only their own interests, not world peace or creation care for our one and only planet. There are signs of ignoring international law or utilizing it for one’s own purposes, of the deconstruction of multilateral regulations and accountability, the lack of care for the lives of innocent people, the lack of willingness to share the burdens of responding properly to the needs of refugees from situations of war and conflict, the use of the international financial architecture for the benefit of the strongest and the richest. The list goes on. Even our own high-ground objectives of unity, justice and peace are sometimes reinterpreted or abused by powers to dominate or to discriminate. Through a serious dialogue among us, even a critical one, we can discern when they are serving the love we are called to promote.

4.2 Unity, for example, might become a means of enforcing an oppressive uniformity or demand for agreement, or a frontier, a border, a wall against others that are not included in the protected and unified area or country. This might happen even in the churches, not serving primarily the needs of those who are suffering or supporting those who are struggling. A reference to justice is in some cases seen as the rule of the stronger and privileged, neglecting the needs of those who are excluded from having the safety of citizenship with equal human rights. Peace, too, might be defined as an objective but pursued by some in practices that divide and actually create conflict. There are strong powers undermining the need to see one another as participants in the one humanity, seeking our common good and our common interests. There needs to be somebody and something that represents a counter-power of unity, justice and peace.

We are not shy as WCC about presenting ourselves as a fellowship of churches, as people of faith, sharing the vision of something better, something built on another scale of values, something that binds peoples and nations together out of mutual respect, dignity, accountability—even love. It is love that will bind us as churches and as Christians to each other and to our neighbors across the street and around the world. Love will free us from distorted values and deep prejudice.  Love will see through the falsehoods of racism and tribalism. Love will open us up to learn from criticism and self-criticism of our own complicity. Love will fire our dreams of freedom and peace. Love will unleash new visions, creative thinking, and fresh approaches to our steepest challenges. And love will give us the courage and stamina, the heart and soul, to rescue progress from deep danger, and peace from peril.

Fellow pilgrims on God’s pilgrimage of justice and peace, you are—we are— building that movement of love, grounded in the one Spirit of Christ, ever eager and alert to journey on together in faith and hope for a better world.

[1] For this and the following cf. Konrad Raiser, Religion, Power, Politics, Geneva: WCC, 2013 pp. 128 ff.

[2] He developed his vision further in his last book Where Do We Go From Here; Chaos or Community?