Portland, Ore. – Dr. Samuel Kobia, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, challenged U.S. churches and American Christians to a new role and new relationships in the world in an address on July 26 during the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
In keen and pointed observations of current political and church relations across the globe, Kobia both cautioned and encouraged his audience of 390 who attended the Unity Dinner Celebration and 23rd Peter Ainslie Lecture on Christian Unity hosted by the Council on Christian Unity.
The American church must not be an instrument of foreign policy or a “culture club,” Kobia said. “If this was the challenge to U.S. churches in 1965 – to reflect a global perspective rather than that of an ultra-patriotic ‘culture club’ – it remains a principal challenge 40 years later.”
“The question is framed a little differently today than during the cold war: the demarcations are no longer expressed as East versus West, or ‘pink’ versus red-white-and-blue – but as red states versus blue states within the U.S., Fox News versus National Public Radio, ‘new’ Europe versus ‘old’ Europe, freedom lovers versus French fries.”
Some of the truths about global perspectives on North American culture and U.S. policies “will be unwelcome” and controversial, warned Kobia, who took the top post at the WCC in January 2004. “Controversy comes with the territory.”
Much of the world no longer trusts or respects the United States, he said, and many fear our ongoing stance as “the sole remaining superpower.” He added, “This has become even more true following the declaration of pre-emptive war on Iraq based on a poorly informed belief in the existence there of weapons of mass destruction. People in many nations ask themselves where the doctrine of pre-emptive war may next be employed, and for what stated reason, if any.”
Global warming, foreign aid, debt relief and international trade policies are treated as sport by U.S. politicians while Protestantism, faced with declining numbers, could become “too busy looking inward to notice what God is doing – and calling you to do – in the world around you.”
“In this vein what is required of us as Christians is to join hands together with all churches to lead a global coalition of those willing to fight hunger, poverty, HIV and AIDS, racial discrimination and violence.”
Economic globalization and the so-called “prosperity gospel” combined with political leaders’ use of the name of God in support of U.S. policies have “raised the spectre of a self-styled American ‘theocracy’ in the making,” Kobia cautioned.
Meanwhile in Africa, South America and elsewhere in the world, Christianity is growing with its “demographic center of gravity near Timbuktu in the Sahara desert…even as the U.S. mainline churches contract… “Perhaps this poses the greatest of the contemporary challenges to North American Christians and their churches: the need to adjust to a new position within the wider church of Jesus Christ, the need to give up total control of the missionary enterprise, the need – as has been said – to ‘let go and let God.”
New relationships are essential as the North American Christians find a new position or role within the church and the world. Dialog will be required, with other Christians in and outside the ecumenical movement and with people in other faiths and outside of faith communities.
“Such dialogue, or dialogues, may well be hindered by the ideologically divisive atmosphere of today’s North American culture, in which conservative evangelicals and political progressives are often portrayed as members of different species – and unlikely ever to achieve common ground. But those of us who are ecumenical, who are committed to unity in God’s love… It is up to us to take the lead…and with God’s grace we shall transform the church, we will transform our lives, and we shall transform the world to the glory of God.”
The World Council of Churches has been exploring new relationships toward a possible “reconfiguration of the ecumenical movement,” Kobia reported. WCC has joined with member and non-member churches in expanding activities in Africa against the pandemic of HIV and AIDS and in building new peace and justice networks, region by region. And reaching beyond Christians, the WCC hosted a conference on inter religious relationships in July in Geneva, hailed as one of the most inclusive such gatherings to date.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) history of “unmitigated commitment to the unity of the church and oneness among all Christians” assures that ecumenism is in good hands, Kobia concluded. “Together, let us seek God’s strength and guidance in the renewal of all our churches’ life, witness, service and ministry.”
Kobia was the first secretary general of the World Council of Churches to speak to a General Assembly. Ordained in the Methodist Church in his native Kenya, Kobia was elected general secretary of the WCC in August 2003. From 1999 through 2002 he was director of the WCC Cluster on “Issues and Themes” and was WCC special representative for Africa in 2003.
Rev. Robert K. Welsh, president of the Council on Christian Unity, accompanied Kobia on a recent trip to Moscow for an official visit to the Russian Orthodox Church. Kobia’s timely lecture drew the largest attendance for the Council on Christian Unity dinner in many years. “His statement was a significant challenge to Disciples and North American Christians from the global perspectives of the ecumenical movement,” Welsh said.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is one of 23 WCC member churches in the United States. The WCC is a fellowship of 347 churches in more than 120 countries in all continents.