Combating Racism: A Chapter in Ecumenical History

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

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.

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