Theology and Political Issues Mix World Council of Churches 7th Assembly Takes Stands on Public Topics, Including Gulf War

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BRIDGING political issues with theology is a tricky business. "We have to pay careful attention to what is the reaction of governments in the area to Christians in their own country when we say something worldwide," says Janice Love, co-moderator of the Public Issues Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC), which has just concluded a two-week meeting here for its seventh assembly.

For example, when the WCC complimented the United Nations on its actions to halt the invasion of South Korea by North Korea, Chinese Christians experienced some backlash. Today, Ms. Love says, all political statements of global significance are negotiated with the local member churches. "That doesn't mean they have veto power over what we do, but it would be stupid for us to complicate the situation further or make their lives more miserable by something that we did from an uninformed perspective," she says.

This WCC policy also has its drawbacks. After consulting with the church leaders in Romania, the WCC refrained from criticizing the Romanian authorities' use of military force against dissenters. Rev. Laszlo Tokes of the Hungarian Reform Church criticized the WCC for being too timid. "We admit we have made mistakes, but if you ask anyone who analyzes it, the need to protect lives is just as important as being prophetic," Love says.

To a lesser extent, the WCC has treaded a fine line in addressing the Persian Gulf war. The WCC statement, which called for an unconditional cease-fire, also condemned Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait. Not all members agreed with the statement, which says, "War promises no lasting solution for the festering wounds of the Middle East...." The Church of England, for example, called the war "justifiable." Aware that the issue is potentially divisive, the Public Issues Committee wrote a seven-page explanation of how it reached its conclusions. Love says that any member who does not go along with the statement can go on the record as a dissenter. More issues addressed

The public-issues themes were decided this past January by the WCC's four committee members, elected representatives of different regions and countries. Once the meeting began here, however, the WCC opened up the process to the delegates. It received 30 requests on 18 different subjects. As a result of the canvassing, the WCC made additional statements on the violence in El Salvador and Sri Lanka as well as one on the environment.

Criticism is not new to the World Council of Churches. Since its founding in 1948, the WCC has taken up many controversial subjects. In its first meeting, then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles debated Czech theologian Joseph Hromadka on the church and the cold war.

In the 1950s, it spoke out against racial segregation, in 1969 it recognized the rights of the Palestinian people, and in 1975 it condemned human-rights violations in Latin America. At its meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1983, the WCC addressed the issues of disarmament, apartheid, and the rights of Canada's native groups. …