Thematic Address by WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit

Christian Conference of Asia
13th General Assembly
15 – 20 April 2010, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

1. Introduction

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ!

In these days you are bringing your costly experiences and your prophetic dreams for tomorrow together.

I am asked to address you on the very theme of the assembly, “Called to Prophesy, Reconcile and Heal” and to offer what you have called “an ecumenical perspective.”  I am humbled to do so in front of this body of Asian church representatives and distinguished, specially invited guests of the Malaysian churches. Together you represent the Asian contexts, you know your ecumenical challenges, you have the experience and insight into what it means and what it might cost to give a Christian prophetic witness aimed at reconciliation and healing here in Asia.

Let me also express my congratulations to the newly elected general secretary of CCA, Rev. Dr Henriette Hutabarat Lebang, the first woman elected to this post. This is another important milestone in the ecumenical movement. I look forward to cooperation and collegiality with you and all your colleagues, exploring ways to mutually support and empower one another in our different tasks and roles.

2. An Asian Ecumenical Theme

The theme chosen for this 13th assembly is ambitious, appropriate – and Asian. It is ambitious and challenging not least because it is a combination of three challenging themes. This is a comprehensive expression of what it means to be church and a disciple of Jesus Christ. Sometimes we shall let others remind us (and we shall remind ourselves, too) that God has given us a great privilege when we are called to serve God in this world. I am impressed that you do not shy away from seeing yourselves as prophets, reconcilers and healers. As if any one of these roles was not demanding in itself, you are willing to take on all of them, all at the same time!

Still, this ambition seems appropriate for the Asian churches. Actually, my first thought when I heard this theme was that it sounds Asian. This theme expresses the ability to see the wholeness of life, holding quite different perspectives together. From your Asian tradition I believe you are enabled, maybe more than many others, to see different perspectives together as a whole, in a wider harmony. This is a significant contribution to our common, ecumenical and global reflection of what it means to be one. Different roles do not exclude one another.

The theme gives an appropriate picture of the role you have been given and taken upon yourselves as churches here in the Asian region. We always receive a call from God somewhere, in a certain context. I see this combination of callings in your theme as your description of what is particularly needed in the Asian context and how you interpret the specific task of being church in Asia today. And when we look at the contributions from the churches in Asia, and some of them in close cooperation with the global fellowship of churches expressed through the World Council of Churches, we should together give thanks to God for how these roles have already been fulfilled in the past years.

The Asian contexts represent realities of great developments and growth: growth of population, of economic capacity, of geopolitical influence and power. The fact that Asia occupies one-third of the Earth's land surface, has more than half of the world's population and its countries play a growing role in international affairs makes whatever happens here more and more important for the rest of the world. However, there are also other aspects of growth. We can mention general pollution, the emissions of gases that contribute to global warming, and some of you see the growth in negative effects of climate change. We hear about growth in tensions and violence, some of it related to the use and abuse of religion, and we recognize a growth in political resistance to carry out the responsibility to protect basic human rights.

From last year’s conference in Bangkok on Dalit discrimination, jointly convened by the WCC and the Lutheran World Federation, I cannot forget the message of a woman saying to me: “In many places there is no safe space for a Dalit, Christian woman.” This is one of many, but maybe one of the most complicated and grave examples of discrimination and defamation of human dignity that we are facing in this region. There is also a growth in the numbers of people affected by HIV and a growth in the gap between the poorest and the richest. There are still divisions in many countries, and, in some, even growth in violent conflicts.

These are realities, shaping and affecting the lives and threatening the dignity of Asian people. I feel it is not quite proper to list all these issues as if they were not important and each deserving much attention in their own right. However, I do not pretend to be in the position of addressing some of them in depth.  You know them so much better than I do. You struggle to be free from poverty, violence, ethnic conflicts, militarization, external intervention, domination, authoritarianism and different kinds of abuse of religion to exercise violence and oppression. But to ignore this context would be to ignore the call of God coming to you and to all of us here in Asia.

