Last year, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention decided to quit the Baptist World Alliance because its theologies were “too liberal” and its criticisms of the United States too many.
A different crisis of ecumenical relations occurred last October in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). With help from its world mission headquarters in Louisville and the participation of its Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, it sent a fact-finding delegation to the Middle East. Among other local hosts in visits to six countries were the Middle East Council of Churches and the Synod of Lebanon, Syria. Leaders of the latter asked the delegation to undertake a conversation with representatives of the militant Muslim group Hezbollah. Back in Louisville, denominational executives had advised “caution” about having such a meeting, but they never forbade the delegation to undertake it. The upshot of the event was the firing of two General Assembly staff members for incompetence in permitting that meeting to take place and for failing to protect the church against negative media publicity.
As a longtime student of the ethics of forgiveness and repentance, I have had to ponder the complexity of Jesus’ word to disciples that they are to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). That word applies as much to conflicts inside the church as outside. As a Presbyterian, I am proud of its ecumenical and social justice traditions; and I believe that this internal denominational controversy needs to be judged against the background of twentieth century ecumenical history. Many issues in the incident transcend this one denomination.
The World Council of Churches. The founder of the Reformed tradition, John Calvin, once said that he was willing to “cross seven seas” if it would serve the unity of the church. Ever after, at our best, we Presbyterians have been among the most regular supporters of councils of churches worldwide. We are also committed to a social witness that addresses deep human conflict. We know that to pursue justice in such conflicts may require us to get acquainted with a mix of friends, strangers, apparent enemies, and persons of other faiths. An ecumenical exemplar for me has always been the late Archbishop Iakovos, who in 1959 was the first Greek Orthodox bishop in 350 years to visit the Vatican and who in 1965 marched arm-in-arm with Baptist Martin Luther King Jr. and Lutheran Walter Ruether to demonstrate for voting rights for all Americans in Selma, Alabama.
A mix of friends, strangers and alleged enemies was very much present in the 1948 founding assembly of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam. The “Message” of the Assembly proclaimed, in capital letters—WE INTEND TO STAY TOGETHER. The Cold War would soon test that intention in disputes at once theological and political: Is a church under pressure of a Communist government still a church? How much should the WCC curb its public criticism of the Soviet Union or the United States? Should it beware of Soviet threat to forbid church leaders’ travel to international meetings? WCC assembly criticism of the United States was afflicted with little such caution. In response, not every American delegate managed to reflect: “It is a tribute to the United States that we are free to learn from those criticisms of our country. Silence about Soviet oppression is no tribute to that government.”
As so often in church history, a theologically informed “intention to stay together” can get trumped by diverse political circumstance and loyalties. Whether in Communist East Germany and Romania, apartheid South Africa, or capitalist USA, the perennial question has to be: What is the distinction between our loyalty to governments of our own nations and our loyalty to our fellow Christians around the world?
The question has rigorous practical impacts. It will land church leaders in the agonies of listening to each other across severe theological and political divides. It will, most of all, test the ability of Christians worldwide to disagree in love and to maintain the bond of the Spirit. Here are some illustrations.
Christians in China and Taiwan
In 1968, twenty years after the defeat of the Nationalists by the Communists in the Chinese civil war, an assembly of our own National Council of Churches passed a resolution recommending to the American government that it extend diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic of China. Immediately from many quarters, secular and religious, came condemnation of this “leftist” proposal. Two years later, U.S. President Richard Nixon went to China. He was widely applauded for this forthright step towards substituting a political relation for a military relation between our two countries. In 1979, under U.S. President Jimmy Carter, came U.S. diplomatic recognition of the PRC.
In those same late sixties, as American public opinion was turning against the Vietnam War, a Doonesbury character asked, “How did it happen that folk in 1965 were so wrong to oppose the Vietnam war, but now it’s o.k.?” Answer: “Premature morality.”
American churches too often wait for the nod of a government on some issue before they imitate the prophets of Israel by initiating their own witness on the matter. Given our much-celebrated American freedoms, we have less to lose in taking a lead in such controversial matters than do Christians in countries whose political leaders regularly intimidate their critics. The NCC deserves much credit for its forward-looking 1968 hope for peace between the USA and the PRC.
