Confronting racism and fighting for racial justice are and should be our ecumenical contribution toward the renewal of the church. Although churches today understand racism to be a sin and its theological justification a heresy, this has not always been the case. The ecumenical family therefore needs to continue addressing our history and our reality self-critically.
Racism has been a central concern of the ecumenical movement since its inception. The inaugural WCC Assembly in 1948 in Amsterdam recognized “prejudice based upon race or colour” and “practices of discrimination and segregation” as “denials of justice and human dignity.”
It took another 20 years to follow up on these foundations, and in 1968 the Uppsala assembly, building on reports of the World Conference on Church and Society that took place in Geneva in 1966, produced a framework for the elimination of racism. This resulted in the Programme to Combat Racism (PCR), which was among the most controversial initiatives of the WCC when it was born. Today it is remembered as one the most important things the churches have done together.
The PCR functioned as a global faith-based civil society movement in cooperation with liberation movements. It challenged the member churches of the WCC on matters of racism: churches were called to confess their involvement and their role in perpetuating racism. This required repentance and work for restitution and reparations supporting the victims of racism, slavery, and colonialism.
Churches addressed the role of structural injustice in the economic and financial system in the service of apartheid through boycott of goods and the call for divestment from banks and enterprises collaborating with the apartheid system.
Through the PCR, the WCC showed strength and courage to take a risk and move forward, despite the church-dividing nature of tackling racism.