World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

WCC United Nations Advocacy week

Opening address by Rev. Dr Michael Kinnamon

17 November 2008

Opening address


We gather at a rather astonishing moment in world history! As the global economic system undergoes major upheaval, can we advocate effectively for a system that pays greater attention to the world's most vulnerable citizens? As political life in the United States undergoes major transition, can we advocate effectively for a U.S. foreign policy that favors diplomacy over force, for a foreign policy that seeks "security" not through unilateral defense but through attentiveness to the injustice that afflicts other children of God? You may recall the wonderful line in Ezekiel where the prophet says that Pharaoh has grown so arrogant that he thinks he invented the Nile - for his own use! Can we lift up our voice on behalf of a U.S. policy which recognizes its more modest place within the community of nations and which affirms that all we have is gift to be used for the common good?

One of the tasks of advocacy, as you all know, is to discern the opportunities inherent in a particular place and time. Things have changed so rapidly in the past two months that, if the agenda for this week had been determined in October, it might have been somewhat different. And yet, our four themes still provide a fine framework for discussing the possibilities of this moment.

As far as advocacy in the U.S. is concerned, we are now facing the prospect - as my colleague at the NCC, Cassandra Carmichael, puts it - of being able to play offense, not just defense. We welcome this change, but it also comes with a real danger: that the churches of the National Council become so caught up in the allure of political influence that we lose our distinctive and more prophetic voice. This, too, is part of our discernment in this moment, and I ask for the prayers of international colleagues as we wrestle with the implications of our changed situation.

Finally, by way of introduction, I want to express my appreciation for the honor of this invitation; but I stand here acutely aware that many (most) of you have more experience than I when it comes to global advocacy. My only possible contribution is to speak from my position as a theologian who now has responsibility for a national council of churches - a council, I should add, that has had real difficulty in recent years getting its act together when it comes to advocacy! So think of this as a case study on one country, with a hope that it also speaks to your varied contexts.

I am going to begin not by defining advocacy (which has been done at some length in various studies) but by clarifying my understanding of what it means to be ecumenical and what it means to be a council of churches. This will tell you a good deal about my particular perspective and also identify two tensions important for our discussion of global advocacy: the tension between unity and justice and the tension between working through the churches and being ahead of the churches. Following that, I will turn to four other tensions that, as I see it, are central to our advocacy work as the National Council of Churches in the USA.

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What so captivated me when I went to work for the World Council of Churches in 1980 was that, in order to do justice to the Council, you had to say "Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry" and Program to Combat Racism in the same breath. Racism, we were arguing, is a denial of the very nature of the church, while the eucharist is the very foundation of the church's calling to racial justice. I remember Philip Potter speaking about the human problem as both oppression and fragmentation - which is why, in the words of the Nairobi Assembly, we proclaim a savior who "frees and unites." Break the tension between these and, in my judgment, you have lost the vision that impels this movement. Christians acting and advocating for justice, without major concern for how this deepens and expands the life of Christian community, are not "ecumenical" in any full sense of the word. Just as Christians pursuing sacramental fellowship, without major concern for how this deepens and expands their engagement with the world (their advocacy), are not "ecumenical" in any full sense of the word.

Of course, it has always been difficult to hold these together (that's what makes the vision profound); but today, at least in the U.S, we witness an increasing split between two quite different ways of being "ecumenical," two quite different sets of ecumenical priorities - to the point that it is difficult to speak of one movement. In March, hundreds of Christians gather in Washington for Ecumenical Advocacy Days (which the NCC co-sponsors) in order to promote interdenominational collaboration on behalf of peace and justice. In April or May, hundreds of Christians gather somewhere in the U.S. for the National Workshop on Christian Unity (which the NCC helps plan) in order to promote unity through theological dialogue. But my own unscientific survey tells me that very few who participate in one participate in, or even know about, the other.

