Combating Racism: A Chapter in Ecumenical History

By Sjollema, Baldwin | The Ecumenical Review, October 2004 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Combating Racism: A Chapter in Ecumenical History

Sjollema, Baldwin, The Ecumenical Review

It is about thirty-five years ago since the WCC's Programme to Combat Racism was launched (1969). More than any other WCC initiative, it went through stormy weather. Perhaps it is time to ask ourselves anew what we tried to do and whether it was worth all the trouble.

The ecumenical history of the race issue

It was no coincidence that the WCC, at the time of its formation, immediately recognized the race issue as one of the greatest threats to the unity both of humankind and the churches, and thus to the ecumenical movement itself.

As early as 1924, J.H. Oldham had already warned that relations between races that cannot be reconciled with the Christian ideal should not be explained but be ended. (1) The International Missionary Council conference in Jerusalem (1928) and the Oxford conference on Life and Work (1937) issued similar warnings. The first three WCC assemblies (Amsterdam 1948, Evanston 1954 and New Delhi 1961) made strong statements for their time, but these had little or no follow-up. True, the WCC, in process of formation after 1938, was actively involved in rescuing ,Jews from Nazi Germany during the second world war, but this operation--though significant by itself--remained an isolated act.

In retrospect, it seems extraordinary that in one and the same year, 1948, three major developments took place. First, the UN Human Rights Charter was signed (marked by the conspicuous absence of South Africa and the Soviet Union amongst the signatories). Second, in South Africa, in a traumatic experience for black people, the Nationalist Party, led by D.F. Malan (a sometime minister of the Dutch Reformed Church) came to power and instituted the policy of "apartheid". And third, 1948 was also the year of the formal creation of the WCC which became the major expression of the ecumenical movement in the 20th century.

In the 1960s, racism developed into a major issue, especially in relation to two countries.

First, in South Africa apartheid took more and more ugly and inhumane forms. The massacre of 69 unarmed African protesters by the police in Sharpeville in 1960 hardened black resistance. A state of emergency was proclaimed by the government and the African National Congress (ANC) as well as the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) were banned. This development also caused sharp conflict between the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) and the English-speaking churches. Branches of the DRC acknowledged shortcomings on the part of the church and government, but they continued to support "independent, distinctive development for non-whites". To this, the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town Joost de Blank reacted sharply, stating that black protest was directed not only at the government but also at the churches which supported its apartheid policies. He asked the WCC to expel the DRC from its membership.

It was in this tense climate in 1960 that the WCC convened the historic multi-racial Cottesloe consultation of its eight member churches in South Africa. Cottesloe became of crucial importance for the future of church-state relations in South Africa. While the consultation was designed to draw the member churches in South Africa out of isolation and to foster ecumenical fellowship, the WCC was also committed to witness to the strong convictions about racial justice expressed by the Evanston assembly (1954).

Reactions to the conclusions of Cottesloe were largely negative in South Africa, not only on the part of the white Reformed churches but also of the government, which urged the churches to leave the WCC. As a result the Hervormde Kerk and the much more powerful DCR quit the Council. This development created a serious crisis of conscience for C.F. Beyers Naude, a former moderator of the DRC of Transvaal and originally an important member of the secret Afrikaner Broederbond (to which all government ministers belonged). This crisis ultimately led to his conversion.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Combating Racism: A Chapter in Ecumenical History


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?