Stephen Brown, originally from the UK and now living in France, is a former managing editor of Ecumenical News International and currently works in Geneva as Programme Executive for the Global Digital Library on Theology and Ecumenism (www.globethics.net/gtl). Stephen is a member of the Board of Directors of the World Association for Christian CommunicationA french version of this post is scheduled to appear on the blog of the French delegates to the WCC assembly http://busanallerretours.blogspot.ch/
“God of Life – Lead us to Justice and Peace” – the theme of the Busan assembly of the World Council of Churches echoes that of the WCC’s Vancouver assembly in 1983: “Jesus Christ – the Life of the World.” (Jesus-Christ, vie du monde)
Yet with the passage of three decades the differences also become clearer. The Vancouver theme was an affirmation that Christ was the foundation of the life of the whole world – in Reformed theology the sovereignty of Christ over the whole of the world. In Busan, however, the idea of the power of life becomes, instead, an appeal to God to “lead us to justice and peace”.
The backdrop to the Vancouver assembly was the threat to life stemming from the arms race between East and West and the spectre of a nuclear conflagration, the worldwide structures of injustice, including the still unresolved struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and the increasing awareness that the global ecosystem itself was threatened. The assembly theme – “Jesus Christ – the Life of the World” – was intended to affirm the power of life over that of death, seen in violence and destruction, the exploitation of nature, poverty and hunger, and the spiral of security, defence, destruction and death, as Konrad Raiser, the German theologian who would later become WCC general secretary, put it in advance of Vancouver. The assembly itself gave birth to the Conciliar Process for Justice, Peace and the Preservation of Creation:
To engage member churches in a conciliar process of mutual commitment (covenant) to justice, peace and the integrity of all creation should be a priority for World Council programmes. The foundation of this emphasis should be confessing Christ as the life of the world and Christian resistance to demonic powers of death in racism, sexism, caste oppression, economic exploitation, militarism, violations of human rights, and the misuse of science and technology.
This was an “urgent call for authoritative witness by the churches” (Konrad Raiser) about war and violence, justice and injustice, hunger and poverty, and destruction of the environment. Central to this call was the close link between the confessional statement of Christ as the life of the world and the need resistance to unjust powers. Here there is a close parallel to what in the Protestant tradition is described as status confessionis, where fidelity to Jesus Christ requires confessing witness by the church.
Yet such “authoritative witness” assumes a context in which the church remains a moral and societal force, if not the context of Christendom itself. It is precisely such a context that would allow the church to put “a spoke in the wheel” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer) by engaging in direct political action.
Three decades later, “life” is again the central theme of a WCC assembly. However, the context has changed markedly.
As Ellen Ueberschär, general secretary of the German Protestant Kirchentag, recently noted, “If ecumenical dialogue was the great historical issue for churches in the 20th century, then inter-religious understanding is the issue of the 21st century”.
The choice of Busan for the 2013 highlights the geo-strategic and religious changes that have taken place over the past 30 years. The global balance of power is shifting away from Western Europe and North America, towards countries such as Brazil, India and China. Asia is also a symbol of the changing face of Christianity which is shifting to the global South, with the growth of Pentecostal and Evangelical forms of spirituality. Finally, Asia is a world region that has long been marked by the religious pluralism that is now seen as characterising the world as a whole. The Busan assembly theme, “God of Life, Lead us to Justice and Peace”, testifies to the emergence of a new paradigm on religious coexistence.
The theme of the Vancouver assembly can be seen as an expression of what Konrad Raiser would describe as “christocentric universalism”, in his book, Ecumenism in Tradition, published in Germany in 1989 just as the Cold War confrontation began to crumble. While such “christocentric universalism” had been the dominant ecumenical paradigm in the decades following the Second World War, he argued, it was being increasingly called into question by religious pluralism, the logic of the “global system”, and threats to global survival. There was a need for a new paradigm, he wrote, with a fresh emphasis on a “theocentric” orientation within a Trinitarian perspective of the relationship between God, the world and humankind, where “life” is understood as a web of reciprocal relationships, of cultures in dialogue in a situation of religious and cultural pluralism.
In the theme for the Busan assembly, rather than Christocentric affirmation of Vancouver, it is the God of life who leads to justice and peace. As the Korean communications scholar Young Cheol Cheon notes in his dissertation “Communication for Life in Cyberspace”, life and communication play a central role in Eastern World views. Such a perspective can be seen in a statement that emerged from a meeting on the assembly theme held in Busan, South Korea, in May 2012, organized by World Association for Christian Communication, the WCC and the Korea Host Committee for the WCC assembly. Entitled “Reclaiming communication for life, justice and peace”, makes clear reference to the insight of eastern worldviews and the role of communication in a religiously pluralistic world, where “The universe is understood to be an integrated whole an independent organism … communication is the essence of life and … human beings are in communication with all of creation.” Furthermore, “In a world that has enabled people of different backgrounds, religions and cultures to be more aware of each other and their inter-connectedness, communication has the potential to promote life together in faith, hope and love.”
In such a context, “Communication rights claim spaces and resources in the public sphere for everyone to be able to engage in transparent, informed and democratic debate. They claim unfettered access to the information and knowledge essential to democracy, empowerment, responsible citizenship and mutual accountability. They claim political, social and cultural environments that encourage the free exchange of a diversity of creative ideas, knowledge and cultural products. Finally, communication rights insist on the need to ensure a diversity of cultural identities that together enhance and enrich the common good.”
Here churches and religious organizations, as well as civil society, have their place, not by claiming absolute and universal authority, but in engaging in dialogue with each other and with the secular public sphere.