Speech of the WCC General Secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit at an international conference on Sustainability and Climate in Religion in Bergen, Norway, organized by the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, The Church of Norway and The Council for Religious and Life Stance Communities in Norway.
Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity
(Theme of the eleventh assembly of the WCC 2021 in Karlsruhe/Germany)
1. Kairos – crisis and opportunity
Kairophobia – I find this word fascinating. Psychology describes as kairophobia the deep-seated fear of making decisions and, hence, the inability to grasp the moment for necessary change at the right time. Phobos is the Greek word for fear. Kairos refers to the moment of decision contrary to Chronos, the steadily progressing time. Kairos is sometimes drawn as a person with one lock of hair hanging over his face and no hair at all at the back of his head. He can easily be seized by the hair when coming, but it is too late and the opportunity to catch him is missed when he has passed.
Kairos means both, opportunity and crisis. Something new is possible when the moment is grasped; if it is missed, a feeling of fear and failure remains. Life is threatened. It can be destroyed within seconds by the inferno of a nuclear war. It is being destroyed slowly, but steadily by climate change and a dramatic loss of biodiversity. This is our situation. We are the first generation exposed to the climate crisis and the last that can take effective steps to limit the looming catastrophe. We shall not miss this moment!
Analyzing the situation we are facing, we can see how people are frightened. Fear is used for political purposes. Populists stir up fear of “the other” (xenophobia), often directed against refugees and migrants. Their aim is to gain a majority of votes, fishing at the center and the right wing of the political spectrum. Authoritarian politics and a wrong sense of security are being sold as panacea. In fact, however, the interests of dominant groups are protected in this way. In past and present, such strategies draw attention away from the real threats to life. They serve those who resist any change, defending their own power, privilege, and profits.
Some in the mining industries, big oil or car producers, and politicians whose basis have depending on their support, have acted and act as if the climate crises could be ignored, even though some of them knew and indeed know what was coming from their own researchers. Some even financed climate sceptics in denial of the facts, to the effect that confusion and fear would paralyze people and block change.
2. Love: the anti-dote to despair and hate
Poverty, massive inequality, the climate crisis, loss of biodiversity and war are the real threats to the future of life on planet earth. They are also the root causes for growing numbers of refugees and migrants. Through my work with the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the churches worldwide, I have learned that the we can counteract fear and paralysis when we engage together in transformative action because we trust the sources of our Christian faith and are faithful to our calling as disciples of Christ.
The WCC has addressed, for instance, the climate crises for more than thirty years now. WCC delegations raised the voice of the churches at all of the Conferences of Parties (COP) of the UN framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). We have overcome the some of the anthropocentrism of theology in the past. We have seen that the earth is the common home for all living creatures, living in different spaces or habitats but all linked to each other in a web of vital relationships. We have regained a more profound understanding of the unity of God’s creation and the need to care for both people and earth, re-interpreting the witness of the Bible and learning from the early church and the apostolic faith of the Holy Trinity. We have appealed to reason and the better knowledge of scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
We have shared the stories of many of our sisters and brothers in different parts of the world who are already now victims of the climate crises – those in the Pacific who have to relocate because their villages are drowning in the raising sea or those of farmers in the tropics and sub-tropical regions who are being hit by severe droughts on the one hand and torrential rainfalls on the other. We have supported many pilgrimages of climate justice especially in 2015, the year of COP 21 in Paris.
Like the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, Pope Francis, and many other church leaders, we have underlined that climate change is indicative of a deep moral and spiritual crisis of our times that keeps us hostage of an unsustainable path of economic growth and fierce competition among major geopolitical powers. The crisis surely requires technical, economic and political actions for change, but at its heart it is a crisis of moral values. What is desperately missing in some circles is solidarity with and love for all fellow human beings and all life on planet earth – as a platform for more than our dreams, but the realpolitics to prevent and handle the crisis. I am encouraged to see that many politicians and leaders of other sectors of societies, particularly in industry, finance and business, have in the latter years taken their own human vulnerability into account in exercising their leadership. Well, they have to, or see that the development for profit and power will be based on the “green shift”, but many of them also have developed a genuine attitude of care towards their fellow human beings, now and in the future.
Love is emotional, personal. But love is also what we do, what we don’t do, and what we do together. Love for life gives people energy and hope. It is the anti-dote to fear and despair. The ecumenical movement is at its best a resistance movement against fear and a movement of hope and responsible care for people and earth. It is a movement built on the love of the Triune God as origin and final destiny of all life. Let us explore this connection of love to nature in our Christian faith further.