It is true to say that far-reaching socio-political reforms have been put into effect in Asia over the past decades. In the midst of the aforementioned struggles and realities, the prophetic witness of Asian churches and the ecumenical movement has been demonstrated in various ways and widely recognized. The ecumenical movement has been contributing by accompanying the Asian churches in your prophetic witness of reconciliation and healing. This was visible as the CCA focused on various themes and addressed a number of pertinent issues since the 1960s, like “The Christian Community within the Human Community”, “Christian Encounter with other Faiths”, “Christian participation in Nation Building”, “Human Rights and the Right to Life”, “Claiming Economic Justice”, “Seeking Peace in Vietnam”, “People Against Domination in Asia”, “U.S. Military presence in Asia”, “Militarism and National Security”, “The Church and Political Reforms in Asia”, “Peace and Reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula”, the “Campaign against the proposed changes in Article 9 of Japanese Constitution” and “Rights of migrant workers and internally displaced people’s in Asia”.

In these many ways, the Asian churches together with the wider ecumenical movement have been engaged in the mission of God, sharing the gospel, contributing to reconciliation and healing in various national contexts over the past decades and engaging with suffering Asian people. I am proud of being given leadership of a global fellowship of churches of which many of you are formally members.  I am also proud of being a partner to the Christian Conference of Asia. I am deeply thankful for being a part of a global ecumenical movement that has been accompanying the churches in various Asian contexts. Let me mention some:  the struggle against authoritarian dictatorships in the Philippines and South Korea during the martial law era; the struggle for the right to self determination in East Timor and for peace and reconciliation in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos; the struggles against discrimination of Dalits in India, against persecution of Christians in Pakistan using the blasphemy laws, the denial of freedom of religion and persecution of Christians in India; and efforts to promote peace, reconciliation and unification of the Korean Peninsula through the Tozanso process and many others.

These examples are echoing the words of my predecessor, Dr. Visser t’Hooft, the first general secretary of the WCC, who stated that “the ecumenical movement has never been just a family party of the church, with the world left out.” This is also what Archbishop Desmond Tutu expresses as a lesson from our ecumenical journey: “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

We are accountable for what we teach and preach, and for the effects of what we teach and preach. And, we are accountable for the consequences of not addressing the issues affecting those who need the gospel of the Kingdom of God in this world. This leads me to reflecting on the theme of this assembly.

3. Some ecumenical theological perspectives on the theme

I find this theme indeed inspiring from an ecumenical perspective. We are called to keep these roles together, we are called to fill them together. We together are called to be one church, not to exercise these roles individually or announce ourselves individually and autonomously to be prophets or reconcilers or healers. The fruits shall be the proof of our work.

The day after my election to this post, I was greeted by some Pentecostals in my wife’s family, reminding me of the words of the prophet Isaiah, in 58:12, describing some roles of the servant of God:

”The ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
You shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
You shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.”

These words were particularly encouraging, challenging and humbling as they come from people who have been taught by their preachers that the WCC represents the other side, even Anti-Christ. However, the Pentecostals reminded me that together we should be servants of God, following the prophets who call for repentance.  We should be the servants who are raising up the foundations for many generations, repairers of the breach, restorers of streets to live in. We need both the foundations upon which to build our common house and the streets to live in, to be in an open fellowship, to communicate, to meet with all our neighbours, close and far.

There is no true prophecy that does not speak both the critical truth and contribute to the building up of a vision, a dream of the new life in common. The church is called to share the good news of God’s love for the world – the whole world, the love that is ultimately expressed in God’s giving of his own son (John 3:16).  The ministry of the church is, according to the New Testament, in its essence the ministry of reconciliation (II Cor 5). But, “all this is from God” (5:18). God has taken the initiative. God has created a new reality in Christ. Therefore, our ministry is always given by and related to God. It is always flowing from our given relationship to God and not to satisfy God. We are not sending ourselves.  We are not calling ourselves. The gifts we can share are given to us by God. The vertical dimension in our call cannot be lost. If it is, then we are lost.

God has offered reconciliation through the death and resurrection of Christ. The church is the fellowship of the receivers of God’s gracious gift of reconciliation in Christ. The mission of the church has always been and will always be to bring reconciliation by offering a new perspective. Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation (II Cor 5:17). The term "reconciliation" is used in the New Testament almost as an all-embracing term to articulate what is at the heart of the Christian faith. The visible expressions of such faith are demonstrated through ecumenical commitment and actions. The very notion of reconciliation presupposes the experience of brokenness in relationships, fellowship and communion. This may be in the form of estrangement, separation, enmity, hatred, exclusion, fragmentation or distorted relationships. The church is called to bring something that can reconcile and heal broken relationships; between God the creator and human beings, among human beings, and between human beings and creation. This is a common, holistic and basic perspective on mission as the ecumenical movement comes again to Edinburgh in 2010 to celebrate the centennial of the World Missionary Conference that took place there in 1910.

