WCC 50th Anniversary and Eighth Assembly
Feature Service
No. 2
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Turn to God - Rejoice in Hope
A personal reflection on the theme of the Eighth WCC Assembly, to be held in Harare, Zimbabwe, 3-14 December 1998

by Thomas F. Best

Information for editors and journalists

This is an edited version of an article which first appeared in The Ecumenical Review, July 1996.

Rev. Dr Thomas F. Best is a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the USA. He is available for further comment and interview.

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"... systems which reward greed..." - a building in "the city", the heart of London's financial district.

A Theme for Today

The World Council of Churches' eighth assembly will gather at a time of crisis, challenge and opportunity for the churches, for the ecumenical movement, and for the world.

The theme of this assembly is "Turn to God - Rejoice in Hope"! It is an exhortation and a challenge to Christians and the churches to proclaim together their faith, to bring a message of hope and new life to a world gripped by doubt, meaninglessness and despair.

The theme has been developed with a lively awareness of the challenges testing Christian faith today.

These challenges are many. There is, for example, the challenge of a world situation in which hope and hopelessness vie for ascendancy: the fall of communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the rise of a democratic regime in South Africa,

A farmer in the new South Africa discussing with a church official his plans to return to his family's land after 20 years.

the tentative and troubled moves towards peace in Ireland, all offer the promise of liberation from violence, oppression and human suffering. These are powerful signs of hope, signs of God's presence in history.

But powerful counter-forces are also at work: there is a personal individualism, encouraged by the needs of an apparently insatiable market, which defines personal and social worth in terms of material gain. There is a collective individualism, often fed by a long history of oppression and frustrated hopes, which promotes a particular ethnic, cultural or racial group at the expense of others. There is a culture of violence - of death - which defies humanity and reason alike, preferring competition to cooperation, domination to solidarity and sharing, and absorbing vast resources in the development of engines of destruction.

There is also the challenge of a church situation in which signs of both renewal and of decline abound. In the Southern hemisphere churches are growing; in the North there is the explicit undoing of
In the South, churches are growing.

old anathemas and divisions; everywhere there are many and mighty examples of greater unity, of witness, of service, of resistance to oppression and evil, of faithfulness unto death.

But in the North many established churches are declining; in many countries, both North and South, new patterns of religious life emerge, challenging traditional church structures.

There is the challenge of an ecumenical situation balanced between resolution and resignation. Over the past one hundred years the churches have learned to reflect, worship, witness and serve together. There are signs that they are ready to enter a next stage of the ecumenical movement. But they hesitate. They seem strangely unable, or unwilling, or simply afraid, to draw the consequences of their own shared experience in this "ecumenical century".

A theme to bring hope

These challenges, and others, will confront the delegates to the eighth assembly of the WCC. Other matters particular to the WCC itself will also come together at the next assembly, making it certainly a decisive moment, and possibly a decisive turning-point, in the life of the WCC and in the churches' ecumenical journey. The year 1998 will mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the WCC. There will be appropriate celebrations, but also a fundamental stocktaking and setting of new directions.

The assembly theme will function in this context with a structure and dynamic based upon a threefold pattern, particular to the Christian faith and life:

  • God turns to us in grace
  • We respond in faith, acting in love
  • We anticipate the coming, final fullness of God's presence in all of creation

The God to whom we turn

The God to whom we turn is that faithful God who has acted throughout history to establish and maintain God's world and people. We turn - we can turn - because God has first turned to us. Not our own faithfulness, but God's faithfulness, is the bedrock of our hope and the source of our life. Indeed God remains faithful, even if we are not faithful (Gen. 9:11; Deut. 4:25-31).

To turn to God is to remember the mighty and loving acts of God and confess that we are called to obedience by God.

In our individualistic age it is crucial to note that such "remembering" so often takes place in a liturgical setting in the presence of the community or its representatives.

