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View the documentNote on the Contemporary Role of the Church in International Affairs - WCC Central Committee, Geneva, Switzerland, 12-20 September 1996
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Note on the Contemporary Role of the Church in International Affairs - WCC Central Committee, Geneva, Switzerland, 12-20 September 1996

At this meeting of the Central Committee, attention focused on preparations for the Eighth Assembly, the Common Understanding and Vision of the World Council of Churches, ecclesiology and ethics, and reconsideration of ecumenical priorities in a time of severe financial constraints. This was an appropriate context in which to review the Council’s engagement in international affairs and public issues since the Canberra Assembly.

In each period of the life of the Council, succeeding Central Committees have had to respond to urgent crises, to analyze trends in world affairs and to promote a common witness among the churches for peace and justice. Each has identified areas where deeper study was required on the causes of the inequalities and injustice which lead to conflict and war. Ecumenical programmes have been elaborated and initiatives taken to inform the churches and enable them to act together, through the guiding of the Holy Spirit, to address the structural causes of oppression, division and violations of the life and dignity of God’s people the integrity of creation.

But few, if any, of the Central Committees since 1948 have devoted so much time and energy to public issues as have those chosen to guide the Council since the Sixth Assembly in Vancouver. No other Central Committee has had to struggle with such rapid, radical and fundamental change in international relations, or with such complex realities. Now, as the churches prepare for Harare and the daunting task they will have there to equip the ecumenical movement for mission, witness and service on the threshold of the new millennium, it is important for the Central Committee to take stock of what it has learned in this time of transition from one stage of history to another.

These reflections seek to provide a framework for that assessment, and to pose some of the questions arising from our work together since Canberra and which require the attention of the ecumenical movement.

Coping with the “New World Order”

The period of preparation for the Seventh Assembly was one of uncertainty, but of considerable hope for the future. The precipitate collapse of Communism which began in 1989 opened up remarkable new opportunities in international affairs. In rapid succession, a series of national and regional conflicts were quickly resolved as the former Cold-War enemy powers found new ways to cooperate. The United Nations, long blocked from the use of the strongest peacemaking powers available in the Charter, put in place new mechanisms for conflict management and to keep and build peace.

But on the eve of Canberra, the use of these powers was usurped by a group of nations led by the sole remaining superpower in a way which put the integrity of the world body to a rude test. The issues raised have had serious repercussions in the ecumenical movement.

Christian attitudes on violence and war

“Operation Desert Storm” raised the question: Who may use instruments of war to deal with conflicts, in what circumstances, and under what authority?

The Gulf War provoked great international controversy, and gave rise to one of the most important, difficult and contentious debates in an assembly since the one in Amsterdam over how the ecumenical movement ought to relate to Communism and the socialist states, stimulated by the heated exchange between Czech theologian Josef Hromadka and U.S. statesman John Foster Dulles. The Canberra debate reopened the old, seemingly unbreachable gap between those who believe that Christians must reject absolutely the use of violence as a means to resolve conflict, and those who believe that, under strict conditions and as a last resort, the use of violence may be unavoidable and necessary.

The heated character of this debate came as a rude surprise to those who believed that the bold statement of the Vancouver Assembly and the subsequent affirmation of the Seoul Convocation on JPIC (1990) showed that a new consensus was being shaped on the morality and theological justification of war and the use of violence in international affairs. It showed how divided the churches remain on crucial theological, ecclesiological and political issues.

These differences surfaced anew in subsequent debates in the Central Committee, most notably in connection with war in the former Yugoslavia, but also around the ethics of armed “humanitarian intervention” in situations of complex emergencies.

Many questions arose, among them:

- What alternatives has the church to offer to violence as a response to conflict?

- What can the church do to lower or eradicate the incidence of violence in society?

- How can the churches and Christians strengthen their capacity to remain in dialogue on deeply divisive social and political issues?

