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Speech for the ACT Alliance Assembly 2014

WCC general secretray's speech for the ACT Alliance Assembly held from 21-24 October 2014 in Punta Cana, The Dominican Republic.

22 October 2014

Your excellency,

Honourable leaders of the Act Alliance,

Dear sisters and brothers,

I greet you all in the name of the God of life: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; the Creator, the Redeemer and the Life-giver of all.

It is a privilege to come to this place and to this beautiful country.

It is an inspiration to participate in this gathering of many who personally and as representatives of churches and organizations are committed to the work for justice and peace.

It is an honour to be here to represent the World Council of Churches, a fellowship and a sister institution to the Act Alliance, and also to some extent representing other family connections such as parenthood, in this context. We are gathered here to JOIN HANDS, to see how we can walk and work together. You have asked me to reflect on how your theme corresponds to the theme of the WCC plans for the next years, A PILGRIMAGE OF JUSTICE AND PEACE.

We are gathered here in this island that, due to its strategic place in this part of the world, more than any other place represents the beginning of colonization of the American continents. It became an island and a country where many came, not always for the sake of justice and peace, yet many, many have come and marched here to hope for and seek a future of justice and peace. Many of you know more than others what that era of colonization represents in terms of injustices, conflicts as well as abuse of our Christian faith. However, we find ourselves in the nation state of the Dominican Republic that many years ago achieved its liberation from colonial powers, although it has had to struggle again and again to maintain this independence. We are gathered here in a place of beauty and abundance of natural resources. But we also are in a region where the encounters of and divisions between North/South that we now see more and more in every country, between those who have a lot (for example, among those who come here as tourists) and those who have less or very little, is a visible reality.

We are gathered in 2014, 100 years after the outbreak of the first war to be called a “world war”, causing enormous damage on many continents, the end of many empires but also a division of the many regions into parcels that were and are not quite sustainable as platforms for peaceful life together. But we also meet 100 years after the installation of Archbishop Nathan Söderblom in Uppsala, Sweden, who at Oslo in 1930 received the Nobel Peace Prize for his part in the initiatives to gather representatives from the churches in the world at the first assembly of Life and Work in Stockholm, 1925 – which later developed to become the World Council of Churches. And, I would add, that also became the Act Alliance.

These realities give us significant perspectives on what we are here to do as we gather in this 2nd Assembly of the Act Alliance, but also as we are gathered in the one ecumenical movement. We are on our way together; we come in peace; we are received in peace; we come as pilgrims of justice and peace. The many perspectives on how travel and movements can change us and the world – for good or for worse - are also a significant background for my brief reflections on the theme “A Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace”.

When the World Council of Churches met for its First Assembly in Amsterdam 1948, the same year as the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the United Nations officially came into existence on 24 October 1945), the Assembly said that “we are committed to stay together”. When the 10th Assembly of the WCC met in Busan, Korea, a year ago, we said “we are committed to move together”. These messages are two sides of the same call and commitment. We can only move together as churches when we are united in our faith in the God of life, who created all to live in fellowship and who calls the church to be a sign and foretaste of the unity of life and humankind.

We are, according to the Holy Bible and particularly clearly expressed in Paul’s letter to the Romans, failing as human beings and humanity in our basic calling to honour God, the giver of life (Romans 1-3). However, by the grace of God, we are liberated to join hands, to be enabled to give glory to God, as a just and inclusive fellowship in Christ in spite of and with all our differences. In Christ there is no condemnation but a new fellowship of hope for us and the whole of creation (Romans 8). We make this visible as we respond to our calling to serve one another, and give the days of our lives and our resources as a holy sacrifice for others, as Christ did, to be transformed and to transform the world. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercy of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2) Therefore, we are called “to receive one another, as Christ has received us.” (Romans 15:7)

We can stay in this given fellowship together only if this is an active and proactive life together, willing to venture into new landscapes, to go out of the comfort zones of the churches and our families and friendships, to live in the world as it is and to be with our fellow human beings as they are, and as they and we struggle for justice and peace, but also as we share the joy of sharing life together.

