What is the relationship between christian identity


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What is the relationship between christian identity

  1. 1. What is the relationship betweenChristian identity, spirituality,religious plurality and Christian selfunderstanding?WCC/ALCRome, Thursday, February 2, 2012 (ALC) - Rev. Dr. Carlos Emilio Ham, Cuban Presbyterian-Reformed pastor and the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) programme executive for Diakoniaand Latin America and the Caribbean. UISG Rome Constellation 2012 “Who do you say that I am?” (Lk. 9:20): Our identity in relation to the other. Lecture offered by Carlos Emilio Ham* at the annual gathering of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), Rome, January 12, 2012. (*The Rev. Dr. Carlos Emilio Ham is a Cuban Presbyterian-Reformed pastor and the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) programme executive for Diakonia and Latin America and the Caribbean.)Dear sisters in our common Lord Jesus Christ. “May grace and peace be yours in abundance in theknowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord” (2 Peter 1:2).First of all, I am indeed very grateful to God for this great blessing to share with you somethoughts in this special occasion when you are gathering in your annual meeting. As I expressed toyour executive secretary, Josune Arregui, when she graciously extended the invitation for me tocome, this opportunity to be with you is a great honor, both for me and for the World Council ofChurches in general.IntroductionWhen I was reflecting on the topic suggested by our sister Josune, namely to look at the importanttheme of “identity in relation to the other”, the Biblical text of “Peter’s Confession about Jesus”
  2. 2. (Lk. 9:18-20), came to my mind. I will read this passage for you: “Once when Jesus was prayingalone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’ Theyanswered, ‘John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophetshas arisen.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘The Messiah ofGod’”.In my presentation, after reflecting on the exegesis of this biblical text, I would like to highlight thefollowing sub-themes: Our identity in relation to the other; How do we define our ChristianIdentity today; Christian Identity through Confession and Discipleship; Christian Identity andSpirituality; and finally, Religious plurality and Christian Self-Understanding. I will then finishproposing some Conclusions.1. Exegesis of the Biblical textAccording to R. Alan Culpepper, who wrote in The New Interpreter’s Bible, the Commentary of“The Gospel of Luke”, this section consists of a conversation between Jesus and the disciples. Thisfirst part contains two questions regarding Jesus identity (vv. 18-20). The first question elicitsthree answers regarding who the crowds say Jesus is. The second question leads to Petersconfession that Jesus is "the Messiah of God" … After an extended section in Luke that developedthe theme of "who then is this" and offered indirect answers by developing Jesus fulfillment ofthe prophetic traditions on drawn primarily Isaiahic themes, the Elijah-Elisha cycles, and exodusmotifs, the disciples offer the first confession of Jesus as the Messiah (Culpepper 1995:198).Here, as in other parts, Luke depends on Mark, although he has moved directly from the feeding ofthe five thousand, which in Mark occurs in 6:30-44, to the context of Peters confession (Mark8:27-30) (Culpepper 1995:199).Luke omits some sections of Mark. The effect of this omission is to bring the feeding of the fivethousand and Peters confession into direct relation to each other—a fact that may provesignificant for defining the meaning of the confession "the Messiah of God" (Culpepper 1995:199).Three other Lucan modifications of the confession scene give to it a distinctive meaning in thiscontext: (1) Luke has omitted Marks designation of thegeographical location (Caesarea of Philippi)and substitutes instead a designation of the spiritual context of the confession; (2) Luke changesMarks allusion to "people" in Mark 8:27 to "the crowds." The crowds have been a recurringfixture of Lukes account of Jesus ministry and are also mentioned three times in the feeding ofthe five thousand (9:11,12,16), so under Lukes editing of the material Jesus question "Who do thecrowds say that I am?" must be understood in direct relation to the previous scene, and (3) thethird Lukan modification that serves an important function in the narrative is the change of "oneof the prophets" (Mark 8:28) to "one of the ancient prophets has arisen" (Luke 9:19). Thedifference between the two phrases is not great, but in Luke the phrase is a verbatim repetition ofLukes earlier summary of Herods words (9:8). By means of this repetition, the confession scene istied directly to Herods question. Peter will give the answer that Herod never finds (Culpepper1995:199).
