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National Council of Churches Discusses Political Stances

John Lomperis

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The most recent National Council of Churches (NCC) Governing Board meeting, February 14-15 in New York, ranged over territory from the Indian Ocean to the council’s own uncertain future.

Senior NCC officials criticized evangelical Christians for their approach to tsunami relief. Shanta Premawardhana and Rothang Chhangte of the NCC’s Interfaith Relations Commission shared their concern about some groups that, in contrast with the “the ecumenical community,” are using their tsunami relief work as an opportunity for evangelism. Prewardhana said that such evangelism had caused great tension in the predominantly Buddhist and Muslim countries of the region. He seemed to blame the heedless evangelists more than the Buddhist and Muslim extremists who were threatening violence against them and other Christians.

Premawardhana and Chhangte expressed their desire to “engage the evangelical community here in the United States” by instructing them on “how to do missions appropriately,” possibly through organizing an event at the evangelical Fuller Seminary in California. During last May’s NCC board meeting, no one expressed disagreement when Chhangte blasted “the evangelical, or the right-wing” for its “exclusivism” of believing that “Jesus is the only way.”

Premawardhana shared a couple “advocacy concerns” that he brought back from a recent trip to South Asia. He said American church activists should advocate for international debt relief in the region, as well as oppose any expansion of the U.S. military presence there in the wake of the goodwill created by tsunami relief efforts.

Tony Kireopoulos, the NCC’s Associate General Secretary for International Affairs and Peace, spoke about an upcoming council-sponsored trip to the region. NCC officials will visit Thailand for a meeting of the Christian Council of Asia, India to focus on the oppression of the “untouchables,” Indonesia to address tsunami relief and Christian-Muslim relations, Myanmar to focus on human rights concerns, and Sri Lanka for further assessment of the tsunami’s destruction.

Members of an NCC delegation that visited the Middle East, including Kireopoulos, shared their concerns regarding Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. The delegation commended Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent visit to the region. But Kireopoulos said they were distressed over Israel’s new security wall, which is driven by “valid security concerns,” but which is being built mostly on Palestinian land.

NCC President Thomas Hoyt, a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, recalled a Catholic priest saying that the “Israelis are the ones who are now the oppressors, at some points, and the Palestinians are the ones at the Wailing Wall.” He also reminisced on visiting the Holocaust Museum in Israel, asserting that now he saw “Israelis doing the same sort of ghetto-izing.” NCC officials pledged to push the Bush administration to move the peace process forward and to lobby Congress for a “more balanced Israel-Palestine policy.”

There was an unusual amount of interchange among NCC board members about the council’s stance on the Middle East. Several board members mentioned tensions with the U.S. Jewish community, especially since the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) decided to initiate “a process of phased selective divestment in multinational corporations doing business in Israel.” But Presbyterian board member Fahed Abu-Akel defended his denomination’s decision. Abu-Akel argued passionately that there was “no doubt in my mind” that it was critical for the NCC to take much stronger action than the council’s Middle East delegation had proposed, before the situation in Israel-Palestine becomes as dire as apartheid South Africa.

General Secretary Robert Edgar urged the board to give a quick endorsement to the delegation’s four-page “Barriers Do Not Bring Freedom” statement. The statement pledged to “redouble our efforts for an end of the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, and for an end of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.” While affirming “strong support for Israel and its right to live in peace and security,” and registering disapproval of “a long series of suicide bombings” that “Israel has suffered,” the NCC statement did not identify the authors or sponsors of those bombings. By contrast, the statement went into detail about “the many instances of harassment and humiliation visited daily upon Palestinian people” by Israel. “While every leader we met—Christian, Jewish, Muslim—condemned violence, it is clear the overriding problem is Israel’s continuing occupation of Palestinian territory.”

Several board members complained that they had not seen this statement previously and that they needed time to read and discuss it. The board ultimately agreed to “receive” the statement and send it on to the 36 NCC member denominations for each to consider.

There was much less debate, however, on other political matters. Without dissent, the board decided to encourage NCC denominations to lobby Congress against President Bush’s plan for reforming Social Security. Another resolution, which was passed unanimously without debate, endorsed the SMART (Sensible, Multilateral American Response to Terrorism) Security platform. That document was drafted by the left-wing Physicians for Social Responsibility as an alternative to Bush administration policies. It urges increased U.S. spending on foreign aid, unconditionally “[r]eject[s] unilateral preemptive war,” calls on the United States to abandon testing nuclear weapons, and endorses U.S. submission to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

In other political actions, the NCC’s Interfaith Relations Commission reported on a meeting with leaders of the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). The latter had “shared … statistics and concerns about civil rights in the Muslim community since the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act.” Claiming that “civil rights and due process for Muslims are eroding,” the NCC commission encouraged the board to support CAIR. After considerable debate about how much the NCC should do to “advocate for ‘due process’ and humane treatment” for Sami Al-Arian (a University of South Florida professor who was arrested on charges of raising money for Palestinian Islamic Jihad), the board agreed to highlight allegations of Al-Arian’s mistreatment, offer “prayerful support for all parties involved,” and look into organizing a meeting of religious leaders to address related issues.

