Sight Magazine – The interview: Jerry Pillay, new president of the World Council of Churches
- JACK JENKINS
Reverend Jerry Pillay, the Presbyterian minister elected general secretary of the World Council of Churches last month, takes the helm as the global ecumenical body is already under pressure to expel the Russian Orthodox Church from its ranks over patriarch vindications Kirill of Moscow for his brutal invasion of Ukraine by this country.
But that’s not the only controversy the new leader faces: Pillay has come under fire since his election for past comments comparing the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians to his South Africa’s former apartheid policies. native.
Pillay, a former general secretary of the Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa, pushed back against the criticism, saying in a recent interview with Religion News Service that the pressure “comes with the territory”.
Pillay said he planned to tackle head-on the issues facing the WCC when he takes office early next year. “Ultimately,” he said, “our task is to proclaim the name of God.”
What are your reactions to your election?
“It was a very great excitement for me. The WCC played a pivotal role in South Africa during the dark days of apartheid. Without the involvement of such ecumenical bodies, we would not have had so much international pressure on the South African government. So for me to be elected to this position is just a joy to, in a sense, give back in thanksgiving, happily acknowledging the role the WCC has played in our own context.”
Rev Jerry Pillay, new General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, June 17. PHOTO: Peter Williams/COE
What do you hope to accomplish? Are there any projects that particularly interest you?
“The WCC is certainly a very wide range of different churches with a great sense of diversity, with doctrines and theology and views on ethics etc. One of the highest priorities is to work to the unity of these churches, so that we can indeed create a unity visible to the world in terms of a united Christian witness.
“My first task, therefore, would be to continue the work of bringing churches together, to seek church unity, to identify and solve major world problems. Things like poverty, things like HIV and AIDS, things like pandemic, war and conflict. .
“The second thing concerns issues of justice. Justice is an important priority for the WCC. What is happening, where is it happening and how do we talk about it? Where is human dignity at stake and in danger? Where are human beings oppressed and disadvantaged, whether through political structures, economic structures – religious structures here too – and social structures. How does the World Council of Churches work? really set people free and set them free, as Jesus would say, in his own ministry, ‘I have come to set the captives free’?”
Your election has been criticized by some Jewish voices because of your past writings on the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians. They point to a paper 2016 in which you made positive references to the controversial boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to apartheid. Do you have an answer?
“Let me put this in context: a group of church leaders from South Africa went to try to understand the situation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a number of those church leaders were leaders of black churches – prominent black church leaders in South Africa. We went to the Israeli side and the Palestinian side. We spoke to many people including pastors, rabbis, locals and politicians, to better understand what was going on. We came back and wrote a response to what we had seen, heard and felt. The majority of black pastors – and I was quite surprised by this – actually said, “You know , it’s worse than apartheid,” based on their experiences. Then we wrote a collective statement.
“The 2016 article was an academic paper trying to capture these experiences and put them into context. The references and comparison of Israel and apartheid South Africa were not words from my own mouth – those were academic references. If you went to read the article, for example, you’ll see that it cites the United Nations and their declaration of apartheid in Israel.
“I’m not a politician and I haven’t read things from a political angle. Mine was an introspection from a biblical perspective on justice, [and] what I saw from the point of view of justice did not suit me.
“Unfortunately, right-wing Jewish media in particular have taken [the article] and, instead of focusing on the justice issues of Israel and Palestine, simply attacked me as being anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic – which is completely unfounded.
“In South Africa, I worked with Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein for many, many years, working against apartheid, against corruption in South Africa and working together to develop a moral charter. [Jews in South Africa] know that I never mentioned this position – of being anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic. But defend justice? Yes, of course I am guilty. I will stand for justice and truth, and I will not compromise on that.”
So what do you think of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement directed against Israel?
“From a justice point of view – and again I want to reiterate this aspect, not from a political point of view – the call for sanctions and boycotts in South Africa from the apartheid certainly brought about the dismantling of apartheid in our country. So in my opinion, when I wrote in 2016, I was basically saying that boycott, sanctions and divestment could be a I wasn’t necessarily calling for that. It’s probably still an option to resolve the crisis in Palestine and Israel. But it’s not something I’ve openly advocated for over the years.
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Do you stand by your comparison between the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians and apartheid?
“Apartheid in South Africa was mainly about separate development – people promoted it as separate development. I don’t have a problem with separate development. I don’t have a problem with people who identify with a group or try to preserve a culture, norms, values and even race from elsewhere What I have a problem with is when a culture or people prioritizes their vision, their particular culture and identity to the detriment of others – where oppression is involved Where systemic oppression and policy formation victimizes and dehumanizes people, so that other cultures and other peoples have no not the same status. This is precisely what we had in South Africa.
“In the context of Israel-Palestine, it is obvious that the Jews are claiming Zionism and the right to retain their culture, their identity and their religion – I have no objection to that. But when we use that to oppress d other people, at the expense of the justice of others, then the world must cry out. The churches must stand up, say loud enough in the name of God, that such things are in fact not acceptable.
“Remember, going back to the context of apartheid, we had a so-called Christian government, and we had churches that justified apartheid. The churches stood up and said, ‘No, that’s not not the same God that we’re talking about.
“Whether in the Torah, the Koran or the Bible, we must think of a God of justice and love.”
Have you reached out to your detractors? Are you worried about the impact this will have on your term as WCC general secretary?
“I would be very willing to contact any group to discuss this. But to be honest with you, most of these newspapers are really out to smear me. I give credit to the Jewish newspaper of South Africa – they have in actually took the time to ask me for a comment. Unfortunately, they ended the article by quoting a Zionist Christian, a conservative Christian, which deep down still crushed me. But I expected that, because it’s a big deal in terms of Israel-Palestine.
“The WCC has made very strong statements regarding Israel and Palestine. My position is not necessarily at odds with what the WCC has said over the years.”
There was a debate about whether the WCC should expel or suspend the Russian Orthodox Church. The current Secretary General has indicated that he would not support such an approach. Would you?
“The war in Ukraine and Russia is obviously sad and unnecessary. No one can actually tolerate any war for any reason. The WCC has spoken on this. Personally, it will be my point of view.
“But in terms of suspending the Russian Orthodox Church: suspending a church, any church, should be one of the last resorts.
The Russian Orthodox Church is obviously very aligned with the government in Russia. So we really need to encourage dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church as much as possible – which we have already done. And if, through the dialogue processes, we end up saying, “Listen, we may have to reconsider how the Russian Orthodox Church engages with the WCC,” then that option is not dismissed. You have to take that into account. But not without exhausting the dialogue as much as possible.”
What would you like people to understand about the work of the WCC?
“[The WCC has] have been accused of not playing an adequate role by people in a particular context…Also, unfortunately, there are people – some Christians – who come from a very conservative and right-wing approach who see the WCC as a political body. They tend to demonize him, as if he never does God’s will in the world. This is a total misconception.
“But I think if they can see that the WCC has been willing to get its hands dirty, willing to talk about the tough issues and willing to really understand what God is telling us as Christians, then they will see a new appreciation for the COE.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.