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Be careful what you pray for...

By: Simon Oxley

Transformation cannot happen painlessly through charity - it is a matter of justice.
© Peter Williams / WCC

''The theme of the upcoming 9th Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) is a prayer: God, in your grace, transform the world. But perhaps we ought to ask the question 'What would we do if God actually answered that prayer?' Or 'Dare we pray for transformation?'

Our immediate reaction might be to rejoice. The world does need to be transformed. The monstrous evil of poverty that destroys the lives of so many could be defeated. Everyone could enjoy clean water, sufficient food and an education. Trade could be fair with no one's labour being exploited. Killer diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis could be eradicated. The spread of HIV/AIDS could be halted and effective and affordable treatment be provided for all. Political and economic corruption could be curtailed and we could cease to rely on armed force to make others do our bidding.

All that is possible now. The transformation required is that of our political will. But would we really rejoice?

None of that can happen without us being changed too. Some of us are very comfortable with our style of life - our food, our clothes, our entertainment, our cars. We can even convince ourselves that we deserve these things. We will have to let go and give back our unfair shares of resources and power. Our attitudes and behaviour will have to be transformed, and we may not like it.

Praying for radical changes

The transformation of the world cannot happen painlessly through charity - by those who have being more generous to those who do not have. It is a matter of justice. In recent years, there has been discussion in the ecumenical movement about 'restorative justice' - the kind of justice that works to put right the wrong that was done.

However, the Assembly theme and biblical conceptions of justice take us beyond this. We should think of God's justice as transformative justice. Justice that goes further than punishing the offender and putting wrongs right towards creating that which is completely new.

Jesus spoke of this as the kingdom of God. Each time we use the Lord's Prayer we pray: "Your kingdom come / your will be done / on earth as it is in heaven". We are so used to these words that we can easily forget the radical change for which we pray.

Praying God, in your grace, transform the world means being open to transformation for believers, churches and the ecumenical movement itself. We may only believe in God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit in ways that are convenient for us. We may enlist God to support our causes rather than responding to the call of God to selfless love and service. We may try to draw boundaries round the love of God rather than celebrate its universality. Our actions as churches and our relationships with sisters and brothers in Christ may deny the gospel. We can be so certain that we are right and others are wrong that we forget to be humble before the One who is beyond all our understandings.

In the Acts of the Apostles, we can read how Peter's certainties about faith were transformed. Peter was certain that what we now call Christianity was something contained within Judaism. It meant keeping the dietary requirements. It meant that the good news of Jesus was for those who were Jews.

But then some extraordinary things happened. Peter had that dream (Acts 10:9-35) where he was invited to eat 'unclean' food, and then the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to a Roman centurion's household. This is a significant moment in the history of Christianity. Peter's certainties about the nature of faith were transformed, as was the church's understanding of its mission.

It is hard for us, almost two thousand years on, to appreciate the magnitude of the earthquake of Peter's certainties. How prepared are we to have self-serving or limited understandings of God, the church or the ecumenical movement transformed?

The preaching of the first Christians was so effective that they were accused of "turning the world upside down" (Acts 17:6). We recognize that the world still needs turning upside down, but are we prepared to be turned upside down too?

There is a saying: "Be careful what you pray for, you might just get it". So the WCC may have done a very dangerous thing to choose God, in your grace, transform the world as its Assembly theme. But in that lies our hope. [753 words]

(*) Simon Oxley, a minister of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, is programme executive for ecumenical learning at the World Council of Churches.