Busan, The Republic of Korea, Oct. 30, 2013 – About 8,500 participants and observers, including nearly 800 denominational delegates representing most of the 345 member churches and local volunteers, converged here for 10 days of reflecting and strategizing on the witness and mission of Christian churches worldwide. The launch of the 10th assembly of the World Council of Churches (the first being in 1948 – they have gathered approximately every seven years) provided a study of contrasts.
Most obvious to attendees was the contrast each was perceiving between their own specific home context and this modern city, its world-class conference center and nearby hotels and cosmopolitan sophistication.
Quickly obvious to all was the hostile welcome extended by anti-WCC protestors. Several dozen fundamentalist Christians positioned themselves on the sidewalk by the entrance to the complex, where they shouted, preached and raised placards to warn against the evils of being “unequally yoked with unbelievers.” Like the delegates, some of the protesters traveled from other countries; I spoke with a Baptist woman from Canada who handed me a flyer bearing the headline, “We Are Dead Against the WCC 10th Assembly in Busan, Korea!” The flyer goes on to call WCC “a modern Tower of Babel” and accuse it of abandoning witness to the gospel in favor of dialogue. It also accuses the WCC of supporting Marxist movements – an allusion to a Reader’s Digest articles in the 1970s, 80s and 90s that largely twisted and even fabricated evidence of syncretistic beliefs, malicious intentions and organizational corruption.
The Christian Council of Churches in Korea, which represents 12 million of Korea’s Christians, had expressed its opposition to the WCC meeting in the country. A member of one conservative group was arrested on Sunday, Oct. 27, after throwing excrement at the lobby of Myeongseong Church in Seoul, where Dr. Kim Sam Whan, the chairperson of the Korean host committee, serves as pastor.
The rage of these demonstrators – coming from the world of conservative evangelicalism that has nurtured my own faith – infected me with sadness and anger. It reminded me that the good news of our Savior’s love and grace gets so easily perverted by a spirit of xenophobia and hatred toward others who extend that love and grace in ways somewhat different from one’s own. While this was hardly the first time I’ve seen such a spectacle, my own feelings of being the foreigner in this land deepened my feelings of embarrassment and shame as “my people” took such pains to showcase how the love of the Lord has somehow turned dark in their souls.
The opening ceremony could not have been more different. It proclaimed a bold witness of the very evangelical faith that the protestors were claiming that this ecumenical organization had abandoned.
In his welcome to the assembly, Dr. Kim offered no hint of compromise in the faith.
First, we must confess that Jesus Christ is our only hope. Jesus is the way, the truth, the life and salvation. Only by the Gospel of the Cross of Christ can humanity and creation have life. Second, by the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, the Church of Christ must regain its apostolic calling for bearing witness to the life-giving Gospel of Christ. Through its work of evangelism, mission and service, the Church must recover the person and spirituality of Christ. Third, we need to acknowledge that the path to life is found in God’s written word, the Bible. In the midst of overflowing information we have lost our understanding of the truth, that one source of information that leads to life found in the Holy Scriptures. In addition, we must renew the call to prayer and reclaim it.
“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)
The opening worship/ceremony included greetings brought also by Dr. Walter Altmann, WCC moderator, who reviewed for the participants some of the benefits gained from seeking unity in our diversity. Among them, the “possible corrections that our sisters and brothers might point out to us, as we listen to the Holy Spirit.” He also reminded those gathered of the “sustained theological foundation to our commitment to unity, … ‘There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all’” (Eph. 4:5-6).
Altmann raised the question, “Has the WCC lost its prophetic voice?” He offered no simple reassurance, but he did recount some considerable accomplishments realized since the 2006 gathering of the assembly in Porto Allegre, Brazil. He mentioned a massive effort of preserving over 900,000 digitized pages of documentation and making them available to Brazilians to support efforts to prosecute perpetrators of torture during the military dictatorship of 1964-85. He recounted the WCC’s organization of a network of churches that helped the United Nations rally the votes to approve a treaty on the international arms trade. He also cited numerous efforts to cultivate joint actions among Christians and Muslims to overcome cases of inter-religious violence.
Olave Fykse Tveit, executive director of the WCC, also brought greetings. He restated the basis of the WCC’s existence: “ ‘… a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior according to the Scriptures, and therefore seek to fulfill together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’ ”
He also reminded those present of the words of the Apostle Paul: “ ‘No part of the body can say to another: “I have no need of you” (I Cor. 12:21),’ ” adding that he often summarizes the unique qualities of the relationships shared through the council’s churches “in one word: solidarity. Christian solidarity.”
He enlarged the thought: “This is a deep Biblical principle: Christian solidarity in the light of the cross of Christ offers a strong biblical principle which has become a foundation for all ecumenical relationships.” He added still the rationale for this year’s assembly theme, “Thus, we simply cannot say that I have no need of you anymore, or just now. And we cannot say, I do not have to worry about whether you need me or not. It is in this solidarity with the groaning world that we pray, ‘God of life, lead us to justice and peace.’”
Clearly the highlight of the opening plenary came when an orchestra struck the notes, hundreds of vocalists sang the songs, dancers acted the parts and multi-media visuals filled the massive stage with a nearly hour-long operatic presentation of Korea’s young Christian story. Performed on a level comparable to New York’s Metropolitan Opera, they sang God’s praises for the arrival of the first Christian missionaries – mostly Presbyterians – the 1890s. They told of the Pyongyang Revival of 1907-10 that brought thousands to the faith. They mourned the pain of the Japanese occupation (1910-45), the subsequent liberation that sadly also produced a division into two countries and then the subsequent war between North and South. They poignantly told of their ongoing prayers for unification, concluding with a haunting rendition of the familiar, prayerful song, “Come now, O God of peace, make us one body.”
The contrasts of joy and mourning were stark in the opera, and the contrasts between Christian proclamation with the massive auditorium and pseudo-Christian judgment outside on the sidewalks was stark, too. For this Christian pastor and writer, I’m glad to have found a place inside the halls of this wonderful and hope-filled gathering.