  3. 3. The answers that the disciples give to Jesus question about the level of the crowds understandingunderscore Jesus identification with the prophetic tradition: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of theancient prophets. The crowds have understood that Jesus mighty works are of the same cloth asthose performed and predicted by the prophets: announcing good news for the poor, challengingthe rich, giving sight to the blind, healing lepers, and raising the dead. Luke 7 and 8 especially havedefined Jesus as one greater than the prophets and greater than John the Baptist. The time hasnow come to articulate the nature of that "greater than." By means of the succession of twoquestions regarding Jesus identity and the emphatic opening ofthe second question, literally, "Butyou, who do you say that I am?", Luke telegraphs the fact that the answers the crowds haveproposed are inadequate. The disciples, through Peter, now show that they have moved to ahigher level of understanding (Culpepper 1995:199).Peters confession, "the Messiah (christos) of God," has been interpreted in various ways, as hasthe issue of whether it accurately reproduces a pre-Easter confession. The issue of whether thetitle is to be understood in a prophetic context or a royal, Davidic context is relevant to both ofthese questions. The reader already knows that Jesus is the Christ from references in Luke 2:11,26; 3:15; 4:41. Luke has cited the connection between the title "Christ," or the anointed one, andthe prophetic tradition by placing Jesus recitation of Is. 61:1 at the beginning of his ministry, inNazareth (4:18). It is clear from Lukes repeated description of Jesus as one greater than theprophets that this title cannot signal merely that Jesus was a prophet. He was the eschatologicalprophet who fulfilled Is. 61:1. The feeding of the five thousand, with its allusions to the exodus,the Moses traditions, and Elisha prepares us to understand this title in context as an indicationthat Jesus is the fulfillment of these traditions, including the expectation of the coming prophetlike Moses (Deut 18:15, 18). Peters confession also resonates with the predictions of Jesusfulfillment of the Davidic tradition (Luke 1:32-33) (Culpepper 1995:199-200).The angelic prediction at Jesus birth foreshadows for the reader Gods intention for Jesus. He willfulfill Gods promises for David and his descendants (2 Sam 7:9-14). The Lukan narrative,therefore, will not allow an easy choice between prophetic and royal contexts for understandingthe little "the Messiah of God." Luke has prepared the reader to understand the importance ofboth traditions. The two are joined and fulfilled in Jesus(Culpepper 1995:200).2. Our identity in relation to the otherThe term identity comes from the Latin identitas, also coming from idem and means “sameness”.It conceptualizes all affinities and affiliations, all forms of belonging, all experiences ofcommonality, connectedness, and cohesion, all self-understandings and self-identifications. Itinvolves the perennial philosophical problems of permanence amidst manifest change over time,and of unity amidst diversity.At the same time, a very important notion related to the whole question of identity is the one of“otherness”, namely, the quality or condition of being other; the quality of being different, notalike or distinct in appearance or character. An interesting way to illustrate this is in reference to
  4. 4. our Spanish language where the pronoun “we” (first person plural) is “nosotros”, which is acompound word, namely, “nos-otros”, “nosotros y los otros”, i.e. “we and the others”.C. Díaz in his article “Alteridad”, from the Dictionary of Contemporary Thought, refers on the onehand, to a twisted or distorted understanding of the Othernessconcept. He says that Otherness canbe understood as alteration or disturbance, when the other is seen as alienation, this, he says,produces xenophobia. It is the affirmation of myself, negating the other (Díaz 1997:61).This point of view reminds me the quote of Eugene Gogol, dealing with the concept of the other inthe Latin American liberation process. He said: “From the time of Columbus and the conquest,what became known as Latin America, has been seen as the other, first by Europe and then by theUnited States - the other to be subjugated, exploited, and dominated. But it became an other ofresistance and rebellion so permanent and enduring as the conquest was” (Gogol 2004:17).The other distorted understanding mentioned by C. Díaz is to live our difference in relation tothe other as indifference. Summarizing, he says, the result of bothdistorted mechanisms is thatthey cause a “violent indifferentiation”. This can cause an arbitrary perpetuation of violence,just to mention a very recent example, like the killing of the two Senegalese men by the right-wingextremist Gianluca Casseri in Florence, last December 13. This distorted understandingof the other leads to a foundational crime, which produces an endless spiral of violence,concludes C. Díaz (Díaz 1997:62).On the other hand, C. Díaz, after acknowledging in his article the difficulties and tensions producedby the relational reality, by the relationship or the dialogue with the other, he highlights that theother pole discovers his or hers own identity in relation to a pole, other than his or hers. In otherwords, he states that we can’t find our humanity in the egocentrism, in isolation, rather theidentity through the otherness. In this dialectic relationship, the uni-verse becomes multi-verse, acosmic coexistence, and a relationship that generates encounter.He also underscores the importance of the responsibility towards the other, which means tocorrespond in solidarity, in a true relationship of altruism, namely, a practice of disinterestedand selfless concern for the well-being of others. By the way, altruism comes from alter, theother, taking others seriously. Both “to respond” and “spouse” come from spondeo, meaning torespond and correspond, to be responsible and co-responsible. C. Díaz ends his article in referenceto love. “Love is what matters”, he says, in allusion to St. Francis of Assisi (Díaz 1997:66-67).3. How do we define our Christian Identity today?In a very revealing article called Christian Identity, the author, Helen Rhee, starts with a criticalquestion: “What makes one a Christian and what does it mean to be a Christian? Answers to thesequestions of Christian identity are not as simple as they might first appear to be. The concept ofidentity is a twentieth- century notion typically associated with modern individualism, and scholarstend to qualify its usage when speaking of the ‘emergence of Christian identity’ in the first twocenturies.
