Race, Repentance, and Reparation: An Ecumenical Opportunity

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit
General Secretary, World Council of Churches
15 October 2019, Hampton, Virginia, USA

400 years. Today. Tomorrow.

This is a very special day. What we have experienced together here will remain as a milestone in the history of your churches, but also in the one ecumenical movement. I hope and pray that it will remain in our minds, giving us direction as we move forward in response to our common calling to serve God and the one humanity we all belong to. I thank you on behalf of the fellowship of the World Council of Churches for bringing your event here into the whole global ecumenical fellowship by including the moderator of the WCC, Dr Agnes Abuom, to address you in the solemn program of this day. I also thank you for inviting me as general secretary to share some reflections about the WCC and our work to address and combat racism. What you are doing here today and in the long preparation of these days, is a very strong contribution for justice and peace in your country, but also for the whole global ecumenical family to which you belong. You empower and equip our common and continued struggle against this sin and evil power of racism.

Let me also from the outset say that racism in all its forms is the exact opposite of our values as Christians, as churches and as an ecumenical movement. This is contrary to all aspects of our work as a World Council of Churches. It is, of course, what we address in our work for universal human rights for all, wherever they are and whoever they are, and whatever community, religion, or nation we belong to. Racism is also contrary to our work for peace. Peace is the relationships between us that express the reconciliation between us based on truth and justice, and the relationships built on mutual accountability and respect for the life and wellbeing and dignity of all. Racism is moreover contrary to our work for unity of the church. The unity of the church should be a sign to believe in God’s love and salvation for all in Jesus Christ. The unity of the church can only be based on the shared Christian faith in the triune God, the creator of all in God’s image and likeness; the incarnation and work of Jesus Christ, who lived, died and was resurrected for the justification and justice for all, carrying and condemning the sin of the world;  the Holy Spirit, the life giver and the one who enlighten us about the truth and give us the ministry and power of healing and reconciliation. Furthermore, racism, is the contrary of what we are called to represent in our mission and sharing of the Gospel. Racism is the opposite of the ecumenical formation we offer to every generation of servants of the church, building leaders who are aware and able to identify this poison and to counteract it. Racism is the opposite of what we are called to do as members of governing bodies and staff when we are called to serve all and the rights and dignity of all, given to us in Christ, and in that way also serving the unity of all.

This I say to say that racism is a sin that cannot be addressed only in one program, but must be combatted in all that we do. In defining all our work as a Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace, we have been able to open up for new perspectives of intersectional tasks and objectives. One of them is to have a particular focus on racism in this year’s program activities, visits, consultations etc. Your significant work here in the USA is also a building stone for the World Council of Churches, helping the WCC to place this question in a wider global ecumenical perspective, to acknowledge our own historical complicity as Christians and Christian churches in the situation, and to offer some encouragement to work together toward reparation and reconciliation.

Race in global ecumenical perspective

We have learned that “race” is not a biological or scientific category per se. The idea that humanity is divided into significantly different races has no scientific evidence. Race is, rather, a social construction, indeed a modern one, serving some interests of somebody.  But “racism” as an ideology rooted in this construction is a global political, social, and economic phenomenon – indeed, a moral and spiritual problem – because it is a sophisticated and brutal reality.

Racism in an ongoing concern of the worldwide fellowship of churches, indeed of the whole ecumenical movement. It was early understood that this is such an evil that requires that we stand together in fighting it. In 1948, when the WCC was established officially, the first assembly in Amsterdam recognized “prejudice based upon race or colour” and “practices of discrimination and segregation” as “denials of justice and human dignity.” Later and better known was the resolve shown in Uppsala, following the address by American novelist James Baldwin to the WCC’s 4th Assembly in July 1968, to combat racism worldwide. He was invited because the preacher of the first day did not come; Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated in the struggle against racism four months before. His spirit was there, and his words still echo in our movement.

Chronicled so well by Baldwin Sjollema’s Never Bow to Racism, the Programme to Combat Racism illustrates the potential of ecumenical engagement, as well as the boldness, the persistence, and, yes, the inevitable controversy required to make serious social change at a global level.

Today, we still find actual denial of the very humanity of oppressed racial or ethnic minorities, rendering them without legal rights or recourse.

We must also note that racism is often allied with populist rhetoric and demagoguery, anti-immigrant fears, religious exclusivism, or xenophobic resentments fuelled by mythic grievances. So often racist behaviour stems from inherited hatred reinforced by self-interest and group identification. Invariably it results in diminished prospects for its victims and even in generations of discrimination, gender violence, and poverty; and so race is a constant factor in all the other work you do.

All this makes racism notoriously intractable. A century and a half after a civil war was fought over slavery in the US, for example, and 50 years after hard-fought legislative victories in the areas of civil rights and voting rights, we find millions of African Americans still suffering diminished prospects by virtue of their race, facing jeopardy from police mistreatment, and confronting a resurgent white supremacy movement.[i]

An affront to the God of life, racist ideology and discriminatory practice generate a culture of death. We need both a general awareness of this reality in the one ecumenical movement, but we also need a new WCC Programme to Combat Racism.

