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Reports 1995-1998 Edited by Dwain C. Epps

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Message of the CCIA Consultation on Church, Community and State in the Contemporary World

Consultation to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, Seoul, Korea, 15-17 July 1996.

Almost sixty years ago the foundations of contemporary ecumenical social thought, and the bases for the churches’ engagement in international affairs, were laid by leaders of the Christian church confronted by a world in deepening crisis. The concerns and preoccupations of the Oxford Conference on Church, Community and State1 have continued to reverberate across these several decades. The fiftieth anniversary of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs presents us with an opportunity to explore the continuities and discontinuities in the ecumenical understanding of the role of the church in the world.

We have chosen to use the theme of the Oxford Conference as the lens through which to examine the present situation of the churches and international affairs.

It was particularly appropriate for us to do this in Seoul, Korea, where less than ten years ago several of those present at this consultation were part of the Convocation on Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation. Its affirmations provide a backdrop to our deliberations at this time.

Our discussions here in Korea have added potency, as we experience the realities of this country which continues to bear the visible marks of the Cold War era. A country in which the church has at times courageously and sacrificially defended the people against the excesses of a state committed to serving economic and military interests rather than human needs. A church which continues to give expression to the people’s desire for the unification of the nation as their unique contribution to regional and global peace and security.

Oxford had the benefit of the thinking of many of those who were seen at the time as being among the best theological minds in the world. Our understanding of who must participate in constructing meaning and discerning the movement of God in our history has undergone significant change, and the pool from which we can draw has broadened and deepened. As a result of this greater inclusiveness, fresh ideas have come and new expertise has been added. Our discussion has highlighted the importance of bringing all these minds together wherever they may be found as this can only enhance the quality of our analysis and strengthen the validity of our conclusions.

We acknowledge that our meeting over these several days is little more than a very preliminary attempt to reopen a chapter which has been unexplored for perhaps too long. Our hope is that the churches will use the record of these discussions as a contribution to their own process of debate and reflection, particularly as we prepare for the Eighth Assembly of the World Council of Churches.

The State

The Oxford Conference was held at a time when the Western world was in chaos and falling apart. The rise of fascism in Germany was a palpable, frightening reality in 1937. It forcefully confronted the Church with the issue of its relationship to the State, and its attitude to nationalism. In other spheres, there were concerns that the State, especially in relation to its role in protecting the poor and vulnerable, was losing power, or abdicating its responsibilities. Secularism and totalitarianism seemed to be emergent on all sides. The question was: How could the Church be the Church in such a situation?

Today, the role and authority of the State is again under siege as global financial institutions usurp the function of shaping and defining our world. Indeed it has been suggested that one of the characteristics which distinguish the present period from the previous one, is the dominance of capital and the idealization of neo-liberal conceptualizations of the market. This factor should be added to the present-day discussion of the Oxford theme.

While the supporters of the process of globalization argue that it promotes social, political, cultural, and, in particular, economic integration (which should perhaps be called homogenization), it is noteworthy that it is characterized more by fragmentation and alienation. Communities suffer from internal division or are set one against the other, and people are drawn into creating scapegoats to rationalize their own exclusion.

The new World Trade Organization (WTO) is in a real sense the new guardian of a “re-engineered” global division of labor. Despite the potential of supra-state organizations such as the WTO to defend the economic interests of poor countries and smaller producers, the trend is already towards the elaboration of the kinds of terms for the production of goods and services, which result in discrimination in favor of the wealthy corporate sector.

The WTO joins other global economic institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, as well as political institutions such as the UN Security Council, as a defender of powerful economic and political interests. Indeed the resurgent dominance of the Security Council belies the claim that a new era of peace is being ushered in.

There are no signs of any meaningful reduction in military expenditures in any of the world’s regions. Indeed there has been no abatement in the competition between nations to be armed. Armaments continue to flow, the globe continues to be wracked by war, and the priorities of States and lives of communities continue to be deformed by processes of militarization.

The social and economic impact is clear. It includes, among other things, the virtual elimination of public provision of essential human services for most members of many societies, a rapidly widening gap between the rich and the poor within and between nations and worsening tensions and a growing sense of personal and collective insecurity.

Since Oxford, the concept of “nation-State” became current. Deformations of this idea also emerged, and marked the post WW II period. One of these was the “national security State.”

The latter, heavily determined by military influence and control, is giving way now to new forms of democracy, however fragile. These new democracies have no strong support in the State as the organized expression of community. The State, not only, but especially in small territories, seems incapable of defending national sovereignty, and thus of defending cultures, traditions and common aspirations against the onslaught of the unregulated flow of speculative and exploitative capital.

The new visions of democracy and human freedom which have emerged in recent times are not without their own tensions and potential contradictions. Several states for example have yet to shape an appropriate response to the demands of indigenous peoples and other groups to have their rights acknowledged in the new dispensation.

While recognizing the possible value in reconceptualizing the term “nation-state,” it must be acknowledged that the ability of peoples to provide an organized response to their collective economic and social needs is being steadily undermined. Some participants in the consultation felt that there was a need for the State to be strengthened in order to assume its duty to defend the poor and vulnerable, and that the church might have a role in this regard.

In fact, there remains both a “community” which is often referred to in positive terms as nation and a state associated with it. The resulting combination often fails to meet the needs of the community. But what kind of State do we wish to see emerge? In addition, what kind of international institutions, or what reforms in present ones, are necessary in order to strengthen the positive roles of States and control the abuses of power of some States which are also manifest in the present day?