We must nourish that hope even while continuing to press for more religious freedom in China. Since 1976, after vast government repression, in a resurrection miracle, Christians there emerged from the catacombs. Whether in house churches or the officially sanctioned China Christian Council, most Chinese Christians now make a point to being real Chinese patriots and really a part of the world church. The house churches, unwilling to be monitored by government, are currently subject to increased governmental surveillance. External and internal ecumenical relations of Chinese Christians– including Roman Catholics–are thus fraught with complexity. But relation to them all, by European and American bodies, ought to be for us an ecumenical priority.
Perhaps no relations are more difficult than those involving Taiwan. The Taiwan Presbyterian Church, in particular, officially supports the proposal of a public referendum on whether the island should become integrated politically with the PRC. Tension between the China Christian Council and the PCT is therefore severe. The two have virtually no cross-strait conversation. At times they speak of each other as though they were enemies. Accordingly, American denominations like my own face a hard diplomatic problem: What shall we say in our conversations with both of these bodies? Are we potential brokers of more tangible relations between the two? Does the World Council of Churches have any such role? Or do we keep silent while governments and churches in the region work out–or fail to work out— their own problems?
Northern Ireland, Bosnia, the Middle East
In every world region, the theological and political complexities are many; but one strategic issue that cuts across them all is whether or not Christian leaders from one country, visiting another, are to make contact with many sides of local political conflicts. Do they accept the advice of local church leaders in the matter? If one goes to Northern Ireland, does one talk with both Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams? With militant Loyalists who are Protestant in name, with militant Republicans who like to be known as Catholics? If one goes to Bosnia, will visitors seek discussions of theology and politics with a wide spectrum of Serb, Muslim, Jewish, Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant leaders? If one visits the Middle East, in the name of ecumenical vision and hope for political justice, does one talk with a similar spectrum of leaders? In the name of practicality and modesty about wisdom to be gleaned from a mere twoweek visit, do we talk only with people we already know and already have reason to trust? Or does a Christian ethic that affirms the love of God for “all sorts and conditions of humans” incline us to hear from local folk who are strange, hostile, and opponents of some of our known friends?
Last October that Presbyterian delegation of twenty-some answered these questions with willingness to be vulnerable to a wide spectrum of strangers. The decision landed them in considerable hot water. Consenting to the request of their hosts in the Middle East that they talk for an hour with leaders of militant Hezbollah, they encountered immediate outrage from Israeli and American Jewish leaders. Soon after, in response to that outrage, high Presbyterian officials in Louisville fired two senior staff members who had accompanied the delegation.
To contemplate the case from the standpoint of ecumenical loyalty, interfaith dialogue and a church’s service to peace and justice, an outsider like myself must exercise some modesty. But investigation of the case has returned me to some additional issues of church witness that, again, ought to concern more than Presbyterians.
Should visiting Christians honor the agenda of local Christians? The answer is “yes, if at all possible.” If one’s church hosts say, “We think you should talk with leaders of influential Muslim groups in our country, including Hezbollah,” there is a prima facie reason for consent to that agendum. These days there is a political reason, too. Hezbollah already exercises great influence in Lebanon. According to The New York Times (3/10/2005),”After years of campaigning against Hezbollah, the Bush administration is grudgingly going along with efforts by France and the United Nations to steer the party into the Lebanese mainstream, administration officials say.” A recent issue of The Economist (4/23/ 2005) says that Hezbollah “is now talking about integrating itself into Lebanon’s regular army and body politic.” It is the same reluctant concession of Protestant parties in Northern Ireland when they agree to woo Republican and IRA leaders into nonviolent democratic politics.
Are enemies of our friends to be shunned as our enemies, too? This is a poignant question for the relations of Christians and Jews in both America and the Middle East. Treating some group of people as one’s enemies, even before any direct acquaintance with them, will always suggest that, as enemies, they are not worth listening to. They are thereby unfit for dialogues that might move them toward the civilities of peace. To be sure, once we have talked with “the enemy” we might be tempted to too much sympathy with their side of the conflict. More likely, we will then have reason to understand better what the conflict is about. Christians who take seriously the ethics of Matthew 5:43-48 ought to be vulnerable to at least talking with the enemy.