Some attempts to find answers were made:

- The use of sanctions, short of the use of armed violence, was seen to be a workable alternative to bring an offending party into compliance with international law, and a set of criteria were elaborated on when and under what conditions the church might advocate the application of sanctions.

- A Program to Overcome Violence was launched to stimulate reflection and action in the churches to help reverse the tide of violence in and between societies.

But it may be asked:

- Have we been effective in moving from declaration and affirmation to action?

- Have we spoken in a way that what we say can be heard by, and make a difference to the churches?

- Have we helped to make the universal Christian witness meaningful and potent in a needy and confused world?

The crisis in “Global Governance”

The Canberra statement on the Gulf War also dealt with the broader consequences of the Security Council decisions which authorized a massive military operation in the Gulf. It warned of the far-reaching consequences of pursuing a “New World Order” dominated by an emerging coalition of major powers. This Central Committee offered additional critiques of the impact of the “New World Order” on the role and functioning of global institutions, and noted the waning effectiveness and credibility of intergovernmental bodies. It reiterated the ecumenical position that an effective United Nations, responsive to the will and the needs of the peoples of the world is essential, while drawing attention to the weaknesses of the world body today.

It has not been easy for the churches to discuss the UN without falling into the trap either of uncritical support for the world body, or of joining those voices who make it a scapegoat for the chaotic world situation. Here, too, attitudes are widely divided in the churches.

Questions arise here such as:

- In a time of widespread proliferation of complex, often competing and overlapping international institutions at world and regional levels, how can the church maintain sufficient distance to be able to reflect on what kind of institutions are needed today? How can we remain close enough to them to be able to influence their behaviour, promote constructive reforms, and support conscientious and effective international civil servants who share our concerns?

- What could the churches do more effectively to ensure that the “voice of the peoples” is more effectively represented in the debates and the programmatic activities of the United Nations?

The Central Committee has not been concerned only about global institutions, but about the crisis in confidence with respect to political institutions at every level of society. It has considered the role of “civil society” as a means of pressuring political institutions to fulfil their responsibility to respond to the will of the citizenry. It has been suggested that “civil society movements” may be the harbinger of new forms of governance.

- What has the church to say about waning confidence in and the diminution of the power of the state?

- How can Christians and their churches exercise the responsibilities of citizenship vis-is their own states and governments and at the same time retain the capacity to call them to accountability when they fail in their responsibilities?

- What roles do we see for “civil society” movements in the process of governance?

- How can civil society movements themselves be protected from the temptations of dogmatism and institutional rigidity?

- Will the churches, as they appeal for greater inclusiveness and democracy in the institutions of governance, apply the same critique to themselves and reform their own systems of government when they fail to meet the same standards?

Globalization of the economy and culture

A dominant feature of the post-Cold-War “disorder” has been the imposition on global society of the neo-liberal form of “free market” economy. In the name of the “market,” the power of weak states to defend the sovereignty and national interests of their own people has been severely eroded, and in some cases destroyed. Fundamental principles of justice and fairness in international relations give way under the onslaught of profit-seekers. Ours has become a world of double standards, one set for the rich, another for the poor. People despair, and anger and frustration abound. No other set of forces in our time has such a debilitating and divisive impact on community, nation, state and church.

In every society the impact has been felt through the inability or the abandonment by the state of its responsibilities to deliver social services to the most vulnerable. Unemployment is on the rise. The gap between rich and poor grows wider than ever.

Nowhere has this become so clear as in our discussions on the plight of Africa. Shortly after Canberra, the Executive Committee adopted a “Minute on Africa” which called for intensive WCC attention to the situation of this continent and its churches. In the extensive statement of the Johannesburg Central Committee on “Contemporary Challenges to Africa” the impact of globalization on this continent was drawn out in detail. Through the lens of Africa we saw how the social fragmentation resulting from globalization alienates communities from their own cultures and traditions, renders them vulnerable to new, often destructive religious movements, to religious and other forms of extremism, and thus to destructive conflict.