3. Love at the heart of Christian faith
Some of the most beautiful verses of the Bible give glory to the love of God that motivates the creation, the coming of Christ to reconcile the world with God, and finally the promise of new life for all and everything being one in Christ. The Gospel of St John – chapter 3 verse 16 – says it clearly: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” The Apostle Paul confirms in Romans 8:38 and 39 “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Love of God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, is at the origin of this world and of our Christian faith. In turn, love of the other, of the neighbor and all other life, is at the heart of our calling as disciples of Christ. Jesus confirmed at various occasions the double commandment of love as the essence of the Hebrew Bible and of the covenant with God. The crisis of life, we are facing, is teaching us that we are to include in it not only the neighbor, the other and the enemy, but all other forms of life.
Let me go deeper into this affirmation of love at the heart of Christian faith, looking at the theme of the eleventh assembly of the WCC 2021 in Karlsruhe/Germany: “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity.” This theme of our next assembly alludes to the text from 2 Cor 5. There St Paul even says: “The love of Christ compels us, because we know that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all. So that those who live might not live any longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.... So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us, we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled with God.” (vv. 14, 20)
The assembly theme provokes the question: How are justice, reconciliation, unity, and love actually connected at the heart of our faith in Jesus Christ? The biblical authors struggled to see the deeper meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There were references to legal, forensic practices and particularly to cultic traditions. Many models of human experience and structures for reconciliation are relevant to describe the mystery of our faith and the unity given in Christ.
One such experience I learned about in a visit to Samoa, in the Pacific. There, if anything wrongful was done, the family of the perpetrator sat down outside the house of the victim’s family expressing their shame and guilt. They would sit there till the victim and the family were ready to come out and stretch their hands toward the others. Revenge would destroy everybody. Unity in the island could be restored, without covering up for the sin done.
That there are different models for expressing what the love of Jesus Christ meant at a given time, is the case also in 2. Corinthians 5. Paul, with his Jewish roots, and the readers in the new community established in the multicultural Corinth, belong together in a “new creation.” Then it is proper to conclude: “But all this is from God” (v 18.) This is what is the bottom line in all these reflections and images in the New Testament. It is God the creator, the savior, the life giver in action. Always we are celebrating life as God’s gift that is to be cherished, sustained and cared for and that includes the other. The love call from Jesus is a call to love all what he loves.
Another clear message in the text from 2 Cor 5, which informs also the theme of our next assembly, is the following: It is one motivation, one attitude, that matters, that even compels us: The love of Christ for us, for all. It changes our relationship to God – and therefore to all others. This is about God’s attitude to us and our attitudes to one another. God has reconciled the world to Godself in Christ. This is an attitude that we are called to show to the world, to anyone in the world. It is an attitude of love seeking the transformation of love, the new creation, shaped in the image of Jesus Christ. We are not ignoring the reality of sin, but we are finding that God can deal with sin in a way we could not, in Jesus Christ.
Many churches struggle with their roles, and many leaders in churches and in the ecumenical movement are struggling with their personal, professional, and ecclesial roles as peacemakers and “ambassadors of reconciliation”. Why are we not able to focus on the important issues? Why are we here, as churches in a fellowship, in a world threatened by climate change, by division and fragmentation based on economic injustice, by escalations of violence, and by the deconstruction of open, representative democracies?
It is time to go back to basics and, going forward, showing what the basics really are. That is why it is time to say – in a acritical way to ourselves: Christ’s love moves us? And, even more: In an affirmative way: Let Christ’s love move us. So that we can contribute to implement the statement of faith as a contribution to a better world, loved by God: Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity.
Whatever we say about God in Christian theology, in Christian witness, or through our Christian life, it is somehow defined by how we understand what Christ means. Being church today requires a renewed reflection and a renewed orientation to the world as created by God, springing from our confession of Jesus as Christ. In a time when we are more and more urgently challenged by the threats to the created world as the place to live as human beings and other creatures, we have to ask what the incarnation of Christ means. Can we respond to Christ’s love without loving the creation, this world, wounded and threatened by sin? There is no way to speak about the message of God incarnated in Jesus than through the words and the acts interpreted as signs of love.
The relationships of love that are expressed in faith in Jesus as one of the three persons in God, defines all that we can say and applies to the relationships we are experiencing and trying to develop as visible unity in the church. This is expressed in many ways in the text of John 17, where the motivation for the modern ecumenical movement often is found. To be one as followers of Jesus is to reflect the relationships between Jesus and the Father to whom his prayer is directed. The expression “such as” (you Father and me are one) is the key to understand the meaning of the remarkable Farewell Discourse of Jesus, which also became the definition of the new and the lasting relationships to God through Jesus Christ. This is the key to our relation to one another as human beings and to all that God has created. For just as God loves the world, so we shall do.