Three years ago, in The Christian Century, the well-known Lutheran theologian, George Lindbeck, attacked what he called the "MK approach" to ecumenism. Michael Kinnamon, he wrote, tries to make Faith and Order and Life and Work (unity and justice) inseparable, co-equal ends to the ecumenical movement - but it is a futile and misguided effort. Faith and Order must take precedence over Life and Work in the same way that faith takes precedence over works in Reformation teaching. Otherwise, theology will always end up subordinated to politics and the ecumenical movement will become "simply another arena for pursuing political agendas."

Of course, the jury is still out on whether it is possible to make bold public witness on pressing social, economic issues while also taking full account of the diversity of voices that now make up the theological life of the church, nationally as well as globally. Perhaps, Dr. Lindbeck is correct. But I sure hope not, and I hope we will talk about it - about what it means to be ecumenical - during this week.

All of this leads to the second question: What does it mean to be a council of churches? The very helpful "Review of Global Advocacy" - undertaken by the WCC, the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, ACT International, and ACT Development - reads as if the World Council were an entity alongside the churches. The WCC, it says, "…coordinates its member churches around the world to raise their voices," and accompanies its members in times of trouble.

I believe this is a mistaken formulation. As the "Common Understanding and Vision" statement makes clear, the essence of the WCC is the relationship of the churches with one another. There are countless organizations that provide services, even do advocacy, on behalf of the churches; but these should not be confused with a council, a fellowship, of the churches themselves. There is no council over here and churches over there. The language we use is that the NCC is a "community of Christian communions" which covenant with one another to manifest the unity that is ours in Christ and, with God's help, to engage in common mission - which includes political advocacy.

All of this ups the ante, makes it harder to leave the table, since the churches are accountable not to an organization but to one another. It also, however, makes the tension between unity and justice all the more acute. I try to maintain this tension by insisting that the NCC is both a forum where conflicting perspectives meet in dialogue and a renewal effort that boldly declares the gospel's partisanship on behalf of the excluded and oppressed. Willem Visser't Hooft, the WCC's first General Secretary, has given me language for this (although Jose Miguez Bonino also made the case in his discussion, in the late 1980s, of the WCC's theological coherence). The fellowship between member churches, with all its tensions, wrote Visser't Hooft in one of his last books, is the raison d'etre of the Council. "But it is a fellowship based on common convictions and called to common witness. An important element in the very substance of our fellowship is what we have hammered out together in our assemblies" - including commitment to combat racism, a preferential option for the poor, a conviction that war is contrary to the will of God, and a commitment to protect God's precious creation.

Such commitments and convictions are not a prerequisite for ecumenical participation; rather, they are part of the fabric of public witness now woven through our life together as a result of our common submission to the gospel. They are sinews in this body. My task as General Secretary is to help the churches build up their relationships and to hold them accountable to the commitments they have made to one another through participation in this community of communions.

This is tricky! Councils of churches are both instruments of the churches and of the ecumenical movement. It is not my job to press an advocacy agenda on the members; but is precisely my job to push them when they cling to marks of division or bear only tepid witness to affirmations they have made together with regard to justice and peace. To put it another way, the fellowship experienced in conciliar ecumenism is not only rooted in what the churches are but in what they are called to become. Only with this in mind can we sustain the paradox of both working through the churches and being ahead of the churches.

I hope that this has been an at-least-somewhat-useful way to begin. I suspect that it is almost always easier to do advocacy through a coalition approach, which seeks common cause with like-minded partners, than through a conciliar approach, which seeks consensus within a community of divergent perspectives - especially in an era that exalts diversity. I am convinced, however, that a community of Jew and Greek, Orthodox and Protestant, liberal and conservative, is our most profound witness to the reconciling, liberating love of God. Or, to say it another way, our most effective advocacy stems not just from what we say or do, but from what we are - our unity with one another. And all of this raises very interesting questions for me as I try to assess what constitutes "successful" advocacy - another matter we may want to discuss.

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There are at least four other tensions with which I wrestle. I will name the first two quickly since I am sure they are familiar to you.

