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Being church and overcoming racism: It’s time for transformative justice

From the World Council of Churches Central Committee, Geneva, Switzerland 

26 August – 3 September 2002

Racism as a concern of the ecumenical movement goes back to the World Missionary Conference, in Edinburgh 1910, where explicit references were made to racism. A special programmatic focus on the issue of racism dates from 1968, thirty-four years ago, when the IVth assembly of the WCC set its face decidedly against the scourge of racism and thus gave impetus to the creation of a Programme to Combat Racism (PCR). From that time on, the WCC played a significant role within the international anti-racism movement, extending solidarity and resources to thousands of Indigenous and racially and ethnically oppressed communities and organisations, and those who work in support of them, in almost every part of the world.

With the end of the Apartheid regime in South Africa, PCR and other anti-racism programmes began to pay more attention to the need for advocacy for the rights of Indigenous Peoples and of racially and ethnically oppressed minorities world-wide. The inter-connections of race, gender and class were already recognised in PCR’s programme with a focus on women; now caste discrimination and the situation of Dalits achieved higher visibility. These have been a major focus of the WCC’s racial justice ministry, undertaken in close partnership with member churches and their programmes for racial justice.

Racism continues to be a gross scandal in most societies. The Common Understanding and Vision (CUV) of the WCC member churches includes a commitment to refuse “to turn away from the judgement that every form of racism, also in their own life, is contrary to the word and will of God”. At its 1995 meeting the WCC Central Committee noted that “institutional racism and the ideology of racism, in their most pernicious forms, continue unabated in contemporary societies and still affect churches dramatically while ongoing social, political and economic trends are producing new expressions of racism”.

Sadly, these developments were not matched by renewed commitment from the member churches. Some commentators spoke of the churches’ perception of racism being almost entirely confined to their support for the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. The new challenge was for the churches to look at racism in their own lives and within their own societies and, further, to confront other forms of discrimination that are closely connected to racism and racial discrimination and aggravate the situation of victims. That challenge remains with us. To continue confronting the scourge of racism is still a must.

Today as in the past, the call from people struggling to advance the racial-ethnic justice cause is a call to churches as well. It is a call to churches to continue their advocacy and concrete solidarity. It is a call for a deeper commitment by churches to face their own racism, not only the racism elsewhere. It is a call to churches to face their own past – in the present, that is, today – in relation to their own people – Indigenous Peoples, African-descendants, Ethnic minorities, Dalits – and not only the racism of others. It is a call for churches to reflect on what it means to a church to overcome racism, and to face the fact that it is time for “transformative justice”.

To be the church today requires deliberate, consistent and constant action in the struggle for racial justice. Continue reading here.

The excerpt above is taken from a paper written by the World Council of Churches Central Committee as part of an Ecumenical Study on Racism. The paper was intended as a discussion-starter at the 2002 WCC central committee meeting on churches acting through transformative justice to overcome racism. The following chapters, which can be read here are as follows:

I. Introduction

II. Background to the process leading towards the UN WCAR

III. Why transformative justice?

IV. When chronos encounters kairos: Churches facing their historical past

V. The United Church of Canada: facing the historical past

VI. The United Methodist Church in the United States

VII. The Lutheran Church of Norway and the Roma People

VIII. Comment on the challenges of racism confronted by the Churches in South Africa

IX. Comment on the reparations concern

X. Racism as a sin revisited

XI. Commitments towards transformative justice


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