Responding in active love

Turning to God and God alone is inevitably, also, a turning away from certain other things, from all the "idols" which clamour for our allegiance today. The idols of wood and stone denounced by the prophet Isaiah (40:19-20; 44:9-20) have been supplanted by things far more pervasive and seductive: by systems of material and social gain which reward greed rather than generosity; by political and economic systems which reward those who already have, at the expense of those who have not; by cultural and psychological systems which reward habits of domination and control rather than those of cooperation, sharing and solidarity.

Living within a cultural and social context we inevitably participate in its systems of value, control and reward: we have a stake in our own oppression by sin. Thus the call to "turn to God" is always a call to repentance, to a deliberate turning away from the dominant values of our society.

This "turning to God" affects every aspect of our lives and all of our relationships. So it calls us to a new spirituality, expressed not just in particular devotional acts but in a whole way of life oriented to the living God.

Through such "repentance", through letting go of ourselves as the centre of our own life, we establish a new relationship not only with ourselves but also with our neighbours.

How are we to "turn to" our neighbours? In the way in which God has turned to us, in the way of loving kindness.

"Turning to" our neighbour means we seek to establish justice for him, or her, or them. God has acted for our salvation, so we must act for the good of the neighbour, the community and the whole created order.

Justice is not basically a matter of calculating rights and wrongs, nor of establishing social programmes; it is fundamentally about relationship. It seeks to restore a right relationship where this has been distorted, or destroyed, by abuse of personal or communal power, or by inequalities in economic, cultural or social opportunity.

At its extreme, justice goes altogether beyond the calculation of rights and wrongs; indeed, it often appears to contradict common-sense notions of fairness or even good sense, as when Jesus demands that his disciples practise a love which goes the second - and not only the second! - mile (Matt. 5:41; cf 5:43-48, and Matt. 20:1-16).

Because justice seeks the good of the neighbour, and because it works to redress grievances and correct imbalances within the community, its final goal is reconciliation. Indeed, because estrangement grows from injustice and imbalances of opportunity or understanding, the establishment of justice is a precondition for true reconciliation. The Psalmist looks for a time when "righteousness and peace will kiss each other" (Ps. 85:10).

This means churches will be engaged in struggles for justice. It means, too, that churches need to consider how far their own lives - as institutions composed of fallible human beings - actually reflect the biblical understanding of God's As a concrete sign of their engagement in struggles for justice, some churches - like this one in San Salvador - have offered sanctuary to the victims of civil strife. (El Salvador, 1986)

merciful justice, and the biblical vision of life in community, a community free from domination and coercion, where each person may freely exercise his or her gifts to the glory of God and for the good of the community as a whole.

Living in and by the promises of God

Christian "joy" is not a superficial "positive feeling", nor is Christian hope a facile optimism; both notions emerged from the experience of the early Christian communities confronting impossibilities, hardships and persecutions and discovering that they had, in their life together in Christ, resources sufficient unto the day (cf. Matt. 10:19).

Several qualities of Christian hope are especially helpful when considering the assembly theme.

Radical Hope
The hope to which we are called is a radical hope. It is, after all, rooted in God's raising Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, from the dead (Rom. 1:4). Such an act is the opposite of something to be predicted by clever analysis of the present, or "present trends": it makes a radical disjunction with the present order, offending common sense and reversing this world's values (cf Mark 8:31-38; 9:30-41; 10:32-45; 1Cor. 1:22-25). It proclaims God's "no!" to the fundamental power of the cycle of nature, the power of death itself.

The resurrection is God's "yes!" to Jesus of Nazareth and to the kind of Messiah he understood himself to be: not an imperious ruler, but a servant who suffered for others.

The power of the hope to which we are called is the power of Christ's self-offering love; and such a hope, rooted in suffering, can be neither triumphalist, nor coercive, nor utopian and sentimental.

Inclusive Hope
This hope to which we are called is an inclusive hope. Biblically it is rooted in the vision of Christ as the one who will "gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth" (Eph.1:10).