Traditional means of dealing with conflict in many cultures are pushed to the margins. The flourishing, unregulated trade in arms of every sort has rendered African and other poor societies, which have borne the brunt of globalization, vulnerable to fratricidal warfare.

The churches in both poor and rich societies are also besieged by these divisive and fragmenting forces. Many have been set against one another in competition for “souls” and diminishing resources. When they have resisted globalization, many have become targets of destabilization campaigns. Others have been overwhelmed - and at times consciously marginalized - by the burdens they have taken up in ministering to those abandoned by the state: refugees, displaced persons and migrants, abandoned and abused children, women and others who suffer most from the violence of uncaring societies, the sick and the elderly.

The process of globalization is more complex and is impelled by more powerful forces than anything we have had to face in our time. It is pervasive, systemic and often faceless. It reveals a profound moral, ethical and even spiritual breakdown in society. It lays bare the inadequacy of many of our customary tools of analysis.

- How can the churches resist the forces of division and fragmentation today?

- As the forces of globalization put on the cloak of “internationalism” and even of “ecumenism,” how can the Church, the One Body of Christ, make its understanding of universality heard? How can the ecumenical movement manifest in social and political terms the unity given in Christ and the sovereignty of God over all human powers?

- How is the moral voice of the church to be used in the face of such widespread economic, cultural and political immorality?

The Resurgence of Racism, Ethnocentrism and Nationality Conflicts

By the meeting of the Central Committee in Geneva in 1992, Soviet domination of Eastern and Central Europe had come to an end, and the Soviet Union itself had disintegrated. Ethnic and national conflicts had exploded throughout the former Communist world. Open wars were raging in the Caucasus and the Balkans. Many of these took on a religious character, and member churches of the WCC were caught up in several of them directly.

The ugly head of racism and xenophobia rose up in many parts of the world as movements reminiscent of the worst days of fascism attacked racial and ethnic minorities. Old ethnic and tribal tensions were growing, especially in some of the world’s poorest regions. The simultaneous upsurge of religious extremism and intolerance left many minority populations virtually defenceless. The religious factor moved to the centre of ever more violent social and political conflicts.

Two of the most baffling, complex and shocking conflicts came in rapid succession: the war of “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia, and the Rwandan genocide. The debates stirred by these two tragedies which often have dominated the public issues agenda since 1992 have been reminiscent of the ones in Canberra.

Many of the questions the Central Committee raised in its statement on the former Yugoslavia at its last meeting (Geneva, 1995) apply not just to that situation but everywhere where church and nation, church and ethnic group have such an inseparable bond that Christians risk being blinded to the demands of the gospel. They remain unanswered and continue to pose fundamental challenges for the churches’ life together. For example:

- What is the nature of the ecumenical fellowship and what does Christian unity require in a divided world?

- Does membership of the Council make churches accountable to and responsible for one another in such times?

- Can a church which fails to distance itself from and vigorously resist the use of violence by its own nation and people disqualify itself from membership?

Again in this sphere, the inextricable relationship between ecumenical responsibilities in international affairs, mission, service and in the fields of ecclesiology, doctrinal unity and Christian social ethics has been underscored.

Confession, Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Commemorations of events related to the end of the Second World War led the Central and Executive Committees to reflect on what it requires to become a truly confessing church. In their 1995 Pentecost Message, the Presidents of the Council urged the churches to take that opportunity to “proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ... to recapture the vision of peace among reconciled communities and peoples... to confess that we have failed to build the foundations of a just peace, to repent our sin of disunity as churches and peoples.” This is a time of jubilee, they said, a time to forgive and seek forgiveness, “to restore right relations among neighbours and with God;” a time to say to the nations, “Turn to God - Rejoice in Hope.”

Our wrestling with such intractable conflicts as those in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda brought to mind the admonition of the prophet Jeremiah:

They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace (6:14).

