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Keynote speech of the WCC general secretary at the NCCK General Assembly, Seoul, 2019

Keynote speech of the WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit at the NCCK General Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, 20 November 2019

15 November 2019

Keynote speech for NCCK General Assembly, 20 November 2019
Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, General Secretary, World Council of Churches

Walk the Path of the New Commandment


“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

Greetings to you all from the World Council of Churches, in the name of Our God of Life, the Creator, Saviour and Life-giver, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The theme of the 68th General Assembly of the National Council of Churches in Korea is: “Walk the Path of the New Commandment (John 13:34-35)” based on John’s account of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples.

Jesus said: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

This new commandment has everything to do with Christian discipleship. In making it, Jesus tells the disciples that by loving one another they will be demonstrating to the world their discipleship. In other words, love for one another is a distinguishing mark of those who follow Christ.

It also has everything to do with ecumenism. The new commandment - for the disciples of Christ to love one another, and thereby to give witness to the world of their Christian discipleship - is the very essence and core purpose of the ecumenical movement, as a vibrant renewal movement of the churches for the sake of the kingdom.

Ecumenism is really the dynamic, counter-inertial, renewing force of Christian love. It is, in fact, a movement of love. Love compels us as Jesus’ disciples always and everywhere to open ourselves empathically and to place ourselves at the service of others. As the Bible shows us in so many ways, it is always about speaking the truth in love. This means being mutually accountable to one another, sharing the love of Christ to us with one another and with the world. We all need it just as Peter at the Sea of Tiberias, being honest to Jesus, to ourselves and to one another. By his grace, we all have the opportunity to respond to Christ’s love and be moved by it. It demands, yet also enables us to transcend the narrow boundaries and parochialisms of our self-interest, of race or class, or even of confession or creed.

Of course, Christ’s commandment of love is not limited to those who share our Christian faith, but extends to our neighbours (Matthew 22:37-40), and even to our enemies (Luke 6:27-36).

As you well know, the 10th Assembly of the WCC, in 2013 in Busan, called all Christians and all people of good will to a ‘Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace’, engaging together in transformative action. It is in this broader horizon of the world that our witness as Christians has to find common ground with people of other faiths and of none, in fact with all people of good will. We have our distinct message, but this message is good news for all and not just for us or for a few. Therefore, we welcome allies and partners on our way and are committed to building common ground for transformation. I believe that wherever Christ’s pilgrim people and communities of faith are willing to test the boundaries, divisions, conflicts and hatreds of our world in the name of the authentic gospel, ecumenism lives and thrives.

Now, we did not begin walking this pilgrim path together in Busan, and we will not cease the pilgrimage when we convene for the 11th WCC Assembly in Karlsruhe in 2021. ‘The ‘Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace’ is actually another way of describing the entire history - and future - of the ecumenical movement. But the specific concept of the ’Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace’ has nevertheless marked this period of the ecumenical movement’s history in distinctive ways, and encouraged not only WCC member churches but also many ecumenical partners to re-examine and to re-new their ministry in this light.

In Karlsruhe in 2021, WCC member churches will convene under the theme “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity.” The theme will help us to focus on the ecumenical movement as a movement of love, seeking to follow Christ and witness to Christ’s love - expressed in the search for justice, peace, reconciliation and unity. Christ’s love gives content to the type of fellowship and visible unity in the life of the World Council of Churches. When we love one another justice and peace become part of our reality. When we work for justice and equality, we are fully living into the love we are commanded to show one to the other by Jesus.

Whether by design or by accident, the theme of your Assembly here in Seoul offers a kind of conceptual bridge from Busan to Karlsruhe - from the ‘Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace’, on which path we have been walking, to the focus on Christ’s love, whose example we are called to emulate in the “new commandment” to love one another. It also offers an opportunity to reflect on the historical moment on the Korean Peninsula and the calling of the churches with respect to justice, peace, reconciliation and unity in this context.

History amply attests to that fact that the NCCK has been a prophetic voice and leader for peace, justice and human rights in this country and region. NCCK and its member churches have spoken out for democracy and freedom, at a time of military dictatorship and oppression. They have advocated for human rights, in the face of atrocities such as the Kwangju massacres and other grave violations of the equal God-given dignity of all human beings. And they have reached across the chasm of Cold War division, horrific conflict and the loss of millions of precious lives, to find and uphold the humanity of others portrayed as implacable enemies.

