Partnership, passion, religion and development

Oct. 5, 2017

Around a table: friends and colleagues from around the world

Tension between our passion for justice and having patience enough to work on framework concepts for work on religion and development seemed to increase through the second and third days of our encounter.

I knew I would have three minutes on Wednesday morning to say to the full plenary everything that I was thinking about diakonia and development, so I prepared my speaking points. 

Then the facilitator asked me about the United Church’s role in development. I offered my briefest possible description of the United Church’s approach to global partnership—a long-term contribution to the ecumenical sharing of resourcesprocess, and a commitment to lift up the voices of partners in all possible spaces. And then I moved on to my points.

I encouraged the people at the Ecumenical Strategic Forum to be daring in their advocacy for gender justice, climate justice, and justice for Indigenous peoples. I expressed my concerns about the Sustainable Development Goals, especially No. 8 which seems to re-introduce the developmentalist concepts of economic growth that we have been criticising since the late 60s. (See chapter 2 of Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation.) And I shared the debate in my table group about “rights-based” approaches to development, which tend to be individualist and leave insufficient space for minority rights or collective rights.

Then others started speaking. One of my Latin American friends expressed his sadness at the political games that conservative Christians play: support for Trump, opposition to the peace accords in Colombia. 

A German friend talked about the value of liberation theology in its emphasis on the subjects of action—that we not treat beneficiaries of development aid as objects.

Another of my Latin American friends recalled Brazilian Bishop Helder Camara, who said: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” This friend went on to say that we’re living now in a world of emergencies—just recently, the three devastating hurricanes in the Caribbean and the United States, and the two earthquakes in Mexico—so much so that there is hardly enough time to catch up to development. “We have to think about development not just in Western terms, but in Indigenous terms.” Live into that cosmovision, I thought.

We shifted into a series of conversations about peace-building, justice (gender, health, economic, migrant, etc.), globalization, and work in multi-sector partnerships (interfaith, secular, government, UN agencies, etc.)—and what they have to do with SDGs.

In a sense, those conversations opened space to talk about our passion for our work. We talked about how gender equality globally (#5) is actually receding in many contexts: women are losing ground. We found space to raise concerns about issues that are submerged in the SDGs: #10, which is about reducing inequality, has no mention of race, but racism is an issue that must continue to be addressed if inequality is to be reduced.

Similarly, #8 revives notions of economic growth that are simply unrealistic if greenhouse gas emissions are to be reduced. Ecumenical advocacy must continue to uphold climate justice goals while sustaining the vision and policy recommendations contained in documents like Economy of Life for All Now.

For this work, the alliances being built across divisions of religious practice and secular spaces, as envisioned in this Forum, are essential as we find better ways to live together within planetary and social boundaries. 

Unwrapping ecumenical diakonia: What are we talking about here?

Oct. 4, 2017

I confess there were moments in the first day-and-a-half of this Ecumenical Strategic Forum when I found myself lost in a cloud of words: diakonia, ecumenical diakonia, prophetic diakonia, sustainable development, peace, service, sharing, healing, reconciliation, faith-based/rights-based/justice-based….

All good. Clearly the hardest word for most is diakonia—that New Testament word that refers to service—but every kind of service from the specific sort of trying to help people in need to simply serving the tables. Many Christian denominations have deacons, or diaconal ministers. Sometimes that is a liturgical function: assisting the priest in the celebration of the Eucharist. In some Baptist churches that I know, a deacon is a member of the board who assists with Communion. In the United Church of Canada, diaconal ministers are “commissioned as a distinct from but equal stream within the order of ministry.” In the Anglican Church of Canada the office of “deacon” is sometimes a stepping-stone toward priesthood (transitional diaconate), but there are also those who are ordained to life-long vocational diaconal ministry. In a similar way, the Roman Catholic Church since Vatican II has revived the “permanent diaconate” for teachers and preachers of the Gospel. They also preside at celebrations of baptism, funerals, matrimony, and visit the infirm, the imprisoned, and people in need. The United and Anglican churches have a joint training centre for diaconal ministry in Winnipeg: the Centre for Christian Studies. In our table group discussion, it was clear that there is a similar mix of applied meanings in churches around the world. 

But the World Council of Churches and the ACT Alliance are reviving the New Testament concept of diakonia as a sort of common vision or theological basis for churches’ engagement in action for sustainable development. 

