God of Life, Lead Us to Justice and Peace: An Interview with Leaders of the World Council of Churches

Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
World Council of Churches general secretary Olav Fykse Tveit preaches at Neighborhood Church of the Brethren in Montgomery, Ill., during a visit to US churches in mid-August.

World Council of Churches staff Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary, and Natasha Klukach, program executive for church and ecumenical relations, were hosted by the Church of the Brethren for three days in mid-August. Tveit gave the message at Neighborhood Church of the Brethren in Montgomery, Ill., on Sunday, Aug. 11, and the two WCC staff visited the Church of the Brethren General Offices in Elgin, Ill., on Aug. 12-13.

Their visit came as the WCC prepares for its 2013 assembly, a worldwide gathering of Christians that takes place every seven years. Member communions send delegates, and the WCC also extends invitations to non-participating communions and the interfaith community. Because the experience reaches well beyond the 350 member communions of the WCC and their 550 million members, and includes a large delegation of Catholics, the assemblies are considered the most significant times when Christians get together. This 10th Assembly of the WCC will be held in Busan, Republic of Korea (South Korea), on Oct. 30-Nov. 8.

During their time at the General Offices, the WCC leaders met with Brethren communicators including news director Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, associate director for donor communications Mandy Garcia, and “Messenger” editor Randy Miller. General secretary Stan Noffsinger also sat in on the conversation. Here is an excerpt:

Question: WCC assemblies are times and places when the Spirit may move in new directions. Do you anticipate a new direction in this coming assembly?

Olav Fykse Tveit: As we prepare it together with our member churches, we are praying, “God of life, lead us to justice and peace.” If God answers that prayer through this assembly, we will see more clearly how God is leading us to contribute to justice and peace in the world and how we can do more of that together.

Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
World Council of Churches general secretary Olav Fykse Tveit during a visit to the United States, when he was hosted at the Church of the Brethren General Offices.

This assembly will touch all of us, both as we listen to one another’s struggle for justice and peace, but also as we listen to one another’s contribution. Something that can come out of this assembly is that it is not only for some churches or some activists or some offices of the church to deal with these issues of justice and peace. It is really to be a Christian to be involved in how we together pray for justice and peace, and to be led to justice and peace. I believe this will be an assembly where we find this is not one track among many others, but really a blood stream that goes through the whole ecumenical fellowship.

Q: The Church of the Brethren has a strong interest in just peace. What do you see happening with that philosophy in the wider church? Do you see other Christians picking it up?

Tveit: I hope that being a peace church is something that many churches would like to identify themselves as. And that we not only have peace as a historical definition of some churches, but also as a program for many churches.

Just peace as a theme, as a vision has been developed particularly well in this period leading up to this assembly, both in the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation which we had in Jamaica in 2011 where your church supported it significantly and was significantly present, but also in a commitment to make this something at the heart of being a church. The decision by the WCC Central Committee to have the theme for the assembly, “God of life, lead us to justice and peace,” also reflects about how our programs after this can be given a common vision through this perspective.

All of this shows that there is a momentum that goes beyond just some churches discussing this. I attended a two-day consultation in June in Berlin, where the representatives from different churches in Germany wanted to discuss how this is both a concept that is already giving a direction, but also a concept that still needs to be discussed. The discussion is not over, about what does it mean. But it continues to be an agenda and a vision that we want to develop.

In this Ecumenical Call to a Just Peace, which was developed and approved by the WCC Central Committee, we talk about just peace from four dimensions: one is peace in the communities, peace with nature, peace in the market places–economic justice as an issue, and peace between the nations. This four-dimensional understanding of just peace brings together the legacy of the council over many years but also leads us into very important, hopefully new programs and new projects we can do together.

Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
WCC leaders receive a gift of Brethren Press books from Church of the Brethren general secretary Stan Noffsinger (left), during a visit in mid-August. The books included “The Love Feast” by Frank Ramirez. At center is World Council of Churches general secretary Olav Fykse Tveit, at right is Natasha Klukach, the council’s program executive for church and ecumenical relations.