The call to share the gospel with all is forever the basic call of the church. The call to share the gospel will, however, forever be the call to share the realities of the kingdom of God as announced by the gospel. The discussions of what salvation means in the ecumenical movement, some of them very vital here in Asia, have been difficult but probably also necessary. Today most of those involved in evangelism emphasize the wholeness of the gospel, the wholeness of God’s saving work, the wholeness of God’s reconciliation. In that sense the clothes of the ecumenical movement are today worn by many, also those who felt it at times to be their role to distance themselves from the new challenges brought to the churches from the ecumenical movement.

The struggles for new, even critical, and changing perspectives for the churches have their roots deep in the faith in God the creator of all, the freedom of Christ, the life of the Holy Spirit.

There is a liturgy after the liturgy. This is presented in one of the assets of the ecumenical movement, the document Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (BEM): “All kinds of injustice, racism, separation and lack of freedom are radically challenged when we share in the blood of Christ. Through the eucharist, the all-renewing grace of God penetrates and restores human personality and dignity… As participants in the eucharist, therefore, we prove inconsistent if we are not actively participating in this ongoing restoration of the world’s situation and the human condition. The eucharist shows that we are inconsistent in the face of the reconciling presence of God in human history.” (E 20)

The ministry of reconciliation will always have an element of prophetic ministry as a critical voice. To preach the forgiveness of sin will always be a critical word of repentance, pointing to the need for change, to resist, even to fight against injustice, oppression and violations of human dignity and basic human rights. The reconciliation of God through Christ is not ignorance of what is wrong, a minimizing of the problems of evil, sin and death. The description of Christ’s death as atonement for sin, as described in the Bible, is an expression of taking the sin seriously, as well as taking those seriously who are hurt and affected by sin, and, finally, taking the sinner, seriously. The forgiveness of sin is a proactive act of God to stop sin, to break the evil circle, so that we shall not sin. Thus, the proclamation of the gospel of reconciliation will always also be a word of truth, a prophetic witness, a critical approach.

At the same time there is no true Christian prophetic witness that does not aim at reconciling and healing. The prophetic and critical word is also a transformative word speaking of something new. The prophets were both critical to their contemporaries and pointing to the possibility of another future, a vision of new life, of salvation, of the shalom. The word of God lets us recognize the truth of what must be changed and the promise and power of God to bring forgiveness and change.

The prophetic witness of the church can and should be critical, but not destructive, deteriorating or diminishing the dignity of others. The prophetic ministry of the church is always a ministry aimed at healing.  The witness of the South African churches in their local contexts is a clear example of this.  It is also an example of the accompaniment of the ecumenical movement. There are other significant examples of how religion can give strength and courage to speak for justice for you or for others. This is also an important dimension of the history of ecumenical ministry.  This is the just peace that we are focusing on as we plan for the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in Jamaica in 2011.

There are, nevertheless, examples of how religion does not only motivate a fight for what one group finds to be a struggle for justice and peace, but also legitimizes oppression or terrorizes innocent people.  Pakistan is an example of this discouraging trend in your own Asian region.  The strong link between prophetic witness and healing must be kept in place to maintain a genuine Christian prophetic witness. There is no prophetic witness only for our own sake and interest, for our own well being or for me or my group at the cost of others.

We have many challenges today and some of them can be seen as results of a one-sided and uncritical use of religion ending up being very destructive and bringing neither justice nor peace. Therefore, it is very appropriate that we as churches reflect precisely on how the prophetic, critical ministry can be a ministry of real reconciliation and healing, not only criticizing but also bringing new visions for the future, of what God can create for you and with you today and tomorrow.

To come to recognition of truth, there must be both a critical and a visionary, open perspective. At the 9th assembly in Porto Alegre in 2006, we prayed and cried together: “God in your grace, transform the world!” In the end, the prophetic witness of the church is a cry and a prayer to God that can give new hearts and a new future. The 10th assembly shall be held in Asia, in Busan, Korea in 2013. This assembly will be a manifestation of how the churches worldwide pray and work together with those of you here in the Asian region.

