Speaking on behalf of the World Council of Churches at a “Churches Together South Australia” event on 13 August, World Council of Churches director of international affairs Peter Prove offered an address on “Imagining a Safer World.”
As a South Australian-born member of the Lutheran Church of Australia, it’s a special pleasure to be able to join you for this event, at least via the medium of a pre-recorded video.
Since 2014, I have been serving as Director of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) at the World Council of Churches. In that role, I am responsible especially for World Council of Churches’s activities in the fields of peacebuilding, disarmament and human rights, and for our relations to the UN system. Previously I was for four years Executive Director of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, running church-based advocacy campaigns on HIV & AIDS, and on food security and sustainable agriculture. And before that, I was Assistant General Secretary for International Affairs & Human Rights at the Lutheran World Federation for more than a decade. But originally, by education and professional experience, I am a lawyer who worked in private legal practice in Brisbane.
As you may know, the World Council of Churches is a global ecumenical fellowship with 352 member churches – mainly from Orthodox and Protestant church families – in over 120 countries, representing a total of some 580 million people. Founded in 1948, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, issues of peace and human rights have always been prominent in World Council of Churches’s agenda.
The topic of your conversation today – ‘Imagining a Safer World’ – is not an easy one, least of all in the current global context. Given the complex convergences of conflict, climate change, and political and financial crises, it’s harder than ever to imagine a safer world. But of course despite – or rather because of – the increased challenges, we must not only imagine but concretely work for a safer world. And as followers of Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace, we have a special calling and responsibility to do so.
Despite a rather small staff complement, the World Council of Churches is active with and through its member churches on a very wide range of issues, from peacebuilding to interfaith dialogue, from climate change to theological education, from human rights to mission and evangelism. In my particular field of international affairs, peacebuilding and human rights, we seem to have an ever-expanding set of crises and needs – compounded by the lingering impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic, accelerating climate change, and of course the Russian invasion of Ukraine (in addition to all the other situations of conflict and injustice in which we try to accompany and support our member churches and partners).
The World Council of Churches’s 11th Assembly, held in Karlsruhe, Germany in September 2022, tried to grapple with the complexity of current converging threats to sustainable and just peace – in other words, to a safer world – in its statement on ‘The Things That Make For Peace’, which I take this opportunity to commend to you. The Assembly convened at a time when its theme – “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity” – seemed almost comically out of touch with current realities in the world, but at the same time desperately and urgently needed. In its statement on ‘The Things That Make For Peace’, the Assembly observed that “[t]he calling to dialogue, encounter and the pursuit of mutual understanding is the very essence of ecumenism and central to peace-making.”
With the war in Ukraine very much present in the minds of all participants, the Assembly was clear and categorical in its collective reaffirmation of the longstanding ecumenical “rejection and denunciation of war as contrary to the will of God.” However, an important part of World Council of Churches’s own constituency – the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church – had been seen and understood to offer justification and even blessing to the armed invasion of a sovereign neighbour. In light of that reality, the Assembly recognized “the urgent need for a deep renewed dialogue within the ecumenical movement on the implications of our Christian faith for our witness for peace in the world.”
Rejecting “the polarization and division of the human community”, the Assembly declared its “commitment to stay together as an ecumenical fellowship, and to grapple with the threats and challenges to peace, justice, human security and environmental sustainability through dialogue, encounter, the pursuit of mutual understanding, and cooperation, rather than through exclusion and confrontation.” And that is the task we are currently embarked on, trying to provide safe spaces for dialogue among members of our fellowship on the very difficult and dangerous global situation. For, as our then Acting General Secretary Fr Ioan Sauca commented, the World Council of Churches exists not because we agree, but precisely because we disagree – sometimes vehemently – on very important issues for the churches and for the world.
Dialogue and encounter across divisions is the core purpose of the World Council of Churches, and is also our prescription in every case of conflict and tension, and for a safer world. The absence of dialogue never alleviates tensions or conflict, but can only exacerbate them. This is not an abstract principle, but is demonstrably true in every practical conflict situation in which we are engaged – whether in Ukraine, or on the Korean Peninsula, or in Syria, Iraq, Ethiopia, Colombia, Nigeria, West Papua or Israel and Palestine.
Unfortunately, human beings – or more specifically men – have shown extraordinary ingenuity in amplifying our capabilities to kill each other. And no weapons category amplifies the risks of conflict more than nuclear weapons – the most indiscriminately and catastrophically destructive weapons ever invented. In an era in which most advanced military forces take pride in their precision-guided ‘smart’ weapons, nuclear weapons could be considered the ‘dumbest’ weapons.
