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Gunnar Stalsett

Dr. Gunnar Stalsett, bishop emeritus of Oslo (Church of Norway, 1998-2005), serves as moderator of the European Council of Religious Leaders and an international president of the World Council of Religions for Peace. Previously Stalsett served as general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation...


Practitioners and Faith-Inspired Development

"What is the role of faith in your work?" This series of more than 200 interviews, made possible through the support of the Henry R. Luce Foundation, asks this fundamental question of leaders in the development field. The assembled in-depth conversations with activists and policy specialists...

A Discussion with Gunnar Stålsett, Former Bishop of Oslo, Co-President, Religions for Peace

Background: Gunnar Stålsett pursues world peace through many routes and he is a leading global advocate for international development and for engaging religious communities on social justice and solidarity issues. In this interview he speaks about his long and varied career, above all through this lens of peace and social justice.

Interview Conducted on November 25, 2009

Can we start at the beginning? What was the path that led you to where you are today?

Three strong influences and values drawn from my earliest years have influenced my philosophy right through the present: my identity as a minority, growing up in a pre-modern world in poverty, and a work ethic that included a tangible sense of solidarity.

I was born in the very northern part of Norway, in Nordkapp, the furthest point to the north that is inhabited, anywhere. My grandparents were immigrants from Finland. This was a time when minorities were treated badly in Norway. There were three ethnic groups in the north of Norway at the time: the Sami, the oldest ethnic group, the ethnic Norwegians, and the Finnish immigrants. I belonged to the latter. The official policy of the state of Norway was forced assimilation. Thus, when the Sami children came to school, they came knowing no Norwegian but were not allowed to speak their own language, even outside of class. We lived so to speak beyond the wilderness, so the schools were boarding schools. They were there for three months at a time. I was very conscious of their loneliness and isolation. My own parents were proud of their heritage and their language, but given the prevailing political pressure against minorities they decided not to burden their children with that heritage. My parents spoke Finnish at the breakfast table, but only when they did not want the children to understand. That experience gave me an antenna for minority perspectives, including an ability to see what others do not see, in terms of marginalization and oppression.

Another element I bring is a childhood living by very modest means, if not in outright poverty, in what was a pre-modern world and a pre-modern sense of history. We had no electricity, no running water, no telephone, no access to medical services anywhere nearby. We could only travel when the weather allowed, and a trip to the nearest town to reach a clinic took several hours, on the sea, which could be very rough up there, and there were no roads. This was really an eye and a door opener. As I have visited many very poor communities internationally, for example in East Timor, and people speak of the realities of poverty, and that they have no access to a doctor, I can truly say, “I know, I understand; that is how I grew up.” In many ways this background is subliminal, and part of shaping my commitment.

A third set of values that were ingrained from my youth was a work ethic. We were eight brothers and sisters, and in our family everyone had to work, from the age of 12 or 13, to produce an income to live. I left home by the age of 15 to paid employment to support the household. Everyone had to contribute, whether picking berries, or fishing, or whatever. My younger brother raised a pig every year, for example. The children learned to value not only the work itself but that you could contribute, even at a very young age. It was an ethical value of sharing, of solidarity, that was shaped by necessity but which also came naturally, as part of an ingrained Christian tradition.

As to religion, both my parent came from homes adhering to a revival movement in the Finnish community. They did not, however, follow their parents specifically in their religious practice but were very much inspired and bound by their core values, which were love of neighbor, solidarity, care for others, and the Ten Commandments, and, especially, call it the Great Commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself.

That commandment is a very valuable foundation, with far more to give than you might think superficially. Not long after 9/11, Imam Faisal Rauf wrote a book, What is Right with Islam, arguing that the three great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, had a common heritage and that it was time to own up to it. The publishing house asked me for an endorsement for the cover. And I wondered what I, as a Lutheran Bishop of Oslo, could say about the book of a Muslim Imam. But when I read it, I found that I could do it because of the strong connection I saw in love of God and love of neighbor. It has a resonance that goes far. But to my surprise I had not recognized that a Muslim would express it in this way. And maybe a Muslim would be surprised if a Christian said, indeed, those are my very values. Someone conscious of the history of the Crusades might not recognize the ideas and might not be ready to see this as the most solid, fundamental basis of Christian ethics. There is much need for dialogue on both sides.

