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God of Life Lead us to Justice and Peace

Friday Nov. 8, 2013

God of Life, Lead Us to Justice and Peace

This was the theme prayer of the WCC General Assembly. The GETI schedule offered little time to work on a blog – which at least requires some thought before one starts to type. After another full week, the following issues have become clear. As Rachel, Jorge, Darnell and I talked about the need to bring back to the PSR community and our churches what we learned here, these issues stand out as the ones the GETI students and faculty found most engaging and challenging.

The first is amazement at the courage the churches can have together. The Program to Combat Racism that played a key role in the ending of apartheid in South Africa is a case in point. The churches, especially in the U. S. paid a price for that however. U. S. media, CBS’ 60 Minutes, Readers Digest and other mainstream journals, radio and TV, interpreted WCC humanitarian aid to the Africans fighting for equality as collusion with Communists and financial support for these churches took a nosedive, fueling a financial decline from which they still suffer. The WCC provides a place where women in the church can speak up and challenge their ecclesiastical structures. The WCC has become a forum for discussing HIV/AIDS, issues of sexuality, the status of women, and the need to rethink old theologies that force LGBT people into the closet. PSR students would think most churches are way behind on these issues, but it was pretty amazing to hear what some folks said in the plenary meetings. It is also true that together the churches often pull back from strong stands – an institution like the WCC can become afraid of losing the support of its member churches too.

A big point of conversation at the Assembly was the issue of Palestine. Particularly at issue was the influence of the United States in that conflict. Supported by particular theologies, interpretations of the right of ancient Israel to reclaim the Promised Land the U. S. churches largely support Israel without question. It is clear to me after also listening to the indigenous people’s concerns that one reason the United States has a difficult time being critical of Israel’s grabbing of Palestinian land is that if we did we would have to rethink radically our relationship to Native American peoples. Our nation’s prosperity rests on two acts of theft – that of the land of the Native Americans and that of the African people from their own land to be brought to ours for labor. That is a lot to confess and Americans as a nation have not been able to do it yet. Meanwhile we are reminded that one thing religious leaders have to contribute is our voice from our pulpits. Preaching is the primary way that we can shape a public conscience in our nation. We should not waste opportunities to do so.

Ecological concern was everywhere. No paper cups were provided for the free tea and coffee. We were supplied with a hot/cold tumbler to reuse and keep for a souvenir. But I found it ironic that as we were talking about the need to end the use of nuclear power to generate electricity, to end the practice of fracking for gaining access to natural gas supplies primarily for generating electricity, the need to stop building solar and wind farms that took good land out of production to generate electricity and harmed the homelands of wildlife, we were also told that everything would have to be accessed via computer and internet. Every delegate daily plugged in at least two electronic devices and the WCC app that supplied access to the latest documents drained power from these devices at a rapid rate. This is not to mention the human cost of building these devices by people who are often not paid a living wage and even if they are find themselves expendable if demand for them goes down. As the African churches put it, God of Life, lead us to justice, dignity and peace. Greed remains a fundamental human sin –if not the original one in which we are all enmeshed from birth and thus in need of salvation.

The need of salvation leads to the topic of evangelism. One of the Evangelical students in my seminar group, a Palestinian Protestant PhD student who just completed a dissertation on the hermeneutics of the promised land said that American liberal Christians are too nice. We are so worried about not including someone that we no longer challenge the theologies that support the injustices in his country. He didn’t mean the interpretation of the Promised Land though that was another point he made. He meant that we do not challenge from all our pulpits the theologies that diminish all human beings complicity in the sin that keeps the world suffering from injustice and greed. We are so worried about the gender language for the Trinity that we forget the radical nature of the incarnation contained in Trinitarian theology as a powerful theology for confronting human separation from the humanity of others. Most American Christians cannot bring themselves to challenge the violence of their corporations and government. Evangelism in this sense will, of course, not necessarily lead to bigger congregations and more money – it will only lead to the spreading of the Gospel. Which one do we want?

Much of World Christianity was in Busan the last two weeks. Here the WCC met also with the Roman Catholic Church, the World Evangelical Alliance and the Global Christian Forum three large groups of churches not officially members of the WCC, but in close conversations with it. Not everyone agreed on many things, but all remain committed to dialogue toward mutual understanding and perhaps in the end a meeting at the table sharing the same bread and the same cup. For now, the WCC Assembly ends with the practice of foot washing not with Eucharist. God of life, lead us to justice and peace.

Tomorrow we come home. Ask us about our trip.

Arrived in Busan and the WCC Assembly Begins

October 31, 2013

We arrived in Busan on the 29th and upon arriving at the BEXCO convention center where the WCC General Assembly will take place we observed a large demonstration against the WCC conducted by some Korean church people. As far as we can tell from their literature, they are among those who see the WCC as a Communist organization, intent on creating a world church including people of every faith with no regard for the truth, and open to queer people. That last complaint is ironic since most of the gay and lesbian people we know who are present at the assembly do not feel that openness. The complaints are rooted in Korean history as well since the WCC supported the United Nations decisions about the armistice and some in Korea think this is a cause of the continuing state of tensions. At least one of the Korean students in the GETI class is afraid that she may lose her job because of her participation in the class; though her own denomination is a member of the WCC, the congregation she works for in her field education is from another denomination and is against the WCC. She is perhaps more courageously ecumenical than most of the students because she decided to put herself in a situation where her theology would be radically challenged and she would challenge that congregation’s theology in return.