The WCC Vancouver Assembly 1983 affirmed diakonia: “the church’s ministry of sharing, healing and reconciliation, is of the very nature of the Church.” 

Despite differences in the ways the word is used in diverse contexts, there is acceptance of the concept in this gathering. Diakonia can be understood as a worldwide movement of those committed to the vision of Christian service, action, and justice-making. What seems to be more challenging is what we mean when we talk about some related concepts.

One challenge was around talk of holding “faith-based and rights-based” action together. The argument for diakonia was accepted as a faith basis for action, but “rights-based” smacked of non-governmental organization jargon for something that lacked a theological basis, or which carried overtones of western imperial notions that failed to respect traditions and collective identities. Later, someone spoke of “justice-based” action. Later still, a speaker made a pretty fierce defence of human rights, saying that the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was inspired as much by global faith traditions as it was by Western enlightenment notions of individual human rights.

Where participants came together most strongly was in response to very concrete descriptions of struggle. Fr. James Ovet Latango of the South Sudan Council of Churches—a partner of KAIROS Canada—spoke of his young country’s struggle to overcome violence and its lingering traumas. And my friend Jenny Neme of the Mennonite peace ministry Justapaz in Colombia spoke of her country’s struggle for peace with justice—gender justice and economic justice. Churches that support those values find themselves actively opposed by well-financed megachurches that operate with a very different set of values. 

Hospitality and Visitation

Late in the evening of the first day, I sat with friends after a good supper. One of the ecumenical elders was with us. He talked about the essence of diakonia being “hospitality and visitation.” These are ministries that each of us carries out in our “private” lives with minimal resources: receiving friends in need; visiting people who are sick or imprisoned. 

Someone asked: “Isn’t visitation part of mission?”

The response: “It’s visitation. Not invasion.” 

After a few moments, the distinction softened a bit and friendship resumed. The point of visitation is that we do it without an agenda: we’re not proselytizing or really expecting anything of the other. We visit (or we welcome) simply because we know it is the right thing to do.

The global ecumenical movement and sustainable development

Oct. 3, 2017

ACT Alliance, World Council of Churches and their members working together

During most of the coming week, I will be in Geneva with about 75 other people from around the world to offer up our best thinking about new ways of understanding churches’ participation in development.

Our gathering, entitled the “Ecumenical Strategic Forum on Diakonia and Sustainable Development,” will strengthen the churches’ collective efforts toward accomplishing “the 2030 agenda for sustainable development.” More on that below.

The problem is that four decades of economic growth policies that favour corporate notions of development over other approaches—sustainable, transformative, human, social, or any other modifier—have left us with ever-greater gaps between the rich and poor both among and within countries. The World Council of Churches and ACT Alliance—the two key organizers of this week’s forum—call for a new approach that integrates more dimensions: rising nationalism, climate change, marginalization of non-governmental organizations in some countries, deepening inequality, war, forced migrations, and inclusion of children, youth and women.

They see in the United Nations-defined Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) a way forward, and they see in the churches’ own history and theology of diakonia a solid justification for further action.

Diakonia is one of those New Testament Greek words that in the church over time became either a liturgical function or a specific, service-oriented ministry. In this new millennium, its deeper meaning is being recovered. One background document for this Geneva meeting speaks of diakonia as the “church’s ministry of sharing, healing and reconciliation.” 

That definition resonates with me. It seems to open the possibility of understanding some aspects of our work in a clearer way: reconciliation is not just penance or reparation for past wrongs, but an agenda for transformation of broken relationships. Sharing is not just about imparting technical expertise or sending money, but about honest dialogue about differences of race, class, gender and power. 

Those Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

As principles or even as guides for action, I support the Sustainable Development Goals. Who but the most reactionary would not? And I agree that the goals are an opportunity for churches and others to hold governments accountable for national strategies of sustainable development. 

But we have lived through successive and failed “decades of development.” We see governments that refuse to live up to their commitments to the United Nations and to all sorts of multilateral agreements. Extreme poverty, social conflict, and injustice cannot be eliminated, or climate change fixed, without significant structural changes to the global economy.

What I will be looking for in the coming days are practical steps toward building alliances that enable real transformation that benefits the people who usually get left out because of economic calculations.