Ruminations on Institutional Ecumenism
Gathered in the headquarters of a labor union are about 40 persons who want to make it easier for ex-felons to regain the vote as part of re-entering society. The participants’ average age is about 35. Almost half are ex-felons. The rest are from unions, the ACLU, and a state-wide community organizing group, to name a few. We take turns saying why we care about this issue.
When it’s my turn to share, I say, “Along with the 12 Christian traditions united in the Kentucky Council of Churches, I care about this issue because following Jesus Christ means believing that every life can be redeemed.” Was this evangelism? Social justice activism?
I believe it’s both.
Another ‘both-and’ represented that day was the mutual reinforcement of, on the one hand, a grassroots coalition fanning a movement, and, on the other, the institutionalized ecumenism I represented. Many participants had faith commitments. But I was the only one who could speak on behalf of leaders of 12 traditions, both Catholic and Protestant. Why? Because a council of churches had sent me there with a unified message. They could do that because they had developed a process for arriving at consensus positions on social issues. The end result of this (sometimes-cumbersome) institutional work is a unified action of both social justice and evangelism. That unity clearly spoke to the young activists who’d gathered that day to fan a movement.
The false dichotomy of social justice and evangelism has become part of the way we think and talk in church circles, at least in white-dominant ones.
The false dichotomy of social justice and evangelism has become part of the way we think and talk in church circles, at least in white-dominant ones. Most of us would answer “yes” if asked, “Did Jesus call people to a new devotion to God’s purposes that both changed their spiritual lives and their willingness to make costly changes to benefit vulnerable neighbors? And did this call draw many people into fellowship?” And yet in the next breath, many of us speak as though the church needs to choose between two separate priorities – justice or evangelism!
Where did the sharp justice/evangelism dichotomy come from?
It hasn’t always been this way. In fact, in the 1800s, social reform and evangelical zeal were usually found together. Then, it seemed natural, after giving one’s life to God, to also sign on for social reform campaigns such as abolition of slavery, regulation of alcohol, and ending child labor. At revivals, it was not unusual to see sign-up sheets for these causes. In those days, the word ‘evangelical’ was basically synonymous with ‘protestant’, it had a little e, not a capital E, and everyone who formed the Federal Council of Churches that later became the National Council of Churches was comfortable being called an evangelical.
Getting out front of social reform movements could be rough going for Christian leaders then as now, but ‘spiritual’ and ‘political’ were not so readily seen as antonyms. In the 20th century, however, religious leadership on social reform issues became much more problematic than it had been in the 19th century because of two fears that came together like waves in a tsunami.
The first wave was the rise of Fundamentalism among American Christians. To trust in God’s word in a straightforward and literal way can feel very holy, and it is not to be given up lightly. But Fundamentalism had a fearful edge, a suspicion that accepting the insights of historical-critical biblical scholarship and the findings of science would bring betrayal of true faith and of God. Because of this, an important segment of American religious culture became deeply suspicious, especially regarding new or innovative applications of scripture, including when those applications had to do with the ordering of society by gender or race or any other axis of ordering.
One of the problems the faith communities face is that we have learned a behavior we need to unlearn, a behavior in which we refrain from speaking publicly on certain topics, especially critiques of our economic system.
The second major wave that made social reform work more problematic for 20th-Century church leaders was the rise of Communism. It was one thing to critique Capitalism’s excesses before the Bolshevik revolution. But now religious leaders who did so risked being accused of aiding and abetting an atheistic and ruthless national enemy.
These two waves sent most people running into one of two camps. In one, we had the people who tried to apply new insights from scholarship and sought to reform the world to be a more just social order. In the other camp, we had people who tried to hold onto and proclaim the insights they already had and deepen the moral order of the world according to that vision.
These camps circled their wagons. The territory between them was a no man’s land. In case you think I’m exaggerating, I can tell you that the rare meetings between leaders of the camps were held in secret. I served on the board of an organization that in the years before I joined the board had arranged those secret meetings. It was too dangerous for them to reach out to each other publicly.
Tragically, each camp tried so hard to avoid the other’s errors that they ended up avoiding each other’s truths, too. And good theology suffered accordingly. One camp became associated with evangelism, and the other with social justice. And thus the gospel truth was cut in half. Evangelism and social justice belong together. To separate them is bad theology and therefore bad for people and for the church, and for the society they are to serve.
