Term as LWF President: “Was a Call to be Servant of the Servants”

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Photo: The Lutheran World Federation

The Right Rev. Dr. Bishop Munib A. Younan, in a reflective interview, discusses his 7-year-term as President of The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) which ended this May.

Editor’s note: This interview was done before the presiding President of LWF, Bishop Dr. Musa Panti Filibus of the Lutheran Church of Christ in Nigeria was elected in May 2017. 

 

During your visits to LWF member churches around the world you’ve often emphasized the communion as a gift and task to each member. What are some of your memorable moments of cherishing this gift; and of the challenging tasks it entails?

When I was elected President of LWF, I considered it as a call of Christ to be servant of the servants. For me, to serve as President of LWF is to serve the churches and to advance God’s kingdom in our world.

There are many memorable moments and they are countless in our communion. One that comes to mind is a visit to Ethiopia, and there I went to a school for disabled students. A girl of about 7 years old with a broad, joyful smile came to me and handed me a flower. This was a memorable moment because it was also an emotional moment in my role as LWF President. In this encounter, I witnessed how God’s love was shining in this girl, a girl who struggled with her disability, but nevertheless God’s love was shining in this child and shines to others. That was a sign that the love of God and that our communion with all of our 145 churches is well. When we see the love of God in our people and are preaching the Gospel, it is proof that our communion is a gift. Ultimately, this girl was a missionary of God’s love to me, and it touched my heart. This is memorable.

Wherever I went, even in challenging places, I experienced joy when I went to the churches of the 7 regions. It is important to understand that when I went as LWF President I did not go to meddle in their issues, but I went on apostolic visits. I called them apostolic because I want to be an encouragement and to be encouraged, and often my visits lead to the growth of my faith and that of the communion churches. In all of the churches, we could see how the congregations were living witnesses of God’s love.

 

Upon your election as LWF President in July 2010 in Stuttgart, Germany, you said that as “children of the light,” Christians should work to promote justice, peace and reconciliation and “to eliminate Islamophobia, xenophobia and anti-semitism.” What do you see as LWF’s most significant contribution to this goal?

Our communion teaches us to love and to see the image of God in the other who is different in ideology, in gender, in culture, in race, in tradition, and in denomination.

The definition of “children of light” are people who carry a candle in the dark valley, and remind others that a simple light in a very dark place can shine with Christ. Therefore, when Jesus first taught us in the Beatitudes to be the light in the world and to resist compromise with the darkness, this is how we receive the power of Christ to act for the sake of the world.

For this reason, LWF has been faithful in its commitment to eliminate and remain steadfast against the sins of Islamophobia, xenophobia, antisemitism, and extremism.

It seems that the world is more and more fragmented by extremist activity, today. During my involvement in Christian and Muslim delegations as LWF President, we stand with every person of good conscience to eradicate extremism of which no one religion has a monopoly.

Our Lutheran tradition has tremendous capacity for shaping the conversation and combating the legitimacy of religious exclusion and extremism everywhere, whatever the tradition: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism included.

Just as 50 years of dialogue have produced major steps forward for historic reconciliation with Catholics and improved relationships with Jews, we must now embark on intentional processes of engagement with Muslims and Islam. Luther could never have imagined the historic reconciliation between Lutherans and Catholics. Neither could he have imagined the growing strength of our relationships with Jews and Muslims around the world. As we confessed in 1984 in our LWF Assembly in Budapest, we not only disagree with but repudiate his writings against Jews. We have taken strong steps to reverse his condemnations of the Catholic Church. We also disagree with his writings on Islam and Muslims.

It is now our duty to assist our church and the whole world to combat Islamophobia. It is a call for all of us in the next year.

Our joint and common prayer is an example of addressing xenophobia directly. When the two churches, Catholic and Lutheran, came together in Lund we could no longer carry the fear of the other. By coming together in prayer and commitment to serve a broken, and fragmented world we eliminated the fear of the unknown. We built friendships and trust, and this was an important part of the process of peace and reconciliation, which will always be an anecdote to xenophobia.

Through the work of the Spirit and the participation of the Church, we now know our Catholic and Mennonite brothers and sisters and can no longer look at them as strangers, but as God sees them, as children of the light.

If we do all of this then we are the children of the light in a dark world.

 

You played a leading role in developing the 2013 “Welcoming the Stranger: Affirmations for Faith Leaders” together with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. How does this faith perspective change/impact refugee response globally, regionally?  

When we look at the refugees all around us, remembering that every second European was a refugee after the Second World War, therefore, I cannot understand how certain countries in Europe will not accept millions of displaced persons.

