Impulse at Anglican bishops conference Feb 24 2024 in Constantia
By Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, moderator of the WCC central committee

Dear sisters and brothers,

It is an honor and joy for me to bring you greetings from the World Council of Churches today, also especially from our general Secretary Dr. Jerry Pillay. As you know we have had our General Assembly in 2022 in Karlsruhe/Germany under the theme “Christ’s love moves world to reconciliation ad unity.” In the time since then, we have engaged in many activities to live up to this promise with our programs and our presence in public. The inspiration that came from the presentations, the discussions, the consensus building and especially the prayers and worship services at this assembly in Karlsruhe continue to inspire us in our work.

The Challenges for Democracy in South Africa and beyond

In the time since December, which I have spent here in South Africa, I have continuously drawn from the spirit of unity, which we have experience in Karlsruhe. It is a spirit, which this divided world yearns for. It is a spirit, which we are called to witness in our actions in the world. 

South Africa will hold elections this year. In the newspapers many commentators say that these elections might be the most important ones for the future of South Africa since the first democratic elections after the end of Apartheid in 1994. Will people make use of their right to vote, which so many had struggled for and even lost their life for? Or will a general dissatisfaction about life 30 years after the introduction of democracy as a basis of South African political life keep people away from the polls?

The hopes were so high when Nelson Mandela was released and a rainbow nation was showing up at the horizon, in which peace and justice would reign. 30 years later corruption poisons society and politics. And service delivery – as a consequence – seems to constantly decline. Good education is accessible only for some. The poor are still poor while others have wealth beyond any needs. And South Africa has become the country with the highest level of inequality in the whole world. How could this country – this is what many people ask - move away from what people like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu had been standing for?” Looking back” – says Stellenbosch church historian Robert Vosloo – “one can ask whether there was enough of theological engagement with the notion of democracy during that time.”[1]

The danger is realistic that a general dissatisfaction amongst many people will lead to either voting abstinence or active voting for forces, which threaten democracy rather than strengthening it. In the 2019 elections only 19 % of the 18-19 year olds young voters registered and only 15 % actually voted. In the 20-29 year old group 30 % voted with a general voter turnout of 55 %. Even though not voting is not to be identified with political apathy, this is an alarming sign for a democracy.

Democracy is not just an electoral process. Democracy is the expression of an image of the human being. South African theologian John de Gruchy, in his groundbreaking book on Christianity and Democracy, makes the distinction along similar lines between „democratic system“ and „democratic vision“[2] Of course both are intrinsically intertwined. The fact that in the German Constitution begins with the affirmation that “Human Dignity is inviolable” signifies that the basic affirmations of constitutional law are at the same time the basis of the democratic vision. At the centre of democracy’s anthropological assumptions stands the conviction that every human being has the same inviolable human dignity. This means that human beings - as the philosopher Immanuel Kant put it - must never be merely a means to an end but are always an end in themselves.

De Gruchy has shown convincingly how rich the biblical material is, which points us toward those convictions fundamental for both the democratic system and the democratic vision.[3] What can be stated today from very different religious or non-religious perspectives is deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.[4] Every human being is created in the image of God. This conviction expressed in the Bible (Genesis 1:27) is inextricably linked to the commitment to democracy. For it overcomes any gradation in the value and worthiness of people. How people are treated is no longer based primarily on power, but on a right that protects all people equally.

If we speak not only about democracy as an electoral process but also as vision in whose center is human dignity, then, it is crucial that democracies show credibility by avoiding double standards in their attitudes towards other countries. Germany and the USA, f. ex., must face critical questions as to its hesitation to clearly condemn the disproportionate Israeli military response to the Hamas murders of Oct 7, with the terrible and unjustifiable toll of the bombings on the Palestinian civilian population. And South Africa must face critical questions as to its courting of a dictator in Russia who – through the illegal and immoral Russian invasion in Ukraine - has brought immense suffering on millions of people. If equal human dignity for all is the core of the democratic vision it must show in how democracies act.

I believe the churches can play an important role in publicly demanding such credibility.

Unity of the church as a sign for unity in the world

The ecumenical movement must be a counterforce to the forces of divisiveness in this world. We have committed ourselves to engage in a Pilgrimage of Justice, Reconciliation, and Unity. We have committed ourselves to an ecumenism of the heart”, which – this is my deep conviction – is the only way to be witnesses of the love of Jesus Christ, the only way to be “Salt of the earth and light of the world”.

If we look at the biblical stories on Jesus and his words and deeds, we see that Jesus never put the correctness of theological teachings or the abidance to given rules above relationship. “The Sabbath was created for humans; humans weren’t created for the Sabbath” (Mark 2,27). Let us be grateful for the denominational traditions that we come from. But let us always be aware that these denominational traditions are never an end in themselves but serve as a door to Christ himself. And if we are in relationship with Christ, in prayer, in reflection and in action, we will always be in relationship with our fellow human beings and, in a special way, with our sisters and brothers in Christ all over the world. That is why it is intolerable if those who call themselves sisters and brothers in Christ put each other down, spread hate against each other or even kill each other in war or through other forms of violence.