Over the decades, WCC has been privileged to accompany and support the prophetic witness of the churches of South Korea and of the NCCK in these and other contexts. In particular, the whole history of the ‘Tozanso Process’ was one of a courageous ecumenical ministry of love for each other as Christians, for the neighbour, and even for those called ‘enemies’. This ministry has been undertaken as faithful witnesses to Christ, “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Ephesians 2:14)

As Erich Weingartner recalled in a paper he wrote for the Busan Assembly, the danger for the churches of initiatives for dialogue with North Korean counterparts was very clear. At that time, more than 30 years ago, “South Korean punishments for contact with the North were draconian under the NSL [National Security Law]. Meetings on the theme of reunification planned by the NCCK were consistently blocked by government actions. Christian teachers who discussed reunification proposals with their students were arrested and tortured.”

The WCC provided cover for an ecumenical process that was - and remains - led by Koreans, from both sides of this geo-political divide. And, as Erich notes, this led to the historic first consultations and encounters that “Christians and government officials in both parts of Korea recognize as the first opening on a nongovernmental (but officially recognized) level between North and South Korea.”

It is a moving account that Erich offers of the first direct encounter between North and South Korean Christians at a WCC-sponsored meeting in Glion, Switzerland, in September 1986. He describes the meeting as beginning “with fear and trembling, as each side tested the other, openly confessing their mistrust. Both were keenly aware that they would have to account for their words and deeds back home, to their respective governments. The celebration of the Eucharist – that powerful symbol of the unity of all children of God – at the conclusion of [the Glion meeting] broke down the invisible walls of separation that have tormented the Korean nation for too long. Participants from North and South dissolved into tears and embraces.”

Right there, in that emotional moment, is the sudden breaking through of love for each other, the sign of shared Christian discipleship, and a true witness to the wider world of the possibility - even the inevitability - of peace, reconciliation and unity.

I must also on this occasion remark on the courageousness of the NCCK ‘Declaration of the Churches of Korea on National Reunification and Peace’ issued in February 1988, and of the April 1988 NCCK international consultation held in Incheon, the first such event to deal openly and publicly with these questions within South Korea.

When WCC member churches met in Busan in November-December 2013, it was a salutary opportunity to recapture the excitement and promise of the Tozanso Process at a time when severe new political challenges had arisen to obscure the vision and to obstruct progress towards dialogue and peaceful coexistence on the Korean Peninsula. We emerged from that Assembly re-galvanized as an ecumenical movement committed to transformative action for justice and peace in this region. If I look back at the intervening years, I am proud of what we have done together on this pilgrimage, and amazed by the miraculous unforeseen opportunities that God has put in our path, to step back onto the way of peace, and away from the precipice of catastrophic conflict.

We can thank God together, for example, for the fact that so soon after we departed from Busan we convened, together with delegations from the Korean Christians Federation (KCF) of North Korea and from the NCCK, in a conference at Bossey on 17-19 June 2014 in which we not only marked the 30th anniversary of the ‘Tozanso Process’ but explored new ways of advancing reconciliation and peace on the peninsula. We began then a new phase of our work together for justice and for peace in this region.

I am grateful and we all should be proud that in October 2015 a 12-person international ecumenical delegation - comprised of members and observers of the Ecumenical Forum for Peace, Reunification & Development Cooperation on the Korean Peninsula (EFK) - visited the DPRK.  It was during the delegation visit that a formal EFK meeting was convened in Pyongyang on 28 October 2015, the first time an international ecumenical gathering was able to meet anywhere on Korean soil – North or South – with the official participation of both KCF and NCCK.

In November 2016, an international ecumenical conference on a peace treaty for the Korean Peninsula, was convened by the WCC in Hong Kong SAR, China, with 58 participants from churches and related organizations from both North Korea and South Korea and 11 other countries, hosted by the Hong Kong Christian Council. We are proud that this conference issued a communique proposing that future ecumenical initiatives with regard to the Korean peninsula be purposefully and explicitly configured so as to model and exercise leadership towards a process for a peace treaty to replace the Armistice Agreement.