Repentance: Christian accountability for racial oppression

Of course, the churches themselves are not without blame.  Not only through their historic participation in the colonizing efforts of the modern period and their support of slavery, often citing biblical warrants, but also through their justifications of racial inferiority through theological grounding, they sometimes paved the way for systematic oppression through racial laws and policies.

Even today Christian politics and practice often prove unhelpful in the fight against modern racism. We see political leaders using religion, even the so-called Christian values and civilization, as a pretext for national interests, economic interests, racial prejudice, exclusion, and hatred.

Therefore, we must also, as churches affirming human rights and human dignity today, pledge again our accountability before God and each other.[ii] Our teaching about sin is not primarily to make us feel guilty, but to end the tragic effect of sins for the victims of sin.

An exercise in self-critique and learning, frankly assessing and addressing our own traditions’ role and even complicity in the rise of slavery and racism can help us to understand what we need to be aware of also today. This is necessary for our credibility, but also to see more clearly how our traditions and values can be misused. The ambiguity of the biblical legacy, historical and theological accountability, consumerism, exclusivism - all of these remain as historical and theological baggage that we must unpack today.

Too often religious commitment is seen as simply a source of personal comfort and a therapeutic balm rather than an incentive and incitement to loving service through an all-consuming passion for justice. We have to say to one another in inter-faith dialogues that such risks appear in all religions. Too often we use the Bible as a defense of our lifestyle or a weapon for condemning ideological opponents rather than as a spur to self-critical reflection and ongoing conversion to the needs of others.  Too often we see Jesus as simply a personal saviour rather than as a redeemer of all humanity who leads the way in healing, lifting, helping people into life abundant—a prophet of justice, boldly calling out exploitation as evil.

Therefore, as an important part of our preparation for a new program to combat racism, we have addressed in different contexts over the last months and we have invited for a new analysis of the situation and of our theological basis and motivation for addressing this today and tomorrow. Let me share with you some outcomes of a recent WCC consultation held in Japan last month:

Racism as a systemic reality is not only an individual prejudice, but it is also a pervasive, systemic, and complex reality that protects the interests of the dominant culture and discriminates against ethnic, racial, religious, and class minorities.

We have the following realities across the world that require serious social change at a global level:

-   White supremacy across the world

-   Black bodies and Afrophobia

-   Xenophobic violence

-   Empire and white privilege

-   Racism and the colonisation of the mind and the spirit

-   Racism in relation to gender violence

-   Hate speech against minorities

-   Discrimination based on colours and smells

-   Discrimination on the ground of religion

-   Economic exploitation based on Caste-based discrimination

-   Racism as a systemic evil

There are relevant theological approaches to these challenges. These include authentic Christianity; God’s liberative power; a God of remembrance, righteousness and justice; listening to people’s stories; and interfaith dialogue.

Regarding blasphemy and heresy, the social and political system uses religion to justify racial or class discrimination. Christians are still using Christian Biblical and theological reflection to justify racism.  It is important to realise that the blasphemy laws impinges on the rights and dignity of minorities especially in countries where Christians are a minority. This is what the ecumenical theology has already classified as blasphemy and heresy. No hermeneutics justifies the interpretation that racism is endorsed by God in the Bible.

As we celebrate diversity, we affirm that creation of the universe and humanity by God is characterized by diversities. Creation is not a monolithic reality; diversity is a salient feature of it. In the story of creation told in the book of Genesis, diversity is a dominant reality. However, along with the emphasis on diversity, the book of Genesis also speaks of coherence, harmony, interaction and unity as inherent qualities of creation. These two aspects show that in the context of God's creation, diversity is a source of enrichment that acquires its meaning and value through unity. In fact, the creation of the universe and humanity is in its essence a concrete manifestation of unity in diversity and diversity in unity. Diversity is a gift of God that must be preserved for the integrity and sustainability of creation. This basic affirmation of Christian theology is common in all living faiths

The power of symbols: The cross

The Orthodox faith proclaims the resurrection along with the cross and Christ’s suffering, The cross is exalted in every major feast related to Christ such as Christmas, Epiphany, Good Friday, Easter, and the Feast of the Holy Cross. It is exalted as a symbol of victory. The symbol of victory definitely refers to the victory over the forces of evil. It is here that James Cone’s ‘Cross and the Lynching Tree’ becomes important for all of us. Today, in order to overcome racism in all its forms and casteism in India, we need to look at the cross. The church that hangs on the wings of the cross depicts both the persecuted church and the persecuting church.

The persecuted church needs to remind the persecuting church about various injustices that happen within the church, that carries with it the burden of racism as an oppressor. The oppressed can bring solution to oppression. Sin that is structural, and has been communitarian requires that we seek not just individual or private confession but a public and communal confession that can lead to transformation and overcoming racism in all its forms. This is especially important as we bring about Dalit liberation by addressing caste from an Orthodox perspective by understanding the cross, its theology, and its role in transforming communities.

