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Out Now: Why the Orthodox Churches Should Quit the NCC

John Couretas

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A new study of the human rights movement as practiced by mainline Protestants and two ecumenical groups - the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches - confirms what has been painfully apparent for a long time: The movement presents a skewed and highly selective picture of rights violations that, perversely, focuses overwhelmingly on countries that provide the greatest degree of freedom and prosperity for its citizens.

The Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative watchdog organization based in Washington, concluded that the Protestant denominations and ecumenical bodies it investigated "believe that the United States is often a malignant influence in the world." The IRD study showed conclusively that these organizations aimed their criticisms largely at two democratic countries -- the United States and Israel -- and often ignored the rights abuses, torture, ethnic cleansing and totalitarianism of repressive regimes in the Middle East, Central Asia and elsewhere.

Of particular interest to Orthodox believers in America is the IRD analysis of the National Council of Churches, an umbrella group that purports to speak for more than 100,000 Christian congregations. The NCC counts among its membership several Orthodox churches, including the Greek and Antiochian.

The IRD noted the NCC's "selective silence" during the Cold War about the plight of Christians under communist regimes, a silence that is all the more appalling in light of the suffering caused by these regimes in Orthodox lands. The NCC's shameful record was fully consonant with what the IRD called the mainline Protestant churches' "uncritical support for Marxist-Leninist movements in Central America, Southern Africa, and East Asia during the 1980s." Specifically, the mainline churches studied for the 2000-2003 period include the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church, and the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.

The NCC is led by Rev. Bob Edgar, an elder in the United Methodist Church and a former Democrat congressman. On his watch, the NCC has launched FaithfulAmerica.org, a self-described "online community of people of faith who want to build a more just and compassionate nation." Scrape away the vapid ecumenical rhetoric, and phony claims of nonpartisanship, and you get a FaithfulAmerica.org that is transparently a political organization whose chief aim is to defeat President George Bush in the upcoming election. To the extent that Orthodox churches are supporting FaithfulAmerica.org, they are implicitly endorsing this election-year vehicle for left-wing religious operatives who profess to be "deeply concerned about the direction this country is heading."

Fidel and Friends

Rev. Edgar and NCC executives make much of their Orthodox constituency. They have to, for obvious reasons. The two largest Christian denominations in the United States, the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, have shunned the NCC. The participation of the Orthodox - who barely register a presence on some American censuses of Christian groups -- gives the left-liberal ecumenists at the NCC a patina of moral legitimacy, a sprinkling of First Millennium salt to flavor their morally equivocal agit-prop.

And it works both ways. The NCC's influence on the Greek Orthodox was much in evidence in January when Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew visited Havana to accept a gift church from Cuban despot Fidel Castro. Rev. Edgar and a retinue of NCC activists were everywhere present during this lamentable episode. The State Department, in its International Religious Freedom Report 2004, said that the patriarchal visit to Havana was cited by government-controlled media "as 'proof' that Amnesty International's criticism of religious restrictions was a 'lie'."

The NCC is, if nothing else, consistent. It worked feverishly to send refugee Elian Gonzalez back to Cuba in late 1999 and 2000, arguing that this would be an exercise of "family values." The NCC seemed unaware that the 6-year-old boy, found floating on an inner tube off Ft. Lauderdale, had lost his mother and stepfather in the attempt to flee Castro's Cuba by boat.

Writing about the Gonzalez case, Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley of the Pacific Research Institute recounted the NCC's long record of silence and complicity in its relations with the Castro regime. In Elian Gonzalez, the NCC saw not a refugee, but a chance to affirm its solidarity with a repressive dictator. "The Council's stand can only be described as loathsome, the direct opposite of the most Christ-like figure in this episode, Elian's mother," Billlingsley said. "She died that her son might be free."

The Elian Gonzalez case is a prime example of the human rights movement's focus on politics and ambiguous universal concepts, at the expense of the personal. In his book "Facing the World," Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana and all Albania warned that the negotiations necessary for consensus on human rights declarations often resulted in "anthropologically vague" statements. "At the very moment when compromises are reached for the purpose of achieving consensus, something of the universal and ultimate truth about the human mystery is lost," Anastasios wrote.

NCC on Al-Jazeera

The Rev. Edgar has been one of the most vocal critics of the Bush administration's anti-terrorism policy and war in Iraq. There are probably no more important issues today for Americans. The Orthodox, given their long history in diverse religious cultures and historic antagonisms with Muslim nations, have much to contribute on this score. Yet none of this centuries-old experience seems to have colored the NCC's anti-war activism. There is no debate, certainly none that has engaged the Orthodox outside of church bureaucracies. Under FaithfulAmerica.org, the NCC has even purchased $150,000 of airtime on the Arab language Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya networks to air commercials that apologize to the Iraqi people for the abuses committed by U.S. military guards at Abu Ghraib prison. Rev. Edgar told blogger Chuck Currie that the abuses were "sinful and systemic" and he pledged to "right these wrongs."

