When we are mutually accountable to one another, engage both firmly and openly,
speak clearly, and listen carefully, our dialogue becomes robust.
It challenges, stretches, tests, and renews.
"If you want peace, work for justice!" This saying by Pope Paul VI has had enormous power and influence. While rooted in Christian scripture and affirmed by centuries of theological tradition, it is a phrase that has also been taken up by many beyond the churches. It encapsulates a holistic vision of peace with justice.
Christian churches worldwide will have a new opportunity to recommit themselves to a just peace when they gather for the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in Kingston, Jamaica, in May 2011. This will also be an opportunity for the churches and the ecumenical community to explore future directions in peace work, to continue to build peace rooted in justice together. The event will bring to an end the World Council of Churches' (WCC) Decade to Overcome Violence (2001-10) during which many activities and educational projects came into being in different parts of the world, seeking to break down unjust structures that yield to violence and to build up bridges of justice, reconciliation, and peace. To underline the churches' commitment to interreligious dialogue and cooperation, several Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and indigenous religious leaders will attend the convocation, bringing unique perspectives from their traditions to the discussions and celebration.
The WCC has for many decades been at the forefront of interreligious dialogue and cooperative action. Firmly rooted in our faith in the Triune God, whom we know as Creator, Redeemer (Jesus Christ), and the Sustainer of life (Holy Spirit), we engage with partners in many religious traditions who are as firmly committed to the basic tenets of their faith traditions. In this there is no attempt to convert one another to the other's faith, yet all participants come away from the dialogue with a renewed understanding not only of the other but of his or her own faith. Indeed, we engage in dialogue because we have something of conviction to say. When we are mutually accountable to one another, engage both firmly and openly, speak clearly, and listen carefully, our dialogue becomes robust. It challenges, stretches, tests, and renews. The miracle is that it is precisely through these tough negotiations that harmonious relationships can often emerge, creating new opportunities for mutually enriching cooperative action.
In the Norwegian Christian-Muslim dialogues in which I engaged for many years, the question of how religious leaders address violence in family life was a serious topic of conversation. As the dialogue developed, we realized that we had to challenge not only the culture of the other but also our own at the same time. Deepening dialogue creates a trusting environment in which partners can feel free both to be critical of the other and also to be self-critical in the presence of the other. Justice requires such transparency, which in turn produces a harmony in which we can let our voices sound together.
It is this kind of dialogue that can lead to peace. One interreligious platform that specializes in such dialogue is the World Conference of Religions for Peace, in which the WCC is a partner. I want to commend this organization as it celebrated its fortieth anniversary in Japan this September. I want also to express my gratitude to Rissho Kosei-kai, one of its founding partners. It is no surprise that Rissho Kosei-kai can be seen as representing Japan's commitment to peace, arising from the deep pain Japan experienced in the nuclear devastation sixty-five years ago. On August 6, many churches throughout the world stood with other religious partners in local communities to say "Never again!"
The churches of the WCC echo that sentiment. The protracted conflict on the Korean peninsula and its potential for nuclear conflagration was one of several reasons the WCC chose Busan, South Korea, for its next assembly, in 2013. The division of Korea into North and South embodies one of the continuing and painful remnants of the political and ideological dislocations of the Cold War era. Fifty-six years have now passed since the truce was established between North Korea and the United Nations Command. The thirty-eighth parallel, originally designated as a border by the United States and the Soviet Union as a temporary arrangement for disarming Japanese troops on the peninsula, became a permanent division between South and North Korea. Despite the desire of people on both sides of the demilitarized zone (especially separated families) to end the division of the peninsula, all efforts to reunify the country have foundered. Tensions continue and have worsened in recent months.
The WCC, through its Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA), has accompanied the churches on the Korean peninsula during the past decades. The CCIA organized its first international consultation, "Peace and Justice in North-East Asia," in Tozanso, Japan, in October 1984. This consultation was the first attempt by the WCC to bring together Christians from a wide spectrum of member churches with Christians from Korea to look at issues related to the division of Korea and to promote peace, justice, and reconciliation. More recently, the WCC has expressed its concern that the North Korean nuclear issue remains the most serious obstacle to peace in the region. It is of the opinion that "Just Peace" on the Korean peninsula needs to be achieved peacefully through the six-party process.
