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Pacific Conference of Churches 50th anniversary

Address by the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, at the conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Pacific Conference of Churches.

31 August 2011

Address at the 50th Anniversary of the Pacific Conference of Churches

By the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches

Malua, Samoa, 31 August, 2011

1. ”Peace be with you!” (John 20:19)

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ: The first word of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ to his disciples is, “Peace.” I greet you all in the name of our peace-giver Jesus Christ. On behalf of the whole fellowship of the WCC, our 349 member churches to which most of you belong, and from our staff, I greet you with the same word: Peace! The word of peace has set the tone for you through these 50 years, and we wish you all the blessings of peace for this celebration and throughout the coming years of your important ministry together in Jesus Christ.

2. Fifty years of Pacific church contributions to Just Peace

You have as churches in this part of the world contributed a lot to the worldwide united church witness for peace. And in all this time you have had a deep understanding of what we in the WCC now have as our common focus: Just Peace. In all these years you have shown how “righteousness and peace kiss one another” (Psalm 85:10).

Fifty years ago the decolonization of this land and the emphasis on the autonomous life of the churches were two dimensions of the same important process. There was a restoration and manifestation of human dignity and the right of each people to govern itself. This went hand in hand with a new sense of the importance of how each church has to govern itself under its own leadership.

Each local church is accountable for the sharing and stewardship of the one gospel given to all churches. Paul calls the church in Corinth to unity by saying he would “not know anything among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). The way you have brought the proper dimensions of inculturation into the life of the church has opened many doors of understanding of how the restoration of peace can be expressed through reconciliation. You remind all of us that we come to God as we are, with our language and culture, in our natural places.

However, we are also called to serve God together in our time. Therefore, it is appropriate to reflect on what the witness of the gospel requires today and tomorrow, what kind of renewal is required now: of our ecumenical bodies and our churches, our leadership and our spirituality.

Among the greetings I offer are greetings from my own Church of Norway. This church is celebrating another 50th anniversary this year: 50 years of women in the ordained ministry. This coincides with establishing a new position as presiding bishop in our church. Unanimously the bishops voted for a woman and, with wide support from the whole church, Bishop Helga Haugland Byfuglien was appointed. This is a sign of appreciation for what women as pastors and as leaders have brought to the church. In the 1990s, the WCC “Ecumenical decade of the churches in solidarity with women” inspired the church to recognize that it needed both men and women in all positions in the church. I mention this as an encouragement for you to look at ways in which new people may be included in recruitment for leadership in the church; this must happen in all times and generations, with an open mind to what the call from God to preach the gospel of Christ requires in our time.  We recognized Bishop Byfuglien’s special gifts as a leader of the church and the nation during the days of terror and mourning our country so shockingly went through last month, and we gave thanks for her ministry this month when she visited the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva together with her bishop colleagues, 3 women and 8 men.

The church has from its very beginning been built by relatively young people. And I think the PCC, like the WCC, has leaders who have been involved in their responsibilities from the time of their youth. A jubilee is a time to invite the new forces to come in and rejuvenate the fellowship inspired by the wisdom of those who have more experience and seasoned insight. The young people of our churches constitute not only the church and the ecumenical movement of tomorrow, they are also the church of today. Our colleague Miss Faautu Talapusi has a special responsibility within the WCC to give youth empowerment and inspiration in the ecumenical movement, and to give the churches more competence and new life through their work. Let her be the strength she is called to be in your midst and in the whole fellowship of churches in the WCC.  There is deep meaning in holding this jubilee at an institution of training future pastors and other leaders.

The autonomy and independence of each local church must be complemented by an attitude and structure of mutual accountability between the churches. In that way we express that we are accountable to God. Even if a church is on an island, it is not and should not be isolated.

During an era of decolonization, it was also an important initiative to establish the Pacific Conference of Churches in the same period to strengthen the unity and accountability of the churches, and to enable Christians to give a common witness to justice and peace.

