In 2004, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches 24th General Council in Accra, Ghana, released The Accra Confession: Covenanting for Justice in the Economy and the Earth. The Accra Confession came out of more than a decade of global dialogues among leadership of Reformed churches. At their meeting in Accra, the delegates visited slave dungeons where forbears of the Reformed faith initiated and were complicit in the horror of the slave trade. The visit spurred tears, anger, and theological reflection about how complicity in systems of exploitation continues in our world today. The document was written by a committee of church leaders for their membership. Today World Communion of Reformed Churches includes Congregational, Presbyterian, Reformed, United, and Waldensian churches, all of which share roots in the 16th century Reformation led by John Calvin, John Knox, and others. The Communion is comprised of an estimated 80 million Reformed Christians representing nearly 250 churches and more than 100 countries.
Just over ten years later, Pope Francis released Laudato Si’, a Catholic encyclical consistent with and expanding upon Catholic teachings on creation, with a special emphasis on the nexus of ecology and economy. Laudato Si’ is a papal encyclical, the highest form of teaching in the Catholic Church. Teams of scholars as well as stakeholder groups were convened during the months it was written, but it has one primary author: Pope Francis. In the past century, popes have issued 118 encyclicals. This is the second encyclical by Pope Francis. Usually, encyclicals are addressed to Catholics. This encyclical, however, is addressed to “every person on the planet” as a call for a new way of looking at things, a “bold cultural revolution” (No. 3, 114).
Usually, encyclicals are addressed to Catholics. Laudato Si’, however, is addressed to “every person on the planet.”
Soon after Pope Francis’s election, the Vatican received a copy of the Accra Confession from the World Communion of Reformed Churches as a sign of goodwill and hope for shared understanding of mission. Putting these two documents in conversation with one another is an important part of refreshing and reflecting on the ongoing informal as well as formal ecumenical dialogues between the Reformed and Catholic traditions.
Here are three main points the two documents have in common:
1.) Care for all of creation, including our neighbors, must be a core part of every Christian’s faith.
The Accra Confession argues firmly that God is sovereign and our faithfulness must be to God – not Mammon (21). God’s covenant with creation is a “gift of grace that is not for sale in the marketplace,” and that “all creation is blessed and included” in “the household of all of creation,” especially “the least of these” (19). It declares that on matters of economic and environmental justice, “the integrity of our faith is at stake if we remain silent” (15).
Like The Accra Confession, Laudato Si’ emphasizes multiple times that God alone, not humanity, is the creator and owner of all. Laudato Si’ uses the framework of integral ecology as a way to help readers spiritually understand the web of creation and our kinship as creatures. In an integral ecology perspective, there is no separation between humans and “the environment,” as we ourselves are dust of the Earth (2). Pope Francis highlights John 1 as a place in scripture where we are drawn into the mystery of Christ being embedded in all of creation from the very beginning, when the Word become Flesh (99).
2.) We must dramatically re-think our world economy, including and especially the ways we are personally enmeshed in it.
The Accra Confession clearly states, “economic systems are a matter of life or death” (6) and that the current pervasive idolatry of a market demands “an endless flow of sacrifices from the poor and creation” (9). A significant goal of The Accra Confession is to explain that “the root causes of massive threats to life are above all the product of an unjust economic system defended and protected by political and military might” (6). A glance at the words listed in the glossary of terms at the end of the document reveal the themes The Accra Confession is calling people of faith to analyze:
Capital Speculation, Commodification, Deregulation, Domination, Empire, Human Trafficking, Ideology, International Monetary System, Liberalization, Neoliberalism, Oppression, Privatization, World Bank, and World Trade Organization.
Yet, the authors acknowledge they are enmeshed in the very systems they seek to change: “We, too, stand under the judgment of God’s justice” and have “become captivated by the culture of consumerism… This has all too often permeated our very spirituality” (33). The explicit acknowledgement that consumer culture and greed have infiltrated our faith communities is a first step toward change.
