Is the Future Ecumenical or Parochial?

In the aftermath of World War II, ecumenically-involved Christian churches urgently mobilized to prevent World War III. Churches that believed they were following the commandment of Christ to love one another and to discern their God-given unity organized missions, social action, and dialogue as aspects of the modern ecumenical movement from about 1908 through World War II.

Then, surfing the same wave from which the United Nations emerged to replace the failed League of Nations, the founding leaders and churches of the World Council of Churches professed their conviction that the world needed an outward and visible expression of the unity of the church to counter the forces that otherwise might rip humanity, and even the planet, apart.

Christianity, they firmly believed, while expressed differently ethnic enclaves and nations, was a trans-ethnic, transnational movement. Its adherents were to be loyal first to the Reign of God and secondly to the country/nation/state in which they lived. The priority for the two realms—God’s reign and human nation-states—must never be confused. Nazi Germany was their bleedingly-fresh example of what goes wrong when the two are commingled and the state commands supreme loyalty.

In the post-World War II era, with the world locked into the politics driven by the USA and their allies versus the USSR and their allies, with fear of nuclear annihilation, Christians were influential and diligent in working for a lasting peace.

From the first, the peace and unity in Christ movements were opposed. Some Christians condemned the United Nations and the World Council. The latter was deemed a communist organization because it included a Central Committee, and only communists had central committees. The WCC was a modern Tower of Babel, a human attempt to dethrone God through organization and centralization.

Ecumenism per se was dismissed as “latitudinarianism”—another way of saying open to all manner of heresy and pollution, in terms of doctrine, practices, and—yes—peoples. (To be fair, these criticisms came from several angles and communions, from fundamentalist and evangelicals and including elements of the Reformed tradition, Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. Purity codes and ecumenism do not mix.)

The subsequent heirs of those ecumenical, world-organization opponents are the ones behind the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, the Eagle Forum, and their descendants and cousins (including, it could be argued, the Tea Party and white Christian nationalism). Their efforts—which may include events such as Catholics, Orthodox Jews, fundamentalist Baptists, and Pentecostals holding hands in protest outside an abortion clinic—are sometimes called “the new ecumenism.”

But cooperation for a common purpose, while essential and (when the cause is good and right) admirable, is not ecumenism.

Ecumenism begins in the theological conviction that God loves the oikumene, the whole world. God’s beloved world includes God’s beloved human beings who demonstrate they understand who they are by how they love God, each other, themselves, and God’s creation. Human beings have been immensely creative in conjuring ways to divide ourselves from each other, not just to distinguish but to set up hierarchies of better over worse: male over female, wealthy over poor, strong over weak, white over brown, Christian over all others. In an ecumenical perspective, these divisions in church or in a church-supported culture, are sin.

Ecumenical Christianity does not seek to eliminate distinctions between genders, those of differing abilities, and cultures. But, when thinking and acting rightly, ecumenical Christianity asks how those differences can serve the whole, for godly purposes.

Unity is not uniformity, for outward uniformity requires autocracy. Diversity does not necessarily mean division, difference is not occasion for disgust, for dividing what God does not divide. Condemning those who are considered impure is the kind of religion Jesus rejected. From looking at the overflowing cornucopia of diversities among human beings and in the created order, from the darkest depths of the oceans to the most brilliant star-lit sky, delight in diversity is evident everywhere.

But while the world could use a robust infusion of an ecumenical spirit, another spirit dominates the day. In the post-World War II years, ecumenical Christianity ascended in importance and influence. The social upheavals and resultant anxieties from the 1960s and 70s flipped which kind of religion would ascend. Magnetic attraction moved from ecumenical to parochial. And in today’s world where, as one commentator said, the world is at war with our own diversity, religion that consumes and feeds the energy of hate, division, fear, and superiority has grown very powerful and seems here to stay.

And what of the churches preaching that love is stronger than hate and fear, that love covers a multitude of sins, that God is pure unbounded love, that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, that all human beings are children of God, that the planet is part of God’s beloved creation, that we are supposed to show by our actions we are neighbors to each other?

They are still there. But some days their collective voice seems to be as soft as the Who’s that Horton vowed to protect but which “the powers that be” could not hear.

So, keep calling out, all you Who’s in Whoville. Make sure no one fails to speak up and out. There is one God—creator of us all, who is the source of true power and authentic love. We share one home (the earth) we are supposed to till and keep, to repair and work with God to complete. We belong to one humanity, one race, sharing all but the tiniest fraction of DNA and yet gloriously diverse

We are to neighbor each other, and anyone anywhere is potentially our neighbor. We have one intertwined destiny—at least until an asteroid hits the earth or the sun supernovas; and we have freedom and responsibility to shape that destiny. Love, not fear. Justice and equality, not oppression and this or that supremacy. And, for those of us who identify as Christian, we look to Jesus to light the path on which we must walk—and not only “believe.”

Maybe—through the din created by fear, weapons shooting and sabers rattling, through social media and school-board disrupting hate—one day our voices and love will again contribute to an ecumenical turning to meet the challenges of an ecumenical age.

Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.

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