Reparation and reconciliation

SO:  racism is more than a historical lesson or an anthropological puzzle. It is a persistent, daily, ugly, death-dealing streak in societies on every continent, one that robs the future prospects of tens of millions of people.  Where lies our present accountability here?  This is what you—what we—are here to consider.

In the last several years, through collaboration with you, our ecumenical partners and member churches, and as a special focus of our Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace, we have dedicated considerable resources to understanding and responding to racism in regions around the world

We have also joined forces with the United Nations agencies and their efforts, including those of the Human Rights Council and the International Decade for Peoples of African Descent, to understand and highlight particular cases.  Through Pilgrim Team Visits, we have offered solidarity and accompaniment to those individuals, churches, and communities victimized by racial injustice and its effects.

At this juncture, we, as WCC, must ask: Where can we best focus, how might we make a distinctive, decisive, transformative difference in combating racism today?  How does one get at the multiple levels and layers of systemic racism? How do we address how racism is a dimension of so many other expressions of exclusion? How do we address the ignorance and the unconscious acceptance of exclusive, racist attitudes, patterns of behaviour, language or actions? What more can we do, as churches and agencies, strategically and programmatically, together? How do we steer the human mind to be self-critical to our complicity with racism, and how do we guide the human heart toward metanoia and reconciliation?

The theme of our upcoming WCC assembly—“Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity”—will help us to address racism. This is a new opportunity to commit the whole fellowship to go deeper into the reality of Christ’s love as a counter-power to the evil of exclusivism and racism. One of the features of Christ’s love is that it does not accept the boundaries of race and ethnicity.  In Christ there is another vision for our one humanity, nurtured in the examples of Jesus’ praxis and of the theology of Christ’s love to the whole world.  This is our shared asset, this is our calling to use in the combat against racism of today.

In this light, we see avenues toward reconciliation. First, we must tell the truth. This not only means countering the falsehoods and demagoguery we find in contemporary politics and some media, important though that be.  It also means thoroughly questioning our own assumptions, histories, lifestyle, and religiosity to identify ways in which we can open ourselves and our communities to include and support others.

This is the great merit of the NCC’s “A.C.T. Now to End Racism.” It gathers the collective wisdom and commitment of America’s churches to really explore the biblical, theological, and social commitments that must inform our lives as Christians, as disciples of Jesus. The ongoing reality of racism invites reflection, real empathetic encounter with persons different from ourselves, and, in the end, deep conversion to the needs of others. Grassroots ecumenical relationships can facilitate personal and communal transformation.

Second, more formally, US churches can explore mechanisms for truth-telling through something like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, held in South Africa after the end of Apartheid, as well as somewhat differently in Canada.[iii] This can also happen, to some extent, on a local level.

Third, redressing the historical harm and continuing effects of slavery can also be seen as a challenge to restorative justice. This is most commonly discussed in the US as the question of reparations.[iv] But let’s be clear: We know that no form of reparations—to African Americans, to Native Americans, or to other historically oppressed groups—can ever repair the suffering and injustices inflicted on such groups.  But, as a form of reparations, churches and others can certainly advocate for and even implement social policies that specifically target the economic, educational, and legal areas of continuing injustice and disadvantage, in housing and hiring, in access to education and financial resources, in political representation and law enforcement, and even in church life.

Christ’s love not only comforts and reassures us.  It also frees us, emboldening us to seek his reign of justice, search his ways of peace, and walk united in solidarity toward repentance, reparation, and reconciliation.

In the WCC we believe firmly that religious communities can illumine the reality of racism, probe its roots, and, working with each other and with civil society organizations, provide moral leadership and make a real difference. The forum in Japan recommended 4 directions for our programmatic work:

a)     It should involve learning from communities

b)     It should have a section for WCC staff, governing bodies, commissions and reference groups to deal with unconscious racial bias

c)     Intersectionality approach

d)     Map what is being done by other ecumenical partners and churches for collaboration

In our ecumenical journey of faith, I hope that, with your partnership and collaboration, in these days we can devise and divine some concrete answers to these realities and find ways to show that “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity.”

May God make us bless and enable us to do so.


[i] The most recent survey of attitudes of groups in the US toward race and racism are published by the Pew Research Center in “Race in America 2019”: https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2019/04/09/race-in-america-2019/.

[ii] On the notion of mutual accountability as an important thread in the ecumenical movement and particularly in the theological work of the Faith and Order Commission, see my volume, The Truth We Owe Each Other: Mutual Accountability in the Ecumenical Movement (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2016).

[iii] See the official websites for materials: in South Africa: http://www.justice.gov.za/trc/; in Canada: http://www.trc.ca/.

[iv] Notably in Ta’Nehisi Coates’s influential 2014 article, “The Case for Reparations,” in The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-repar…