I am greatly impressed by the courage and commitment of NCCK and South Korean church representatives who, during this particularly difficult period for inter-Korean relations, were prepared to run the gauntlet of South Korean government penalties for meeting with fellow Christians from North Korea. This was a costly ministry of love and for peace.

I am also grateful to the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) that, against a background of dangerously escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula, an EFK meeting could be held in Leipzig, Germany, on 7-8 July 2017 in association with the WCRC General Assembly.

But I am - still today - frankly amazed by the God-given miracle of inter-Korean leadership that resulted in the Panmunjom Summit on 27 April 2018, and heralded the opening of a precious new window for dialogue and for peaceful coexistence. I take this opportunity to lift up again the commitments made in the inter-Korean Panmunjom Declaration:

●     to promoting dialogue and negotiations, and to alleviating military tensions and confrontation;

●     to improving and cultivating inter-Korean relations, and encouraging more active cooperation, exchanges, visits and contacts at all levels;

●     to declaring an end to the Korean War, and replacing the 1953 Armistice Agreement with a peace treaty; and

●     to turning the Korean Peninsula into a nuclear-free zone through complete denuclearization.


Just a couple of days after the Panmunjom Summit, I was privileged to lead a high-level international ecumenical delegation, comprised of representatives of the WCC and of the WCRC on a visit both to Seoul and to Pyongyang on 30 April-7 May 2018. In Seoul, we heard directly from the South Korean Minister of Unification of the developments in Panmunjom and the promising new opening for dialogue and for peace. In Pyongyang, accompanied by the KCF leadership, we met with the President of Supreme People’s Assembly of the DPRK Kim Yong Nam, and heard a similarly optimistic but also clear-headed and pragmatic account of the new opportunities for peace created by the Panmunjom Summit.

In yet another providential coincidence, just one day after the equally astonishing Singapore Summit between the leaders of the DPRK and the USA on 12 June 2018, WCC welcomed the arrival in Geneva of the members of a KCF delegation who then took part - together with South Korean church representatives and representatives of WCC member churches from around the world - in the WCC Central Committee meeting and 70th anniversary celebrations.

I recall the historic visit by Pope Francis on 21 June 2018, when he was welcomed on his entry to the Visser t’Hooft Hall by a receiving line of North and South Korean Christians mingled together.  I also thank God for being there, witnessing the miracle of Christian sisters and brothers from both North and South Korea singing hymns and songs of praise together, in obvious joy and love for each other.

That spirit infused the meeting of the Central Committee meeting, which acknowledged with joy how closely the commitments expressed in the Panmunjom Declaration matched the key focuses and objectives of over three decades of ecumenical advocacy for peace and reunification of the Korean Peninsula. The Central Committee affirmed the Panmunjom Declaration as a transformational expression of inter-Korean leadership for peace, prosperity, and reunification of the divided Korean people. We joined in urging all members of the international community to encourage, support and enable North and South Korea in the full implementation of the Panmunjom Declaration, as the accepted framework for securing a sustainable peace on the Korean Peninsula and for the region.

And on 22-23 June 2018, immediately after the WCC Central Committee meeting, the EFK was convened in Geneva with an expanded participation, for the first time including Roman Catholic representatives. Inspired by the recent political developments, EFK participants affirmed the Panmunjom Declaration as “a transformational expression of inter-Korean leadership for peace and reunification of the divided Korean people”, and committed themselves to the “‘Panmunjom Process’, a new phase in the history of ecumenical engagement for peace and reunification on the Korean Peninsula”.

When the EFK next met, in Bangkok on 10-12 July this year, participants reaffirmed the ecumenical commitment to the vision of peace and reunification on the Korean Peninsula, and to the realization of the joint inter-Korean Panmunjom Declaration as the framework for achieving peace.

We are proud that the youth of the ecumenical movement are taking on this task. On 6-12 August 2019, under the auspices of the ECHOS Commission, young people from all over the world met in Korea and embarked on a Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace. With the theme “Walking with Peace, Reclaiming Hope,” the youth pilgrimage called for healing and reconciliation in Korea, as well as a connectedness to global peace issues.

But today, as we meet, we must acknowledge that our most exuberant hopes of swift progress towards peace have not been realized, that some serious obstacles have been encountered, and that there is a growing fear that this window of opportunity for securing peace is at risk of closing again.

