Migration, gender, poverty and the climate: a successful symposium

3 November 2020

More than one hundred theologians from Asia, Africa, Latin-America, Australia and Europe focused on four global challenges on 16 and 17 October: migration, gender, poverty and the climate. Theology has to occupy itself with what really matters. Churches and faithful have a calling to solidarity with whoever suffers under injustice. The global South challenges European theology in this respect. 

Relationship, networks and mutual encouragement

Relationship, networks, mutual encouragement and inspiration are required. The symposium “Building bridges towards a more human society” offered all of this on 16 and 17 October. In doing so, it celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Bridging Gaps exchange program at the Protestant Theological University and the Faculty of Religion and Theology of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Keynote speakers were graduates of the program.

Discerning the calling of theology

Prof. Ruard Ganzevoort, dean of the Faculty of Religion and Theology (Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam), opened the symposium with a plea for a kind of theology that discerns its vocation at the interface of passion and expertise. Contextual theology and biblical interpretation are good examples of this. They make use of the expertise of theologians: interpreting religious sources, and connect with what motivates theologians: a desire for a better world. In this manner, theology can make a real contribution in times of a global pandemic, structural racism and a climate crisis. Ganzevoort lauded the work of the Bridging Gaps program of the past 25 years and expressed his hope that it may continue making its contribution for many years to come.

Added value of contextual theology

In a similar manner, Prof. Mechteld Jansen, rector of the Protestant Theological University, opened the second day of the symposium. She stressed the added value of contextual theology that dares to address the big questions of the 21st century. In order to do so, European theology needs to learn from voices from the global South, to facilitate connections and networks and to allow itself to be challenged by others. The fact that the Protestant Theological University and the Faculty of Religion and Theology cooperate with each other and with a broad coalition of societal and ecclesial partners is also a good example of the creation of such networks and connections. Accordingly, these organisations and church communities were also well represented at the symposium – some communities have been receiving participants in the Bridging Gaps program in their midst for the past 25 years! Similarly, organisations such as Kerk in Actie (Protestant Church in the Netherlands), have been partners of the program for an equal length of time.

Challenging theology for marginalized people

South-African theologian Dr. Charlene van der Walt (Ujamaa Centre, University of Kwazulu-Natal) argued in the gathering’s first lecture that theology needs to be challenging. In order to help craft a space for LHBT+ people, for example: they also have a right to a place in church and society. Her paper’s title “I won’t behave myself, I won’t hate myself” spoke volumes in this respect. Van der Walt didn’t mince words: deadly forms of theology do exist. Whoever preaches that LHBT+ people ought to hate who they are, becomes complicit in their suffering. The biblical message is at odds with this: queer people often play a key role in the stories that it contains. God is on their side and fights with them for a worthy place in society. Reacting to this, Tainah Bielah, based in Sao Paolo (Brasil), stressed in her response how immense the challenge is for LHBT+ people. Sometimes, it seems like an impossible task, given the pressure of conservative churches in Brasil and their tight relationship with a self-declared homophobic president. Precisely for this reason, critical forms of theology are desperately needed, the suffering and frequent suicides of LHBT+ people is, in fact, a theological challenge.

The poor will always be with you!

In a second keynote, Dr. Dario Barolín, highlighted the relationship between theology and economy. As the secretary-general of the Alliance of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches in Latin-America, he works in a context, in which extreme poverty and extreme wealth coexist. Biblical theology challenges to live in solidarity with the poor. In addition to this, theology offers inspiration for rethinking economic issues. For instance, when Jesus tells a parable about day labourers who all get the same pay, irrespective of the number of hours that they have worked, this can point to a kind of economy in which human need is key, not production. While Covid-19 makes poverty even more tangible, theology can and needs to contribute to reconsidering what a way of handling money and resources might be that contributes to the well-being of all. In his response, Charl Fredericks (South-Africa), stressed the reality of poverty and that it is a considerable challenge for the church to truly live in solidarity with poor people. The poor should be partners in theology and in the work for a more human society, not just recipients of aid. True solidarity with the poor goes widely beyond writing a check every now and then to alleviate the most immediate need!

Gender, violence and healing

A very ambivalent role of the Bible was the topic of Dr. Mary-Luz Reyes Bejarano. As a professor at the Corporación Universidad Reformada (Colombia), she has much experience with the use of the Bible in order to legitimate violence against women and other sexual and gender minorities. However, she also pointed to the potential of the Bible as a resource for resistance against such violence and as a source of inspiration for compassion that is of great therapeutic value. The Bible is, accordingly, both prophetic and therapeutic. Reading the Bible, for instance, with women who have experienced violence, can empower them, give them stronger self-esteem, and contribute to their quality of life. Similarly, the Bible can support protests against violence against people because of their gender or sexual orientation in general. Responding to this paper, Dr. Funlola Olojede (Stellenbosch, South-Africa) by and large agreed with Dr. Reyes Bejarano, while noting that the community reading the Bible needs to be as understanding and hospitable for people who have experienced violence as the Bible is itself: ‘The text of the Bible becomes meaningful through the living text of the community.’ In other words, the quality of the church is just as important as the quality of the Bible!