A Bridge Between the Camps
A more holistic way of thinking was needed, and several thinkers did dare to speak out. A good example was John Stott, a pastor and theologian from England who led a series of devotions at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association conference held in Berlin in 1966. Meditating on John 20:21, “as God the Father has sent me, so I send you,” Stott asked how Jesus was sent, if not to change both heart and society, both beliefs and actions, both personal morality and social morality. He chided the evangelism camp for hurling their message from afar but not getting dirty in the messiness of real and changing world situations. He chided the social justice camp for neglecting a responsibility to bring a specific message of salvation.
Since the mid-60s, there has been slow but sure progress in bridging the divided camps. Official church documents began to reflect the wisdom offered by thinkers like John Stott. Formal dialogue efforts like the one between Baptists and Catholics led the National Association of Evangelicals to take stands that show a clear appreciation for the social teachings of the historic churches. Ecumenically minded mainline denominations are re-claiming the language of the heart, speaking of injustice as that which rends the very heart of God. Compassionate action and advocacy for people in need is increasingly seen to convey the Gospel message along with the speaking of the words that also convey that message.
Taking the long view, the fact that so much progress is being made on something that was so viciously divisive for decades should encourage us. My hope is that it will encourage us enough to take these next steps:
1.) We must heal our memories.
My husband is a psychiatrist and I have heard him often sharing the story of a certain lab experiment. In that experiment, all the monkeys in a cage were sprayed with cold water any time one of them climbed a ladder to get a banana. As new monkeys were introduced to the cage who had never been sprayed with cold water, the others enforced the rule of not approaching the bananas, until eventually no monkeys living there had been hosed but no monkeys were willing to approach the bananas.
One of the problems the faith communities face is that we have learned a behavior we need to unlearn, a behavior in which we refrain from speaking publicly on certain topics, especially critiques of our economic system. The Roman Catholic Church deserves special praise because it has consistently voiced its concerns about economic systems, and the greater silence has been in the other Christian traditions. The unlearning to be done is thus unevenly spread among the traditions.
2.) We must resist the new segregation.
There are dozens of ways that our lives are now separate from people of other social classes and ideological orientations. From Facebook friending to places to live to places to worship, we must stop isolating ourselves from daily contact with the very persons from whom we might learn the most.
We know how to make short, smart-sounding comments good for tweeting, but we don’t know how to sit with someone to find out why their life experience might lead them to see something very differently than we do.
3.) We must learn the skills of dialogue.
The new segregation is both cause and effect of another great challenge today. We have very little practice with civil dialogue. We have learned to hurl points of view, not explore them. We know how to make short, smart-sounding comments good for tweeting, but we don’t know how to sit with someone to find out why their life experience might lead them to see something very differently than we do.
If we refuse this step, ecumenism itself is at stake, since dialogue is part of finding the mind of Christ.
4.) We must grow in empathy for the perspectives of religious minorities.
Progressive Protestants are quick to assume the ‘religious liberties’ topic is only a Trojan horse for old forms of discrimination. Too many of us have an unwarranted confidence that our own dearest-held religious principles will always be protected. For instance, those of us who believe it is a religious obligation to help meet the urgent needs of immigrants regardless of their documents have seen our right to do so threatened repeatedly by legislative initiatives in the past six years.
In conclusion, let’s turn again to the young activists with whom we began:
The coalition gathered in that union hall had a specific purpose. Recovery of voting rights for ex-felons is a specific reform topic that needs a broad-based coalition. Such a coalition can’t reach mainstream society in a state like Kentucky without full participation of church leaders. And in turn, the churches won’t push hard and effectively enough without that coalition. This kind of grassroots ecumenism does not cancel the need for institutionalized ecumenism – it highlights it. If we look beyond such issue-specific opportunities to the broader agenda I’ve proposed as ‘next steps’, then the long-term and structured commitment of churches acting together comes into even bolder relief in any picture of alignment with the heart of God.
AUTHOR BIO: Marian McClure Taylor’s commitment to ecumenism began when a Catholic missionary order facilitated her Fulbright-funded doctoral research in Haiti. Since then, she has represented the PC(USA) in delegations to the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the World Council of Churches, served seven years on the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism of the WCC, been on the staff leadership team for the Edinburgh 2010 celebration of the event that launched modern ecumenism, and served almost six years as Executive Director of the Kentucky Council of Churches.