American Presbyterians are members of a denomination that has consistently called for pursuit of the rights of both Israel and the Palestinians. Our fellow Christians in the Middle East are in a minority-middle that requires them to seek peaceful relations with both sides of this tragic conflict. For a fourth party, visitors, how to be ecumenically attentive to the interests of those three parties is no easy matter. The least requirements pressing a “fact-finding” group of visitors would seem to be: listen to the several sides. And: listen especially to one’s fellow Christians on the ground. Such listening is a token of open-mindedness and hopeful peace seeking. It implies vulnerability to diverse human interests and to new appreciation of why peace is so elusive.
Is there a way to carry on international, interfaith dialogue without sieving most of the communication through the distortions of the mass media? The media like the sensational. It seems quite likely that those visiting Presbyterians were incautious, not so much in meeting with Hezbollah, but in failing to prepare beforehand a press release interpreting the overall purposes of the visit, which could have been handed reporters under a policy, “no further comment.” As it happened, the Associated Press and Al-Jazeera reporters seized on the Hezbollah visit and quoted one or two delegate comments out of context with the result of considerable harm to Presbyterian- Jewish relations back home.
The majority of religious people in the United States get their news about even their own religion through the mass media. That Jewish leaders might decry a contact with Hezbollah was not unexpected. Their alarm, too, deserves to be listened to. Before responding in anger at information about each other as first portrayed in a news clip on some nightly TV news, however, leaders of diverse religious bodies should talk directly with each other. That is a good reason, in the first place, for visiting each other’s home ground. It also is an occasion for denominational leaders back home to remind critics of the event that the church continues its longtime abhorrence of violence as a substitute for politics and its search for justice for all sides of a conflict–e.g. for the interests of both Israel and Palestinians.
What ethic should govern the treatment of administrative personnel by a supervisor who disagrees with their behavior? It’s a question appropriate for the church as well as for government and business. In the theological seminary whose affairs I used to supervise, we were very cautious about firing anyone “for cause” until we had full knowledge of the cause and full hearing of the persons subject to that last-resort disciplining. We tried to search for both the full truth about the matter and for the identification of forgivable sins. That last has an indispensable place in the affairs of an organization calling itself Christian. Loyalty to the reputation of an organization will sometimes compete with loyalty to individuals in it, but woe betide administrators who do not struggle to live in the tension between the two loyalties.
Businesses sometimes fire employees and offer termination financial benefits on the condition that no one in the negotiation will ever appeal the decision or refer publicly or privately to reasons claimed for the termination. Some of my ethicist colleagues see this arrangement as financial extortion. For me the even more unsettling dimension of the event has been the public disavowal, by denominational executives, of the mission and work of people who are as fully members of the Presbyterian Church as are they. In a written message to the delegation, an executive did advise caution about visiting Hezbollah, but he never forbade the visit. Afterwards, as the storm of criticism from Jewish leaders erupted, executives went public with the judgment that the delegation did not really represent the church and that its conduct was “misguided” and “reprehensible.” They thus disowned a group of fellow Presbyterians who had gone on this journey in the name of their church. This is a failure to balance just criticism of one’s own with just loyalty to them.
Such public disowning of fellow Christians is hard to forgive. Moreover, should denominational leaders tell a delegation not to talk with “enemies,” they betray the Christian hope for reconciliation. Doubtless, in this case, as in most human controversy political and ecclesiastical, there were actions to forgive on all sides. Unfortunately, discussion of the substantive claims to justice on both sides was severely limited by denominational heads, and an apology by the delegation chairman for the consequences of the Hezbollah visit got no response-inkind. Two-way forgiveness is hard, but it has to be a permanent possibility for dealing with sins alleged against one member of the Body of Christ by another. Whatever the habit in business corporations, Matthew 6:12 (“forgive us our debts”) and 18:15-20 (“how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?”) remain fundamental guides to resolving human conflict in the church. Secularist Robert Frost and Hannah Arendt wrote that forgiveness is the ultimate saving glue of society itself, for “to be social is to be forgiving.” Where else ought society have a public demonstration of that truth if not in the life of Christian churches? How else will any church long have the nerve to continue saying to the world: “We intend to stay together”?
DONALD W. SHRIVER JR. is president emeritus of Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He is the author of “An Ethic for Enemies–Forgiveness in Politics,” and “Honest Patriots—Loving a Country Enough to Remember Its Misdeeds.” The latter was reviewed in the July 25/August 1 issue of the OUTLOOK.
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