  5. 5. Nevertheless, it is still possible to speak of ‘Christian identity’ in constructing a sense of Christiancontinuity and common boundaries in relation to (or in terms of) otherness and differentiation;boundaries of Christian identity ‘involve selection out of both similarity and difference, andpromote interchange as well as distancing’ (Lieu 2002:311). This identity is constructed in constantsocial interactions with the surrounding societies and cultures, ‘others,’ and defines and redefinesthose ‘others,’ such as Jews, pagans, heretics, etc. Therefore, as any other identities, Christianidentity is “contextualized and contingent” (Lieu 2004:18) in history, yet it also presents andprojects Christian ideals and universal claims through the selective process of self-definition (Rhee2005:7). Christians in the last two millennia have wrestled to define and live out theirChristian identities in the changing contexts of culture, time and space. In this ageof globalization and post-modern world, this question of Christian identity is all the morepoignant and complex” (Rhee 2010:1).She goes on to say that “From a religious perspective, Christians have affirmed, with anuncompromising rejection of polytheistic worship, the exclusive worship of the one true God asthe creator and redeemer (monotheism) like the adherents of Judaism and (later) Islam and unlikemost of the people in antiquity; but unlike the believers of Judaism and Islam, Christians have alsoaffirmed Jesus as divine as revealed in the Bible (New Testament in particular). Christians ofvarying convictions in history and today more or less agree that the Bible holds a certain special(revelatory) status and authority, which distinguishes itself as somethingmore than a depositoryof human religious projection or wisdom. And Jesus revealed in the Bible is more than a greatmoral teacher; he is a unique figure, the Son of God, Messiah, and Savior of the world, howeverhis self-claim is interpreted…” (Rhee 2010:1).After analyzing the “exponential growth” of Christianity in the non-Western/North American“Southern” hemisphere (Asia, Africa and Latin America) and the serious decline in the traditionalWestern world, except the US, and the impact that it has in redefining the issues of Christianidentity today, she argues how “this appreciation leads to Christian pluralism and diversity thatacknowledges the role of particular culture and society in shaping Christian identities whileupholding the unifying “core” of Christian faith across every culture…” (Rhee 2010:6).“However, --she concludes—each particular experience of the core or center (Bible/Jesus) wouldnot be the normative experience on par with the biblical revelation. In other words, Africanexperience of Jesus is just as valid as European experience of Jesus; Asian experience of Jesus isjust as authentic as American experience of Jesus. Therefore, ‘cultural particularities are‘situations’ in which Christian people receive and give theological shape to the gospel. No suchsituation constitutes a privileged cultural context as such’ (Mouw & Griffioen 1993:156–157). What is rather normative for all of those diverse experiences would be their accountabilityto the center or the core – how they interpret, experience and relate to Jesus revealed inScripture in their own local contexts. In this sense, the particular cultural appropriation of theChristian center – the Bible and Jesus in the Bible – is essential to global experiences andexpressions of Christianity; in turn, it is the “universal” center that preserves the value andnecessity of contextual pluralism. In fact, only in light of such “center,” those diverse expressions
  6. 6. of Christianity can make legitimate claim of validity and authenticity” (cf. Mouw & Griffioen1993:147) (Rhee 2010:7).Another interesting article, in the same Dictionary of Contemporary Thought, mentioned above, iscalled Other, written by P. Laín Entralgo and M. Moreno Villa, which will help us to further reflectmore specifically on our Christian identity.The authors say that only with Christianity influenced by the worldview and anthropology of Israelwill emerge the question of its existence, although it was not understood primarily as anintellectual problem, but basically ethical and relational (Laín & Moreno 1997:860). ForLevinas, the meaning of being can only beachieved in relation to the other. Yahweh challengedAbraham making a covenant with him and talked to Moses "face to face" (panim el panim). Or"Where is Abel your brother?" (Gen. 4:9) "Here the dyadic relationship gives way to a third party,me and you, opens to the other of the two" (Laín & Moreno 1997:861).The two basic positionsarising in relation to the Other is its recognition or acknowledgement and our relationship tohim or her in multiple ways, which is not accidental, but constitutive of the being as a person.“For the Christian thinkers –they write—the other human being is a corporealspiritual being, aperson created by God out of nothing, within which beat the first fruits of the Spirit (Rom. 8:23),which allows him or her to realize that God is their Father, their brother (Christ) and their life-giving Love (the Spirit), and that invites for friendship and to share their own life, since thepersonal God (in the Old Testament), revealed as tri-personal (in the New Testament, by thework of Christ), call the human beings as the other” (Laín & Moreno 1997:861).The Other is mis-treated (or mistakenly treated) as an object, the person is understood as "it" andnot as "you", with whom I can have an encounter (Buber). The authors then mention severalwrong understandings in relationships, namely, to consider the other as: a) an obstacle, b) aninstrument, c) nothing. It is better to see the other as a beloved person, in constant love.The Jewish author Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) has written many books on this topic, andProfessor Adolfo Ham summarizes his thoughts through the following points:a. The relation with the Other is realized because I desire it. In the midst of my joys I find a face,which limits my freedom and questions my being, it challenges me.b. The other one will always be the Other. He/she will always send me to the Other and to a Thirdone.c. This relation is painful because it questions my ipsitas (my selfhood). This moment of theencounter is the pain of the pangs of birth, which we have to suffer in order to receive freedom inan original way.d. Often times the Other is the orphan, the widow, the foreigner. We have to live the experienceof Abraham, to open our doors to receive the strangers, the beggars who knock at my door. In this