Besides discussing political issues, the NCC board also examined its budgetary problems. Seven months into its fiscal year, the NCC faces a deficit of $761,269. Edgar told the board that “I’ve given my word that by the end of the year, we’ll have a balanced budget.” Part of the deficit was blamed on Church World Service, the NCC’s autonomous relief arm, which is halving the $400,000 grant to the NCC that it had originally promised, due to its own revenue problems.

Edgar also noted that ten of the NCC’s 36 member denominations had not given money in a long time and often do not send representatives to NCC functions. He said that such denominations “may have outlived” their relationship with the council, as they have “voted by their non-participation.”

In contrast, the NCC receives increasing funding from liberal secular foundations. For example, according to financial documents distributed to the NCC board, this year the council has received: $60,000 from the Sierra Club, $150,000 from the Ford Foundation, $100,000 from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, $40,000 from the Tides Foundation, $34,000 from the Dudley Foundation, and $25,000 from the Colombe Foundation. In recent years, only eight of the NCC’s 36 member denominations have given more than $25,000 annually, and only four have given more than $100,000.

NCC Development Director John Briscoe reported that the NCC is currently seeking funding from 56 different foundations, including that of controversial billionaire George Soros. While exit polls from the 2004 elections made clear the significance of conservative “socially engaged people of faith,” these foundations, according to Briscoe, would like “to return to the days when politically engaged faith” was more along the lines of the liberal protest marches of the 1960s.

Of the $3,573,121 of revenue received by the NCC from July 2004 through January 2005, only 25 percent ($905,438) had come from the NCC’s member denominations. Another 20 percent ($706,428) has come from outside “Foundations/Organizations.” The latter proportion may increase by the end of the fiscal year in June, as Edgar reported that the council would look to such foundations to make up for the decrease in Church World Service support.

Michael Burns, an NCC consultant, asked the board to consider how the NCC might change if it were entirely funded by its denominations rather than foundations. Financial support from denominations continues to shrink, Burns noted, as does the influence of those denominations upon the council. Burns said that some denominational leaders believe Edgar’s “[a]ccountability to the board and communions is unclear,” that the NCC’s political activism is “perceived as too liberal by [the] church constituency,” and the NCC has generally “poor relationship[s]” with state ecumenical councils.

The NCC board also discussed Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A. (CCT), a new ecumenical venture designed to reach beyond the council’s constituency to include Roman Catholics, evangelicals, and Pentecostals. CCT grew out of conversations within the NCC about “expanding the ecumenical table”; however, it is now developing a separate identity as it prepares for its formal launch this June. One measure of CCT’s distinctiveness is the suspicion with which it is now viewed by some in the council, as a potential ecumenical rival that may diverge from the NCC’s political focus and leftist leanings.

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America and a prime mover within CCT, noted how “unusual” it was that the United Statesheretofore had lacked a venue to bring together such a broad spectrum of Christians. He stated that CCT was needed to strengthen “our witness.” While the boundaries of CCT’s future “witness” are not clearly defined, NCC board members asserted that one major focus of the new group would be combating poverty. Within the NCC, “combating poverty” has been understood to mean such things as a recent press conference denouncing President Bush’s budget as “truly devastating for people living in poverty.”

Non-NCC members such as the Roman Catholic bishops and the Salvation Army have agreed to participate in CCT. But many more theologically conservative denominations have declined. CCT is also struggling to get NCC denominations to join. Earl McCloud, a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, reported that after “great consideration” his denomination decided not to join CCT. He saw no need “to add another layer to ecumenism” beyond the NCC. A representative of the United Methodist Church indicated that United Methodists might also be hesitant to join, because of the fact that the three African-American Methodist denominations would not be a part of CCT.

NCC President Hoyt said he is very “worried” about the “worldview” of churches who may join CCT but have not been supportive of the NCC. He asked, “How are we going to survive?” in a new ecumenical council with an influx of denominations that do not ordain women. Hoyt angrily noted that many of the same groups seeking “observer” status in the CCT had also taken the same approach to the NCC at its founding.

But Edgar seemed confident that CCT would include only the acceptable evangelicals. His way of putting this point was to state that the new venture would include “Romans Catholics and those evangelicals who read the Bible literally enough to know about God’s concern for the poor.” Apparently, the NCC general secretary believes that other evangelicals—such as the Southern Baptists and Assemblies of God—have no knowledge of God’s concern for the poor.

Read this article on the Institute of Religion and Democracy website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission.

Posted: 28-Apr-05

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