First is the need for focused advocacy attention on particular priorities and the need for advocacy that integrates multiple themes. At last week's General Assembly of the NCC, we emphasized the importance of focused attention on racial justice (lest anyone think that the problem is now behind us thanks to the election of Barack Obama). This would be an important new development. In recent years, racial justice has been part of our broader agenda - as, for example, in the work of our Special Commission on the Just Rebuilding of the Gulf Coast, which brings together concern for poverty, racism, and environmental destruction in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. Such an integrated approach, I think we said last week, is vital but not sufficient.

Since becoming General Secretary, I have come to appreciate, on the one hand, the need to be very specific in advocacy efforts (e.g., in my proposals to the Israeli ambassador and Ministry of the Interior about changing Israeli law regarding residency permits in Jerusalem and the West Bank); and, on the other hand, the need to name gospel values that potentially refocus public discussion (about which I will say more in a moment). It seems to me, however, that our advocacy work at the NCC often falls somewhere in between: not specific enough to get as much done as we would like, and not radical enough to lift up the counter-cultural voice of scripture.

I have also discovered the importance of responding to the particular priorities of various member communions. My speaking out last month on behalf of Indian Christians who are suffering persecution undoubtedly strengthened the involvement of the Mar Thoma and Malankara Orthodox churches in the NCC. But I have also forcefully insisted that conciliar life means being concerned with the priority issues of others. Their agenda is now yours - difficult as that can sometimes be.

And hidden in all of this is another real dilemma: The NCC, in my judgment, has often dissipated its energy and resources on an almost-endless list of causes. How are we as a community of communions to take seriously what the members - all of them - take seriously and at the same time stay focused on the overriding issues of the day? They don't teach you much of this in General Secretary school!

So that is the first tension: focus and integration. The second has to do with the need to respond with appropriate urgency to crises of the moment and the equally urgent need for long-term formation so that our advocacy grows from our very identity as Christian communities. In the U.S., our churches seem to discover issues with an evangelical zeal, but often retain only short-term interest because they are missing long-term formation.

A person who powerfully makes this case in the U.S. is Audrey Chapman, former executive of the United Church Board for World Ministries, in her book, Faith, Power and Politics. "In the absence of shared understandings about identity and vocation," she writes, "… political ministry tends to be unfocused and diffuse, lacking explicit theological grounding and sustained membership support and involvement. Political witness tends to become a specialized mission activity undertaken primarily by national agencies … on behalf of the denominations, rather than an expression of the community's faith journey." And this leads to a familiar form of hypocrisy whereby what we preach to the world (what we advocate) is not exemplified in our own structures and lifestyles - thereby undercutting the impact of our advocacy. Things like climate change will not wait for long-term education, but surely such education must accompany our efforts and immediate response.

Perhaps this is a good place to name other factors that have, as I see it, diminished the public witness of many of our churches in this country. I will use my own denomination, the Disciples of Christ, as an example.

  • Faced with declining numbers and resources, leaders within the Disciples fear that controversy will further weaken the church. In response, we have, since the mid-1990s, eliminated virtually all national staff positions responsible for social justice ministries and are on the verge of eliminating General Assembly resolutions dealing with contemporary issues.

  • Within the Disciples, as in other mainline churches, there is an evident gap between the commitment of at least some leaders and many local church members. As a result, our assemblies will sometimes offer prophetic witness only to discover that the initiatives lack the broad support needed for church-wide action. That is one reason people have argued for the elimination of resolutions: they too often have been "feel good" pronouncements that involve little serious cost or effort.

  • Polarization within the church on issues of social concern, and inability to deal constructively with conflict, mean that advocacy is increasingly confined to special interest groups that can be ignored by the rest of the body.

  • And, to return to my basic point, the Disciples have shown little capacity for integrating social witness with worship, pastoral care, stewardship, or the other things the church does and is. In the words of Lew Mudge, "…there seems little connection in the minds of church members between the moral convictions to which they bear witness and the nature of the ecclesial community in which these convictions are nurtured" - which means that peace and justice can be relegated to one corner of the church.

