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An ecumenical spirituality for advocacy

Reflection during the Morning Prayer in the Ecumenical Centre, Geneva, 30 May 2016, by Rev. Dr Hielke Wolters, associate general secretary, WCC.

31 May 2016

Reflection during the Morning Prayer in the Ecumenical Centre, Geneva, 30 May 2016 by Rev. Dr Hielke Wolters, associate general secretary, WCC.

  1. The worship committee asked me to give a reflection this morning as my work at the Council comes soon to an end. Altogether I have worked for around 30 years in an ecumenical environment. First in the industrial mission, then in international, sustainable development cooperation, and finally nine years at the World Council of Churches. In these 30 years I have often reflected on the question: how can one continue to work for peace and justice in a good spirit, with enthusiasm and readiness for renewal to serve those who count on us. I have learned that full engagement over long period of time requires a fine balance between commitment and detachment. Commitment based on a strong conviction that it matters what we do; detachment rooted in a relaxed awareness that our work is only one contribution to a wider and long-term movement. It needs a continuous alternation between hard work and playful self-mockery or self-irony.
  2. How to find and maintain a good balance between commitment and detachment? This question points at the importance of spirituality. More profoundly it calls for a reflection on ecumenical anthropology. What is our Christian understanding of the human being and his or her live? How can we faithfully respond to the Divine gift of being created in God’s image? The WCC has done quite some work on ecumenical anthropology. We have the well know Faith and Order study of 2005, called Christian Perspectives on Theological Anthropology (F&O paper 199, 2005). But we can also go deeper into the history of the Council's reflections on ecumenical anthropology. From 1969 till 1975 the Council had a project called 'The Humanum Studies'.
  3. In this period between the Assemblies in Uppsala and in Nairobi, 1968 and 1975, many people felt the need for a fresh reflection on anthropology related to spirituality. In his closing address to the assembly in Nairobi, the then General Secretary Phillip Potter characterized the 1960s as a period of change and liberation: “At Uppsala the mood was one of Exodus”, he said, “going out to change the structures of society and the relations between persons, especially between races. Now we find ourselves in the wilderness. A pilgrim people in conflict and penury, we have discovered a need for spirituality, a spirituality of penitence and hope.”( Breaking Barriers, p.208) He referred not only to the changes in the ecumenical movement, but also if not more to the disappointment with nation building processes in many newly independent countries. The initial optimism that justice and peace could be established through a short period of struggle turned into disappointment and frustration. Many realised that justice and peace is not around the corner and that the struggle for it would take a long period.
  4. The Director of the Humanum Studies project, David Jenkins, encouraged and facilitated further reflection on anthropology and spirituality.  In a paper called ‘Theological Inquiry Concerning Human Rights’ he concluded with a proposal to develop a ‘spirituality for combat’: “Perhaps what Christians are particularly called to work out (probably along with men of other faiths and conscience, religious commitments) is what might be called a spirituality for combat”, Jenkins concluded. “How might we help one another to so conduct our struggles that they become part of our worship?” (David Jenkins, ‘Theological Inquiry Concerning Human Rights’, The Ecumenical Review, Vol.XXVII, No.2, April 1975, p.103.) This call for a ‘spirituality for combat’ resonated with the need for a new stage in the ecumenical commitment to justice and peace, as felt by so many in those days.
  5. The phrase 'a spirituality for combat' was taken up by the then moderator of the central committee, the Indian ecumenical leader M.M.Thomas. He was convinced that we need a strong spirituality to avoid two extreme attitudes.  He identified two possible dangers when the struggle for justice becomes seemingly endless. One danger is that of defeatism: people lose hope and give up the power-struggles for justice. The other danger, he saw, is that people betray the struggle for justice by radical and violent extremism. A spirituality that can help people to avoid these two dangers has to be informed, as he saw it, by a theology in which the struggle for justice is rooted in the Gospel of divine grace. (Religion and the Revolt of the Oppressed, p.53.)
  6. These reflections are very relevant for our ecumenical work today. Many of us are engaged in work for justice and peace, which we faithfully call a pilgrimage of justice and peace. However, our work in the Middle East, in some Asian and African countries, actually in many parts of the world, does not show much progress. One can easily become disappointed and frustrated, giving up all our efforts to build peace and justice. There is also the danger that disillusion leads to radicalism, although many of us are too civilised and too far away from the actual struggle to be become violent.