  7. 7. way the other is my neighbor, specially that one who needs the most. We can note that this otherperson takes us to the Other (God) (Ham 2010:4).We have to admit –and I deliberately mention this here, acknowledging your efforts on thisregard-- that the feminist theology has a lot to teach us on this issue of relating to others. Inreference to this, one of our outstanding theologians in Latin America, our Brazilian friend IvoneGebara says: “What we women want is the valuation of our humanity. It is not an abstract anduniversal statement, but something we have to live and renew every day of our lives. And for thatwe must be able to turn first to the materiality of our world, i.e. to or our physical reality whichincludes embracing the differences between genders, ethnicities, cultures, ages and theinterconnection and interdependence of all things. It is not a superficial recognition butsomething which is expressed in the capacity to approach the other, similar and different from me.For this we need to mutually educate each other to listen without prejudice, without wanting toassimilate the experience of others into our own, without reducing the other to our idea abouthimself or herself. In general patriarchal religions are dogmatic and fundamentalists, andexclude those who do not speak the same language or do not have the same history, which is away of affirming and defending their own truth” (Gebara 2011:76).“In a world where one of the most used words is diversity, --concludes Ivone—we feel that inmany churches and theologies, it is a simply a rhetoric word, without any real impact on ourbehavior and relationships. We continue with an individualistic androcentrism andanthropocentrism to the extent of forgetting the message of the Gospel of Jesus which is to "loveone another as ourselves” … This situation invites us again and again to want to learn from eachother, to listen and to live tenderness and compassion among us. To abandon theological sexismis an attempt to get out of the many imperialisms that dominate us. It is about taking smallsteps to build relationships that allow us to feel today, and particularly today, our call forfreedom. It is not much, but its something along the lines of our common responsibility to buildeach day a world where all can be included” (Gebara 2011:76).At this point, I would like to offer three examples or expressions of Christian Identityin order tobetter illustrate these concepts:1. The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christas God and Savior according to the scriptures and therefore seek to fulfill together their commoncalling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.2. The Global Christian Forum creates an open space wherein representatives from a broad rangeof Christian churches and interchurch organizations, which confess the triune God and Jesus Christas perfect in His divinity and humanity, can gather to foster mutual respect, to explore and addresstogether common challenges.3. The International Union of Superiors General provides an international forum where superiorsgeneral of institutes of religious Catholic women can share experiences, exchange information andmentor one another in their role as leaders. Its mission is to build bridges that span distances,
  8. 8. borders and boundaries in order to create ways for members to be in communication, incommunity and in communion.4. Christian Identity through Confession and DiscipleshipHaving shared all these rich insights, let’s come back to the two questions regarding Jesus identityin our text according to Saint Luke. Further reflecting on this passage, R. Alan Culpepper notes thefollowing: “At this point in the Gospel, partial answers and proleptic references are giving way todefinitive statements ofJesus identity as the Son of God. Jesus question to the disciples is anexistential query that every reader of the Gospel must answer sooner or later: "who do you saythat I am?" Repeatedly the disciples and others around Jesus had asked one another who Jesuswas. Jesus now turns the question back on the disciples. He did not ask who he was but who theybelieved him to be. Beyond the question of identity is the issue of confession (Culpepper1995:203).Peter gave the best answer he knew, the highest confession he could imagine, but it wasntenough. On the one hand, it failed to see the struggle and sacrifice that lay before Jesus; on theother hand, it wasnt enough because it failed to recognize the sacrifice and demand that wouldbe required of any who confessed Jesus to be the Christ (Culpepper 1995:203).The questions that mean most in life may be the questions of identity and relationship. “Who areyou?" "Who is God?" "What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus?" What do our answers tothese questions mean for our values, priorities, and commitments? The answers to thesequestions, however, are not strictly cognitive, rational, or intellectual. They usually emerge fromexperience and require a commitment of life. We answer these questions by the way we live.Peter may have been partially right about who Jesus was, but he was completely wrong aboutwhat following Jesus would mean for him. Jesus was on his way to a cross, not a throne, andthose who followed him must be ready to follow him on this road of obedience to Godsredemptive will and sacrifice for the salvation of others (Culpepper 1995:203).Those who preach a cheap grace or a gospel of ‘health and wealth’ not only offer false promises,but also they preach a false gospel. Discipleship and lordship are always interrelated. When weoffer false assurances, and teach a cross-less discipleship, we proclaim a distorted Christology. Onthe other hand, when we preach a crucified Christ, the only authentic response is for one to giveup all other pursuits that might compromise ones commitment and devote oneself completely tothe fulfillment of the Kingdom tasks for which Jesus gave his own life. The nature ofour discipleship always reflects our understanding of Jesus lordship (Culpepper 1995:203).Discipleship is also a continuing process. That means first that however lofty our understanding orobedient be our discipleship, most of us are probably not far from Peter—confessing but failing tograsp the implication of our confession; understanding, but only in part; following Jesus, butmaintaining our own aspirations and ambitions also. The present tense verbs of the sayings ondiscipleship should, therefore, not be overlooked. We might paraphrase: "lf you want tocontinue following me, deny yourself now and take up the cross every day, and keep