It is well worth developing this idea. If the commandment had just been to love God with all your mind and heart, indeed, it could be consistent with an inspiration or a command for Jihad or Crusades. Those who flew planes into the Twin Towers could have said they did it for love of God. But love of neighbor? Without that the first commandment would be dangerous. You simply can’t say that you love God and hate your neighbor and, still more, the injunction is to love your neighbor as yourself, a part that is often forgotten. I think that this is one of the most important values that can assist or affirm human dignity in any person. It allows us to convey that you are loveable as yourself. Often when I speak of this, I can see people physically straighten their shoulders, and show their reaction, that they had not thought of themselves in that way.

These three dimensions influenced my understanding, not in a shallow way, but in layers over the years. My sense of what it is to be marginalized, downtrodden, to lack self respect. To recognize people who have never been told they are lovable, no matter what has befallen them. These are dimensions that I take from my heritage, and they have come to open a life-long engagement with people whose lives have been oppressed, who have been neglected. It comes into play in employment, in political life in my country, in thinking about the rights of women, in how we approach immigrant populations. For example, the immigrant Pakistani population, which of course is dominantly Muslim in Norway, recognized in me as a Bishop who understood the ethnic heritage and their role as a cultural minority.

How did you come to be a pastor? How did you move from Nordkapp?

I began that path at age 17, and for many years oscillated between being a medical doctor and a pastor. I was inspired by Albert Schweitzer, whom I had seen in Oslo in 1953 when he received the Nobel Peace Prize. I had a sense then that I could do both, be a doctor and a pastor, and for a long time I played with that idea.

I had the chance to study for two years in the United States, in a seminary, and during that period I worked in a hospital on weekends, as an orderly, working in operating theaters. A doctor I worked with there, Dr. Engstrom, one day told me, just as we were going into a surgery, that he would pay for my medical schooling, start to finish. I did not believe I had heard correctly and after the operation, a nurse told me I must respond, confirming that she also had heard the extraordinary offer. When I did speak to him, I told him my hesitations, including limited science studies, but he said he had already made an appointment for me to talk to the Dean of the University of Minnesota Medical School. The Dean offered me a place. I was overwhelmed by the generosity but also seriously confused about what to do. I was then in seminary. I knew that if I were to study medicine I would have a long way to go. It was a true crossroads and I had to sort out what I wanted to do. I felt that if I did not continue on the route of the ministry I would never return to Norway, and would become American. I was very fascinated by America but also tied to my country. I gave myself a week. And when the generous doctor asked me that Sunday about my decision, in an understated way our exchange turned around my answer: that I would go home and give Norway a chance. Eight years later he was in Norway and he called me, and asked if I had any regrets. I was able to say that I did not and he said that, in a way, he was glad to hear that! But it was overall a very emotional experience, not only in terms of the difficult life choice but in my own wonder at being taken seriously at a very human level.

I continued my studies and after graduation was drawn into heated political times in Norway. There were many social issues at the time, including marginalization and questions of social justice. I decided to spend some time on political work. I served on the Oslo City Council for eight years. I was the first to insist on allocating a site for a Muslim mosque in Oslo, which was at the time very controversial. The criticisms were awful. I served as a junior minister in the government and an alternate memberof Parliament, and chairman of a political party.

Were you a pastor during this period?

During the years in political office I was on leave from my job as general secretary of the Church of Norway ecumenical office which I had organized in 1970.

In 1979, I faced another crossroads, a final decision as to whether to continue with politics or the church. I decided then to continue to develop the church platform. For ten years I worked as secretary general of the Lutheran World Federation, in Geneva, and became far more involved in international issues. After that period I was rector of the school of practical theology at the University of Oslo, and in 1998 I became Bishop of Oslo.

Throughout this period, I had been invited by the government of Norway to be an adviser on issues of human rights, peace, and disarmament. I was a member of a delegation to the United Nations for special sessions on disarmament, and on the Convention on the Child. I also became a special adviser to the government on HIV and AIDS.

Parallel to this I served for 14 years on the Nobel Peace Prize Committee. That was a fascinating and unique experience.

What were some special challenges over these years? How did you come to your strong focus on interreligious dialogue and action?