Some churches have raised a critical voice to just peace. In some parts of the world, it is seen as a way of describing the American geopolitical interests. Particularly in Indonesia, some church leaders have told me that we have to be aware of this. And in Asia in general this is [seen as] a formula for the pax Americana.

For that reason it’s also important to discuss what we really mean. Is this a way to replace the discussion about just war? A discussion has been going on since the medieval ages in the church about under which conditions can Christians be a soldier. We cannot say that from now on nobody should discuss just war, because that is not up to us to decide. But we can try to say that it is much more important to have a discussion about how we as churches contribute to just peace, than how we contribute to the discussion of when is it acceptable to support a nation going into war.

There are some questions related to this just war issue that really belong to the just peace agenda. For example, you have a discussion about drones, which is actually a discussion about are there weapons that we definitely have to condemn in another way than others? We have had some of this discussion related to nuclear weapons. Even from a just war perspective, nuclear weapons were condemned because it’s impossible to say that there is a reasonable objective for the use of these weapons. Using these weapons can only mean destroying something, you can’t restore anything.

I feel that we need to be open to change these discussions to avoid either a just war or a just peace discussion. We need to move forward with the most important issues and how we contribute to a peace that is really a just peace, and not just a peace that covers up injustices.

Q: During the Vietnam War era, our Brethren focus was positional advocacy against war. We’re continuing that voice but out of an understanding of the gospel message to be reconcilers of people with God and people with each other. Does that show in our behavior and our presence?

Tveit: That’s why I was eager to come here, to learn more and to see where you are now according to this legacy, but also where are you heading? And what are your challenges in following this call? Part of my ministry is to have open and real conversations with our member churches, not only about what we want to be but what we are. And how to develop our visions out of the reality in which we are.

As far as I know the Church of the Brethren, you have contributed always by raising this perspective. It doesn’t mean that everybody listens to you, but it is important that somebody has a consistent voice saying that we shouldn’t go to war, we should solve our problems in another way. I think that has had an influence.

Natasha Klukach: Your use of the word reconciliation is very significant because I think that is entering public discourse more and more, particularly in North America. I could name some different areas: work with Native Americans and First Nations peoples in Canada, racial issues in the United States, issues of economic disparity. I see these as places where the Church of the Brethren through its strengths, through its history, through its consistent work in understanding of peace, can be part of a reconciling methodology.

Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
World Council of Churches leaders Olav Fykse Tveit (left) and Natasha Klukach (second from right) pose for a picture with Church of the Brethren general secretary Stan Noffsinger (second from left) and office manager Nancy Miner (right).

I think of the number of places around the world which now have truth and reconciliation commissions for different purposes. Canada has one, of course South Africa, and other places. This is an area where there’s more than just the peace agenda, because it’s about how we talk to each other, how we hear experience, how we empathetically enter into another reality and thus change the relationship. It’s not just about understanding conflict but changing and forging a new future together. I think the Brethren are particularly well poised to be leaders in that, and the need is very significant and very urgent.

Tveit: That’s part of my challenge to the Church of the Brethren: how can you use your experience and your commitment in this new situation where it’s not just about discussing whether America should go to war or not, but much more diversified questions about how to contribute to peace.

This interview was edited for use in Newsline by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford. The October issue of “Messenger” magazine will feature a fuller version of the conversation (subscribe at www.brethren.org/messenger/subscribe.html , annual subscriptions are $17.50 individual or $14.50 church club or gift, or $1.25 per month for students).

For more about the 10th Assembly of the WCC go to http://wcc2013.info/en .

For Tveit’s sermon at Neighborhood Church of the Brethren on Sunday, Aug. 11, go to www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/general-secretary/sermons/for-where-your-treasure-is-there-your-heart-will-be-also .

For the WCC release about Tveit’s trip to the US see www.oikoumene.org/en/press-centre/news/justice-and-peace-in-focus-during-wcc-general-secretary2019s-visit-to-us .

For a video clip of a conversation between the two general secretaries, Tveit and Noffsinger, find a link at www.brethren.org/gensec . Thanks to Brethren Benefit Trust and Brian Solem for the help to producing this video.

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