  7. These reflections on our day-to-day challenges reminded me of these words from the prophet Isaiah. Words which I had to memorize when I was a little boy at the primary school. I hardly understood what I had to learn by heart. And I still do not understand much of what Isaiah wanted to say. There is not only the question to whom he is speaking? There is also the question of who is he talking about, the Servant? Is it the people of Israel that has been chosen to be the light of the nations, the agency of justice?
  8. But even without knowing precisely the context and contextual meaning of the prophet's words, Isaiah points at a dimension in the struggle for justice which could help us to understand more about our own calling. We hear the prophet proclaiming that the Servant will bring justice: “he will bring forth justice to the nations” (42:2). He speaks to the Servant saying:  "I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness." (42:7) These words of the prophet remind us of what Jesus later said in the Beatitudes: blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:1-11). Listening to those words, one starts to understand that justice means here inclusiveness, especially inclusiveness of those who are vulnerable and depending on the support of others.
  9. In our political interpretation of reality this inclusiveness of the weak and vulnerable can only be reached through well controlled, democratic forms of power-politics. History apparently teaches us that transformation for inclusiveness will not take place without the counter-failing powers of opposition parties, independent media, well organised trade-unions, people’s movements and action groups. It seems to be naive to think that transformation can take place without power-struggle. Our advocacy for justice, probably also our ecumenical advocacy, has been built on these assumptions.
  10. However, my feeling is that the prophet Isaiah wants to challenge us. It seems that he calls our attention to a different advocacy methodology.  Let us read again his words. How does he want to reach that ambitious and hopeful goal of inclusive justice? What kind of advocacy methodology does he want to apply? We find a surprizing approach: "He – the Servant -  will not cry or lift up his voice or make it heard in the street", says the prophet, "a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice." (42:3) A bruised reed with not break, a dimply burning wick will not quench in the struggle for justice. It seems that the prophet does not belief in the usual, inherently violent, method of power-politics. He wants to adopt an advocacy methodology in which the means to reach justice are fully in tune with the final goal of inclusive and peaceful justice.
  11. This strange proposal of renouncing power-politics in the course of reaching justice, even more begs the question: who is this Servant, the prophet speaks of? Traditional theology would say that the prophets points to the coming of the messiah, Jesus Christ. I don't think we can follow this kind of theological reasoning. What we can say is that Jesus has rooted his work for justice and peace in the prophetic tradition of the suffering servant, which is so clearly articulated in Isaiah 42. His 'way of the cross' as a method, the methodology to reach fullness and inclusiveness of life, of which justice and peace are essential aspects, is probably the way the prophet wanted to highlight.
  12. What does this mean for our pilgrimage of justice and peace? How can we develop an approach to advocacy that is effectively leading to justice and peace without engaging ourselves in power-politics? What does that mean when we try to influence the negotiations in for instance the United Nations? Is our methodology different from the lobby methods of ngo’s, action groups, corporate business, people’s movements? And as the road to justice is long and tiring: how can we find a way that leads us safely through the dangerous strait between the Charybdis and the Scylla of defeatism and radicalism?
  13. There is a dimension in the prophet's words which we have not yet taken up, but which is important for developing a spirituality for advocacy rooted in the way of the cross. The prophet speaks implicitly about a community. His understanding of justice is not that of an individualised right, but an inclusive care for one another as we recognise each other as an expression of God’s image. The suffering servant is probably not an individual, but a people, a group, a community. The suffering servant is a suffering, inclusive community living between the promise of God's light in this world and the calling to be a light to the nations. An ecumenical spirituality for advocacy brings together these sacred elements of faith in the resurrected suffering Christ, hope in the transformative reality of the Divine Kingdom, and the loving care for an inclusive, just community of people.
  14. The powerful nature of this spirituality of inclusive justice is most deeply felt when we celebrate Holy Communion. We share bread and wine as a community around the cross, remembering the Crucified and celebrating our faith in the Resurrected. Can our spirituality for advocacy be rooted in this celebration of the sharing and inclusive justice? Can this servant community around the cross be a light to the nations?
  15. My feeling is that we need to do more work to develop this spirituality for advocacy as proposed by the prophet Isaiah. We need it to avoid that we resign, or even retire, in doing our ecumenical business as usual without feeling the urgency to be the light of the nations. We need this spirituality for advocacy of the suffering servant to avoid that we end up in radical self-righteousness. May God bless us in our search for the right way forward!