4. Love and conversion towards life
The reformation was about a renewed understanding of Christian faith and life, grounded in the studies of the sources of our faith and a conversion towards God’s grace as gift and as new platform on which we can serve others in our world. Grace is rooted in love given unconditionally and by sacrifice. “God, in your grace, transform the world” was the theme of the ninth assembly of the WCC 2006 in Porto Alegre/Brazil. This theme opened up the horizon of justification by grace beyond the human beings in a wider ecological dimension.
We discover such widening of the horizon already in Romans 8 where the Apostle Paul writes (vv. 19 -23): “ For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
Justification by grace was often understood just in individual terms. Today we face realities of sin and consequences of sin that require conversion not only of individuals, but of societies as such. Grace opens up the possibility for conversion and transformation towards life. Churches that are ready to engage in an ecological reformation can point to such new discovery of the power of grace and the transformed reality it brings about. It frees from the bondages of fear and the slavery of the growth-oriented development paradigm of our times.
Grace opens the way to change. In the power of grace, we can do what is right and what is needed. Responding to God’s grace, we are called to assume our common responsibilities for life. God frees us to practice love for the other and all life - not to please God through good works, but because our life together in this world needs love. Love in practice.
The conversion towards life moves us to love in action with and for our fellow beings and – let me add here - with future generations. I explained already why we had to broaden the understanding of the double commandment of love including other life belonging to the “kin-ship” of God the creator, which will also be reconciled with God at the end of all times. Another task that is still in many ways before us is to broaden the time horizon we are considering for our actions, including the rights of future generations. We are to start with the rights of our children and grandchildren. Who can say that we should not love them? But our consumption levels continue to exceed by far all limits of sustainability and put at risk the future of their lives. Carbon dioxide emissions continue to increase although they are to shrink drastically by now if global warming is to remain below increasingly dangerous and catastrophic temperatures.
The multiple crisis of life requires that we see and emphasize the interconnections between the love Christ and the unity of humankind, of all creation, and of the church. Christ’s love compels us – as it is said in 2 Corinthians 5 - to receive and use the opportunity of life in fellowship, moving together towards reconciliation and unity becoming one in Christ. The unity statement of the 10th Assembly of the WCC, in 2013 in Busan, Korea, declared (para 13):
“The unity of the Church, the unity of the human community and the unity of the whole creation are interconnected. Christ who makes us one calls us to live in justice and peace and impels us to work together for justice and peace in God’s world. The plan of God made known to us in Christ is, in the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Christ, ‘things in heaven and things on earth’ (Ephesians 1:9-10).”
The ecological reformation of Christianity requires a two-way process: the ecological critique of Christianity and the Christian critique of ecological destruction. One is not complete and convincing without the other. Reflection on eco-theology needs to continue and even to be intensified at a time when scientists begin to speak of our time as “anthropocene” – a new geological strata showing the traces and destructive influence of human civilization. Ethics of justice, peace and sustainability need to converge and inform the transformation of churches and society that is needed.
5. With courage and hope: Choose love for life in the present kairos
It is absolutely urgent for those who shape the moral discourse about sustainable values for the earth as our common home and the human family to grasp the opportunities we have and to do more and more what serves the future of our planet. The moral discourse has to be focused on how to make decisions concerning the basis of all life grounded in the principles of sustainability and justice. This is not the time to make the rich countries more sustainable and to burden the poor countries and communities with the problems and the solutions of the past that don’t serve them. We need new solutions that benefit all people and especially the most vulnerable.
We need to move forward, recognizing the fundamental premises of climate justice both in a north-south perspective, but also in an inter-generational perspective. Additionally, there is need for constant re-evaluation according to changing realities of access to cheap renewable energy, and according to the momentum of change. To actualize the new future that is possible, the international agreements must provide incentives to investment in poor countries, or in countries that have enormous needs of energy due to the size of their population.
The Church understands itself as global, universal – or “catholic”. This is in real time, and in an historical perspective. We cannot only think of being church in the world as only an issue about ourselves, but those who were here before us, but also about those who come after us.
We have reasons for hope because changes are happening already. Many are changing their priorities and their life styles to protect the earth. Many are with us, physically or symbolically, on a pilgrimage of climate justice and peace. Even in the financial and business sectors more and more people are changing their investments and practices. They are turning towards de-carbonization, renewable energy, and new methods of production and transportation. And last but not least, since the publication of the Papal encyclical Laudato Si’ we can celebrate common ground concerning the care for creation among all major churches and Christian traditions!
We believe that we have the potential to do what is just for the poor, those who contribute the least to emissions yet suffer the most. We believe that we have been given by God, the Creator, this responsibility - but also the capacity to change. I said at another occasion we are moving forward in this direction because we have hope.
We have reasons to hope.
We have the right to hope.
Indeed: We do have the opportunity and the chance to choose life in this kairotic moment and to care with love for our common home.
Because we believe it is true that Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity.