Jul. 9, 2020

In 1954, Dag Hammarskjöld had questions—and a vision—that resonate today

Otto F. Nolde, director of WCC's Commission of the Churches on International Affairs; Dag Hammärskjold; and Geoffrey F. Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury at the WCC second Assembly. Photo: WCC, 1954.

By Susan Kim*

In an address entitled “An instrument of faith,” Dag Hammarskjöld, the second UN secretary-general, referred to churches as “the guardians of and spokesmen of the deepest beliefs and the loftiest dreams of man.”

These words were delivered during the 2nd Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC), in Evanston, Illinois (USA) on 20 August 1954.

On 29 July, Hammarskjöld would have celebrated his 115th birthday. Many in the UN and WCC circles still ascribe to his legacy today.

Already known as a great statesman by 1954, Hammarskjöld in his address was able to contrast his vision of the role of the churches with that of the UN: “The United Nations, on the other hand, is an organization for continuous diplomatic negotiation concerning concrete political issues, providing also for international administrative action in the economic and social fields.”

Yet then, as they do now, the WCC and the UN work side-by-side, Hammarskjöld noted. “The United Nations stands outside—necessarily outside—all confessions, but it is, nevertheless, an instrument of faith,” he said. “As such it is inspired by what unites and not by what divides the great religions of the world.”

Peace. Human dignity. Equality. Hammarskjöld spoke of these as key words for the UN, for churches and for the world in 1954. “Problems that worry us in the United Nations must worry you, and achievements which we will be permitted to make must be welcomed by you,” he said. “There is no need for me to describe the international situation of the day in any detail.”

The WCC 2nd Assembly was held only nine years after the end of World War II, and the wounds were not yet healed. Churches themselves were separated from one another on political and ideological grounds.

“The facts are well known to all of you,” said Hammarskjöld. “Has there indeed been any time, when the troubles of all the world were brought so quickly and so fully into every home?”

As humankind faces the COVID-19 pandemic, Hammarskjöld’s question returns to us with both poignancy and urgency.

In 1954, the daily newspapers carried stories of conflicts in Korea, Indochina, Palestine, Kashmir. “The remaining problems are great, indeed, in all these places, although different in scope and character," said Hammarskjöld. “To resolve them in a way which preserves peace and gives to the peoples concerned freedom and safety in a way of life from their own choice, is an aim never to be abandoned, but still far from being realized.”

Seventy years after the start of the Korean War, many are realizing that the truth of these words. And Hammarskjöld predicts the future in other ways as well: “Still others may in their turn come to dominate headlines telling about new threats of war,” he said. “There is, first of all, in the international field, a need for practical action, helping under-developed countries to achieve such economic progress as would give them their proper share in the wealth of the world, and there is a need for political arrangements, providing a framework for a development in peace towards independence and self determination for peoples now experiencing a revival of national pride and achieving political maturity.”

Hammarskjöld emphasized peace over war, evolution over revolution. “Especially, let us not get caught in the belief that divisions of our world between the righteous and the wrongdoers, between idealism and materialism, between freedom and slavery, coincide with national boundaries,” he said. “The righteous are to be found everywhere as are the wrongdoers.”

Hammarskjöld expressed great confidence in the churches’ capability to build trust between people, ending his speech with his vision of “universal brotherhood which we hope one day to see reflected in a world of nations truly united”—a vision we hold still today.

* Susan Kim is a freelance journalist based in the US