PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil-Delegates representing U.S. denominations at the Ninth Assembly of the World Council of Churches issued a letter February 18 begging God's forgiveness for their nation's policies relating to war, the environment, and poverty. "From a place seduced by the lure of empire we come to you in penitence," they said, "eager for grace, grace sufficient to transform spirits grown weary from the violence, degradation, and poverty our nation has sown, grace sufficient to transform spirits grown heavy with guilt, grace sufficient to transform the world."
The letter was read aloud to the full Assembly by Fr. Leonid Kishkovsky, chief ecumenical officer of the Orthodox Church in America and a former president of the U.S. National Council of Churches. Besides Kishkovsky, others who spoke at a press conference presenting the letter included John Thomas, President of the United Church of Christ; Sharon Watkins, General Minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); Michael Livingston, the current NCC president; and Stanley Noffsinger, General Secretary of the Church of the Brethren. The group asserted that their letter had consensus support among the heads of U.S. denominational delegations at the WCC Assembly. Other prominent U.S. denominations represented at the Assembly include the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, and various African-American Baptist and Methodist churches.
The letter started on a generous note, thanking sister churches worldwide for their "compassion in the days following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina." But it quickly turned grim. It regretted: "[O]ur country responded [after September 11] by seeking to reclaim a privileged and secure place in the world, raining down terror on the truly vulnerable among our global neighbors."
The U.S. church leaders were particularly rankled that the Bush administration had not taken their political counsel: "Our leaders turned a deaf ear to the voices of church leaders throughout our nation and the world, entering into imperial projects that seek to dominate and control for the sake of our own national interests." They painted the administration's motives in the worst possible light: "Nations have been demonized and God has been enlisted in national agendas that are nothing short of idolatrous. We lament with special anguish the war in Iraq, launched in deception and violating global norms of justice and human rights."
The letter was written in the form of a penitential rite, with paragraphs ending in "Lord, have mercy"; "Christ, have mercy"; and "Lord, have mercy." There was some awkwardness in the fact that the U.S. church leaders were mainly confessing the sins of George W. Bush, rather than their own sins. But they insisted on their own guilt, too, because "we have failed to raise a prophetic voice loud enough and persistent enough to deter our leaders."
In fact, U.S. church leaders have issued many statements loudly condemning the Bush administration for its policies. But they were not heeded because they lacked the support of their own most active church members. A majority of U.S. mainline Protestants who regularly attend worship voted for the president in the last election. It was not clear why the U.S. denominational officials believed that another, still shriller denunciation, in this latest letter, would make them any more effective in persuading the president or their own church members.
The letter also confessed environmental sins: "The rivers, oceans, lakes, rainforests, and wetlands that sustain us, even the air we breathe continue to be violated, and global warming goes unchecked while we allow God's creation to veer toward destruction. Yet our own country refuses to acknowledge its complicity and rejects multilateral agreements aimed at reversing disastrous trends."
The persistence of poverty evoked still more guilt. "In the face of the earth's poverty, our wealth condemns us," the U.S. church leaders said. They spoke of "the grim features of global economic injustice we have too often failed to acknowledge or confront." Their letter observed that "Hurricane Katrina revealed to the world those left behind in our own nation by the rupture of our social contract." It added, "As a nation we have refused to confront the racism that exists in our own community and the racism that infects our policies around the world."
The letter had not a single positive thing to say about America's role in the world. Its last paragraph projected a tone of pathos: "Sisters and brothers in the ecumenical community, we come to you in this Assembly grateful for hospitality we don't deserve, for companionship we haven't earned, for an embrace we don't merit." As in the WCC's February 14 opening litany of "Cries of the World," it appears that the main contribution of U.S. denominations to the ecumenical council (aside from dollars derived from faithful U.S. church members) is their own self-abasement.
The letter officially came from the U.S. Conference for the World Council of Churches. At the press conference introducing the letter, Michael Livingston explained: "You [WCC delegates from other countries] have challenged us to take responsibility for the role that the United States plays in contributing to and escalating the level of violence in the world." Livingston said, "It is unthinkable to us that we could come to this Assembly and not make some expression of confession."
"The United States is increasingly being seen as a dangerous nation," asserted the UCC's John Thomas. "To come to a World Council of Churches Assembly is to come to a place of accountability, and this letter is an act of accountability."
Accountability to their own church members seemed to be a more complicated question. Sharon Watkins of the Disciples admitted: "I do not speak for all Disciples congregations . . . . Though the majority of Americans now agree that the Iraq War was a mistake, many church members would not agree with the sentiments in this letter." She insisted, with voice breaking, that "this letter is not an attempt to undermine our American troops."
Leonid Kishkovsky seconded Watkins' point: "I can say that in my own church [the Orthodox Church in America] there is some disagreement [about these issues]. There is much internal anguish and division." Kishkovsky added, "It is entirely possible that, in returning to the U.S., I will be subjected to criticism within my own church." He indicated that he would defend himself by pointing to all the Orthodox prelates from other nations who share his critique of U.S. policies.
Asked whether there was a consensus among the U.S. church leaders about their letter, Noffsinger at first replied, "There would be some who would have wanted a stronger letter, sooner." But then he added: "There was enthusiasm all around the table . . . . There was consensus."
Pressed as to whether anyone in any of the U.S. church delegations had spoken up for the millions of U.S. church members who support the Bush administration policies, the panel members dodged. Thomas responded curtly that "we listen to all voices in our churches" and then assess what should be said.
One reporter asked whether the church leaders would be able to discuss their letter with President Bush. Kishkovsky answered, "Experience has shown that the White House is not welcoming."
As Kishkovsky read the letter to the plenary session of the Assembly, the delegates from other countries listened attentively. But their applause was tepid at best. Perhaps even they did not really enjoy this spectacle of self-mortification.
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