The growing importance of the Church and civil society in international affairs had impacted my life and my mission. But gradually I saw the importance of interreligous dialogue and cooperation in the ever more globalized and interconnected world. When I retired five years ago I chose to spend more time on these same issues, building on this church and civil society platform. I came to be involved increasingly in interfaith work.

My preferred approach is not a traditional interfaith dialogue, that my faith narrative is better than yours, but what each of us can contribute with the integrity of our own faith and values to improve the lives of individuals, the society, and the world. It involves the great challenges of our time such as environment, health, poverty and the status, role and dignity of women and children within society.

It is my conviction that any religion has something to contribute, as religious traditions and as individuals who are part of a political and social system. All need to hear the self-critical voice from within and all need to be a self-critical voice. There is a need for a sense of humility that comes from a critical view of your own history, religion, and faith. This is necessary for a climate of true interfaith dialogue. It is primarily diapraxis, that we act together. I have seen some great experience of that. An example is the protest against the war in Iraq. It was the largest demonstration ever in Oslo, and as Bishop I was in the forefront. Christians, Jews, and Muslims and people of no religion stood united in our appeal to the Norwegian Government not to join the coalition. Around the world so many Christian communities were critical of the initiative of Bush and Blair, that it made it impossible for the Islamists to interpret the Iraq war as a religious war against Islam. Had this not happened, it could have been far worse. It would have been easy to interpret the motives of the invasion as the Mother of all Crusades. Islamists could not play that card in the face of the unified and strong opposition from Christian communities.

You have been deeply engaged on HIV/AIDS over many years. How did this come about? And where do you think we are today?

HIV/AIDS has been one of those examples where you see the double face of religion. We see the wonderful work of religious caretakers at the local level and globally. At the same time, religious leaders have been conveying stigmatism that denies the full acceptance of the those living with the virus and thereby depriving people of their inherent dignity as human beings.

I became involved in the task of mobilizing leadership, both political and religious leaders, and have seen remarkable strides. I think there was a moment, around the time of the G8 meeting in Glen Eagles, in 2004, when the needs of Africa, of development, of HIV/AIDS, and all the other Millennium Development Goals, had a real resonance.

Today, in contrast, it is almost impossible to identify a single political or religious leader who is spearheading the effort to deal with HIV/AIDS. There are a very few cases where you can say of a religious leader or top political figure that he or she is a real leader in this cause. We are at a dangerous crossroads right now.

That said, there is no other epidemic, ever, that has mobilized so many resources, intellectual, spiritual, even financial. When you look at the world community it is remarkable to see the effort that has been mobilized, with UNAIDS and the Global Fund as stellar examples. There is an international AIDS society, with a structure of regular global meetings, a network of scientists who work on HIV/AIDS, and perhaps equally important, a community of those infected or in close family relations affected by the epidemic. There is in a true sense a network of networks that binds together people from all parts of the world and from all parts of society. There are, however, ominous signs of reduced political support in the wake of cosmic climate crisis and the implosion of the financial powerhouses. One might also ask if the HIV/AIDS movement has become the victim of its own success, hurt by jealousies from other sectors, within health and other sectors and social issues. I, of course, wish we could see this engagement continue until the disease is vanquished and also that the same mobilization could be ignited against other mass killers such as tuberculosis and malaria.

It is my conviction that however many illnesses confront us, there are enough funds, enough resources for the suffering population the world to be healed. What we need is the sense of solidarity, where there is more global, cosmic view of issues. I, for one, welcome the language used in mobilization on the climate issue. It reminds me of the height of the nuclear debate a couple of decades ago, when we in earnest spoke about mobilization against a policy that could lead to the virtual annihilation of the human race.

What about the current financial crisis? What lessons should we draw from it?

The financial crisis is truly a crisis of greed and not of need. Greed has been the driving force and we find ourselves, past the neo-liberal model, at a place where this underlying force has to be unmasked. The crisis is truly not only financial, it is as moral crisis. At its heart is an atmosphere where we declared that the market is not to be bound by any moral value except profit.

Much of what has been achieved of economic advance in the last decade or so, has been destroyed by corruption. In my encounter with poverty-ridden societies I have come to understand, if not accept, a corruption dictated by need but not the corruption dictated by greed, which in my view is one of the key ingredients in the moral demise of the neo-liberal economic model.