Through this, we betray Jesus’ call to be salt of the earth and light of the world. And we destroy all efforts to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything Jesus has commanded us (Mt 28,19f). We can only live the mission of God when we do not only speak of the love of Jesus Christ but also radiate it with our own lives. 

When Paul deplores the divisions in the Corinthian congregation in 1 Cor 1, he asks a question: “Has Christ been divided?” We are called to give a clear answer. No! Christ has not been divided! Therefore, we as Christ’s followers will never accept the divisions amongst ourselves. We will give a witness of unity to the world and thereby help the world to move toward more unity itself!

This is the very calling of WCC.

Contextuality and Intercontextuality

To be sure, when we speak about conflicts in this world we sometimes have passionate discussions even amongst ourselves as Christians. This is normal because, of course, we are all shaped by our contexts. Of course we bring with us the struggles of our peoples. And sometimes we find ourselves on different sides in these struggles and yet are connected in our common faith in Jesus Christ. 

What we, however, must all stand united in is empathy beyond our own groups and communities. One of the most persistent obstacles in overcoming violence in current conflicts such as the war in Israel and Palestine is the difficulty to authentically feel empathy for the suffering on the other side. Why does the suffering of the mothers of Palestinian children who die in Israeli bombing of Gaza not have more resonance in the Israeli public? And why does the pain of the Israeli families who have lost their loved ones in the Hamas attacks or fear about their potential death as hostages not more visibly reach the hearts of Palestinians? How can these human tragedies on whatever side even be celebrated in the streets?

As Christians we must give a clear witness here: there is no difference in value between Palestinian lives and Israeli lives. All those who die are children of God destined to live together in peace. Human dignity is indivisible. International humanitarian law applies to every government and to every liberation movement. In whatever we say as churches, we must always be very clear on that. If we follow Jesus, empathy with human suffering is always unconditional.

Whether the ecumenical movement is of any use will be decided from how we act in these crises. Are we only repeating what our peoples say? Or does Christ’s love really move us to a witness that tries to understand the contextual experience also of the others? And tries to build bridges opening the door to overcome violence?

As churches we are all committed to overcoming violence. Our contextual experiences and analyses of the conflict and its historical roots might be different. What cannot be contextual but is absolutely intercontextual is our commitment to life, our commitment to just peace, our commitment to reconciliation. It is intercontextual because it mirrors our commitment to God and our commitment to Jesus in whom God became visible as a human being.

Churches as global actors in civil society

There is probably no other institution in which being rooted in local communities and at the same time being connected in a common universal horizon is as much part of the DNA as it is in the church.

It is the concrete experience of abundant life in local relationships, combined with a sense of universal brother and sisterhood that makes me believe that the church can play a crucial role in healing the world. This rootedness in local communities around the world with a common universal horizon on the basis of our faith in Jesus Christ makes the church an ideal actor in a global civil society. 

It is therefore one of the most important public tasks of the church today to open the eyes to the suffering of people far away. When people die of hunger as a consequence of the increase in food prices due to the war in Ukraine and as a result of climate change, it is the task of the churches to draw attention to this situation and to advocate global solidarity. If the biblical-theological assumption that every human being is created in the image of God is true, then this is not a marginal issue. It touches the core of the Christian tradition and the mission that arises from it.

With the biblical message, we have the most powerful story of hope that the world has ever seen. It is the story of a people who were led out of slavery into the promised land. It is the story of a people who threaten to despair in the captivity of the Babylonian exile and then have the miraculous experience of salvation. It is the story of the God who loves people so much that he becomes a human being and shares their deepest darkness on the cross and overcomes death in the resurrection. Death does not have the last word. Violence does not have the last word. Life wins.

We need a reformation of hope and confidence here at home and throughout the world. We need people who stand up for the weak, people who overcome violence and respect non-human nature. People who love radically because they draw strength from the God who is himself radical love.

We need people who take seriously what Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said: "If illusions have such great power in people that they can keep life going, how great is the power that justified hope has? Therefore it is no shame to hope, to hope without limit!" On this basis he said: “It may be that the day of judgment will dawn tomorrow; in that case we will gladly stop working for a better future. But not before.”[i]

[1] Robert Vosloo, Reforming Memory. Essays on South African Church and Theological History, Stellenbosch 2017, 225.

[2] J. de Gruchy, Christianity and Democracy. A Theology for a Just World Order, Cape Town/Johannesburg 1995, 7.

[3] De Gruchy, 40-53.

[4] For a more thorough account of the following see H. Bedford-Strohm, Human dignity: A global ethical perspective, in: Scriptura 104 (2010), 211-220.

[i] D. Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, New York 1972, 15f.