Ecumenism and Justice

On Tuesdays and Thursdays YOUR VOICE features political commentary from students and young professionals.

This past November I joined over 5000 members of the global church gathered in Busan, South Korea at the World Council of Churches (WCC) 10th General Assembly. I was there to report on how the members of the WCC discerned their collective relevance in a world of waning religious involvement, asking aloud: “Who is still with us in our quest for justice?”

The WCC was founded in 1948 after WWII, at a time when it was vital for the global Christian churches to act in unity against the atrocities of the war. The ecumenical movement found it’s footing at the time, stressing the need for churches to choose to stand together under a shared belief in Jesus Christ. At the WCC’s first assembly, they chose a simple summary statement: “We intend to stay together.” In that succinct and remarkable assertion, the WCC announced their belief in the act of being in and upholding the safe, differentiated dialogue about the many issues where they disagree.

Today, the WCC claims to represent 590 million Christians from the entire world but you might wonder if they still have a reason to exist in our post-modern world. For example, have you ever heard of the WCC? Or, how about the ecumenical movement?

At a time when young people appear to be leaving the Church in droves, what would be the role of an ecumenical movement? Most young people today may even say that we do a better job working for justice outside the Church then in it.  So, what would be the usefulness or purpose in physically and symbolically gathering together through the means of a World Council of Churches?  Do we still need for the churches of the world to gather physically and symbolically and continue justice building in partnership with one another?

The World Council of Churches 10th Assembly in Busan, South Korea. Photo via Peter Williams.     

The World Council of Churches 10th Assembly in Busan, South Korea. Photo via Peter Williams. 


 I think so. I believe the ecumenical movement is important for us today – that it even may be part of the Kingdom of God uniting us.  Here’s why: Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20 ESV). I believe this is a statement about reconciliation, much more than it is a recommendation to start a small group.  And I could not help but think of this statement as I celebrated this past Advent.  Each week Christians around the world gathered to ignite light in our dark world. As we worshipped each Sunday, we lit one more candle around the holiday wreath, getting closer and closer to that center candle, representing the one for whom we keep watch. Isn’t reconciliation what we were waiting for this Advent? What we are still waiting for? Christ among us, helping us to reconcile with God and with each other? Aren’t we promised: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26 ESV)? Jesus said that with God all things are possible in relation to the rich coming into the kingdom of God.  With God, everyone can be brought to reconciliation.

I believe that it has never been more important, as Christians, to stand as a unified body in the midst of global issues. We are living in an age when blatant disregard for fellow human beings is rampant: corrupt capitalism is destroying our global economy, human trafficking has become an epidemic, and the threat of nuclear attacks between countries now is common. Within the public sphere where there must be pluralism of government and diverse faith traditions, it is beneficial for Christians to be united in that context rather than focused on their doctrinal differences in order to help the progress of public justice.

Churches should be on the forefront of working to create safe spaces for discussion and reconciliation. People who can recognize inherent human differences and continue to dialogue in peace are invaluable today. Including young people in these conversations that seek reconciliation needs to be of the utmost importance to the Church.

Sitting in on the plenaries during the WCC’s General Assembly, I was pleased to hear that Church leaders recognize and are concerned by the lack of young voices among them today. Still, the WCC and churches in general seem to be unknowing and uncomfortable with how to engage us (young adults) in religious conversation and works of justice and peace.

I believe there is one direct answer to this problem that can really help: We can speak up. We can stop walking out of churches and start walking back in.  Regardless of how you feel about worship trends or organized religion practices, churches are meaningful places where intergenerational conversations can happen about topics that matter.  Within congregations we can start talking about the issues that are relevant to all of us. We can take ownership of our faith traditions and choose to continue to be in dialogue in relation to what is actually going on in our lives today. What might happen if our elders look up from the pulpit or look down the pew or chair line and see us sitting before them, expecting to work for justice and peace with them?

Did you know that the ecumenical movement started in living rooms full of young Christians who could no longer stand the discrimination they saw against Jews and other minorities at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century?  It started with young Christians desperate to put aside their differences, amid mass cruelty, and actively participate in making peace.

As you begin this fresh season of resolution after Advent and Christmas, consider this kind of resolve: Find your neighbors of all ages and gather in among your community, those with whom you agree and those with whom you disagree. Say prayers in communion with your neighbors.  Agree on small acts of justice as a group. There, right there, in that kind of reconciliation, in the comingling of tradition and seeking justice, the ecumenical movement expands. And Jesus shows up… as promised.

-Carrie Kohler recently finished her Masters of Philosophy degree at Trinity College Dublin and is now the lead consultant for CFK Consulting, a nationwide organization located in D.C.