Contribution to a panel discussion

Love of the Poor:  The Path to Ecumenism

St Egidio - International Meeting for Peace

Sarajevo, 10 September 2012

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit

General Secretary

World Council of Churches

"Are you willing to walk in the shoes of a poor, African farmer?" The late HH Abune Paulos, the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, asked me that question when I talked to him before being elected as the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches. I want to honour him, a president of the WCC and a friend of the St Egidio community, by repeating the question here to all of us. The question has remained in my mind. This perspective should follow us in all our reflections on ecumenism.

The path to ecumenism has always been found when persons and churches have listened to the call to be one as a call to stand up for one another. St Paul develops the image of the Body of Christ to say what the Church is and how we are called to be one (cf. 1 Cor. 12).  No one can say to the other, “I have no need of you." This implies that there are needs; and, responding to the needs of the other belongs to the identity of being church.

Charity has always been an important characteristic in the life of the Christian as a disciple of Christ. It has usually been regarded as both an expression of the Christian disciple’s faithfulness to the teachings of Christ to love one’s neighbour as oneself, as well as the fulfilment of one’s duties in sharing the material blessings bestowed by God, the Heavenly Father. We find many examples in the letters written by both the Apostles Paul and Peter to the early churches that extort “charity”, which in today’s parlance is readily translated and accepted as “love” as a basic element in the proper relationship between the faithful as well as with the wider society as the world God so loved. (cf. John 3:16)

For the ecumenical movement, the church’s response to the needs of the world has been a brand mark. It first found its contemporary expression in its care for the refugees in Europe from the Second World War. As the WCC was being established in the context of the Second World War and its aftermath, the first WCC General Secretary, Dr Visser’t Hooft, called for a ‘system of mutual aid’ for which all the churches would feel responsible and which would have its rightful place in the total life of the ecumenical movement. And over the years the WCC went on to establish many and varied departments and instruments for ecumenical service and for the alleviation of human need. In the first years, the focus of WCC’s attention was the reconstruction of the Christian churches in Europe. However, over the following years the mandate and action of the WCC in the broad area of solidarity developed in three main directions: emergency aid work, ecumenical solidarity and assistance; and refugee service.

At the WCC New Delhi Assembly in 1961, when many Orthodox churches became members of the WCC, the Council explicitly rearticulated the aims and approach of the ecumenical movement in this area of work to express the solidarity of the churches, especially in their service to the world around them (diakonia), and to provide facilities by which the churches may serve men and women in acute human need everywhere. This mandate intentionally began to use the language of diakonia, a term depicting the Christian’s service and witness in the world, and to speak in a new way about solidarity as service to the world rather than solidarity between churches, to help meet the needs on behalf of humanity and without distinction of creed, caste, race, nationality or politics. At the time of the Uppsala Assembly of the WCC in 1968, the debate about ecumenical diakonia revolved around the key phrases of ‘justice, not charity’. Empowerment of the poor and sharing in the struggle for justice and human dignity became significant tasks for social action and initiative in the WCC understanding. In this view the question was not so much “What can the churches do for the poor?” but rather, “Are the churches prepared to live with the poor and take part in their struggle for liberation?”

The development of the "preferential option for the poor" became a hermeneutical approach to all ecumenical reflection; we have to see the world with the eyes of Jesus Christ, from the perspective of the marginalized and less privileged. But this perspective also confirmed that the "poor" have something to offer that the whole fellowship needs, the experience and the capacity to live and love “the other” in circumstances many of us are not able to live under.

Diakonia is the church’s ministry of sharing, healing and reconciliation and is of the very nature of being church, a community of the faithful disciples of Christ carrying forth the liberating gospel of life in fullness for all God’s creation. Through this affirmation, ecumenical diakonia became understood as the sharing and healing action of the Holy Spirit through the community of God’s people in and for the world.

Exploring this recognition of the significance and importance of the “local congregation” as the carrier of God’s “charity” (love) for the world, a recent WCC consultation gathered in Sri Lanka, June 2012, to discern the theological perspectives on diakonia in the 21st century, stating that “every Christian community in every geo-political and socio-economic context is called to be a diaconal community, witnessing to God’s transformative grace through acts of service that hold forth the promise of God’s reign, healing relationships and nurturing partnerships for the sake of God’s good creation.” This became also very clear in the mission statement from the Manila conference March 2012, received by the central committee of the WCC September 2012. In that statement, the mission in and from the margins became the leading perspective on mission, acknowledging the potential and the gifts of all. The church includes the poor not only serves the poor.

Furthermore, according to the June 2012 statement, ecumenical diakonia is “not limited to binding the wounds of the victims or doing acts of compassion” but also include “efforts aimed at confronting and transforming the forces and factors which cause suffering and deprivation.” In this way, the ecumenical activities of diakonia extend beyond “acts of charity” which seek to comfort the weak, the marginalised and the underprivileged neighbours in our communities. It proactively seeks to confront “the powers and principalities” of the world which perpetuate the systemic injustices and structures of exploitation that continue to enslave and victimise God’s creation, the objects of God’s love and the subject of God’s Kingdom.

Therefore, the ecumenical fellowship in and between churches must be a structure of mutual accountability, critically challenging one another and helping one another to express the Christian voice and offer the Christian contribution to and with the poor. It is our task to address the fact that so many live under the "poverty line". It is as well our responsibility to make the rich accountable and contribute to the defining a "greed line".

However, the transformative and prophetic nature of ecumenical diakonia does not merely empower the Christians to resist and confront evil but also to propose alternatives to the ways in which human beings relate with one another and with nature. Jesus, our Servant Lord, called those who follow him to be the salt of the earth, the light, and the leaven of the world (Matthew 5:13, 14), in other words, agents of change and alternative expressions for life. For the ecumenical movement, then, diakonia is both an expression of support and help to those in need as well as a creative action meant to bring about the world God so desires.

The poor need both charity for their immediate needs and advocacy to change the injustices of the world. Justice and peace, charity and advocacy must kiss one another.