This means that the church should be the conscience of the world and as such, we can challenge the power of injustice and give the power of justice to every human. This is our Christian and Evangelical duty.

What I proposed for the UNCHR in December 2012 was that we must have a code of conduct for the religious communities in Welcoming the Stranger. I wanted to go to the sources of our biblical text where Abraham and Jesus both were refugees but were accepted in the countries where they found refuge. To go to the source, the Scripture is where we find the values of humanity of welcoming the refugee. This document reflected these values not only in our thoughts and words but in our deeds.When we found that the value of humanity in our faith is shared in all other faiths that signed, it recognized that no religion should ignore the call to serve the refugee. Our own text says that we are to see the face of Christ in the refugee. Jesus will ask, “Did you welcome me when I was a stranger? (Matt, 25). For this reason, LWF has its own impact in serving refugees on behalf of humanity; we want them to be empowered for justice.

As Martin Luther King wrote, “As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I have a billion dollars… We are interdependent.” I cannot have a home in comfort if I do not comfort and offer hospitality to the refugee.

This is the call of Christ for the Lutheran communion to have prophetic Diakonia serving refugees, and the displaced.

 

On 31 October 2016, you, Pope Francis and LWF General Secretary Rev. Dr. Martin Junge co-hosted the Joint Catholic-Lutheran Commemoration of the Reformation. How would you explain the significance of this event to a newly ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL)?

Lund has created a constructive energy of ecumenism.

Firstly, I would explain to a young pastor or layperson that Lund was the work of the Holy Spirit. It was the Spirit that invited both churches to implement unity among all churches.

Secondly, the Lutheran and Catholic churches are different than the churches of the Middle Ages. Today, being a Lutheran means being inspired by Liberation Theology from Latin America, Ubuntu Theology from Africa, the Theology of Civil Rights from America, Contextual Theology from Asia, Theological Scholarship from Europe, and the Theology of Steadfastness from the Middle East. This has become a part of Lutheran identity, an identity not of the 16th century, but an identity of mission and unity in the 21st

Thirdly, I would tell them that the time of denominationalism has ended. It is time to emphasize what unites us as being more valuable than what divides us. If you are a good Lutheran today, then you are an ecumenist.

Lund and Malmö have taught us that we must walk hand-in-hand in mission and Diakonia. The common prayer created an energy that will last, and that energy will always seek unity so that the world may believe.

 

What gives you hope about the LWF as you prepare to exit as President?
What will still keep you anxious about the future of the LWF?

The positive energy that this Lutheran communion creates means that there is never a dull moment because the Holy Spirit is working in our churches, and because we are normal human beings!

My hope is that the Lutheran Communion continues to be an inspiring communion for all churches, both small in number and big churches in number. This communion of all churches of the north and south, east and west is a communion of hope in a hopeless situation.

What gives me hope is that our communion has been a vanguard in mission in context, and ecumenism, in interfaith, and has the willingness to discuss issues that are sensitive in an honest way, which shows that we are in a mature communion. We have been vanguards of the Priesthood of Believers and, it is the Spirit that will continue the wave of this energy among the people. This is the reason that our communion is a communion that has implemented intergenerational, and gender justice in all its work.What leads me to say that

What leads me to say that frankly, I am not anxious about the future of LWF overall. Perhaps what may make me anxious is when some churches make decisions that ignore other member churches in the communion. We are a communion of diversity, therefore, all things must be communicated with all churches even if we have different points of view. We are not a communion in uniformity, but a communion in diversity. We have one mission, one Church, one Eucharist, one Baptism, one justification by faith.

 

In January this year, the ELCJHL which you’ve served as bishop since 1998, elected your successor. What are your plans after leaving the church’s leadership position?

The ELCJHL has church constitutions and is democratic in its structure. For this reason, according to our constitution a bishop must retire at 65, but I was asked to serve two and a half years beyond that requirement. I support the incoming leader in the work that God has set before him and I give him my blessings, because the church does not have ownership of the office of bishop solely, but also the ownership of the grassroots, and that is the Body of Christ.

But, even when I retire, a Lutheran bishop is always a bishop in mission. Because my motto as a pastor and as a bishop has always been, Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ.”

Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ.”

Just as I lived this text in office, I will continue to live it out of office. The office does not limit my vision, nor my mission. I will continue to work in ecumenism and interfaith engagement because I am a missionary in my heart. I will continue to work for justice in my country, and globally. I will continue to cherish the moments that increase my faith much like that faithful girl in Ethiopia. Whoever needs my simple experience, I offer to serve.