You have brought the issues of peace and justice to global awareness as you have called for our common voice to say: No! to nuclear testing; No! to using this land of yours to do what somebody would not do at home because it is dangerous, even deadly; No! to developing any state of security or power based on weapons that have the potential to destroy all life on our planet: even the testing of them is putting human beings and nature at unacceptable risks. The peoples and the nature of this region have had strong advocates in your churches, and in the World Council of Churches we are proud of your efforts and of what we have been able to do and address together with you. Some of the great witnesses  to our common past are here, and I take the privilege of mentioning the current WCC President John Doom and another former staff member of the  WCC and general secretary of the PCC, Mrs Lorine Tevi, as two outstanding examples among many of this prophetic leadership of the church locally and globally.

You have also been pioneers in raising the issues of climate changes in the world fellowship of churches, making the WCC able to address this as a global responsibility years before many other global organizations. More important is that you have been raising this as a genuine question of justice and peace. Peace with nature is an indispensable dimension of peace.

In the WCC “Call to Just Peace”, launched in relation to the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in Jamaica earlier this  year, we emphasize  four dimensions of peace: Peace in the community, Peace between the peoples, Peace in the marketplace and Peace with nature. These themes are interconnected and actually inseparable. This is a way to see the wholeness of the quest for peace as we address particular issues that are undermining or are obstacles to peace. The Nobel Peace Prize committee of my own country, Norway, has also developed the concept of peace in this direction over the past several years.

We are now in a phase of reflection and planning for the future work of the WCC, asking you as our partners and member churches: What does Just Peace mean in your region, in your community, in your church? How can violence be overcome where you are, and how can the church give inspiration and direction to the quest for justice and peace? The question is not whether there is violence in every society and place, physical, mental or structural, toward human beings or toward nature, but how do we address the violence in the world, how do we stop it, how do we overcome it? Together we have decided that the theme for the next Assembly of the WCC in Busan, Korea in 2013, shall be: “God of life, lead us to justice and peace!” We welcome your contribution to this Assembly, particularly as you have your PCC Assembly in 2012 and discuss what it means to work for peace and to “walk humbly with your God”.

3. The Pacific culture of peace and the quest for Just Peace

More could be said to prove the importance of your contributions as PCC and as members of the World Council of Churches to our common agendas and programmes. I am convinced many will be able to say more than I can. However, I would continue my reflections by recognizing how I see that you work for peace in the meanings I have already mentioned, and in other meanings as well, and have been grounded and inspired by your deep Christian faith. It is also moving to see and hear how this faith in Christ as our peace-giver also embraces strong cultural and spiritual traditions of your cultures, colours and traditions that give it even more strength and meaning to you, as well as to me and others visiting you.

For example, there are your actions of receiving and honouring guests, particularly through the Kava ceremony, where you with great solemnity and human warmth, express your welcome to a foreigner, coming from another island or another side of the globe, as I do. Your marvellous signs of how you meet others with respect and dignity, inviting us to your circle, to your arts of speech, to drink from your bowl, receiving from your abundance of life in food and drink: these are all significant signs of Christian virtues corresponding deeply to the heart of the gospel. “Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, to the glory of God”, says St Paul as a summary of the effect of the gospel in the reconciliation of Christ (Romans 15:7). These actions of welcoming are genuine acts of peace, opening your circle for the other, for the stranger, to establish a life together among all of us, to establish a reality of peace that is so strongly manifested that it will be hard for anyone to break.

Through different stories and sources of information I have also been told how you have rituals and practices in regard to bringing justice and peace back together again when they have been violated by someone in one of your communities. The individual sin becomes a matter of the community, which is a reality everywhere, even where this dimension might be forgotten. The real problem and evil of sin is the effect of sin on the victims of sin. Therefore, the direct action of sitting in front of the victims and their family, covered by a carpet, is a moving expression of how sin is a reality that affect our relationships. The accountability of our deeds is expressed both to the victims and to the fellowship broken by our deeds. Your rituals mark the reality of sin, and the reality of justice in the need for remorse and repentance, as well as the reality of peace when the repentance is accepted and the fellowship restored. Again, you have strong expressions of deep Christian belief in the need to take sin seriously, to look for ways to overcome sin and the destructive effect of any sin, and the need to break the circle of sin, violence, evil and enmity.