The GETI group is beginning to encounter and grapple with the problems of ecumenical dialogue. There is tension between your own theological position and that of your denomination; which do you represent and when? There is tension between those in the ecumenical movement who most easily join together with other churches in common causes for social and economic justice, peace and environmental policy and those who see such causes as divisive until the churches have a solid theological base for recognizing each other as church. For the first group, focus on theological issues of faith and the shape of the church is energy wasted on things that will never be overcome. Furthermore, to be seen with those who do not fully support your cause identifies you as someone not fully committed. For the second, common understanding of the faith would strengthen the Christian principles behind the causes. Without such theological, confessional unity and the Eucharistic solidarity that would go with it, the churches are not able to fully trust one another. What often happens is that some have decided they do not want to be in any group that does not share their position on issues of justice and peace – that to try to work with people who do not completely agree dilutes the commitment to the cause. And those who engage in the theological conversations often do so with no serious intention of being changed by the engagement. Finally, the students and faculty grapple with the questions of interfaith dialogue. These issues are very different in different settings. For some such inter-religious dialogue is imperative for survival where Christians are a minority and have to constantly guard the public impression of them as a threat to the unity of society. For others, such dialogue is an act of hospitality to minority religious traditions in their context – a much more comfortable position. For yet others, such as those in Korea, Christianity and several other faith traditions are in direct competition with each other, all equally engaged in society, and for some Christians in these contexts (for instance the demonstrators outside the BEXCO auditorium) interfaith dialogue can be seen as a dangerous openness or dilution of the Christian faith.

At the WCC General Assembly – Days 1 to 3

Wednesday Oct. 23, 2013

PSR is one of seven US theological schools sending a small group of students and a faculty member to participate in the Global Ecumenical Theological Institute in Korea in conjunction with the World Council of Churches 10th Assembly in Busan. The Institute has students and faculty from all over the world. The PSR students are Jorge Bautista (UCC), Darnell Fennell (DOC) and Rachel Cosca (Episcopal Church). Randi Walker is the PSR faculty member. The course counts as a cultural immersion course for the PSR students, and there are three more students back at PSR taking the course following the GETI curriculum who were not in the group traveling to Korea. The course focuses on the history and theology of the ecumenical movement, especially the World Council of Churches, the history of Christianity in Korea, and the issues coming before the WCC General Assembly, namely how to broaden the participation of more churches of the world in ecumenical community, and the churches in relationship to war, poverty, and human rights. In addition to traditional classroom activities such as lectures and seminary groups, the students will participate in much of the WCC Assembly program offerings and special tours.

Our flight was long. By the time we got to Seoul it was the middle of the night our time. We were glad to see the welcome volunteers from GETI waiting for us as we emerged from customs. They had us registered, supplied with bus tickets, T Cards (These cards can be used on almost any form of transportation and in some convenience stores in lieu of cash), and basic information and on our way to our hotel for the first night. It was an hour and a half on the bus to the hotel, maybe more, and by that time we had been awake for 18-20 hours. We ate and went to sleep. Tomorrow we move to the Academy House Hotel for the course to begin.

Friday Oct. 24-Sunday Oct. 25

We have begun to get settled into the GETI course. On Friday night the entire class and all the faculty gathered for dinner and orientation. There are around 170 students and about 20 faculty from all over the world. The faculty members lead seminar groups of 7-10 students. We looked around at a group of young theology students from the churches of the world and listened to stories of their churches and their travels to get to Korea. We heard about a few who could not join us because of visa problems or illnesses. The lectures and readings are available to students in courses in many places who were not able to be part of the class here. You can find these materials on this website: where anyone can register to use the working group following the instructions on the website. You can also follow the progress of the GETI group on Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday was our first full day of worship, lectures and seminar groups. Sunday each seminar group visited a different church in Seoul where we attended worship and experienced lunch afterward with some people from the congregation. Randi’s seminar attended the Yoido Full Gospel Church, which claims to be the largest congregation in the world. They have seven services on Sunday mornings, each one hour. The group attended the 11AM service and had lunch afterward with some of the younger ministers followed by a short tour of the facilities. The service was in Korean but key information was provided in translation on a screen in the auditorium. There were headsets for simultaneous translation of the sermon and prayers into several languages. Music was provided by a large choir and orchestra in a classical style. The sermon was from the story of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel of God interpreted as a pattern of spiritual life. The hymn “Precious Lord Take my Hand” translated into Korean wove in and out of the worship as a response to prayers and as a response to parts of the sermon.

The real ecumenical conversation begins tomorrow with more lectures and two seminar sessions.