Nuclear disarmament has been a priority of the World Council of Churches since its establishment in 1948, right up to date. I believe you are aware of the article we recently contributed to the Evatt Foundation Journal in which this history and our current perspectives on nuclear disarmament are outlined. But in essence our position remains, as stated at the World Council of Churches’s founding Assembly, that nuclear weapons are a “sin against God and a degradation of man.” They must be eliminated, as soon as possible, to remove an existential threat not only to human beings but to the whole living creation. For this reason, we have been active participants in the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), and strong promoters of the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which entered into force on 22 January 2021. The 11th Assembly statement urged “all states that have not already done so to sign and ratify the [TPNW], especially nuclear umbrella states and nuclear-armed states that are the source of this global threat.”
The Assembly also invited “reflection and discussion within and among the member churches of the World Council of Churches fellowship on Christian principles and perspectives with regard to the doctrine of nuclear deterrence.” Because, as our Evatt Foundation article points out, “nuclear deterrence only functions if ‘the other side’ believes that there is a real likelihood that nuclear weapons might actually be used in response to actions it might take. But this presumes that the population of a nuclear weapon State or a ‘nuclear umbrella’ State would actually contemplate nuclear weapons being used on their behalf to annihilate entire cities, entire populations and entire ecosystems, under any circumstances. From a general ethical point of view – and certainly from a Christian moral perspective – this warrants close interrogation.”
But beyond the issues of war and weapons, the 11th Assembly statement reflects an ecumenical conception of the basis of sustainable peace and safety in our world, which is essentially founded on justice and responsibility. World Council of Churches’s experience and reflection on these issues was crystallized in the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation held in Kingston, Jamaica, in May 2011 – convened as a ‘harvest festival’ following the Ecumenical Decade to Overcome Violence 2001-2010. The ‘Ecumenical Call to Just Peace’ which emerged from this harvest sought to re-orient the discourse surrounding ‘Just War’. Instead, it defined four dimensions of an inclusive vision of ‘Just Peace’: just peace in the community, just peace with the earth, just peace in the marketplace, and just peace among the nations. This concept was carried forward by the World Council of Churches’s 10th Assembly in Busan in 2013, in its ‘Statement on the Way of Just Peace’. At Busan, the Assembly declared a ‘Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace’, which has been the concept under which the entire World Council of Churches subsequently operated.
This thinking has guided every area of World Council of Churches’s work in the intervening period, reminding us that the work for peace is not separate from the work for human rights, racial and gender justice, climate action, economic justice, health and healing, interreligious dialogue and cooperation, mission and evangelism, or theological education. Significantly, the 11th Assembly statement on ‘The Things That Make For Peace’ calls for “greatly increased investment by governments and other actors in the foundations of true human security and global stability, including for urgent action to… avert the threat of catastrophic climate change, and for a just transition to renewable energy, for the elimination of extreme poverty, for sustainable development, and for measures to control rampant inequality… – all of which if not addressed will fuel conflict.”
This broad conception of sustainable peace and security was also reflected in our submission to the process of developing the UN Secretary-General’s ‘New Agenda for Peace’ – intended to update the UN’s 1992 Agenda for Peace for a new and more complex era of converging global crises. In our submission, we of course addressed nuclear disarmament and weapons control (including the need for a pre-emptive ban on AI-powered autonomous weapons systems). But in addition, we focused on the role of religious leaders and interfaith cooperation in the context of strengthening national capacities for conflict prevention and peacebuilding, on the obstacles posed by ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions to peace as well as to humanitarian response, on mental health and trauma-healing, and on racial and gender justice.
We affirmed the convergences and intersectionalities recognized in the approach to developing the New Agenda for Peace. Indeed, we underlined that in a world beset by such a constellation of converging crises, a traditional silo-ed approach to addressing peace and security could not pretend to be fit for the purpose. Moreover, the increasing gulf between global humanitarian needs and the resources committed to meeting those needs, obliges the international community to finally move beyond rhetoric to action to address the upstream root causes in order to prevent such crises rather than perpetually failing to meet the critical humanitarian needs they produce.
So, as you see, I have not made it any easier for you to imagine a safer world. But behind all this complexity, and the extraordinarily difficult policy choices entailed, are very simple but very profound concepts that lie at the heart of our Christian faith and values – peace, justice, reconciliation, unity, stewardship and responsibility, compassion, and – above all – love. Actions for peace and for a safer world that you may take in your own contexts, if based securely on these faith principles, will be sound and – I believe – blessed by God.
Director, Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, World Council of Churches