Few voices have been raised in defense of consistency since Emerson published his essay “Self Reliance.” The well known quotation from this is, of course, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” But “foolish” is often overlooked. Emerson personally ran a tight ship intellectually and seemed to have held in question only the do-or-die defense of positions taken hastily and later shown to be unwise.

Human beings continue to seek to make sense of their world, and to demand of their fellows some kind of patterned, logical thought and behavior. And Christians, professing devotion to the Word and to the Lord of Truth, are justified in demanding consistency on the part of those who lead them and profess to speak in their behalf.

We are accustomed “at this point in time” to an absence of coherence and even-handedness in secular organizations as they relate to perplexing issues and problem groups. The United Nations is a case in point. The inability of such a large and diverse organization to speak with a coherent voice about such a clear-cut issue of criminality as the hijacking of passenger aircraft has become “acceptable.”

It is a commonplace that today’s world, far from being a “global village” or community, is becoming clearly divisible and divided into three “worlds,” the West, the “socialist” states, and the Third World of developing nations. Each of these has a charasteristic ethos, a characteristic way of meeting issues and of evaluating the others.

Obviously, anything like consistency of pronouncement or of action can scarcely be expected of such a conglomerate of powers, great and small. The Christian mind, recognizing such realities as this, does however grade the organizations he observes in action, and tends to expect more of those that claim to follow the cadence of a more exalted drummer.

In this complex situation the Christian Church ought certainly to manifest an ethos that transcends in consistency and justice that employed by any of the “worlds” with which it interacts. It goes without saying that those who speak for the Church should, in the name of its Lord, sit in judgment upon whatever secular systems act in violation of clearly just principles, and that oppress persons through the application of a perverse ethos.

The pronouncements of ecumenical bodies have, it seems to me, been fairly even-handed about such matters as racial discrimination practiced by lands in the West, including the United States. One would hope that such groups as the NCC and WCC would be equally sensitive to the suppression of human rights by nations of the East Bloc and of the Third World.

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But it is increasingly evident that both the so-called socialist lands and the developing nations expect—and receive—preferential treatment in the councils of ecumenism. East Bloc nations claim for themselves a higher form of morality, and demand their right to be recognized as “moral” when operating on the basis of it. The nations of the Third World, more excusably perhaps, insist upon being dealt with on the basis of special ethical exemptions, because of their inexperience and their economic and cultural handicaps.

Secular agencies of the West seem generally willing to accept those claims to moral exemption, and to keep silent over abuse from the other two “worlds.” Our nation, especially, is willing to remain silent in the face of false or biased accusations. The Church ecumenical is willing to acquiesce in this, in the name of “turning the other cheek.” Well and good.

The real issue, however, is whether ecumenical Christian bodies should, in the interest of unity, stand in silence while delegates from lands clearly oppressive of their own citizens castigate only the West. Ecumenism’s problems multiply as its leaders attempt to equate Christian salvation with Third World movements for political independence.

At this point the NCC and the WCC seem to be involved in an almost hopeless dilemma. As they take their stand squarely with the peoples of the Third World in their quest for political freedom (certainly a laudable quest), they are confronted by the flagrant denials of these same freedoms by the East Bloc governments.

A report on the August meeting of the Central Committee of the WCC in Geneva (The Christian Century, Sept. 26, 1973, pp. 932 ff.) contains an interesting and informative section. After the showing of a film depicting scenes of brutality in Birmingham and Selma, delegates from Scandinavia “proposed a statement which included some unnamed socialist countries of eastern Europe where human rights are violated and people deprived of basic liberties.” A flurry of East Bloc delegates rose to point out that “the council could not treat in an undifferentiated way the problems of Prague and Pretoria, or Minsk and Memphis.”

This is, of course, shorthand for a declaration that human rights and basic liberties are one thing within the Soviet Bloc and quite another in lands outside this area. The council apparently settled for unity, even with groups that disdain pleas for human rights, rather than maintain a clear opposition to racism and injustice.

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Much is made of “the high road” that protesters to the Viet Nam war assertedly traveled. In cases where this was absent, some religious journalists have felt compelled to erect an elevated highway, complete with overpasses, for them. As Daniel Berrigan went underground, taunting the officers of the law for four months, he was built up to the stature of a folk-hero, being compared with Robin Hood and in one religious journal with Puck and Ariel. One wonders whether the chuckling would have been as audible if a member of the John Birch Society, wanted on a federal charge, had found a nation-wide rightist underground ready to assist him in evading the authorities.

An even greater lack of consistency is found in an article by Milton Mayer of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara. In the early part of “Disownment: The Quakers and Their President” (The Christian Century, Oct. 10, 1973), Mayer sharply criticizes President Nixon for supposedly using his religious connections for political purposes.

In the light of this, it is far from edifying to read, in the same article, the suggestion that the East Whittier Friends Meeting, of which the President is a member, disown him and expel him from membership. Mayer adds that such action “might conceivably topple Friend Nixon from the presidency.” In the name of common fairness, one is inclined to question the objectivity, not only of the author of the piece, but of the editorial board that accepted it.

Perhaps it is small wonder that liberal Protestantism has been so hospitable to a situational or contextual ethic, and so hostile to an ethic that insists upon principles. But the rejection of the principial does strange things to the jewel of consistency.

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