The theme text for this conference is Jeremiah 29:11 which reads, “For I know the plans I have for you” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” The question for us is how diakonia or service of the church can align itself with this God’s plan to prosper, protect, give hope and a future to all people. How can ecumenical diakonia be a source of hope in a world characterized by fragility? How do we make such hope, not some fantasy of imagination, but truly “resilient conviction that the processes of historical interaction (can) be understood in relation to…(the divine) overriding purpose that prevails in odd but uncompromising ways” in which we human beings cooperate with God towards its realisation. How do we speak “with seriousness” this “buoyancy” of possibilities in the face of so much pain and despair?
Fragility of the world
Is the world in a state of fragility? It depends on the criteria one uses, but what we see is that different life forms are in serious fragility. If one takes the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) definition, fragility as “the combination of exposure to risk and insufficient coping capacities of” states, systems and communities of the world “to manage, absorb or mitigate those risks”, is really rife. In this regard, we should include in such exposure to risk and insufficient coping capacities, the individuals, families, churches, communities, regions, the world and indeed the whole created order or the oikoumene. If we use this broader understanding of fragility, we can see that the whole created order is currently exposed to so much violence that threatens the maximization of fullness of life. This fragility is not only exposure to vulnerability caused by violence but also caused by all forms of deprivation and neglect that diminish the quality of life or access to abundant life for all people. Unfortunately, this fragility is not equitably distributed. It is structural. Some parts of the world are more fragile than others. Some sectors of society are more fragile than others. In other words, fragility is in its real sense a justice issue. If ecumenical diakonia is going to give hope to a fragile world, it must address the violence, the neglect, and the justice aspects that deny all people of hope.
This fragility is manifest in many areas but particularly in the economy, society, governance, and environment.
Economic fragility is currently experienced in the harshest way in many parts of the world where local economies are not able to sustain the needs of growing local populations. In many parts of the world, especially the economies of Africa, and some parts of Latin America and some parts of Asia, offer no or very limited individual economic opportunities. This is characterised by food self-insufficiency, dependency on aid, lack of access to education, health and other basic services.
In these parts of the world, this economic fragility is an injustice and violence because it is caused. Those who suffer are in this condition because they are not getting their equal share of the resources. If one takes a country like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), one can see that the people there are not poor because the nation is poor but because many external powers collude with local actors to destabilise the country so that they can syphon the country’s natural resources. The reason why there is really no interest in lasting peace in DRC is because this may disturb many who are benefiting from this chaos at the expense of the local suffering people. The reason why the people of Niger are energy poor is not because there are no natural resources in their country. Uranium from Niger is used for French weapons and nuclear power plants. As De Steenhuijsen Piters says, “Africa’s dependence on food imports has come about because the US and Europe have been dumping cheap grain on the African market for a hundred years or so.” He proposes the need to “get rid of our overproduction to ensure higher prices for our farmers at home. This presents farmers in Africa with unfair competition. African agriculture has no chance in the markets where we dump food such as grain. The same applies to onions and dairy from the Netherlands.”
In this view, economic fragility is a system of violent relations in which one part of the world has a parasitic relationship with the other. Of course, such violent relationship is not only between countries or regions but also within countries where widening wealth gaps easily lead to social unrest. In many rich countries the rich have ways to get exempt from paying equal share of their tax and the poor carry the heavier burden.
If ecumenical diakonia is going to give hope to the world, it must not only address the immediate economic needs of those suffering such economic violence, it must also address the structural injustices that perpetuate such suffering and fragility.
Today social fragility is also deeply experienced where social polarization on the basis of different forms of identity politics create service disparities in such areas as health and education. We saw during Covid-19 that unequal access to healthcare can exacerbate social fragility, especially during health crises. Social fragility is also greatly increased because due to the veil of protection through social media, racism and other forms of discrimination can be promoted without perpetrators being held to account. Social media with all its great opportunities has allowed for the fast spread of fake news as well as putting pressure on young and old to seek attention. In some developing countries, the rise in suicides among young people and increased cases of mental health challenges can be associated with the negative effects of social media. Through social media, violent activities can be spread as entertainment which in the process blunt any sensitivity and conscience. This then gets translated in real life where we see an increase in violence, especially in domestic settings. Women and children tend to be on the receiving end of such fragility.
One biggest cause of fragility today is failing governance in many parts of the world where there is a growing disregard for democracy and respect for human dignity. Even in countries that used to pride themselves as champions of democracy, we can see many signs of strain. Citizens cannot see the meaningful relationship between democratic participation and the improvement of welfare. Many choose not to participate. In the last few years, we have seen many successive coups in western parts of Africa. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine comes as part of series of unilateral decisions by strong countries to invade and attack weaker ones. As a result, there is a rise in militarism as countries realise that it is not international rule of law that defines relations but one’s military strength. In many countries the shrinking space for civil society means that it becomes more and more difficult to hold governments accountable. This is creating so much fragility and denying hope to many people.
