November 2003: "JUSTICE, PEACE AND THE INTEGRITY OF CREATION". Author: D. PREMAN NILES
JUSTICE, PEACE AND THE INTEGRITY OF CREATION
THE PHRASE “justice, peace and the integrity of creation” (JPIC) is shorthand for a fuller statement: “To engage member churches in a conciliar process of mutual commitment (covenant) to justice, peace and the integrity of creation should be a priority for World Council programmes.” Originally intended as a programme priority for the WCC by its Vancouver assembly (1983) and addressed to its member churches, it was subsequently expanded to include churches that are not members of the WCC, regional and national ecumenical organizations and all other movements committed to these issues.
In issuing this invitation, Vancouver was responding to a situation of crisis as outlined in the assembly statement on peace and justice:“Humanity is now living in the dark shadows of an arms race more intense and of systems of injustice more widespread than the world has ever known. Never before has the human race been as close as it is now to total self-destruction. Never before have so many lived in the grip of deprivation and oppression.” It goes on to state what the Christian response to this situation should be: “The churches today are called to confess anew their faith and to repent for the times when Christians have remained silent in the face of injustice or threats to peace. The biblical vision of peace with justice for all is not one of several options for the followers of Christ but is an imperative for our times.” And it repeats what it considers to be the nature of the Christian response at this time: “The [single, though twofold] foundation of this emphasis should be confessing Christ as the life of the world and Christian resistance to the powers of death in racism, sexism, caste oppression, economic exploitation, militarism, violations of human rights, and the misuse of science and technology.”
In taking this position, Vancouver clearly shifted from the position of understanding Christian involvement in world affairs largely as a concern of Christian ethics - to translate the values of the kingdom into achievable social goals (the middle axioms of the responsible society). Instead, it placed the emphasis on confessing the faith, which calls for a new understanding of the missionary task of the church. To realize this intention, the assembly envisaged a “conciliar process of mutual commitment” that would bring the churches together to take a common stand on the urgent issues concerning the survival of humankind. It envisioned such a council taking the churches to a new stage in the covenant relationship into which they had entered at the inaugural assembly at Amsterdam (1948).
A world convocation rather than a council. Except as a general reference to JPIC, the term “conciliar process” had to be abandoned. In the Vancouver call it was used rather loosely to mean a method of churches in a common fellowship or koinonia, as in the WCC, working together to resolve differences and achieve common goals that are to be given public expression in a council. In view of the differences that persist between the churches, however, it soon became clear that the time for holding a council in the strict sense of the term had not yet come. It was therefore decided to call the first global Christian gathering on JPIC a world convocation. Its purpose, as defined by the WCC executive committee (March 1988), was “to make theological affirmations on justice, peace and the integrity of creation, and to identify the major threats to life in these three areas and show their interconnectedness, and make and propose to the churches acts of mutual commitment in response to them”.
Justice, peace and the integrity of creation. Vancouver intended these elements to be viewed as three aspects of one reality: as a single vision towards which we work and as three entry points into a common struggle in these areas. The addition of the term “integrity of creation” to help clarify “the biblical vision of peace with justice” was particularly useful. Besides alluding to the damage being done to the environment and the threat posed to the survival of life, the term also gave a new prominence to the doctrine of creation and the opportunity to re-affirm our Trinitarian faith, beginning with God as Creator and therefore also Liberator and Sustainer.
Covenant for JPIC. At first, the term “covenant”* given in brackets in the JPIC formula did more to confuse than to clarify the meaning of “mutual commitment”. Four main difficulties were encountered. (1) The term is used in common parlance to refer to pacts and alliances between human partners, so that it is not clear what more is meant when it is used as a theological term in conjunction with “mutual commitment”. (2) The Bible mentions several types of covenant, each with its own character and emphasis, so that we cannot assume a common biblical understanding of the term. (3) The term has ecclesiological significance in some church traditions but not all, which makes it suspect as a way of stating the mutual commitment of all churches to JPIC. (4) Churches generally understand God’s covenant to have been accomplished “once for all” in Jesus Christ. So what does it mean theologically to speak of covenanting?
The way out of this impasse was to use an insight from scripture. Because God is a faithful covenant partner, the people were often called upon in times of crisis to renew their covenant with God, which they had broken, and to re-constitute themselves as a covenant community open to the world, especially to the suffering and the destitute. With this basic biblical understanding of covenant renewal, we can speak of covenanting for justice, peace and the integrity or wholeness of God’s creation at this time of crisis as a way of working together to resist the threats to life and to seek alternatives that will affirm life in all its fullness for all people and the world.
A WORLDWIDE PROCESS
At its Canberra assembly (1991) the WCC gave prominence to JPIC. The assembly section reports have extensive discussions on JPIC, with specific recommendations on why and how it is to be continued. Reflecting the work in the sections, the assembly programme policy committee said: “Working towards justice, peace and the integrity of creation will help the churches understand their task in the world, provided we develop a rigorous social analysis, deepen our theological reflection and vigorously promote these concerns. This has emerged as the central vision of the WCC and its member churches.” The theme was re-affirmed in the Harare assembly programme guidelines committee report.
The specifics of the world situation have changed since 1983. The underlying threats continue, however, leading JPIC to spawn new ecumenical initiatives. In seeking a renewed basis for ecumenical social thought and action, a theology of life focuses on the life of all creation and not just on human life. Various local groups are endeavouring to achieve the concerns of the civil society for inclusiveness and equity. Projects on costly unity, costly discipleship and costly obedience are creating new opportunities for relating unity and mission as well as ecclesiology and ethics. As yet to emerge is a coherent theology for Christian cooperation with people of other faiths and beliefs who are also committed to the cause of JPIC.
D. PREMAN NILES
A. van der Bent, Commitment to God’s World: A Concise Critical Survey of Ecumenical Social Thought, WCC, 1995 ¦ T.F. Best & M. Robra eds, Ecclesiology and Ethics: Ecumenical Ethical Engagement, Moral Formation and the Nature of the Church, WCC, 1997 ¦ ER, 38, 3, 1986; 41, 4, 1989; 43, 4, 1991 ¦ D.P. Niles, Resisting the Threats to Life: Covenanting for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation, WCC, 1989 ¦ D.P. Niles ed., Between the Flood and the Rainbow: Essays Interpreting the Conciliar Process of Mutual Commitment (Covenant) to Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation, WCC, 1992 ¦ D.P. Niles ed., Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation: Documents from an Ecumenical Process of Commitment, WCC, 1994.