We were reminded how humanity’s repeated failure to heal deeply the wounds inflicted by one people against another, or by brutal regimes upon their own nations, has led to rising spirals of retributive violence. Justice has too rarely been done. The pain of the victims has too seldom been assuaged. Impunity has too easily been granted to offenders. And the international community has too seldom brought the authors of crimes against humanity to the bar of judgement under international law. True reconciliation has rarely occurred. The accumulation of offenses on all sides, and our failure to heal the memory of injured peoples has contributed to a proliferation of what came to be known as “complex emergencies”.

After decades of dealing with what seemed to be clear-cut issues of right and wrong, the churches have been confronted with new moral and ethical dilemmas.

- What do we do when there is no “just” solution, when the “legitimate” claims for justice by the several parties to a conflict deny justice to the other?

- What moral criteria do we apply when to judge the one and absolve the other is itself an act of injustice?

We belong to a generation schooled in Cold-War thinking based on the identification of an enemy and the confrontation of absolute good and evil. Debates among the churches since Canberra have shown that it is as difficult for the churches as it is for policy makers to escape the distortions and limitations of this way of looking at things. In retrospect, many have come to see that reality was seldom, if ever, so simple. Good and evil, justice and injustice, righteousness and unrighteousness are omnipresent. What we are gradually discovering is that they are most often present together on different sides of disputes. We need a fresh approach.

- How can the churches free themselves from bondage to the past and live out a model of caring and respectful dialogue which we can consistently apply and offer to others as an alternative?

- Can the churches learn a new way of looking at conflict which can enable us to see the humanity of people on all sides?

- What can the churches contribute to the shaping of new modes of thinking which take seriously the historical roots of conflict and approach it on its own terms, rather than on ours?

Our approach to the law is key to our understanding of justice. Frequently during this period resort has been had to law as a political instrument to punish those perceived to be the enemy, but it has rarely contributed significantly to the resolution of a conflict or the healing of the deep wounds of history. The international tribunals hastily established to identify and try those charged with crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda have been perceived to lack impartiality and thus effectiveness. Some have suggested that such special judicial bodies are too susceptible to the politics of the moment, and that they should be replaced by a Permanent International Criminal Court endowed with authority to assure fair, consistent and equitable administration of international law.

Such matters are a legitimate and important concern of the churches, and may demand more considered attention in the future. But our experience since Canberra shows that the law alone is insufficient to bring lasting justice or a durable peace. Here, too, we see the intersection of theological affirmation and the church’s responsibility in the world of nations. Jesus came to fulfil the law, but at the same time to free us from bondage to an absolutist system of law based on retribution. His message of forgiveness has shown itself anew to be not just a requirement of the faith, but a political necessity if we are ever to overcome ancient enmities, our tendency to pursue justice on our own terms and at any price, and our penchant to resort to violence in the name of peace and justice.

The ecumenical movement has repeatedly affirmed that there can be no peace without justice. We have learned that there are times when there can be no justice if there is not some peace.

We now must ask again:

- What is the relationship between peace and justice? If they are intertwined, how do we work as church to achieve both?

- Some of our absolutist statements of the past may have led us to miss opportunities to witness effectively in the present. How do we retain a prophetic voice and remain able to respond to crises which demand nuanced thinking and action?

- How can we oppose the granting of impunity for serious crimes against humanity in a way which can contribute to healing the wounds of history, and at the same time respond to the requirement of new democracies for stability in a time when the criminals of the past continue to wield power?

- How are truth-telling, impunity, forgiveness and reconciliation related?

The Contemporary Challenge to the Church in International Affairs

The issues have become much more complex. Our tools of analysis need to be refined, and some corrected. And if, as it appears, we are in a time of deep moral crisis we should reflect anew on how the church can bring the moral voice of faith more consciously and effectively to bear in our actions and statements on public issues.

It is troubling to note that in precisely such a time many churches have become introspective, and tend to devote more of their attention and resources to their own institutional and confessional realities and pressing domestic concerns. Our resources are dwindling, but the demands upon the church are great. We need to consider how the Council can encourage and enable the churches to maintain a sense of universal responsibility and ways within our means to exercise it more effectively.