Therefore, the churches and the one ecumenical movement cannot say that we are going to stay together, and that we are going to move together, without saying that we are going to act together. Hence, what Act Alliance represents as initiative and intention, as well as incitement and institutionalizing of this commitment, is an integrated part of this one ecumenical movement.

We are moving together. We are moving in faith. We are moving with a purpose and with shared values. Let us use this time and opportunity granted to us by the God of life to improve the ways in which we can do this, with the wisdom we have to share with one another and the ears and time we have to listen to one another.

This work - as any work we human beings undertake together, be it in the name of the churches or not - is not perfect. None of us or our institutions are perfect. That is also one significant meaning of the image of pilgrimage. It is a movement for people who recognize that we are in need of changes and sometimes even in need of conversion, called to move on or to change our directions. Nevertheless, in spite of our shortcomings and even given our best intentions, we do want and dare to take steps forward together that can be identified as contributions to this pilgrimage, this journey in faith together, joining hands together. We do believe that God leads us into life, into the places and realities and times where we should be; where we can focus on something beyond ourselves and our internal issues. We need to help one another to be on the move forward together, as a pilgrimage of justice and peace: for the sake of those who need it the most.

In the context of this particular gathering, let me share some further perspectives on what I believe God is now calling us to as one ecumenical movement in this pilgrimage of justice and peace.

The biblical word for the service to which we are called is diakonia. This word, and the language we have connected to it, is a common basis for what we do as the WCC and Act Alliance. We had a very fruitful discussion on this theme in our last WCC assembly, where many of you participated and contributed well. This was followed by a consultation, that included many of those who are here, in Malawi last month. The reports and the outcome of these and other moments of deeper reflections on the call to ecumenical and international diakonia, to our service together, shall continue to inspire and enlighten us through this meeting. And I am committed to bring these reflections into our work and decisions as the WCC. Let me share some of my reflections on why I found this particularly helpful for our move forward in our diaconal ministry as part of a common pilgrimage.

The service we are called to offer is pastoral care, which is approaching our task as a community of faith, sharing the values and the potential of our faith in the triune God. This is a holistic approach, through which we acknowledge all dimensions of our human life as relevant and significant for the church. We are serving as church, as members of the church where all are called to offer the priestly sacrifice to honour God through ministry for others. The assets already present in all churches and local Christian communities, of communication, care, creativity and commitments, need to be affirmed and strengthened through what we can do in our work together.

Furthermore, our service together must be public and prophetic. We need to be willing and able to analyse, to name and to address what we are convinced is wrong or does not bring the values of God’s kingdom. This does imply that we need to be self-critical, as well. This dimension of our ministry requires in a particular way that we are accountable to one another and thereby to God. This call to, and practice of, being mutually accountable for what we do, what we have as resources within our communities and countries, is a way forward, not backwards. We should be mutually accountable in order to be on our way, on our pilgrimage forward, into solutions, giving our contributions when and where we have something to contribute. Being prophetic means being part of the life that is moving forward, not dwelling and remaining with the past and the mistakes of the past. When we discuss development in this gathering, it is as the way forward, making changes together that brings hope in terms of justice and peace. The diakonia we are promoting is honouring, protecting and promoting the rights of every human being.

However, the service we are called to offer is not limited to the human family in a strict sense. The climate changes we are experiencing, acknowledging slowly, too slowly, as results of human activity, are affecting the most vulnerable because they are destructive to nature, in which we all live.

Therefore, the diakonia of today requires that we act together with all people of good will, but also that we maintain a sense of serving the whole of creation. The day before the summit of global leaders on climate change last month in New York, we gathered together with leaders of all faith communities to affirm our common commitment. Christian service is never and can never be an excluding or exclusive form of “solidarity”. Our pilgrimage for justice and peace moves as we become part of the wider peoples’ movements in which we now mobilize, in all parts of the world.