  9. 9. on following me." What net profit is there if having gained everything you lose your own life?(Culpepper 1995: 203).There are many impulses in life. One is the impulse to acquire, take, hoard, own, and protect.Another is the impulse to give and to serve. One assumes that each of us can be the Lord of ourown lives and that our security and fulfillment depend on our ability to provide for ourselves. Theother confesses the sovereignty of God and devotes life to the fulfillment of Gods redemptivewill in delivering and empowering others, establishing justice and peace, tearing down barriers,reconciling persons, and creating communities. Those who devote themselves to these tasksconfess that the true fulfillment of life is to be found in the service of Christ and that our onlysecurity is in him (Culpepper 1995:203-204).There is a further truth hidden in the contrast between the present and the future in the comingSon of Man sayings. In the context of teachings on discipleship, the emphasis is not on thecoming Son of Man but on the truth that the way we live in the present determines ourrelationship to the Lord in the future. We are becoming who we shall be. Who we say Jesus isnow determines what he will say of us in the future. How we answer the question “Who do yousay I am?” through our day-to-day discipleship is the only answer that matters—but everythingdepends on that answer (Culpepper 1995:204).Jesus accepts his Messianic mission to the community. God chose Jesus as the Messiah of Israel,but the choice did not mean Jesus was to remain on the sideline with the people he was toserve. Similarly in the Church and the Christian community, vocation is a true call from God toserve the people. All vocation, charisma and service, must be intended for the community,particularly those in need. As a matter of fact, a concrete example and expression ofa discipleship which serves the community, affirming an authentic lordship of our Master, is whatyou carryout in your different ministries, according to your UISG Directions, namely to:• Address at every level the abuse and sexual exploitation of women and children, with particularattention to the trafficking of women.• Promote the education and formation of women by committing personnel and financialresources to ensure the holistic development of women at every stage of life.• Work for the cancellation of the International debt.• The creation of a culture of peace.• End the destructive behavior that causes global warming and climate change and threatens allforms of life on our planet.5. Christian Identity and SpiritualityAnother critical aspect of our Christian identity is our Spirituality. According to the text of St.Luke that we have been studying, just before Jesus raises the question on his identity, the author
  10. 10. says that he “was praying alone”. Many other passages of the Gospels refer to this practice,particularly in critical moments like this one, when Jesus is preparing himself for his way to thecross. Earlier in our paper we mentioned how important it was for St. Luke to state the spiritualcontext of the confession, rather than mentioning the geographical location, as a way ofhighlighting the fact that Jesus does not work alone, but rather in communion with his heavenlyFather.In today’s secular and consumerist world, as we confess Jesus as “The Messiah of God”, we areurged to deepen our spirituality, rooted in our Christian faith, which is “the assurance of thingshoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Heb. 11:1). This enables us to see beyond the“natural” world, in order to “hope against hope” (Rom. 4:18). It equips us with a vision for adiscipleship, which empowers us to work for and to see “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev.21:1), providing a certainty that even when we don’t know what the future holds, we know forsure Who holds the future. This indeed providesdynamos, a unique inspiration to work for abetter and more just world that other initiatives do not have.In our mainline “historical churches” in general we need to further acknowledge the importance ofPneumatology, i.e. to explore more on the role of the Spirit who empowers. In the Bible, theHebrew term for the Spirit is ruah. Its first meaning, and that of its Latin translation spiritus, is"breath”. It refers to the breath of God as the power that gives life to the creatures (cf. Ps 104:29-30). It appears as a manifestation of Gods dynamism that is communicated to creatures. The wordis also known in the New Testament as the paraclete (Jn. 14:16.26; 15:26; 16:7), where it may betranslated into English as counsellor, helper, encourager, facilitator, inspirer, advocate, orcomforter and the early church identified it as the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5.8; 2:4.38). Saint Paul says inRomans 8:26: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness”.There is an important relationship between spirituality and ecumenism as well. This has beenunderscored by Cardinal Walter Kasper, former head of the Pontifical Council for PromotingChristian Unity, in his Handbook of Spiritual Ecumenism, published in 2007, which has providedfresh insights on this important topic. In an effort to summarize his main points, regarding SpiritualEcumenism, I would like to share the following: (1) It is significant that when Jesus expressed hisdesire for unity, he did not do so in a teaching or in a commandment to his disciples, but ratherin a prayer to his Father (Jn. 17:21). Unity is a gift from above, stemming from and growingtoward loving communion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; (2) Prayer for unity is the royaldoor of ecumenism: it leads Christians to look at the Kingdom of God and the unity of the Churchin a fresh way; it deepens their bonds of communion; and it enables them to courageously facepainful memories, social burdens and human weakness; (3) Spiritual ecumenism also requires a“change of heart and holiness of life”, arising from Jesus’ call to conversion. The way towardreconciliation and communion unfolds when Christians feel the painful wound of division in theirhearts, in their minds and in their prayers. Only in the context of conversion and renewal of mindcan the wounded bonds of communion be healed.