These were but some of the issues and developments which made us ask how the Church can build on its earlier work in the realm of international affairs and continue to forcefully address itself to the true centres of power in the contemporary world. What would it mean to remind individual nations and states, as well as the new global institutions of the need for repentance? The drafters of

the message from the Oxford Conference reminded the Church of the need for it to repent its complicity with the world in order that it might credibly call others to repentance.

The Community

Oxford was preoccupied with the rise in Nazi Germany of a particular understanding of community as Volk: “a shared identity of blood, occupancy of the same territory, possession of the same language, customs, history and culture.” The negative interpretation and practice of this conceptualization remains with us in some situations marked by narrow nationalism and ethnocentrism.

But our consultation pointed out that it is impossible to speak of a single form of community (koinonia) as the model to be pursued. Rather there are several different, and sometimes conflicting conceptions and manifestations of community. Indeed it was observed that the scriptures describe not just one form of community, but rather various forms (koinoniae).

Nation, identity, common bonds, shared experiences, memories and history, are some ways of defining Community. The process of globalization already mentioned has contributed to the disintegration of community at international, national and local levels. It is the people themselves who define and organize their communities. This is a fundamental principle which is under attack today. But the heartfelt desire of these same persons for meaning and solidarity has not been quelled.

Associated with our exploration of the character of community, was the attention now being given to the role of “civil society”. This is perhaps one of the intersections of local, national and global. It is also one of the possible arenas in which the Church may act to strengthen people’s organizations so that they may successfully confront the ravages of capital.

But, as it was at the time of the Oxford Conference, we are alert to the danger of the Church becoming either a pawn of or synonymous with a Community in its more ethnocentric and xenophobic manifestation.

We can only reiterate the stance taken so many years ago at Oxford: “The deification of nation, race, or class, or of political or cultural ideals, is idolatry, and can only lead to increasing division and disaster”.

The Church

The Church of which Oxford spoke was the universal Church which is far more than the sum of its individual parts. There is, it said, no strictly “local” Church. The Church is the one Body of Christ. However we must acknowledge that the expressions of this Body in those countries outside of North America and Europe, which were represented at Oxford only by a limited number of missionaries and even fewer of their nationals, are growing more rapidly than in those countries so overwhelmingly present at that historic meeting. The composition of a conference held today, similar to that held in 1937, would be dramatically different. But the issue of how the churches understand and promote unity in this radically changed context, and whether they can transcend local loyalties remains a pressing one.

The themes of people and nation should not be taboo for the Church and the ecumenical movement. Representatives of almost all the sometimes conflicting parts of the human community are present in both. It would indeed be regrettable if they were not able to bear the tension between the claims of group identity and universal humanity.

The positions of the churches on violence and war were already divisive issues in Oxford. They remain so today. Then and now some churches have given costly witness and suffered martyrdom in opposing abuses of State power. Others have either remained silent or lent support to the State under similar circumstances. Regrettably there are, in several places, growing tensions between churches, faith communities, states and groups of states in the field of church-state and church-community relations.

Within the ecumenical fellowship itself, churches hold radically different positions on these matters. Thus, the debate on our mutual accountability and responsibility for one another in the ecumenical movement continues as the churches explore their common understanding and vision. It is a necessary part of the process of developing guidelines for making ethical judgments about international affairs.

The construction of unity among the churches is an important contribution to the construction of peace and reconciliation among peoples and nations. It is a costly process which requires thoughtful study, dialogue and the adoption of positions in favor of justice and peace. The Church must give leadership in society to define and address difficult political and social questions. This cannot, however, in today’s world be pursued by the Church alone. Increasingly it has become clear that it must work alongside other religious and social bodies.

There is a much greater conscience today of what it means to be a Church for and among the poor. In both quantitative and qualitative terms the absolute poor are a dominant presence in our world and among many of our communities.

While the Church is legitimately active in caring for the needs of the household of God, it must think carefully about its response to the call by the state to assume responsibility for many functions which the state itself used to perform: health care, education, the care of especially vulnerable groups. There are fundamental ethical questions here. The Church must be a competent actor in society, not just in the field of charity, but also in terms of determining where social responsibility should reside. In addition, the Church needs to ensure that it is in a position to set the terms of its engagement in the exercise of a welfare role in alliance with the State. Among other things, this requires competence in the arena of international affairs which is where much of the new social policy is being formulated.

The continuing challenge for the churches in international affairs

In virtually every place around the globe today, individuals, groups, communities and nations encounter a world in deep turmoil. Increasingly there is agreement that although the situation manifests itself in social, economic and political terms, we are indeed confronting a severe moral and spiritual crisis. To be the church in these times is to face up to the continuing challenge of living and proclaiming a Gospel which is uncompromisingly prophetic, which speaks to immediate realities and locates them in their proper global and moral context.

It is in living out this proclamation that the churches can unite in resistance and witness, and bring renewed hope to the world. It will create local Christian communities capable of protecting the rights and responding to the needs of its most vulnerable members wherever they may be located. It will create space for dialogue and mutual learning. It will construct an effective response to the forces which seem to so dominate the globe at the present time.

The greatest danger that we face at the present time is to submit to despair, to the heresy that no alternatives exist. The concluding message of Oxford rings true for us today:

Our hope is anchored in the living God.... In (Christ’s) name we set our hands, as the servants of God and in him of one another, to the task of proclaiming God’s message of redemption, of living as His children, and of combating injustice, cruelty and hate. The Church can be of good cheer; it hears its Lord saying, “I have overcome the world.”

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