Let me not pretend to be knowledgeable about your culture, just let me express my deep respect for how you continue to give strong and meaningful expressions of both the reality of sin and the reality of forgiveness and reconciliation. May you never stop doing this, through your acts that are full of signs of the realities of the world: Sin – and peace.  I urge you to continue so that people elsewhere in the churches and the world may become wiser and more dedicated to work for real justice and peace as we see how realities of life may be expressed in these acts. The process called secularization, a combination of many changes in modern and postmodern society, includes a loss of symbols and rituals as part of daily life, often leading to estrangement and lack of experience of meaning in the sacred words and acts of religion. I believe that there is a growing new interest and understanding of symbols and rituals as necessary for handling the challenges of life, and that the practices you have will gain more meaning and relevance in times ahead, particularly if you experience more of the same secularization as is occurring elsewhere.

Your spirituality, and your straight forward witness for peace, is a combination that is a gift to the whole ecumenical family. Let it be so through the next 50 years!

4. The churches’ response to threats to justice and peace

The Pacific is a region that displays many warm and strong expressions of peace. The region and the ocean that unites you carry this wonderful name describing peace and tranquillity.  So much in your nature and your life gives signs of life with many characteristics of peace as abundance of life, a harmony between human beings and nature, a desire for peaceful living together. The biblical notion of shalom has many dimensions that you experience and highly respect in your life here.

The challenges you are facing as a Pacific region and as a fellowship of churches may be described in many ways. I will not go into details in my descriptions but I will try to echo what I have seen and heard during these days. Your descriptions of your reality raise both thoughts and emotions in me, calling for us to join in common prayers and actions. The sea level is rising, or as you said: We are sinking. Where shall we go? What shall we do? I have heard about it for many years since I first learned about a WCC conference in this region approximately 20 years ago addressing this new reality. However, it is something else to see your land so close to the sea, to hear how some of you have to discuss resettlement as your land disappears.  You are not the largest population in the world, but you bear the reality of the catastrophe in your minds and in your hands.

The dominion of the big powerful nations in other parts of the world has shaped your development and destiny, for bad and for good. But when it is still a matter of abuse of power, and fundamentally unclear whether colonization is formally a reality, then it is proper to call again for justice to establish peace.  The Maohi people should get support for their request for freedom and not be treated as if they were colonized while they are on the UN list of decolonized countries. To undo legal decisions of their parliament , not to allow this decolonized land to have their own contacts with other countries without surveillance from France, to take actions to overrule their economy and political decisions, how is this to be defined as something other than evidence of colonization? To close files for victims after the nuclear testing, without giving any possibility to bring these cases to an independent court: how can this be done by a country committed and accountable to international standards of human rights?

The effects of nuclear testing are still a great concern in this region. The compensation for the workers and the affected is not really an opportunity. Even children born in subsequent years are carrying the burdens of effects of these highly risky and damaging activities.

As we gathered here in these days, the Methodist church in Fiji learned that they are not allowed by the military authorities to have their legal and constitutional annual conference, nor to be free in the election of their own leaders. These are blunt violations of religious freedom, and therefore signs of oppression that must come to an end. The future of common life in justice and peace should include the contributions from all in a democratic society.

Among the many aspects of how to address and discuss these issues, it comes to my mind and heart again and again how these realities are examples of human misbehaviour, with damaging effects on people in this region, acts that cause evil effects for others, on victims, intentionally or unintentionally. We can analyze them sociologically, politically, economically and ethically. As churches we should be aware of all these dimensions but also reflect theologically. These realities can be addressed to explain how this can happen. Even more important for everybody, whether we are theologians or politicians, but particularly for the affected, the victims, is this: how can there be change, how can there be justice that restores life, how can there be hope for life in the future that can be shaped by the Christian – and Pacific – notion of peace?

The concept of sin is not a particular Christian concept, but a way to describe the evil act and its effect on others, which we can find in many religions.  Jesus did not invent the concept of sin. It was part of how reality was understood through the Jewish tradition and scriptures. However, Jesus represented something new in the understanding of sin as more than individual, destructive transgressions of divine law. Jesus offered a deeper and more thorough understanding of sin as a power affecting all of us.