This inclusive hope insists that all persons are within the scope of God's love and care and within the scope of Christ's concern (Luke 14:15-35; 14-13). Certainly the Church itself is called to live out an inclusive love that values all persons and welcomes their gifts. And if indeed it is the body of Christ - Christ who reached out to all - how can the Church exclude any of those for whom Christ died, that is: any human being?

This inclusive love should embrace all those in need. It should embrace even the "other", even the offensively and threateningly other. It must reach out both to our victims and to our enemies, to those linked to us through the memories of wrongs done, and hurts inflicted, on one side or the other.

Palestinian and Israeli women gathered for a joint peace demonstration in 1990.

Expectant Hope
The vision of God "gathering up all things" into Christ looks to a time when God shall inaugurate "a new heaven and a new earth" (Rev. 21:5). We live in the "time between": the promised age has entered history but it is not presently experienced in its fullness (Acts 2:17; 1Cor. 13:12).

That is an understatement. For make no mistake about it: redemption is necessary, for human beings and for all the rest of creation. Humanity is marked by sin, as any newspaper's woeful catalogue of social catastrophes makes clear. And for all its unfathomable joy and beauty, the natural order is a also place of waste and great suffering, where life exists from life, where animals kill and eat one other - must kill and eat one another - in order to survive.

The measure of our Christian hope is that it was born, and has flourished, in the face of rejection and death. This was possible because hope knows to whom it - to whom we - belong, to the God who has acted in Christ Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit, and who has promised that we will not finally be abandoned nor given over to destruction.

Rev. Dr Thomas F. Best is a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the USA, and executive secretary of the World Council of Churches' Faith and Order Secretariat.

Click here to main headings: A theme to bring hope
TURN TO GOD. The God to whom we turn
Responding in active love
REJOICE IN HOPE! Living in and by the promises of God
Radical hope
Inclusive hope
Expectant hope

The Jubilee Year: An impulse for justice and renewal

"You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years... And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. (Lev. 25:8,10)

In the 50th year of its foundation, the WCC will have the theme of Jubilee as an underlying motif for its Eighth Assembly. Tom Best's original article (see main feature) reflects on this. Here are the main points:

The biblical tradition of the Jubilee proclaims that not only space ("the earth is the Lord's", Ps. 24:1) but also time belongs to God, and to signify this God's people should set apart a time when normal activities would cease, in particular when commerce and trade should stop in order that more ultimate values can take centre stage.

To rest, to refrain from busyness, to let ourselves be refreshed, to regard not acting as something positive -- these ideas are strange to societies based upon the acquisition of goods, where even "leisure" activities are pursued with such grim seriousness that they become work.

The Jubilee Year should bring with it "releases" of radical consequence: of persons who are in servitude - including the financial servitude of debt -- to others (Lev. 25:39-42), of land from the control of new owners (Lev. 25:13-17,25-28). Both actions are understood as the restoration of something which, through misfortune or aggressive behaviour by others, has been lost.

The Jubilee Year tradition echoes many aspects of the assembly theme. It speaks about the God to whom we turn. The Jubilee prescriptions for social justice through restoration tell us who God is, and what kind of people can best serve God.

The Jubilee Year speaks about our response in active love to God's saving acts. "The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants" (Lev. 25:23). We must identify ourselves with others in need and limit our own self-interested claims: "you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God" (Lev. 19:34).

The Jubilee speaks also about the impulse to rejoice in hope. For it looks beyond the present world order to a state of coherence and prosperous harmony. By its commitment to social transformation it gives hope to the oppressed and to the land.

The Jubilee hope was prominent in the ministry of Jesus, who early in his Galilean ministry announced the breaking in of "the year of the Lord's favour" (Luke 4:19), and proclaimed "release to the captives". He also incorporated the challenge for the cancellation of debts into the prayer which he taught his disciples: "... and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matt. 6:12).

As far we can tell historically, the Jubilee was never actually put into practice. Thus in restoring this restoration tradition, Jesus was making a sharp critique of a society and system which had never dared to take the demands of God's Jubilee seriously.

Surely Jesus' "Jubilee critique" needs to be heard clearly today, and not least within the churches.

John Newbury
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