WCC 11th Assembly, Karlsruhe Report
WCC plenary explored justice for people
By Catherine Ferguson
A presentation on "Affirming Justice and Human Dignity" explored gender justice, racial justice, and justice for youth and people with disabilities as part of a plenary at the World Council of Churches (WCC) 11th Assembly in September in Karlsruhe, Germany.
The session was based on the Mark 7 story of the faith of a Canaanite woman who persisted in asking Jesus to heal her daughter—until he changed his mind.
Plenary moderator Henriette Hutabarat-Lebang, a delegate from the Toraja Church in Indonesia and one of eight new WCC presidents, invited speakers to discuss how the church is complicit with perpetuating injustice, and how churches can help bring transformation and reconciliation amid injustices based on gender, race, youth and disabilities.
The speakers were Adele Halliday of the United Church of Canada; Dora Arce-Valentin, a pastor and general secretary of the Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Cuba; Maria Mountraki of the Orthodox Church of Finland, and Samson Waweru Njoki of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa in Kenya.
Adele, who is moderator for the WCC Advisory Group on Overcoming Racial Discrimination and Xenophobia, said churches often ignore or minimize voices of indigenous people and racial minorities, and ignore the urgency of prioritizing racial justice.
Churches were complicit in the transatlantic slave trade, indigenous residential schools, Japanese internment camps, legal racial segregation and other systemic racial injustices.
"While some of the practices have ended, we cannot be complacent or congratulate ourselves for coming so far," she said, calling for ongoing advocacy for racial justice in housing, food and health care.
She also calls for wrestling with the impact of post-traumatic slave syndrome, residential schools, benefits to descendants of those who profited from the slave trade, ongoing racist policies and the need to respect the human dignity of all.
Adele said systemic racism seeps into church structures, policies and practices that uphold a white supremacist system, perpetuate colonialism and use theology to justify racial superiority and exclusion.
She called for global prophetic witness on racism because racial injustice today means racialized and indigenous people live with high rates of underemployment, incarceration and poverty. They also face hate crimes, immigration barriers and police brutality that create disparities in access to housing, education and jobs.
"The church is complacent when it is silent about disparities. It is also complicit when it ignores the urgency of addressing racial injustice," Adele said.
She believes transformation and reconciliation are possible when people see God's image in all people, apologize, make amends, demand justice and redirect resources.
To bring reconciliation, Adele called churches to move beyond statements into action: "We need to move from talking about being different to being different."
Dora discussed how churches in Cuba and Latin America perpetuate prejudice against women. She said Cuban women have developed creativity and wisdom in their struggle for survival. Liberation theologies, especially in Latin America, affirm that God prefers to be with those on the margins, because they need hope.
"From our reality, we need to challenge, like the Canaanite woman did, the discourse of churches and leaders—who are almost always men and whose agenda of exclusion limits God's love and solidarity. We should always be part of a strategy of resistance to a church that is not open to God's embrace of all creation," she said.
Dora said some distort Jesus' message, changing it to classify people according to patriarchal, hegemonic, sexist and racist powers that decide who merits God's grace.
She urges the ecumenical movement to recover its prophetic character.
"We need reconversion to justice," she said. "We are challenged to persevere in seeking justice and called to break courageously with comfortable spaces where churches may be passive in the face of violence, greed and double standards in discerning how to deal with those in power today who shape the world according to what suits them.
"Development predators continue to seize control of the world, including the church, and all God created and called good," Dora said. "It is time to demand health and justice for all creation, because it belongs to God."
Maria, a member of the WCC Commission on Young People in the Ecumenical Movement, said the strong, willful Canaanite woman is considered a nuisance, because "she represents how women are seen today—to act willfully is to be angry, to be strong is seen as being unkind, and women who are strong need to be stronger than men to succeed," she said.
"Too often women theologians do not have positions or equal say in the church," added Maria, who sees pressure growing among young people for space to speak. She acknowledged she was able to represent her church at the assembly because she had support.
"Some people gave me opportunities, despite social norms and patriarchal hierarchies. Sometimes social norms are in our heads, and we the people can change structures and break barriers. It's for us, not for someone else to do," said Maria, calling for a change of hearts, minds, perspectives and attitudes to challenge structures that exclude young people, women and people with disabilities.
"We can find new perspectives with prayer, opening our eyes to suffering and breaking corrupt hierarchies of church and society," Maria said.
Samson faces discrimination as a pastor who is blind. He urged Christians to address structures that neglect and discriminate against people with disabilities.
"We can adapt our hearts. We need practical ways to deal with disability," said Samson, stressing the importance of ensuring human dignity. "We need to think about what we can do to make our churches more inclusive."
Samson, who works in digital technologies for the blind, calls the church to bring people with disabilities into the mainstream.
Historically, he said, people with disabilities are excluded and stared at. In Africa, some are sent to special communities. Sometimes people urge those with disabilities to find medical intervention, even if their disability cannot be reversed.
Samson builds awareness that people with disabilities have brains and can contribute if they have education and opportunities. "We need to see a person with disabilities as someone God created," he said. "Orthodox believe we are to use our abilities to make the world better."
He advocates for assistive technology and universal access.
"Phones allow us to communicate and participate. We can translate documents for the blind into Braille and for the deaf with sign language, just as we translate documents into different languages," he said.
"The biggest struggle for people with disabilities is societal attitudes," Samson said. "I urge churches to be places where persons with disabilities can have reasonable accommodations and experience dignity.
"We need to be seen, not as part of the problem or recipients of charity, but as part of the solution," he said.
Henriette noted that Scriptures say all are one in Christ, but males predominate as church leaders, racial inequalities continue, youth remain on the margins and the needs of persons with disabilities are overlooked.
Participants called for radical transformation and practical action to overcome barriers and attitudes.
To view the full plenary, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5JNGfoBUYgI.