Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Note on the Contemporary Role of the Church in International Affairs

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Note on the Contemporary Role of the Church in International Affairs

Article excerpt

Commended by the WCC central committee in September 1996 to the member churches for further study and reflection in preparation for the WCCs eighth assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe.

At this meeting of the central committee [September 1996] attention will be focused on preparations for the eighth assembly, the Common Understanding and Vision of the World Council of Churches, ecclesiology and ethics, and reconsideration of ecumenical priorities in a time of severe financial constraints. This is an appropriate context in which to review the Council's engagement in international affairs and public issues since the Canberra assembly.

In each period of the life of the Council, succeeding central committees have had to respond to urgent crises, to analyze trends in world affairs and to promote a common witness among the churches for peace and justice. Each has identified areas where deeper study was required on the causes of the inequalities and injustice which lead to conflict and war. Ecumenical programmes have been elaborated and initiatives taken to inform the churches and enable them to act together, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to address the structural causes of oppression, division and violations of the life and dignity of God's people and the integrity of God's creation.

But few, if any, of the central committees since 1948 have devoted so much time and energy to public issues as have those chosen to guide the Council since the sixth assembly in Vancouver. No other central committee prior to this one has had to struggle with such rapid, radical and fundamental change in international relations, or with such complex realities. Now, as the churches prepare for Harare and the daunting task they will have there to equip the ecumenical movement for mission, witness and service on the threshold of the new millennium, it is important for the central committee to take stock of what it has learned in this time of transition from one stage of history to another.

These reflections seek to provide a framework for that assessment, and to pose some of the questions arising from our work together since Canberra and which require the attention of the ecumenical movement.

Coping with the new world order"

The period of preparation for the seventh assembly was one of uncertainty, but of considerable hope for the future. The precipitate collapse of communism which began in 1989 opened up remarkable new opportunities in international affairs. In rapid succession, a series of national and regional conflicts were quickly resolved as the former cold-war enemy powers found new ways to cooperate. The United Nations, long blocked from the use of the strongest peace-making powers available in the Charter, put in place new mechanisms for conflict management and to keep and build peace.

But on the eve of Canberra, the use of these powers was usurped by a group of nations led by the sole remaining superpower in a way which put the integrity of the world body to a rude test. The issues raised have had serious repercussions in the ecumenical movement.

Christian attitudes on violence and war

Operation Desert Storm raised the question: Who may use instruments of war to deal with conflicts, in what circumstances, and under what authority?

The Gulf war provoked great international controversy, and gave rise to one of the most important, difficult and contentious debates in an assembly since the one in Amsterdam over how the ecumenical movement ought to relate to communism and the socialist states, stimulated by the heated exchange between Czech theologian Josef Hromadka and US statesman John Foster Dulles. The Canberra debate reopened the old, seemingly unbreachable gap between those who believe that Christians must reject absolutely the use of violence as a means to resolve conflict, and those who believe that, under strict conditions and as a last resort, the use of violence may be unavoidable and necessary. …

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