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Namsoon Kang presentation

Reflections on the Assembly theme: God in your grace, transform our churches, by Prof. Dr Namsoon Kang, a feminist theologian from Korea, vice president of the World Conference of Associations of Theological Institutions.

21 February 2006

Plenary on the Assembly theme

Prof. Dr Namsoon Kang, a feminist theologian from Korea, serves as vice president of the World Conference of Associations of Theological Institutions

Reflections on the theme: God in your grace, transform our churches

Opening Remarks


Before I start my remarks, I would like to make clear about two things. One is about the word, "transform" and the other is about "churches," which are the two key component of the theme that is given to me.

First, about the word, "Transform."

Very often, "Transform-the-churches" can easily become a catch-phrase or a kind of propaganda when it is used by those in the church politics. So I would like to make clear what I mean by "Transform." My use of the word, "transform" is based on three sensitivity: 1) "contextual sensitivity, 2) ecumenical sensitivity, and sensitivity to all forms of justice. And this notion of "transform" requires a radical and fundamental change of the very framework of the churches. The meaning of "transform" is not like "reform." Transform means a fundamental paradigm shift from the old to the new. It requires a thorough scrutinization of the church as it is with these three sensitivities. "Transform" is not just adding something to what it is. It is about a fundamental change of the epistemological framework, institutional structure, practice of Christian tradition to promote holistic sense of justice, peace, and equality for all living being within the churches and society.

The second point that I would like to make clear about is the obvious simple fact that the "churches" are not a unitary entity. There has been no unitary form of Christian churches in an entire history of Christianity. We tend to have a nostalgic notion of the church , especially in a grand ecumenical gathering like WCC Assembly. We wish to say we are somehow "one" in the name of Jesus the Christ. This is both Yes and No—Jain (in German). In order to reflect on the issue of "transforming our churches", it is necessary for us to carefully attend not only to our similarities as believers in Jesus Christ, but also to our critical differences among churches. There are churches, for instance, that do not allow women into ordination, while there are churches that not only ordain women but also have women bishops. There are churches that condemn the sexual minority people in the name of God, while there are other churches that allow sexual minority people even into priestly ordination in the name of God. Therefore, it is obvious that the way we deal with the issue of "transforming our churches" may take a totally different direction depending on which specific churches I refer to. Having this complexity of the theme, "transform the churches," in mind, I would like to start my remarks.

First, transforming the churches requires overcoming a "Religious Peterpan Syndrome".

There are more and more churches that are trapped in the so-called "Peterpan Syndrome." As you may know, "Peterpan" is the one who refuses to become an adult. Simply speaking, being an adult means to grow, to change, to take a responsibility. Those who are trapped in the "Peterpan Syndrome" just want to enjoy receiving the tangible, materialized blessing from God but continue to refuse to take any responsibility for making commitment to justice, peace, and equality of society. I would like to call this "Religious Peterpan Syndrom".

Growth, both physical and mental, is the only evidence of life and to grow is to change. Transforming the church requires overcoming a "religious Peterpan Syndrome," changing their perspective of human being, of the world and God, taking responsibility for the world, and continuously being self-critical to become mature. Many Christians in "good faith" continue to remain in the stage of "Peterpan" by not asking why it is what it is, by not taking responsibility in church and society and thereby continuing to support the system of various form of injustice and discrimination, wittingly or unwittingly.

Many churches are taking out the "question-marks" from the teaching of Christian life. And those who ask a fundamental "WHY" are easily excluded from the faith community, being labeled, "unfaithful," "unspiritual" or "less-Christian". However, not asking "why" but saying always "Yes and Amen" is very dangerous because there is no way for Christians to see their own participation and role in fostering various forms of injustice and violence. This is the lesson from the history of Holocaust, slavery system, witching-burning, apartheid…There are so many examples of how so-called "good Christians" can foster such horrible practice against humanty in the name of God by not asking the fundamental WHY. Christian's conscious or unconscious complicity in injustice must be revealed by a fundamental question-mark, WHY. But if taking out this fundamental question mark, "WHY", the absence of question marks in the churches, may easily lead to the unwitting complicity in the maintenance and perpetuation of injustice, discrimination, exploitation, bigotry, or hate-crime.

"Charity" act of the churches is important but not enough because it does not ask WHY, because it does not question the fundamental problem of reality that requires the very act of charity. Charity act of the churches needs to be complied with the compassionate concern for justice. Concerning justice means asking the fundamental question of WHy about the reality as it is.

This question mark of Why is the beginning of transformation of churches. The churches need to move from the charity-oriented mission to the justice-oriented mission by overcoming the Religious Peterpan Symdrom . And this is a way to revive a social accountability of the Christian churches today.

Second, Transforming the churches requires "institutional repentance." Without repentance, no true transformation of the churches is possible.

To grow is to change. Simply speaking, to change is first repudiating prejudice and discrimination. This is what Christians mean by repentance, a complex activity that involves discarding wrong attitudes and publicly espousing right ones. It is certainly easier for individuals to do this than for humanity in its collective forms, but "institutional repentance" for collective or systemic sin can happen and is powerfully effective when it does. There have been several celebrated examples in Christian history.

For instance, in 1972 Pope Paul VI repudiated the ancient Christian accusation that the Jews had killed God, the sin of deicide, and thereby publicly repented for centuries of anti-Semitism in the Church. An equally dramatic example of public repentance took place in South Africa in 1990, when the Dutch Reformed Church publicly repented the sin of racism and the heresy of apartheid and invited Archbishop Desmond Tutu to absolve them.