Among other things, the unprecedented and unremitting severity of the sanctions regime against DPRK remains unalleviated, and not only obstructs any meaningful humanitarian, development and diaconal initiatives for North Korean people, but also poisons the political context for dialogue and progress towards peace.

A recently-released report on “The Human Costs and Gendered Impact of Sanctions on North Korea” has found that sanctions are impeding the ability of the country and of international aid organizations to meet the urgent and long-standing humanitarian needs of the most vulnerable parts of the population. While it has been frequently affirmed that the sanctions are not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences, the case-by-case exemptions mechanism is insufficient to prevent this outcome in practice. As one of the contributors to the report has said, “We shouldn’t have to ask permission to save lives.”

Most strikingly, the report finds that the sanctions destabilize North Korean society in ways that have a disproportionate impact on women, and that the resulting economic pressure tends to exacerbate rates of domestic violence, sexual violence, and the trafficking and prostitution of women.

In addition, insofar as the work of the ecumenical movement is predicated on people-to-people encounter, travel bans and other restrictions making encounters with North Korean Christians more difficult or impossible for some of us impedes not only our work for peace on the Korean Peninsula, but obstructs the ecumenical endeavour itself.

In particular, I regret that it has so far proved impossible to do during this period what was done on several occasions in the late 80s and early 90s - to have a KCF delegation visit the churches of the United States of America. I very much hope and pray that in the interests of building a stronger constituency for peace in the US and the DPRK, it will yet prove possible to obtain the necessary approvals for a KCF delegation to join churches in the US in June 2020 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. I hope that KCF representatives will be permitted to join their American sisters and brothers in Christ to pray together for peace, and to contribute to ecumenical appeals for a formal end to the Korean War and for progress towards a peace treaty, as foreshadowed by the Panmunjom and Singapore Summits.

I welcome the fact that to mark this important anniversary next year WCC is collaborating with NCCK to develop an expanded peace prayer campaign - “A Light for Peace”. I believe that our prayers and actions here on the Korean Peninsula and around the world will be essential to ensuring that this opportunity for sustainable and peaceful coexistence on the Korean peninsula is not lost, but that our long-held hopes for an end to division and conflict among the Korean people will finally be realized.


The question that is before the Korean churches in this Assembly of the NCCK is how the churches, in this particular moment in the history of your nation and of the ecumenical movement, will respond to Christ’s new commandment to love one another. How will perceptions of the neighbour be altered, and how will those long demonized as ‘enemies’ be humanized? The church cannot and must not be a place of distrust, hostility and enmity. It must instead be a place and a force for peace and reconciliation. In our actions we must be guided and driven by the example of Jesus Christ who gave up his life for the restoration of our relationships with God and as the ultimate expression of God’s love for the world and all its people.

There are questions we must ask ourselves, because future generations will ask them of us:

Are we moved by Christ’s love for the common good of all people and this world?

Are we ambassadors of Christ in the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5), working for reconciliation, peace, and justice?

Are we fully committed to unity in Christ, so that the churches really become a prophetic sign and foretaste of the unity of humankind and all creation?

As I have said elsewhere, ecumenical Christianity can be seen as an authentic alternative and counter-witness to consumerist Christianity, to merely therapeutic Christianity, the prosperity gospel, xenophobic or racist Christianity, and nationalist forms of Christianity. Moreover, ecumenism leads us to choose creative collaboration over stubborn insistence on tradition, on differences, on past grievances and suffering. It also calls upon us to widen our perspectives, to think beyond the boundaries of our own communities, and – especially in the context of the millennial challenge of climate change – encompassing future generations as well as our own. And in a Korea that is far from meeting the necessary targets for reduction of emissions nationally, and is still investing heavily in new coal-fired power plants in the southeast Asian region, this inter-generational perspective is sorely needed.

In these and other respects, ecumenism today has much to offer a divided and imperiled world - and a divided and imperiled Korean Peninsula: a deeply grounded, energetic love that is also critically conscious and fully accountable and models a creative collaboration that the world so desperately needs.

I am therefore honoured and grateful to join you today in praying that we will, here on the Korean Peninsula and around the world, be moved by the love of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ to walk the path of the new commandment, as witnesses and disciples of Christ in a movement of love, towards justice, peace, reconciliation and unity.