With eight years only to go to the deadline for achieving the MDGs, it seems we are falling behind on many benchmarks. On the heels of the climate issues, the funding to alleviate poverty and for health issues may be fatally weakened.

At the same time I see progress in the whole regime of development assistance. If you look at the new approaches of key institutions as the IMF and the World Bank, I think that they have come closer to viable anti-poverty development strategies. The Paris Declaration is a good example with its emphasis on common approaches are very positive. So is the continuous effort in some countries to increase levels of contributions for development. My own country, Norway, is now providing 1.08% of GNP.

What it boils down to is the basic issue of solidarity, being modulated from the close neighborhood to the national scene to the global. The globalization of solidarity could be inspired by a shared spiritual understanding of loving neighbor as self. So it comes full circle back to the Great Commandment.

What changes do you see in the systems at the international level?

What has changed fundamentally is that on the UN level, the NGOs and FBOs, and civil society more broadly are recognized as real players. Also, in some countries, on a national level there is a new understanding of civil society organizations not as decoration that you call in when the state has problems but as an integral part of democracy.

In the seventies and eighties I participated in United Nations special sessions on disarmament. Inside, the UN the diplomats were making speeches, most of them written weeks before. Outside, people were demonstrating. And there was absolutely no connection between the two. The demonstration of the people outside had no impact on what was being said in the Assembly hall, whatsoever. The two worlds did not communicate.

Today, it would not be possible to hold a special session in the United Nations without the full participation of civil society. And in a special sense the HIV/AIDS issue illustrates that. At a special session on HIV/AIDS the first speaker was the President of the General Assembly, then the Secretary General, and then a young woman from South Africa who represented people living with HIV/AIDS. In the whole special session, the NGO community was a leading influence throughout, at committee and general levels. It was only in the last two days that the political leaders, Heads of States, Prime Ministers etc, dominated. This represents a sea change. Now this needs to take place at the national levels where in many countries civil society organizations tend still to be seen as troublemakers to the state machinery.

Faith-based organizations also are seeing a new day. UNAIDS has come around to include faith-based organizations and encourage their full contributions in its work. Its leaders have repeatedly stated that we cannot manage the HIV/AIDS crisis without the full engagement of the faith community. However, it would be wrong to say that the civil society organizations is speaking with one voice, especially with regard to the faith-based organizations, which is striking in the HIV/AIDS strategies. Also the perceptions and strategies of basically western gay communities sometimes come out differently from that of affected communities in other parts of the world.

You have such a long history of working for peace. What are some highlights and where do you see us today?

Looking at formal engagement, I was appointed as a President of The World Conference of Religions for Peace (WCRP) at the Amman assembly, in 1994. And have been engaged ever since.

Since I retired formally as Bishop almost five years ago, I have had some more time for this type of international work for peace and reconciliation in the broadest term. I have been involved in the establishment of the European Council of Religious Leaders and has served as a moderator since its inception. I also have served as Norway's Special Envoy for East Timor after the 2006 crisis, to facilitate a national dialogue on reconciliation.

I have taken much pleasure and pride in leading the Japan based Niwano Peace Prize committee, helping it to become more international and diverse.

At 75 early next year, I have come to a point where I will phase out most of these organized engagements and perhaps have more time to speak and write.

What would you point to as successes in interfaith work?

Some real successes in terms of interfaith cooperation have been achieved. Recently, we celebrated the inauguration of an Interreligous Council in Albania. I am hopeful now that we may see some progress in the new initiatives taking place in Sri Lanka. There are some promising signs in the effort to create dialogue between Sunni and Shia muslims in Iraq. And there is hope for a dialogue on Kosovo between Muslims and Serbian Orthodox leaders. Mention should also be made of the important role of WCRP in the campaign for a Total Ban on cluster munition, as well as the continued involvement in the nuclear issue and increasing impact on the climate issue.

I count among the successes in interfaith work that there is increasing recognition also at the political level. There is more understanding that we are not seeing wars of religion, as in the past, but conflicts exploiting religious differences.

And the role of women?

That is the greatest embarrassment if we speak of religious leaders. But again I am hopeful that change is coming. We are, however, too slowly moving in the right directions.