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Searching for the Church’s Moral Energy and Spiritual Daring

The 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches, now meeting in Busan, Korea, has me thinking about this important global ecumenical family, about Assemblies I attended in Harare, Zimbabwe (1998), and Porto Alegre, Brazil (2006), and about the legacy of the nine previous Assembles, a legacy often shaped by a principal speaker calling the churches to respond to a particular and urgent historical challenge.

It is telling that as one who was deeply involved in the life and governance of the World Council of Churches for nearly two decades, steeped in its legend and lore, I was surprised by a recent discovery that James Baldwin, preacher turned novelist, social critic, and prophetic interpreter of the Black experience in the United States and globally, delivered one of the main addresses at the Uppsala Assembly of the World Council in 1968.  His address garners only one brief paragraph in the official Report of the Assembly.  Perhaps it was because Baldwin’s words were so profoundly uncomfortable to hear  – and remain difficult to read to this day – that it is rarely included in the more hagiographic accounts of the Council’s life and witness.  Certainly the notice in the Report hardly suggests the depth of pain Baldwin expressed or the harsh judgment of the church he leveled at the delegates. 

Baldwin was standing in the place of recently assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr. who had been scheduled to address the Assembly in Sweden.  But of course Baldwin also stood in his own place, renowned for novels like Go Tell it on the Mountain  and for his more recent essays published in The Fire Next Time.  The title of his speech, “White Racism or World Community?” is a provocative echo of King’s own Where do we go from here?  Chaos or Community?   The year of the Assembly – 1968 – was tumultuous:  the war in Vietnam with its mounting deaths accompanying convulsive domestic disruptions in the US culminating in Chicago the next month; King’s death following on the heels of Malcolm’s assassination three years earlier and the racial unrest spreading across major American cities; upheavals in the great universities of Europe; the Prague Spring soon to be crushed a little more than a month following the Assembly; the oppressions of Apartheid and continued colonial rule in southern Africa then being confronted by armed resistance movements.  

In his speech Baldwin looks into the heart of the chaos, exposing the sin of white racism as the foundational enemy of world community.  But he goes even further for his audience of church leaders, placing the responsibility for racism at the doorsteps of the church itself.  He told the delegates that the history of the church

has nothing to do with Christ.  It has to do with power, and part of the dilemma of the Christian Church is the fact that it opted, in fact, for power and betrayed its own first principles which were a responsibility to every living soul, the assumption of which the Christian Church’s basis, as I understand it, is that all men are the sons of God and that all men are free in the eyes of God and are victims of the commandment given to the Christian Church, “Love one another as I have loved you.”  And if that is so, the Church is in great danger not merely because the black people say it is but because people are always in great danger when they know what they should do, and refuse to act on that knowledge.

Baldwin went on:

Speaking now again as a creation of the Christian Church, as a black creation of the Christian Church, I watched what the Christian Church did to my father, who was in the pulpit all the years of his life, I watched the kind of poverty, the kind of hopeless poverty, which was not an act of God, but an act of the State, against which he and his children struggled.  I watched above all, and this is what is crucial, the ways in which white power can destroy black minds, and what black people are now fighting against, precisely that.  We watched too many of us being destroyed for too long and destroyed where it really matters, not only in chain gangs, and in prisons and on needles.  Not only do I know, and every black person knows, hundreds of people, thousands of people, perishing in the streets of my nation as we stand here, perishing, for whom there is no hope, perishing in the jails of my country, and not only my country.  For one reason, and one reason only, because they are black and because the structure into which they were born, the Christian structure, had determined and fore-ordained that destruction, to maintain its power.

No doubt this blunt judgment would have sounded different in King’s voice, its harshness tempered by the preacher still willing to speak from within the church.  Yet the judgment I suspect would have been similar.  Perhaps it was good for those church delegates to hear it in Baldwin’s words, unvarnished by a shared piety that can sometimes soften edges that need to remain sharply honed.  Baldwin concluded with a question: 

I wonder if there is left in the Christian civilization the moral energy, the spiritual daring, to atone, to repent, to be born again; if it is possible, if there is enough leaven in the loaf, to cause us to discard our actual and historical habits, to cause us to take our places with that criminal Jew, for he was a criminal, who was put to death by Rome between two thieves, because He claimed to be the Son of God.  That claim was a revelation and a revolution because it means that we are all the sons of God.  That is a challenge, that’s the hope.

His question remains for us and for the global Christian family gathered this week in Busan under the prayer, “God of life, lead us to justice and peace.”  In a world of crushing poverty for the many and obscene wealth for the few, in a world indifferent to the peril faced by creation, in a world fascinated with war, in a world dominated by imperial America and its vassal states with nations like China lusting after similar status, and in a world where the election of a Black president has done little to address the continued crimes against Black children, is there the moral energy, the spiritual daring, to atone, to repent, to be born again?  I wonder who will take up Baldwin’s mantle in Busan this week?  And I wonder who will respond?

John H. Thomas
October 31, 2013

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