Again, as the IRD report shows, the NCC's moral outrage is highly selective and so out of proportion to the seriousness of the crime as to beggar comprehension. Perhaps Rev. Edgar might consider buying time on Al-Jazeera to publicize the remarks by Iraqi Prime Minister Allawi to the United Nations. The Iraqi leader revealed that the Saddam Hussein regime had murdered hundreds of thousands of its own citizens, arrested and tortured thousands more, and drove millions - including so many Arab Christians - out of the country. So far, Allawi said, 262 mass graves have been uncovered in Iraq since the United States and its allies overthrew Saddam.

Edgar's NCC is now preparing a "faith-based curriculum on multilateralism that can be used by congregations and other groups." This will be marketed widely, presumably also to unwitting Orthodox congregations. Do Orthodox believers, rightful heirs of the saintly social teaching of a John Chrysostom or Basil the Great, need this kind of help? Will the NCC's politicized "curriculum" incorporate the balanced Patristic wisdom on social issues that not only held political leaders to account, but pressed for an Orthodox morality in the personal sphere? Don't bet on it.

We can expect more NCC projects like the inane "Christian Principles in an Election Year," a guide for voters. The No. 1 issue for voters, according to NCC ecumenists, is summed up by the statement "War is contrary to the will of God." The remainder of the guide exhorts voters to pay attention to health care policy, immigration, school funding, racial justice and "the earth's goodness." But nowhere will the voter find guidance on abortion, stem cell research or cloning. These items, apparently, are outside the moral purview of the NCC. And what about the NCC's position on the sanctity of marriage? Is it consistent with the position taken against same-sex unions formulated in August 2003 by the Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops the Americas? SCOBA referred to this issue as a "moral crisis in our nation." But from the NCC voters guide we get only silence.

Can you imagine a Roman Catholic bishop dialing up Rev. Edgar to get his views on the Iraq War? "Say, Bob, I've been reading Augustine again and it's just got me tied up in knots. Can you help?" Or a Southern Baptist preacher making use of NCC study aids to write a sermon on the environment? That would be unthinkable. Apparently, these churches outside the NCC have ample resources of their own to draw on.

It might be argued, as Orthodox supporters of ecumenical activities customarily do, that we provide engagement, or witness, to the wider Christian community that would be lacking if we simply stayed out. Fair enough. So where is our influence? Is there a single element of NCC policy or activism that has can be identified with Orthodox theology, ecclesiology or culture? Of course not. What we get from the NCC is a watered down Social Gospel, fitted for the Internet and evening news, and packaged in vague and unobjectionable statements of concern, lightly leavened with snippets of Scripture.

Orthodox Roots

Some 40 years ago, theologian Savvas Agourides observed that modern society needs the social witness of the Orthodox, in all its fullness. "What we have to watch is this: the message must be the message of Orthodoxy and not of Christianity in general," he said. "The prophetic message of Orthodoxy must come from our own roots, for our people today."

That will not come from Orthodox participation in the NCC. In fact, our "prophetic message," to the extent that it has been articulated in America, has been stunted and muted by our association with the NCC. What is to be done then? Organize a truly Orthodox social witness in America through SCOBA or some other pan-Orthodox organization. That is the only truly "ecumenical" body the Orthodox need in this country. Equip this new institution with all the usual communications apparatus, for political lobbying, media outreach, and parish relations. Involve not only the hierarchs and parish clergy, and the academic specialists, but business people and doctors and lawyers and engineers -- laity who have direct experience of life outside the Church. And put real resources into the effort with a long-term commitment.

Father Alexander Schmemann, writing about the problems of Orthodoxy in America, observed that "it belongs to the very essence of Orthodoxy not only to 'accept' a culture, but to permeate and to transform it, or, in other terms, to consider it an integral part and object of the Orthodox vision of life. Deprived of this living interrelation of culture, of this claim to the whole of life, Orthodoxy, in spite of all formal rectitude of dogma and liturgy, betrays and loses something absolutely essential."

How will the Orthodox church transform American society through what Fr. Schmemann calls the "catholicity of her faith and life"? Certainly not by abdicating this immense responsibility to the desacralized and politicized Christianity of the NCC and its morally confused leadership.

It's time to go. Get out now.

John Couretas, a veteran journalist, is a member of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Posted 10/1/04

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