I believe that the ecumenical movement is right when it challenged the church to speak of sin as involving more than an individual human being’s misbehaviour or transgressions, but also how sin as a reality can be part of a collective action, political decisions, embedded in structures and in traditions, in all countries and all continents, even in your beloved Pacific region. We should not speak of sin to stigmatize someone in particular, but to speak about the reality of the human condition. Sin is a real thing for the victims. It is not a religious idea and concept only.  The identification of sin should not lead to new crucifixions, but it should help us to point to new possibilities of change given to us in the forgiveness of sins.


5. Christian theology of the cross as the way to break the power of sin

The forgiveness of sins is the gift of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. Christ is the atonement for our sins, says St Paul in Romans 3. This understanding of how sin leads to evil and death, that there is a vicious circle in sin, is not something new to the New Testament writers. Nor is the practice of substituting sacrifices, an atonement for sin. This was a central part of the theology of the Jewish peoples after the exile, based on principles described in the book of Leviticus.

However, we also find in Hebrew scriptures criticism of any misleading focus on a regime of sacrifices and offerings, particularly if it is not combined with a proper remorse, humility, repentance and asking for forgiveness. This we find in the verses from Micah 6:6-8 which have been guiding your reflections these days.

There is nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified that can gather the church in a proper relationship with one another and to God, according to St Paul (1 Cor 2:2). Atonement for sin was an opportunity given by God to break the cycle of evil by giving another opportunity for a new future.

The cross of Christ is forever a symbol of this life-giving forgiveness of sin. Through the death and resurrection of Christ, there is an opening of the vicious circle encompassing sin and death. The circle is broken. The vicious circle can be broken for all of us so that we may be led into a circle of life, into the mystery of goodness of life.  This is a life-giving message to any human being suffering from sin, whether we are victims or perpetrators of sin. This is also a life-giving message to all of us who are addressing the sin in political structures, even when it has consequences for peoples and for nature. Because there is forgiveness of sin where there is remorse and repentance, there is a power that can lead to new patterns of life, new ways of bringing Just Peace.

The theological reflection on the effect of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ which we find in the letters of St Paul are told in the stories of the gospel of John, chapter 20, as events suggesting that the forgiveness of Jesus Christ brings peace and new hope. When Jesus comes to his disciples in a locked room, they had been seized by fear of reactions from the people who wanted to crucify Jesus, and maybe even fear of the rumours that Jesus was not in the grave anymore. Would he come in vengeance to those who had left him alone, even betrayed him? “Peace be with you!” This is his greeting to them. The fear was real. The experience of evil was real, yet the risen Jesus was real with wounds in his hands and body. Therefore, the experience of peace was also real, when he was among them again. The peace of Christ is “the real thing “.

6. The Call to be one in Christ as a call to Just Peace

In the same story, Jesus says: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”. The peace given to the disciples, to the church, is given to us to be shared. To be preached, to be given in our daily life, to be offered as a possibility for all who repent and recognize the need for breaking the circles of sin. The church has its commission from the one who became the victim of sin. We say in our liturgy: The Lamb of God carries the sins of the world.  Do we believe that?

Therefore, the church must always look for the victims of sin, for their perspectives, for their need for change, for justice and peace. Only then the perpetrators, whether we are individuals or collectives, will be enabled to see that there must be a change.

In the realities of climate change, the first victims must get help to find new ways to survive and to live life in justice and peace. Those who have more responsibility than others for the climate change must address these needs showing more accountability than others. But we all must work for change, for reduction of emissions causes global warming; none of us can ignore the reality.

We are called to be one in Christ. To be one in our solidarity with a suffering world. To be one in Christ’s identification with victims of sin. To be one in our faith that there is a possibility for change, for forgiveness, when there is an open heart capable of remorse and repentance. To be one in our call for justice and peace as the will of God in and for this world. To be one in our sharing of the gospel with anybody who want to share the good news of how Christ opens the doors to a future, together with the reality he brings to all of us. Therefore we say to one another: Peace be with you!

May God give just peace to the peoples of the Pacific! May God give just peace to the nature of the Pacific! May God continue to give the Pacific Conference of Churches the grace to nurture justice and peace among the churches and the nations, here and throughout the world!

Please receive an icon of Christ as a reminder of this event and as an inspiration to your work. This is an expression of Orthodox spirituality, coming from another part of our fellowship of churches, still representing the same and One Jesus Christ and his peace-giving presence among us.