Theology in the age of migration

Bishop Manuel Ernesto (Diocese of Nampula, Mozambique) placed migration on the agenda as a theological topic. In his keynote, he offered a rich theology of human dignity from African and Anglican perspectives. Every migrant has a right to a humane existence, for she or he has also been created in the image and likeness of God. God, in fact, established a covenant with the migrant par excellence: Abraham, who was called to leave his own country as part of his covenanting with God. And also Jesus Christ participates in the pilgrimage of humankind through his life and ministry. Also, the African concept of Ubuntu points to a human interconnectedness beyond religious boundaries, indicating that “I am, because you are:” Working himself with refugees in the North of Mozambique, Ernesto stated that it belongs to the calling of the churches to advocate for a humane treatment of people who are adrift. In her response, the Indonesian theologian Ester Damaris Wolla Wunga supported Ernesto’s point of view, while pointing out that gender plays an important role in the context of migration. Women, for instance, are often pushed into the role of migrant labourer, which makes them very vulnerably and prone to exploitation.

Creation cries out!

The final keynote was delivered by Lady Mandalika, an Indonesian PhD student, currently based in Amsterdam. The topic was the contextual interpretation of the Bible in the light of climate (in)justice. By taking her point of departure in the concrete context of the exploitation of Lake Poso (Indonesia), she was able to deliver a paper that was just as personal as it was scholarly. She showed how biblical texts, for instance from the prophecy of Hosea, can be an aid in finding a just way of treating nature – and the people attached to particular pieces of nature. The exploitation of a lake, for instance, also implies the exploitation of the people living at its shores and the destruction of their culture and identity. Reading the Bible with the people inhabiting the shores of Lake Poso, Mandalika was able to make the prophetic voice of Hosea audible in a 21th-century context. Responding to her, Geke van Vliet, a staff member of the Bridging Gaps program, took her cue from the paradigm of eco-feminist theology. She showed how women suffer under climate injustice in particular; also, the feminine symbolism that is often used to describe nature leads to a situation in which both nature and women are seen as objects who are to be dominated.

Ongoing exchanges and stronger partnerships

Two experts concluded both days of the symposium with their reflections. They also offered perspectives for the future. Prof. Hans de Wit, the founder of the Bridging Gaps program, stated that the more than 225 alumni/-ae from about 40 countries have become one large family. Going beyond this, he offered a vision for more permanent forms of exchange. Would an ‘International Bridging Gaps University’ be possible, for example? The reason for this suggestion was his observation that the program’s network contains so much expertise in so many fields and from so many contexts. Globally speaking, people wrestle with very similar challenges, by establishing a network and fostering relationships, people in diverse context, but confronted with the same struggles can inspire and encourage one another, while sharing expertise. Does the digital age offer possibilities here that were unthinkable 25 years ago? The vision for this and the desire for it are certainly there!

Continuing exchange

Ms Corrie van der Ven, speaking on behalf of Kerk in Actie and its manager, Rommie Nauta, concluded the symposium’s second day. She underlined that Kerk in Actie was and is a partner of the Bridging Gaps program with regard to both its ideals and its material needs. The importance of the program for Dutch churches and the development of theology in the Netherlands shouldn’t be underestimated. Future ministers, for instance, study together with Bridging Gaps students, exposing them to views and experiences from different contexts and opening their eyes for the problems that affect the world today. Also, participants visit congregations of various churches, thereby becoming living witnesses of a global Christian community. Doing all of this for 25 years makes the Bridging Gaps program one of the most successful programs of Kerk in Actie. She concluded with a call for exploring how the relationship between the program and the participating church communities could be made even more intense.

Both De Wit and Van der Ven expressed their gratefulness to all staff members of the program, in past and present, as well as to all faculty members who supervised participants, church communities that received students, and the various institutions that facilitated the program financially.

About Bridging Gaps

The Bridging Gaps programme is a cooperation between Kerk in Actie (Protestant Church in the Netherlands), VUvereniging, Sormani Fonds Foundation, Nederlands Luthers Genootschap, Catherina Halkes Fonds Foundation, the Doopsgezind Seminarium, the Remonstrants Seminarium, and the Seminarium van de Unie van Baptistengemeenten. The program is executed by the Centre for Contextual Biblical Interpretation, led by Prof. Dr. Klaas Spronk and Prof. Dr. Peter-Ben Smit. The program is coordinated by Kirsten van der Ham and Geke van Vliet. 

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