Sant’ Egidio International Meeting
“Peace With No Borders: Religions and Cultures in Dialogue”
Madrid: 17 September, 2019
Olav Fykse Tveit
General Secretary, World Council of Churches
Dear brothers and sisters!
It is a pleasure and an honour to be with you today and to address you simply as “brothers and sisters”. That simple greeting sets us all together in the light of God and proclaims to us a beautiful and radical truth, a truth which is both liberating and also very demanding. It is a truth which is the theme of our discussion today here in Madrid, just as it was also the focus of the historic event in Abu Dhabi in February which we are recalling today.
It was a very great privilege for me to represent WCC at that historic meeting in Abu Dhabi at which His Holiness Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmad al-Tayyeb, issued their bold declaration about human fraternity. This was an encouraging moment in the long journey on which we as Christians are travelling with members of other religious communities – a journey towards greater recognition of our shared humanity and of our call to work together for the common good.
The Abu Dhabi declaration reminds us of the truth that we are all members of the one human family. As human beings we are related, as sisters and brothers. This simple truth is liberating: it sets us free from all kinds of lies that have divided and enslaved human beings over the ages. This truth is also very demanding: it calls us to leave behind often deeply engrained patterns of thinking about others and to live in new ways as a human family.
That sounds straightforward – to live together as a human family. But, of course, in every family, there are differences. In every family, there are challenges. Some challenges relate to how we handle those differences. But in every family there is – or should be – something that can make us feel at home, something that can make us feel protected and supported, something that can keep us together and help us overcome problems and failures. And that is love. With love, life in a family is a blessing; without love, life in any family is a problem and a burden, which is sadly the experience of far too many. The same is true for the one human family. We need to show what we all need: love for one another. And we have to show what that love means in practice. Sometimes we need to learn that we have to love those who are very different from us. Love must express itself in a true search for justice, for peace, and for unity.
As in Abu Dhabi, so also here in Madrid today, we come together from different religious traditions to affirm our human fraternity. We will naturally do so in different ways, according to our different convictions. Speaking for the WCC, a fellowship of 350 Orthodox and Protestant churches from around the world, I can say that we base our commitment to human fraternity on the fundamental Christian conviction, found in the first chapter of the Bible, that every single person, of whatever religion or none, has been created in the image of God. To look upon all our fellow human beings in that light is a great inspiration as we continue on the often challenging path towards greater justice and peace throughout God’s world, for all the human family.
But the opening chapters of the Bible are also very frank about our human failure to honour the divine image in one another. In the story of Cain and Abel, one brother murders another and cynically asks: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This story corresponds closely with the current realities of our world, and shows how easily and brutally we can destroy the bonds of human fraternity. Christians believe that in our unjust and violent world the way forward is in the love of God manifested to us in Jesus Christ. Jesus comes among us as brother to us all. He invites us both to call God “Father” and so also to regard all people as beloved sisters and brothers, with their equal dignity - and therefor also equal rights.
Let me share with you a concern I have talking about “human fraternity”. It is not about the content, but the terminology. We are trying to see on another as one human family, and therefore as brothers – and sisters! We are not only brothers. “Fraternity” gives the sense of “brotherhood”. We need to be sensitive to how we speak, because we are serious about the issue of proper and inclusive relations, including all of God’s one human family. We have to acknowledge that this is particularly important in religious contexts. Women contribute with their perspectives and experiences, and particularly in peacemaking this is of great significance. We cannot make peace among religions only as men!
Recognizing both our high calling and also our failures, we in the WCC seek in our varied activities to witness to the love of God which bestows dignity upon all people and so to find practical ways of living out our commitment to human fraternity in the world today. Let me mention just a few ways in which we seek to do this.