  11. 11. And (4) Spiritual ecumenism, concludes cardinal Kasper, is called “the soul of the wholeecumenical movement”. According to the Second Vatican Council, the ecumenical movement hasbeen brought about “under the inspiring grace of the Holy Spirit”. It is a spiritual process, carriedout in faithful obedience to the Father, following the will of Christ, under the guidance of the HolySpirit. The work of ecumenism, therefore, is rooted in the foundations of Christianspirituality, requiring more than ecclesial diplomacy, academic dialogue, social involvementand pastoral cooperation. It presupposes a real appreciation of the many elementsof sanctification and truth wrought by the Holy Spirit both within and beyond thevisible boundaries of the Catholic Church (Kasper 2007).On this pertinent theme, our beloved brother, the Dominican friar from Brazil, Frei Betto, said inan interview: “My spirituality is centred on the example of Jesus. I am impassioned by histestimony and example. But I also feel spiritually enriched with other contributions, especiallythat of Buddhism. I think that the Catholic Church is very poor in respect to meditation for reasonsthat I am still studying. It has severely persecuted its mystics throughout history. Forme, spirituality is the language of the future. I give a lot of time to this, because I dont believethat humanity will find a new path without diving deeply in spirituality. In other words, whatpeople are searching for is very close to them, but they dont know it” (Betto 1998:1).And Betto expressed later in the interview: “Spirituality is not for the satisfaction of myego. Spirituality gives one the capacity to love others more, especially those who are mostneedy. Jesus identified himself with the poorest people, so I believe that it is fundamental forspiritualists to see in the poor, in the oppressed, the true presence of God. For my spiritualliberation, for my realization, it is necessary that I love those around me. Subjectively I cannotjudge anyone, but objectively I find no value in a spirituality that does not rise to the liberationof the oppressed. I believe in a spirituality that returns to make the entire world a place ofharmony and fraternity. And this means a fight against injustice” (Betto 1998:2).I believe that Spirituality is not limited to our participation in specific spiritual practices (prayer,Bible reading, praise), it is, rather to receive through them and through other means, thenecessary discernment of the Spirit in order to read accurately the signs of the times, to exercisea liberating witness as a result of our relationship of dialogue with the God of life, the God of thepoor and of those excluded and who suffer. Paraphrasing the Swiss Reformed theologian KarlBath, who suggested that to be faithful witnesses to the Gospel, we ought to hold the Bible in onehand and newspaper in the other;spirituality is the bridge that inspires us to carry out anauthentic discipleship that is connected both withthe Biblical text and the context where weserve.Spirituality, from a Christian perspective is an endeavour to live in obedience to the gospel of JesusChrist, in other words, it means discipleship. "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked his firstdisciples. The response to that question is the disciples spirituality in living a life consistent withthe Gospels.