These acts of "institutional repentance " and repudiation of past sins are profoundly liberating. They reveal the fundamental nature of Christian churches. The Christian community, after centuries of indifference, publicly repented of the great evil of slavery. Thus it was that Christians in the USA publicly repented of the sin that denied African Americans their civil rights. And thus it is that many Christian men today are publicly repenting the sin of sexism in themselves and in the Church. They are acknowledging that for centuries the Church has discriminated against women, according women a lower status than men, thereby denying the liberating truth of the Gospel. Now it is time for the Churches to institutionally repent for the complicity of churches in various forms of injustice and violence, to repent for misogynism, to repent for capitalistic teaching and practice of the Gospel, to repent for religious expansionism and superiorism over other faith, to repent for hierarchical clericalism, to repent for homophobia and bigotry.

Without "institutional repentance", without knowing what has been wrong in the churches, and without harshly scrutinizing the complicity of Christian churches in fostering injustice and violence of various form, a true transformation of the c hurches is ever-impossible.

Third, Transforming the Churches requires transforming theological institutions and ecumenical bodies.

Transforming the churches is inseparably interlinked with the transforming theological institutions and ecumenical bodies. I would call this interlinked nature of transformation of the churches, the Triangle of Transformation in Christianity. These three areas are so closely interdependent and their own existence is sustained by one another's existence. Without transformation of theological institutions and ecumenical bodies, the transformation of the churches is always incomplete, and also vice versa.

Unlike "reform", "transform" requires a radical, fundamental change of the very ground. If we adopt this "radicality" as the nature of "transform," we need to look at the very ground of theological institutions that educate the pastors and leaders of the churches. We need to first scrutinize the curriculum, the composition of faculty members and also its method of teaching and pedagogy to see whether these are really reflecting the global reality and the pressing issues that we face, whether these are democratic and inclusive enough, whether these are ecumenical enough, whether these are justice-oriented in an unjust world that we live in.

These three bodies— church, theological schools and ecumenical bodies—are like siblings. They are closely interdependent, one way or the other. We must remember that all transforms are interdependent.

Fourth, Transforming the Churches is also closely interlinked to transforming WCC as an umbrella body of all churches of the world.

Transforming the ecumenical bodies entails national, regional, and global dimension. Since this is a global gathering of ecumenical bodies and Christian churches, I would like to take an example from the WCC for what I mean by transformation based on three sensitivities that I mentioned earlier: contextual sensitivity, ecumenical sensitivity, and sensitivity to all forms of justice.

There have been various discourses on what to transform in the WCC. But there is one dimension that has hardly been challenged in a fundamental way: the very way of communication in the WCC.

An attentive communication with one another is the very starting point for pursuing for the "unity" of the Churches. This 9th WCC assembly is drawing a very significant mark on the entire history of WCC in its adoption a consensus-model decision-making. By adopting this consensus-model in its doing business, the attentive listening to one another, exploration, consultation, questioning and reflection on the issues on the table are becoming more and more significant. I entirely welcome adopting this consensus-model. Nevertheless, there is one thing that worries me very deeply, which has been a lingering dilemma that I have had for a long time: the standardization of official language in WCC assembly and other international gathering.

There is long-standing and deep-seated "rankism" in WCC . When you are on board, you realize that there are different classes among those who are on board: the First Class passengers, the Prestigious (Business) Class passengers, and the economy class passengers. On the plane, those ranks are made by the amount of money they pay for the airfare.

I sense the exactly same mechanism has been operating in the WCC meetings and assembly. But in this WCC gatherings, ranks are made not by money but by the language. The first class passengers are those who speak English as their native language. The business class passengers are those whose native language belongs to either one of the three translated languages: French, German, Spanish (sometimes Russian). Needless to say, the economy class passengers are those whose native language belong to neither one of the four languages, and who cannot express themselves with these four "official" WCC languages.

The choice of language is absolutely the issue of power. Language is not just a means of communication. It is about standardization of thinking, worldview, value-system, culture, and even one's attitude to other people around. The choice of language is about power: power of decision-making, power of knowledge-production, power to express oneself. Language is power to express who one is, power to persuade, it is power to convey one's values and opinion.

We should ask then a fundamental questions to transform that has hardly been asked: why it is what it is now, how right it is what it is.

If one cannot fully express his/her opinion with these four/five WCC official languages, the decision-making by consensus is in fact the consensus by only those who hold languages. As long as WCC continues to adopt these four languages, the former colonial languagues, it would be impossible to avoid to fall into the trap of the imperialistic mentality that WCC is against. It is so obvious that majority people in the world do not speak English.

Today I would like to strongly suggest that WCC needs to organize a "Language Committee" as one of WCC Assembly Committees. The "Language Committee" has three roles to play. First, examine the practice of inclusive language in all the documents and continuously theorize the theological, historical, social, spiritual, psychological and political implication of the use of inclusive language. Second, make a suggestion and even create languages/terminologies that enhance the rights and dignity of the marginalized people. And finally, persistently find an alternative solution to this huge dilemma of standardization of official languages in WCC. WCC's decision to adopt a consensus-model is not based on the "utilitarian, pragmatic" value. To find an alternative to this languages issues cannot be based on the pragmatic value. It is based on the value of true unity in its biblical sense.

Closing remarks

It has been emphasized that churches need to be prophetic. One of the significant act of prophet is to read the signs of our time. It is hard to deny that there is signs of "moral disengagement" not only in society but also in the the churches.

The churches do not seem to care about the global reality of war, violence, dislocation of the people, and furthermore there are a sort of "Church-exceptionalism" that employs a religious alibi for violating even a common-sense and moral code of society. We have to learn to recognize this moral disengagement of the churches and scrutinize church-exceptionalism.

"Transforming the church" is a decisive act of total reconstructing our epistemology (way of knowing things), our value system, our way of practicing Gospel, our understanding of mission of the churches. It is a collective act of hope for a New heaven and New Earth. Thank you.