Our service to the world must be dedicated to bringing both justice and peace, to focus on how these are interrelated in every challenge we face of today, as they are interrelated in the kingdom of God. The dramatic deterioration of security in today’s many conflicts has a lot to do with ignorance of how to develop a just and sustainable community in many local and national contexts. We understand also that religion can serve as a source or as a way to fuel conflicts. There is no service to God that can be identified as a holy war. We must continue to build and focus on the just peace that is needed, even when security needs to be properly addressed. More than ever, it is time to work with and ally with other peoples and leaders of faith that are supporting a peaceful coexistence and visions for peaceful political solutions of conflicts. Service to all regardless of faith is and must be a sign of our commitment to serve the God of life who is the creator of all and who cares for all, and for all creation.

Furthermore, there must be a professional dimension of our service. We need to use all the qualifications and competences available. Part of our professionalism is to acknowledge and to cooperate with people who have different backgrounds and different roles in a community, whether they have formal education or not. On the other hand, it is also particularly relevant for our Christian service to develop the skills and the competences through offering education, training and competence. The WCC is working on how we bring ecumenical formation, which is a concept that includes both theological education and abilities to be a part of and lead processes of ecumenical diakonia. I am honoured to work with many, and I would also say many who are younger than I, who offer different professional capacities to our ecumenical diakonia from many of your organizations.

A growing part of the world population is what we can call younger people, children and youth. In many countries of the world they represent an actual majority. They are particularly in need of respect for their rights, both to a safe environment, to education and to protection from abuse or violence. They very often represent the strongest sense of justice and the most committed and creative voices for peace. However, they are often not properly offered their rights, particularly not the girls; neither are they given their space to contribute to the work for justice and peace, not in the church nor in their societies in general. They are not only the future of the church, they are the church and contribute to the service of the church today.

The Nobel Peace Prize this year has rightly brought a focus on the rights of children and particularly the rights of girls, through the efforts of remarkable personalities showing that these are matters of justice and of peace. Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan and Kailash Satyarthi from India have raised the rights of children and girls in particular in a brave and clear way. I am honoured to have been invited to meet them in New York a month from now, in a meeting called by UNICEF where I shall represents communities of faith. They, too, act in a framework of faith – in their cases Muslim and Hindu religious life and practices. When I meet with young people, including children, in my many visits to churches, I am often deeply challenged and encouraged. We should take advantage of opportunities to enjoy that experience regularly.

The last point I would like to make just now is what I have already touched in different ways, namely the perspective of your theme, to “join hands”, to be “together” and with and for “one another”. This is the matter of relationship, which since the very beginning has been at the heart of the ecumenical movement. Of course, it is all about relations. However, I am convinced that sometimes we take it for granted that we are focused on relations, even if we do not pay proper attention to how we develop the qualities of those relations needed for making a significant contribution together.

The concept of pilgrimage can be, as it is in many cases, a dimension of the personal life, the maturing and the spiritual growth of each person. This is indeed of the highest relevance and makes the perspective of pilgrimage relevant in all contexts. However, the growth and the maturity we need as human beings of today and tomorrow, and particularly the spiritual growth we need, must be developed in our deeper understanding of how we are connected, how we build relations to one another, how we best can be enabled to achieve something together.

Two qualities of relations required for a pilgrimage of justice and peace are the following:

The attitude of being a servant. The recognition that my life and my efforts and my organization are here to serve, not to be servile, but to serve. To be humble requires a certain strength. To give space to others requires that we be self-confident enough to know that we are respected even if we are not claiming more space than we should. To serve is to see the whole as more important than myself. To move forward together is to make sure that others are moving, as well.

Finally, to be together on our way forward, we need to know the significance of freedom. To be able liberate others to serve with their gifts, and to be free to accept others who are different from oneself, is a quality, an attitude of our Lord Jesus Christ. This attitude requires that we become open to one another as diverse, while firmly refusing to accept alliances that would bind us to practices of injustice or to stigmatization, to discrimination or to practices that fail to serve the other. “The truth shall make you free,” are words of Jesus from John 8:32, and they are quoted on the flag of this nation. The churches still have a lot to do, to act together in this respect, to make everybody free to be part of the fellowship and the work where we join hands together.

May God bless this country and this region. May God bless our days together as we continue to reflect on how we, together, shall join hands on a pilgrimage of justice and peace.

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit
WCC general secretary