  12. 12. Here, at the end of this segment, I would like to share a final concern, expressed through somequestions: ¿How is it possible to live an authentic spirituality when we, Jesus’ disciples, excludeeach other from the Lord’s Table? How is it possible for us to proclaim, work and struggle towardsa more inclusive world, where women, children, disabled people, persons surviving in the marginsof society are excluded, when in many cases we prevent each other from participating in thesacrament of the “Holy Comm-union”? How is it possible that our confessional (and other)differences interfere in our sharing at the Table?6. Religious plurality and Christian Self UnderstandingAnother very important and relevant reality of how our Christian identity is shaped vis-à vis theother is through interreligious relations and dialogue. In fact the main focus of the WCC’s work inthis area is to reflect and act upon the Christian Self-Understanding in a world of religiousplurality, in other words, to further understand how our own Christian identity is re-shaped or re-imagined as we relate to brothers and sisters of other faith. Many ecumenical consultations andinitiatives have been organized with helpful and powerful inputs from the Roman Catholic andother traditions.A document, published in February 2006, under the title Religious Plurality and Christian Self-Understanding was the result of a study process in response tosuggestions made in 2002 at theWCC central committee to the three staff teams on Faith and Order, Inter-religious Relations, andMission and Evangelism, and their respective commissions or advisory bodies. Relevant to ourtheme are paragraphs 42 and 43 where we read: “… Hospitality requires Christians to acceptothers as created in the image of God, knowing that God may talk to us though others to teachand transform us, even as God may use us to transform others” … “The biblical narrative andexperiences in the ecumenical ministry show that such mutual transformation is at the heart ofauthentic Christian witness. Openness to the “other” can change the “other”, even as it canchange us. It may give others new perspectives on Christianity and on the gospel; it may alsoenable them to understand their own faith from new perspectives. Such openness, andthe transformation that comes from it, can in turn enrich our lives in surprising ways” (WCC2006:16).The document goes on to say in paragraph 45 that: “Extending such hospitality is dependent on atheology that is hospitable to the “other”. Our reflections on the nature of the biblical witness toGod, what we believe God to have done in Christ, and the work of the Spirit shows that at theheart of the Christian faith lies an attitude of hospitality that embraces the “other” in theirotherness. It is this spirit that needs to inspire the theology of religions in a world that needshealing and reconciliation. And it is this spirit that may also bring about our solidarity with all who,irrespective of their religious beliefs, have been pushed to the margins of society” (WCC 2006:17).In our WCC 9th Assembly, held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, on February 2006, one of the plenarysessions was devoted precisely to the topic “Christian identity and religious plurality”. Thekeynote presenter was The Most Rev. Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the mostsenior bishop in the established church in England and the leader of the Anglican Communion
  13. 13. around the world. Among other thoughts, this is what he had to say: “…Our calling to faithfulness,remember, is an aspect of our own identity and integrity. To work patiently alongside people ofother faiths is not an option invented by modern liberals who seek to relativize the radicalsingleness of Jesus Christ and what was made possible through him. It is a necessary part of beingwhere he is; it is a dimension of ‘liturgy, staying before the presence of God and the presence ofGods creation (human and non-human) in prayer and love. If we are truly learning how to be inthat relation with God and the world in which Jesus of Nazareth stood, we shall not turn awayfrom those who see from another place. And any claim or belief that we see more or more deeplyis always rightly going to be tested in those encounters where we find ourselvesworking for avision of human flourishing and justice in the company of those who do not start where we havestarted” (Williams 2006:5).And he concluded with these words: “The question of Christian identity in a world of pluralperspectives and convictions cannot be answered in clichés about the tolerant co-existence ofdifferent opinions. It is rather that the nature of our conviction as Christians puts us irrevocablyin a certain place, which is both promising and deeply risky, the place where we are called toshow utter commitment to the God who is revealed in Jesus and to all those to whom hisinvitation is addressed. Our very identity obliges us to active faithfulness of this double kind. Weare not called to win competitions or arguments in favour of our ‘product in some religiousmarketplace” (Williams 2006:6).Important to mention here as well are the interfaith gatherings in Assisi, called by the HollyFathers. In the most recent one, the “Day of reflection, dialogue and prayer for peace and justicein the world” on 27 October 2011, hosted by Pope Benedict XVI, the general secretary WCC, Rev.Dr Olav Fykse Tveit said: “We are here to let the conversion of Francis speak to us and to let theconversation between us become a source for justice and peace. There is more to win throughthe respect for the other. A sustainable peace requires that there is a space, a safe andsecure space, not only for me but also for the other. Christians are reminded that the cross is notfor crusades but a sign of how God’s love embraces everybody, also the other” (Tveit 2011).ConclusionsAlready near the end of Jesus ministry in Galilee, it is obvious that his fame has spread throughoutthe region, however, Jesus still raises some questions related to the perception or public opinionpeople have in relation to his identity: have the crowds who have seen and heard him, reallyunderstood who he is ultimately? All of those who have heard him, where are they and what arethey doing? To what extent have his message and signs influenced them? What is the answer ofthe twelve? Peter responds on behalf of them, “Jesus is the Messiah of God”, the Anointed One.But the direct question is also questioning us today. Twenty one centuries of Jesus’ history andof Christianity, and yet, we, his believers and followers continue to confuse and mix-up hisidentity, his message and his work.This story from St. Luke testifies to the tension between the idea (hope) of human beings and thepower of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Human beings may fall in the temptation to make the