4. Some Ecumenical Perspectives of Today

4.1 Mission

We will be celebrating in June this year, the centenary of the World Missionary Conference of 1910 in Edinburgh, as well as the beginning of the modern ecumenical movement. However, the question before us is, are we together in mission today? Just as before the great meeting in Edinburgh one hundred years ago, the mission of the church can be seen as dividing. Then the activity was divisive; now, both the understanding and the activity of mission sometimes are divisive. Can it be that there is not enough reflection on how the mission of the church always is a response to all three roles at the same time: prophecy, reconciliation and healing?

Even after the missionary era ended, to a great extent in most Asian countries, Asian churches have remained with their denominational identities. This is, however, not the whole picture.   In other cases, important unions of churches have been fulfilled in Asian countries. I am also seeing more signs of inter-confessional work and common prophecy than was reported some decades ago, but some also see tendencies towards a stronger denominational emphasis. Nevertheless, engaging the local churches in common ecumenical mission is a great challenge yet to be achieved in Asia, as in other continents.

The holistic approach, representing the whole gospel and the whole message of Jesus Christ is more and more a common understanding of what mission means. Still there might be some misunderstanding of the position of the WCC in this respect. And there might be some questions to raise to others as well.

Another related challenge to the whole ecumenical movement is addressing together with you here in Asia the issue of religious pluralism. Asia has been acknowledged as the birthplace of major world religions and a majority of the world’s people belong to these religions. We need to frankly admit our struggles to come to common terms with the relationship to people of other faiths. But this is not a question of theological luxury; it is a matter of how to live in the context of where God has created us.

4.2 Towards 2013

The early Asian ecumenical leaders were conscious of their theological responsibilities and missiological tasks and tried from time to time to set the directions for the ecumenical movement urging the churches to make contributions to the entire ecumenical movement from the distinctive character of Asia.

The decision to have the assembly of the WCC in Korea in 2013 gives us a unique opportunity to reflect on these and other issues with the wisdom, experience and perspectives you as Asian churches are providing.

Towards the assembly we will hear together with you the call to be one, the call to share the gospel and the call to find ways to live as a good neighbour to all people, whatever faith they may have. And we cannot make a choice between these callings or eliminate some of them. We have to realize that there are no easy answers to how to combine them, just as you focus here on the challenge of the complementary roles of being prophetic, bringing the word of reconciliation and working for healing. I am most sceptical of any attempt to promote an easy answer and solution to some of these dilemmas. But this is the way of the cross in this world, as we follow Christ together. And there are great promises of God’s presence to those who together follow Christ. I also would say we should have many dreams for what our life together can be in faithfulness and solidarity, in openness and sharing, in accountability and transparency, in serving and worshiping God together.

4.3 Kairos

The emphasis of the prophetic witness and mission of reconciliation and healing by the ecumenical movement has come to the fore in many different contexts and attracted the imagination of people inside and outside the churches. The ecumenical movement needs to manifest a bold accompaniment and costly solidarity with its member constituencies in their engagement for peace with justice and in their response to the call to prophetic witness and mission of reconciliation and healing.

One of the longstanding engagements of the global ecumenical movement is in the context of the ongoing violent Arab-Israeli conflicts due to the unsettled Palestinian question. In 2002, responding to a call from the churches in Jerusalem, the WCC created the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) and in 2007 launched the Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum (PIEF) as a platform to promote prophetic witness for peace with justice and to prepare for reconciliation and healing processes in Palestine and Israel. The global ecumenical fellowship’s commitment towards this direction is an honest contribution to a comprehensive just peace in the whole Middle Eastern region.

In this context, it is important for me to bring to your attention a very significant development for us in the ecumenical family pertaining to the situation in Palestine. Last December 2009, Palestinian Christians from a variety of church traditions issued a call to churches around the world, a call that they refer to as the “Moment of truth: a word of faith, hope, and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering.” It came to be known as the “Kairos Palestine” document because the ecumenical family saw in it an opportune moment to intervene and put an end to the suffering of both Palestinians and Israelis. This “Kairos call” is a cry of hope that asks Christians to see the realities in this situation, to see that in the name of justice and peace this situation cannot continue and to stand against injustice, violence and occupation. One way to do so is to revisit Christian theologies that justify dispossession of the land and legitimize occupation. This is not an expression of theological triumphalism over and against Jews, but a criticism of Christian theologies openly supporting or legitimizing the occupation of Palestine.