The third tension I have in mind, and the one I have paid most attention to since becoming General Secretary, is nicely set forth in a much-neglected book from 2006, Beyond Idealism: A Way Ahead for Ecumenical Social Ethics. In it, the authors - who include such familiar ecumenical scholars as Julio de Santa Ana, Heidi Handsel, and Lew Mudge - argue for a perspective they call "hopeful realism" - realistic assessment of our social situation coupled with a willingness to imagine alternate realities. On the one hand, they argue, ecumenical councils have often responded to war or discrimination or environmental destruction with idealized slogans and utopian pronouncements. On the other hand, the NCC in particular has often been reactive to the world's agenda, promoting reforms that, while important, leave the underlying status quo basically untouched. Please do not misunderstand: I have no intention to stop pushing for raises in the minimum wage or calling for more recycling or prompting a reduction in U.S. military spending. But these are ways of tweaking the system that stop short of a truly prophetic witness which engenders hope for a different way of living in human society.

Another person who argues this case is the opening plenary speaker at last week's NCC/CWS General Assembly, Gary Dorrien - who, despite holding the Reinhold Niebuhr chair at Union Theological Seminary, attacks Niebuhr's "historical realism" in several of his books. Without a social vision of a Good Society that transcends the prevailing order, he contends, Christian ethics will remain captive to that order and social Christianity will restrict itself to marginal reforms. I also like the way Chapman puts it. "Our churches," she writes, "seem limited to recommending incremental policy changes that differ little from secular political actors." What is often missing, in her words, "is a compelling religious vision, a sense of the ‘now' and the ‘not yet' of God's [Reign] that challenges and opposes the injustices of the dominant reality by invoking God's peace and justice."

You see this tension: hopeful realism. We cannot eradicate evil. The conceit of such utopianism has itself been the fuel of countless tyrannies. But we also must not allow those responsible for present systems of injustice to define what is possible, because we are followers of One whose promise is not just for another world but for this world made other. This hopeful realism perspective, by the way, is written into the NCC's Strategic Plan for this quadrennium which endorses our current lobbying efforts but also sets forth an overarching goal of "promoting a vision of authentic common life as an alternative to that prevalent in contemporary North American culture." I have been disturbed to hear members of the NCC Governing Board dismiss this as unimportant, tacked on to the real plan.

The final tension I want to mention is the familiar dialectic of God's initiative and our human response. Much discussion about advocacy emphasizes what we accomplish. For example, the Covenant for Action of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance speaks of advocacy as church-related witness "in order to bring about a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world." Yes, human effort is essential; but in Christian perspective such effort is understood as response to what God has done, is doing, and will do - as participation in God's mission. Getting this theological point straight, in my experience, has very practical benefits: It is a check against ecclesial self-righteousness. It is a spur to working with others. It is the foundation for deep hopefulness. And it is a reminder to ground all that we do in Bible study and prayer.

As I see it, one of the things that has undermined the National Council's social witness in recent years is inadequate theological and biblical foundation, which is usually a sign that we are pushing an ideological agenda rather than opening ourselves to genuine wrestling with our faith heritage. I still remember an NCC statement opposing some military action of Ronald Regan which included only one biblical verse - "What then are we to say about these things?" - a snippet extracted from Paul's magnificent meditation in Romans 8 on God's love in Jesus Christ and used as mere window dressing for the statement. One of my goals for the coming year is to inaugurate serious theological and social study of several major issues in preparation for the ecumenical movement's centennial celebrations in 2010. I believe such study, while taking energy and resources in the short term, will greatly enhance our advocacy down the road.

There are many other things - tensions - that we probably ought to name, but perhaps these brief reflections will help stimulate conversation this week. I will end by returning to the tension between unity and justice.

Surely, there are times when Christians must take sides against sisters and brothers in the church. But what I have tried to argue in various writings is that, even in such moments, we must recognize that the "them" we oppose are, in some fundamental way, "us." The ecumenical church cannot fear the controversy or confrontation that comes with a bold witness for justice, because that would be paralyzing; but it must hate division, because the story by which we live tells us that we have been linked in communion with persons we otherwise might shun. And nothing else can testify so powerfully that our trust is in God, not in the things or even the communities of our devising.

Michael Kinnamon
General secretary
National Council of Churches in the USA