As Christians in the United States, where the culture of American exceptionalism is strong, we must ask ourselves if we are among those who, in the words of Pope Francis, “view themselves as more worthy than others.”
Turning to Laudato Si’, perhaps one of the most challenging lines of the encyclical for Christians in the United States is one that echoes the sentiment of The Accra Confession and directly challenges the economics of unlimited growth (8). Pope Francis explicitly calls for “decreased growth in some part of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth” (193). There are many spiritual as well as technical impediments to this change.
Pope Francis deeply challenges those who currently have the power to act, yet “seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms…” (26). Because of global inequality, people of different walks of life often do not encounter each other – by design. “We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind them so much waste” (90). In his encyclical and by his example, Pope Francis calls us to intentionally seek out dialogue and personal encounter. While technology can be useful, he challenges the pervasive “technocratic mindset” in which technology is seen as the solution to everything, often before sufficient dialogue takes place (110). He also challenges the mental pollution that comes from digital overload in the way we work together, too often impeding deep thought and deep authentic relationship (47).
As Christians in the United States, where the culture of American exceptionalism is strong, we must ask ourselves if we or people we know are among those who, in the words of Pope Francis, “view themselves as more worthy than others” (90). Perhaps you or someone you know might be “far removed from the poor,” with no direct contact with those most affected by neoliberal capitalism and globalization to be able to truly understand the situation (49). We are called to draw ourselves and our circle of friends into relationships of authentic dialogue across socioeconomic and racial/ethnic lines.
3.) We must act urgently as partners with God in the creation and redemption of our world.
The message of The Accra Confession, particularly among affluent Christians, is countercultural and may leave wealthy readers uncomfortable. Even so, the Confession calls on member churches “to undertake the difficult and prophetic task of interpreting this confession to their local congregations” (39). The authors state their conviction, “we believe in obedience to Jesus Christ, that the church is called to confess, witness, and act, even though the authorities and human law might forbid them, and punishment and suffering be the consequences (Acts 4:18ff). Jesus is Lord” (36).
For Pope Francis, dialogue is the necessary first step toward action. It is an important task as we work for solutions because there are “no uniform recipes.” What works in one region may not in another (180). In the integral ecology model, Christ works in and through all of creation, including us. The built environment, our culture, our economic systems, and our political systems are all embodiments of humans co-creating our shared reality. The goodness of what we co-create is directly related to the degree that we are attuned to the Creator. “Developing the created world in a prudent way is the best way of caring for it, as this means that we ourselves become the instrument used by God to bring out the potential which he himself inscribed in things” (134).
Lastly, Pope Francis reminds us that in the midst of saving creation, it is both necessary and nourishing to savor creation by honoring the Sabbath. Sabbath rest instills in us “receptivity and gratuity” and makes us aware of the need to limit our use of the rest of creation (237).
It is my hope and prayer that this short comparison of The Accra Confession and Laudato Si’ makes you curious to engage more deeply with one or both of these treasures of our shared Christian faith, either alone or in ecumenical dialogue. To access the treasure trove of scripture citations from both documents, I took while I was reading and writing.
I also invite you to join with my organization, Creation Justice Ministries, to take action for global climate justice by urging the U.S. Congress to make good on our promise to invest in the Green Climate Fund. It is an international climate change adaptation and mitigation fund established through the United Nations to give a fighting chance to the people who live in nations with the least money for climate change resilience measures. ACT NOW.
Finally, in the next few weeks, follow Creation Justice Ministries leadership as we chronicle our engagement at the COP 21 climate change negotiations in Paris!
AUTHOR BIO: Shantha Ready Alonso is the Executive Director of Creation Justice Ministries, an ecumenical ministry that educates, equips, and mobilizes its 38 member communions, congregations, and individuals to do justice for God’s planet and God’s people.
Read more articles in this issue, “That They May be One”: Thinking Ecumenically for the 21st Century!