  14. 14. victorious Messiah features absolute, interpreting him as a Lord who wins the battle of life anddestroys enemy powers (identified with our personal enemies). However, God manifests hispresence through the journey of Jesus’ faithfulness to humanity and to creation, and onlythrough this loyalty, by accepting suffering and death, hope acquires its full sense (i.e. theresurrection) (González 1976:1305-1306).I would like to end my presentation by summarizing and highlighting some criticalpoints:1. Our identity is always defined in relation to the other. As human beings we are not individualislands, rather our identity or “sameness”, relates to affinities and affiliations, to forms ofbelonging, to experiences of commonality, connectedness and cohesion. Our self understandingsand self identifications are informed and transformed by our relationship to the “other”. Issuesof permanence amidst manifest change over time, and ofunity amidst diversity are critical aswell.2. More specifically, Christians are those whose identity is shaped by the effort to faithfullydepend on the Other (God) and to confess and follow His son, Jesus Christ, as a unique figure,the Son of God, Messiah, and Savior of the world, according the revelation in the Bible. Christianidentity is“contextualized and contingent”.3. Beyond the question of identity is the issue of confession. In the text of St. Luke, Peter gavethe best answer he knew, the highest confession he could imagine, but it wasnt enough. He bothfailed to see the struggle and sacrifice that lay before Jesus and to recognize the sacrifice anddemand that would be required of any who confessed Jesus to be the Christ. We are called notonly to confess the Messiah, but also to be faithful disciples and the nature of our discipleshipalways reflects our understanding of Jesus lordship. Discipleship is moved by the impulse to giveand to serve, devoting life to the fulfillment of Gods Kingdom and redemptive will in deliveringand empowering others, establishing justice, peace and integrity of creation, tearing downbarriers, embracing people, and creating reconciling and healing communities.According to Saint Luke, just after Peter’s confession, Jesus sternly ordered and commanded hisdisciples not to tell anyone, saying, ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejectedby the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised’ (vv. 21-22).Therefore, the title Messiah indicates that the history of humankind reaches its fullness in Jesus.But, at the same time, we need to complete it by the expression "Son of Man", which in thiscontext, shows the same God who has descended, who has emptied himself, walks withhuman beings and takes their suffering, transfiguring it from within (González 1976:1305-1306).4. Christian Identity is closely linked to Spirituality. Authentic spirituality means, “to have Godwithin” (Leonardo Boff); to acknowledge, as St. Paul proclaimed at the Areopagus, that in God“we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). It means to hear the voice of God whosays: “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 49:10), it implies to realize Gods presence in our livesand discover peace, the strength of the Holy Spirit who gives to those who ask, in opensilence. Spirituality assures the conviction that all pain, violence and confusion we have ever
  15. 15. known, through an encounter with Jesus Christ we are healed, uplifted and renewed togarner strength, in order to open hearts to truth, to justice, peace in Godscreated whole. Ourbrothers and sisters in the Global South experience this in their daily lives, which is why they liveand practice a joyful faith and praise God with all their hearts and minds. Not long ago I read a signin San José, Costa Rica expressing this feeling: “Don’t tell God you have a great problem, tell theproblem you have a great God!” Authentic spirituality, as well, prepares us to serve in the Lord’sTable, the banquet of the Kingdom, where no one is excluded.5. In the modern ecumenical movement we deal with these issues of unity amidst diversity daily,seeking to foster “visible unity” and a “reconciled diversity” among the Christian traditions andcommunities, but also seeking unity beyond the churches, in a fragmented world. Therelation should be mediated by mutual respect and love. Jesus calls us to “love our neighbours asourselves” (Mat. 19:19). “Love is what matters” (St. Francis of Assisi).6. Religious plurality and Christian-Self Understanding. Our reflections on the nature of thebiblical witness to God, what we believe God to have done in Christ, and the work of the Spiritshows that at the heart of the Christian faith lays an attitude of hospitality that embraces the“other” in their otherness. It is this spirit that needs to inspire the theology of religions in a worldthat needs healing and reconciliation. Of course, we acknowledge that the issue is not easy. Forexample, how Peter’s confession: “The Messiah of God” would be interpreted today by brothersand sisters of the Jewish or by the Muslim, or by other religious traditions?In conclusion we can state: a) only when the prospects of the Messiah of hope and of the Son ofMan, who assumes the suffering of history, are considered together, as an inseparable unit, avalid picture of Jesus is achieved. b) Therefore, accepting Jesus is not simply confessing him,together with Peter, as the Messiah; it is necessary to follow him in his journey of fidelity, in themidst of suffering and death (González 1976:1305-1306). As Jesus said, according to therecollection of St. Luke, just a couple of verses after the passage we have been analyzing: “…If anywant to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and followme. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sakewill save it” (Lk. 9:23-24).May the blessing of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be with you all, now and ever.Amen.Bibliographical ReferencesBetto, F. (1998). Spirituality and Social Justice: A Dialogue with the yoga monk DadaMaheshananda. Published in New Renaissance, Vol. 7, No.3.http://www.ru.org/spirituality/spirituality-and-social-justice-a-dialogue.htmlGogol, E. (2004). El concepto del otro en la liberación latinoamericana, Bogotá, Ediciones DesdeAbajo.
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