The current motto of the WCC is that we are together on a Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace. This year we particularly focus on how to combat racism, which perhaps more than anything else directly opposes justice and peace and undermines human fraternity. Even though the concept of “race” is a construction, often employed to reinforce certain political interests, sometimes even combined with religious perspectives, racism is nevertheless a terrible reality, degrading, excluding and discriminating against countless human beings. Racism is a sin and one of the most dangerous poisons in our lives as the human family. It has deadly consequences, as we know from the history of the 20th century, particularly in the genocides against Jews, as well as against Armenians, in Rwanda, and other places. At present we are working at WCC to learn from our member churches and other partners about the realities around the world of racism, discrimination, and xenophobia and to identify ways of responding. We will make this focus a major theme of our next General Assembly, to be held in September 2021. This is one way we are trying to work out in practice what it means truly to love all our human sisters and brothers, and to seek for them the experience of justice and peace in their daily lives that we would also wish for ourselves.
Some of the challenges of human fraternity is the normalization of hatred in our time. This was the agreed theme for our meeting as WCC with the partner we have in Jewish-Christian relations, the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (ICJIC). In view of the painful complexities of Middle Eastern politics, it is no surprise that there have been some disagreements between us and our Jewish partners in recent years. At our meeting this summer, however, we took a step forward, acknowledging our different perspectives but also commiting ourselves to renewed dialogue and cooperation. As we discussed the many troubling manifestations in today’s world of the “normalization of hatred”, we naturally addressed the recent rise in expressions of antisemitism. WCC’s commitment to combatting antisemitism was clearly emphasized: from our foundation in 1948, antisemitism has been denounced by WCC as “sin against God and man”. Equally clearly, we also stated our commitment to seeking justice and peace for both Jews and our Palestinian brothers and sisters. We need to care for the human rights of all. Therefore, we cannot accept a definition of anti-semittism that can be used to call our concern for the human rights of Palestinians for anti-semittism. Encouragingly, we and our Jewish partners also committed ourselves to working together on shared projects for the sake of justice and peace in the wider world. We in effect affirmed both our human fraternity as Jews and Christians, and also, in our desire to serve the needs of the wider human family, our fraternity with all the people of the world. Of course, the way ahead may not always be clear or easy. Seeking human fraternity in our divided and complex world is a hard challenge. But this is the path to which we are committed.
In recent months, a very worrying example of the increasing “normalization of hatred” in our world is the disturbingly repetitive pattern of murderous attacks on vulnerable minorities worshipping in their holy places. Repeatedly, we at WCC have raised our voices to condemn these brutal acts and to express our sense of fraternity and solidarity with traumatized and grieving communities, thinking especially of the Jewish community in Pittsburgh, the Muslim community in Christchurch, and the Christian communities of Sri Lanka. But there is a danger that our words of condemnation and solidarity, however sincerely intended, will start to sound routine and hollow unless we are serious about asking ourselves what we can do in response to such horrific events.
In my message this year to Muslims around the world at Eid al-Fitr, I expressed the desire of WCC to explore with Muslim colleagues and partner organisations what we can do together for the sake of justice and peace, especially in the face of this rising tide of violence against vulnerable communities. We must all strive to keep our hearts open to the suffering of other communities and beware of the temptation to perpetuate narratives of competitive suffering in which our community is always the most victimized. Do we see in the suffering of other communities the suffering of our own sisters and brothers? I was encouraged by the warm response to my message of many Muslim leaders. I also take heart from examples known to me of Muslim-Christian cooperation in a spirit of fraternity in various parts of the world. But of course, there is always much, much more that we could do, together, for the sake of our world.
As I said earlier, the idea that all people are one human family is a simple but beautiful truth, a liberating but also demanding truth. These are indeed challenging times, when it is far from easy to live out the truth that we are one human family. These are times that require of us daring stands and bold actions in the name of God and for the sake of all people. Confronted by racism, antisemitism, unspeakable violence against the vulnerable, all forms of xenophobia, and all other denials of our shared humanity, equally created in the image of God, we must affirm: Human fraternity is a gift, and also a task, a divine calling. This is a matter of being truly human, acknowledging one another with equal dignity and rights, as women and men, and behaving as one human family. So may God give to us all the courage to be one human family and to choose the right way – the way of justice and peace, the way of love!