The document also contains an important call to non-violent resistance as a right and obligation and as an act of liberating love for Palestinians and Israelis. The discussion among Palestinian Christians includes what means of non-violent resistance are important and appropriate, and it presents itself, for instance, in discussions of a possible call to boycott goods from Israel. These are complicated issues. From the World Council of Churches the call to not buy products illegally produced in occupied territories and the call to member churches for proper stewardship of investments so as not to benefit from occupation remain both well known and unchanged.

The document is based on a deep conviction of the need for prophetic critical speech against injustice and occupation from the perspective that this is a prerequisite for much needed reconciliation and healing.  I mention this Palestinian ecumenical initiative to encourage the churches in Asia to make it known and also to invite you to play a key role in a global ecumenical effort to bring reconciliation and healing.   Here our prophetic witness needs to be expressed through our love for the Palestinians as well as for the Israelis, as all parties need healing and reconciliation.  The “Kairos Palestine Call” has the potential to become an important rallying point for justice and peace within a context that threatens world peace. It is, therefore, something we cannot delay our common actions on.

The reconciling love God has demonstrated through Jesus is an important biblical theme and central element in the life and ministry of the church. There are several reasons for the ecumenical movement to focus more on the ministry of reconciliation in today’s world. As the world experiences a situation of division, hatred, hurt, grievances, enmity and imbalances of power, our Christian witnesses are called upon to ensure healing and reconciliation in afflicted societies and situations. The hope and aspirations of the churches to address these concerns have been evident in various actions initiated by the ecumenical movement. The most recent of such initiatives was evident as the churches sought reconciliation and healing, peace with justice, when the WCC launched the ecumenical mission of the Decade to Overcome Violence (2001-2010).

4.4 Those among us living with HIV

In the Christian faith, the suffering servant referred to in the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah and in the Psalms, points to Jesus. In the rabbinic tradition of the Jewish faith, the "suffering servant" is a community – the post exile – remnant who carries the burden of the larger community.  Even as followers of Jesus, who aspire to reflect the values of the reign of God, this can be applied to all of us.  Prophesying, reconciling and healing is the role of the whole community.

We are one – with the marginalized, the people living with HIV, those who are carrying the burden of the injustice that humanity metes out on humanity. The widow who experienced the miracle of oil and liberation from slavery, due to Elisha’s prayer – was a widow of a fellow prophet.

Facing these issues we have to reflect with accountability, what is sound theology?  This is of course a difficult question as there are so many branches of theology that are sometimes contradictory.  But in my own experience, in situations where there is deep respect for unity, communities come to ways and mechanisms of discussing and debating various difficult issues to reach common understandings on very basic questions for our faith, particularly when we see that we believe in the creator of all human beings created as equals.  For HIV one of the most important issues now in our deliberations, commitments and actions is to discern what is sound theology and in relation to culture and values.  We need to be both accountable and courageous in our theological reflections for the sake of the true values in our religions.  Many teachers and prophets in different religions have been very honest and daring.  Some have had to contradict their religion’s leaders in their time and values in order to save lives.  Most issues in the field of HIV are about saving lives: physical lives, spiritual lives, religious lives.  HIV is an issue of relationships.  Therefore, it has a profound component of theology.  HIV is what we do to each other and how we relate to each other in this life. Theology is about how we relate to God, particularly how this is expressed in how we relate to one another.  The need for a prophetic self-critique of stigmatization and discrimination, together with reconciliation and healing, is desperately needed.

5. The Ecumenical Dream

Many other perspectives could be mentioned. I will stop here and let you continue to think – and dream. Let me end by reading to you one of the poems of a Norwegian poet, Olav H. Hauge, known for his great love of Asian poetry.

This is the dream we carry through the world
that something fantastic will happen
that it has to happen
that time will open by itself
that doors shall open by themselves
that the heart will find itself open
that mountain springs will jump up
that the dream will open by itself
that we one early morning
will slip into a harbour
that we have never known.

(English translation by Robert Bly)

We shall let the Spirit lead us in our dreams for those with whom we are serving and sailing together on the ecumenical ship.