The greatest fragility today is evident in the environmental and climate crises, evidenced by the high risk of natural disasters, irregular rainfall patterns, extreme weather patterns, displacement of many people and poor coordination between and among nations to respond to these challenges adequately and sustainably. While many “developed countries” are busy working on the green transition by extracting the needed minerals from Africa, such mining is not benefiting local communities. In many cases the environmental destruction left in these countries creates new challenges. Communities are displaced without proper compensation in areas with these resources greatly needed for transitioning to the green economy. The extractive economic model which led to the violence on the environment is struggling to change its assumptions of infinite growth and unbridled exploitation. With its philosophical foundations of objectifying creation, this economic model is creating vulnerability and fragility not only to the present but also future generations. Many people are already being forced to migrate to other parts of the world because their land will sink under water in the next few decades as sea levels rise.
How does ecumenical diakonia brings hope to this complex fragility denying people hope at local and international levels? I propose that it should do so at the theological, institutional, and practical levels.
Theology of caring communities
In order for the church to effectively respond to current fragility, it must recover the theology of care which is the basis of diakonia. The church’s response to fragility must be informed by diakonia as an “integral dimension of the church’s nature and mission.” Recovering this theology of caring communities begins from “rereading” biblical and theological texts from the perspective of compassionate and caring ministry of Jesus and the church after him. Such a theological and biblical reorientation will ground the diaconal interventions of the church.
A cursory look at some texts will show that the ministry of Jesus was premised on service. We read in Mark 10:45 that “the son of man came not to be served but to serve.” This service-oriented ministry was in a way a critique to the status-oriented self-understanding of the religious life. This idea of diakonia as humble service is demonstrated in Martha’s preparation of the meal for Jesus in Luke 10:40. In a context of honour and shame, Jesus’ assumption of the role of a slave would have created uneasiness among his disciples as can be seen in the episode of the washing of the feet in John 13. Reclaiming the theology of compassionate and humble service is the right starting point for the churches’ intervention for the healing of a fragile world.
This caring and compassionate aspect of the church’s theological self-understanding is not only theoretical. It is practical. So in Matthew 25:35-36, Jesus speaks about the basis of the final judgment by saying, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” This underscores the importance of caring for those in need to the point that it was understood as the criteria for the final judgement in the early church.
This theology of care and compassion while addressing the present need must also attend to the structural conditions that cause the pain. In Acts 2:44-45 we read that “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” First century Palestine was divided between the “haves” and the “have nots.” “The peasants who worked the land were the vast majority of the population, but taxation policies” including tithes, taxes, tribute, and many tolls coupled with “land grabbing by the elite classes made the system inherently unjust” and threw many people debt. Many would subsequently lose their ancestral land. Without this land, the basic means of production, one would then give themselves into day labour and slavery. The church at Pentecost was born at the heart of such deep economic inequality. From the account in Acts, while the church addressed the humanitarian needs of those in need, including organizing functioning system of equitable distribution, they also started to address the disparities of land and property ownership. Some sold their land to redistribute the wealth. Theology of diakonia that seeks to give hope to the fragile world must orient itself, not only to bandaging the wound, but also stopping the injury.
Today, churches are struggling with ethical differences that can easily affect their diaconal action to give hope to a fragile world. The early church had to agree on common ground issues in the midst of potentially divisive contextual diversity. We hear some basic criteria in Galatians 2:10. Paul says that “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do.” The churches could differ on many issues, but on this one thing, they had common understanding. They all needed to remember and help the poor as central theme in the early Church. The church cannot contribute to the healing the fragility of the world without a theological orientation towards unity in service for the poor. Unity in service for the need should be able to transcend doctrinal difference.
Theological orientation in diakonia must also take into consideration the rich history of sharing of resources and solidarity with those who are in need as Christian identity. In writing to the Corinthians regarding the famine in Jerusalem, Paul says, “And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2 In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. 3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. 5 And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us” (2 Corinthians 8:1-5). The church’s response to fragility is that of solidarity where one part of the body response when another part of the body is in pain. It is different from the responses by governments and states that respond in their “self-interest.” The Macedonians gave themselves first to the Lord and then gave their possessions to those who are in need. Such an approach to responding to the fragility of the world removes the paternalistic attitudes that show up when those who have are responding to the needs of others. Solidarity and sharing must be informed by the truth that we what we have is a gift of God and therefore we use it in service to God in meeting the needs of others. This removes all forms of power games and manipulation.