Addressing the issues of denuclearization of the peninsula and wider security concerns in the East Asia region has been on the agenda of the ecumenical movement for many years. The two WCC general secretaries who preceded me, Dr. Konrad Raiser and Dr. Samuel Kobia, visited North and South Korea and addressed these issues. These visits included meeting with both North Korean and South Korean government officials as well as religious leaders. These efforts were made within the context of the WCC's efforts to mobilize support from all quarters, including religious groups and civil organizations. Both Dr. Raiser and Dr. Kobia strongly conveyed the WCC's position on denuclearization to North Korean government officials. In October 2009, when a WCC delegation led by Dr. Kobia visited Pyongyang, the president of the Supreme People's Assembly, Kim Yong-Nam, told the delegation that a significant impetus to solving the nuclear weapons standoff in the region would be for North Korea and the United States to meet "face-to-face with each other," and he requested the WCC's support for this proposal.
Regional powers such as Japan and China also have an important mediating role in working toward a Just Peace in a region that has long memories of past wounds. Religious communities in the region with strong religious convictions about reconciliation and healing can play a very important role in creating an environment conducive to these political leaders' coming together. Japan in particular, with its adherence to Article 9 of its constitution on not engaging in the use of force for settling international disputes, can play a decisive role in promoting Just Peace. Aware that this provision in the constitution is under constant threat from various groups, I urge Japan's religious communities to stand united in protecting that provision and in working together to give it greater impact in the region. Our goal must be to encourage and support Japan as an important player in building peace with justice. Our cooperative action now as religious communities working together will boost the churches' impact as we gather in Busan in three years.
The churches' concern for Just Peace comes from deep reading and understanding of scripture and tradition. "Justice and peace shall embrace," say the Psalms (85:10), "The effects of justice will be peace," says the prophet Isaiah (32:17), "Blessed are the peacemakers" (Matthew 5:9) is one of Jesus' most famous sayings. He also offered us his peace: "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you" (John 14:27). Similarly, God's particular concern for those who are poor, dispossessed, oppressed, or captive in any way runs through the Bible. Just Peace, therefore, is not something that Christians can choose to engage in just if they feel like it. It is not an issue at the margins of our faith. Just Peace is a gift of God and an inherent part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. For Christians, it is an imperative.
But, of course, many Christians do not live by this principle. In fact, it is true that some Christians may by their lifestyle or by their deliberate engagement work against Just Peace. Sin is a reality also in the church. As some have done throughout history, and others do today as well, some Christians misuse texts for unjust or violent purposes.
I also have to admit that the Bible includes some texts that are ambiguous as well as other texts that condone violence and injustice, which can only be understood in the sociopolitical contexts in which they were written. Christians, like other people of faith, must learn to live within this ambiguity and dare to take up the question of context so as to appreciate the importance of self-critical examination of our own links to violence today.
I want to argue that such honest, self-critical reflection is essential for effective interreligious dialogue. I can be critical about my own community, scripture, and tradition, and of course I leave my colleagues in other religious traditions to be self-critical about their own traditions. This is an issue not just for Christians but for all religious people.
The WCC is a truly global institution. It brings together at one ecumenical table 349 churches from 110 countries across the globe. We estimate that this represents more than 550 million Christians. Based on the principle that churches should "act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately" (Lund Principle, 1952), Christians of many hues, from countries that sent missionaries and those that were missionized, former colonialists and those formerly colonized, sit at the same table in one koinonia (the Greek word meaning a fellowship of equals) to seek Christian unity. It is a table at which each person and church is encouraged to be authentically themselves, not losing their cultural or confessional distinctiveness, but in mutual accountability with one another to somehow find the space to act together in cooperation.
Among the lessons learned in that process is the conviction that context is critical to our theological reflection and action. We look at the text primarily from the context in which we are rooted. Biblical scholarship has also made us aware that when we read the text we need to be aware of the contexts both of the writer and of the audience to whom the text is addressed. It is in the interaction between these contexts that we can draw meaningful principles for our life and work. Attention to different contexts, however, means that there are alternative readings and perspectives. The hermeneutical work at developing interpretations is necessarily done at the dialogue table.
This learning and experience is something we bring to interreligious dialogue as well. Buddhism in Sri Lanka, for example, is very different from Buddhism in Japan. But even within Sri Lanka and within Japan there are a variety of alternative interpretations and expressions. We must see these differences arising from local contexts as having significant value. However, just as the Christian ecumenical table seeks to bring our diversities to the same table to struggle together at finding a way forward, it is also important that Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Jews create opportunities for such mutually accountable exchanges. I value the fact that such encounters are already taking place in many religious communities. May the practice be taken up more widely and more urgently. In the eyes of the world and in the mirror of conscience, world religions that profess concern for others are, and must be, mutually accountable to one another for peace.
The Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, of Norway, is general secretary of the World Council of Churches, based in Geneva, Switzerland. From 2002 to 2009, he was the general secretary of the Church of Norway Council on Ecumenical and International Relations.
This article was originally published in the October-December 2010 issue of Dharma World.
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