This article explores the relationship between the three aspects of the social agenda of the ecumenical movement captured in the motto of "Justice, peace and care for creation". It investigates the moral, spiritual and theological issues that are at stake from a South African perspective, drawing especially on a recent document entitled "Climate Change--A challenge to the churches in South Africa" (2009), published and endorsed by the South African Council of Churches. It examines the underlying tensions between these concepts and the ways in which one is sometimes prioritized over the other. It concludes that the themes of justice, peace and sustainability may be associated with different aspects of God's work on earth and that this can only be dealt with on the basis of a deeper theological assessment of the whole of God's work.
There can be little doubt that the ecumenical calls for a "Just, Participatory and Sustainable Society" (Nairobi, 1975) and for "Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation" (Vancouver, 1983) have been able to capture the social agenda of the church in a particularly lucid way. The struggles against economic injustice and inequalities, to address various forms of conflict (domestic violence, inter-group conflict, genocide, xenophobia, civil war, inter-religious conflict) and environmental destruction, are hereby combined in one phrase. Moreover, the phrase has been fruitful because one could explore the complex interplay between these agenda items. It is also helpful to analyze what is at stake with regard to any one issue--for example, climate change--on this basis. It is therefore not surprising that these phrases have elicited so much discussion over the last 35 years.
Nevertheless, the phrase remains contested for at least three reasons that I will explore below. Firstly, one may debate the relative priority of the three components in terms of contextual considerations. Why is the theme of justice placed first and sustainability last? Secondly, how is the social agenda of the church (if captured accurately in this call) related to the identity of the church (its roots, nature, beliefs, spirituality and mission)? What difference does it make to address these agenda items in the church and theologically and not merely in the sphere of civil society? This continues to beg questions about the relationship between "ecclesiology and ethics". Thirdly, and precisely because of the previous question, there is a need to explore the theological issues underlying these concerns. How is God's justice related to the peace that passes all understanding and to God's mercy that endures forever and that nourishes and sustains the whole earth? Only on this basis can one capture the deepest spiritual dimensions of the quest for justice, peace and the integrity of creation.
In this contribution I will explore first the moral and then the spiritual and theological issues that are at stake from a South African perspective, drawing especially on a recent document entitled "Climate Change--A challenge to the churches in South Africa" (2009), published and endorsed by the South African Council of Churches (SACC). (1) This document is not primarily a prophetic call to influence political decision-making on climate change. Instead, it invites self-critical reflection, calling for an ecological transformation, renewal and conversion amongst Christians in South Africa.
An order of priority? South African reflections
The relative weight attributed to (economic) justice, peace and care for creation has been a matter of perception and a bone of contention in the South African context. The nature conservation policies of the apartheid era provoked the suspicion that conservation boils down to the establishment of game reserves for a privileged few, often at the expense of the dislocation of local people. Many urban blacks view issues of nature conservation as a concern of the white middle class, the hobby of an affluent, leisured minority who would like to preserve the environment for purely aesthetic reasons and who seem more concerned about wildlife than about the welfare of other human beings. …