Solidarity and sharing do not however remove the responsibility to account for the use of resources. The church’s response to the needs of the world loses credibility if it is not based on accountability and stewardship. In taking the gifts for those in need in Jerusalem, Paul says that “We want to avoid any criticism of the way we administer this liberal gift. For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of people” (2 Corinthians 8:20-21). The witness of the church is at stake in its contribution to the resolving of the pain of society. It must not only be accountable but also seen to be accountable.
Some contemporary challenges
For the church to meaningfully put its theology into practice, it must overcome some hurdles today. Let us highlight three of these.
First, the church must overcome the structural challenges. Today the diaconal response of the church to the various challenges at happen at different levels. There are those organizations operating at international or regional levels and those that are operating at local levels. The relationship of these interventions tend to be characterized by asymmetry of resources. Local actors tend to have very limited financial resources while their ‘international partners’ tend to have many resources at their disposal. During my time as General secretary in Zimbabwe, I observed that foreign directors of international FBOs would easily get funding from different donor organisations. This created a system of inferiority to local actors who felt they could not meaningfully influence processes or agenda setting. It also means that locals do not have the leading agency to address local challenges. The agenda of intervention gets dictated by outsider actors who have more resources. Fragility of the world requires that locals be empowered with resources to implement interventions in context sensitive ways.
Second, another challenge is that of agency and leadership. In many cases, diaconal actors from the north (who are presented as expatriates or experts) who are also called international actors, tend to assume leadership at local levels because they have more resources as mentioned above. They are normally assigned to go and work in the south as country directors or such other designation of roles. Due to availability of such resources, the international diaconal actor will park their Toyota Prado next to a local church diaconal office which is using a bicycle to implement its work. Diakonia is about the leadership or influence of the church to transform society. Building compassionate and caring communities and culture, requires such leadership. Church leadership has power and influence to foster a culture of caring. Leaders who demonstrate and embody care and compassion in their teachings and actions will contribute to the building caring communities capable of addressing fragility in different forms. This kind of leadership must be able to understand that local fragility is also a result of global processes. In this regard, diaconal leadership that can contribute to realize local agency. Ecumenical diakonia must be driven by local leadership and local congregations who know how to identify and address the specific needs of their communities. This includes training and equipping local leaders and members to carry out caring interventions effectively.
Third, the church’s response to the fragility of the world requires the participation of the whole church even though some may take expert roles. Contemporary diakonia, especially as it is being driven by international diaconal agencies, tends to be institutionalised and professionalized outside the routines of the church. This model of diakonia presents some few people as diaconal actors operating from diaconal institutions that have different levels of separation from the church. In many cases, such separation creates a culture in which diakonia becomes more and more secularized. The diaconal ministry of the early church was connected to its worship life. The church’s response to the fragility of the world was nurtured in the environment of the preaching of the word and making disciples (kerygma), in the worship life (leitourgia), in the vitality of Christian fellowship (koinonia) and in the church’s witness to the world (marturia). Diakonia removed from its spiritual ecosystem tends to reproduce the power asymmetries and logics that are inconsistent with the faith of the church.
The world is struggling with different forms of fragility. Some of these are social, economic, political and environmental. The diaconal response of the church to these fragilities should be based on its theological and biblical self-understanding of being a servant church, a church caring and compassionate for those in need, a church that is in solidarity, a church that seeks to transform the structures of injustice, a church that shares its resources. To do this effectively, the church must make sure it overcomes some structural inequalities characterised by power asymmetries. Above all, the church’s response to the fragility of the world must be nurtured in an environment of worship, preaching of the risen Lord, flourishing Christian fellowship, and the Christian witness of the coming kingdom of God. Such a church will contribute to giving hope to a fragile world and will hasten the coming reign of God, the reign of peace, justice, unity and abundant life for all people. Thank you.
 Walter Brueggemann, Hope within History, (John Knox Press, Atlanta, 1987),p.2
 Walter Brueggemann, Hope within History, (John Knox Press, Atlanta, 1987),p.3
 The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is a forum where governments of 37 democracies with market-based economies collaborate to develop policy standards to promote sustainable economic growth.
 https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/c7fedf5e-en/index.html?itemId=/content/publication/c7fedf5e-en extracted on the 30th of August 2023
 Called to Transformation: Ecumenical diakonia, (WCC and ACT Alliance publication, Geneva, 2022), p.110
 John J. Pilch, The Cultural world of Jesus, (Liturgical Press, Minnesota, 1997)
 Keith A. Reich, Figuring Jesus: the power of rhetorical figures of speech I the gospel of Luke, (Brill, Leiden, 2011), p.33