Last october the National Council of Churches’ Washington office sent out a memo that amounted to an ecclesiastical storm warning. It told interested church leaders that there might well be “some uncomfortable moments” ahead for “the NCC and the member communions.” Three media events were listed as possible high-pressure systems on the ecumenical weather map: William Buckley interviewing NCC President Bishop James Armstrong on the topic “Are the churches too political?” on his “Firing Line” program, a forthcoming Reader’s Digest article by Rael Jean Isaac, and a “60 Minutes” program.

The NCC memo expressed amazement at the “ferocity” of some attacks on the “mainline denominations.” By now the thunderbolts have come and gone. Many local churches seem scarcely to have felt the campaign being waged against them. But some denominational establishments have definitely been put on the defensive. Their communication offices have been hard at work trying to neutralize any negative effects from the recent publicity about ecumenical ventures into radical politics.

Are NCC-related denominations being dragged into a Marxist-Leninist plot by their leaders? I have personally worked with several hundred church bureaucrats, particularly those located at 475 Riverside Drive in New York City. Never have I caught any of them reading either Marx or Lenin. They usually return to their suburban homes in Ridgewood, Princeton, and Montclair, New Jersey, carrying briefcases heavily loaded with interoffice memos and “position papers.” With a bit of luck they might squeeze the New York Times and Newsweek (or Time) magazine, plus a religious periodical into their regular reading fare. There are, of course, the usual exceptions that confirm the rule.

Yet, it seems to me that the critics are not just whistling in the darkness of their own suspicious imaginings. It is demonstrable that the memos, position papers, and speeches of certain ecclesiastical decision makers are marked by an ideological orientation that has influenced the direction taken by the ecumenical movement. I would not say that these people have undergone a conversion to Marxist-Leninist dogma. Rather, it seems to me, they have been seduced by revolutionary slogans and rhetoric (somewhat pompously passed off as “Marxist analysis”) that eventually are translated into more-or-less symbolic gestures of sympathy, particularly through the distribution of funds.

Interestingly, a large percentage of mainline church executives come from conservative/evangelical backgrounds in environments where traditional American values and structures rarely were questioned in a radical way. In the denominational and ecumenical establishments, on the other hand, people who reject widely held assumptions in American society, because they see them as contributing to some of the worst injustices manifested in our socio-economic order, have set the tone in recent years. This frequently leads to a stance of radical critique, that in some cases can be interpreted as a biblical-prophetic passion out of touch with its roots.

Article continues below
Grabbing What Is In The Air

Where does one turn after recognizing the oppressive features in one’s own social order? And how does one deal with the feelings of guilt produced by the numerous ways one must participate in such a society? Instead of reaching into the evangelical heritage of radical social criticism (à la John Wesley, let us say, who has been referred to as a Christian socialist), the tendency has been to grab what was in the air.

And what has been in the air in recent years? Some of the most passionate voices in our cultural life have enunciated a Third World anti-imperialist rhetoric, inherited from the radical sixties with its priority agenda of support for wars of national liberation. This rhetoric was indeed influenced by a Neo-Marxism that (like the old Marxism) appealed to certain Western liberal intellectual circles—despite the warnings of Russian intellectuals such as Sakharo and Solzhenitsyn who have tried the product and tasted its bitter fruits.

When church establishments try to speak a prophetic word, a series of “handy texts” from the Bible are usually retained. But, as anyone knows who has suffered through the drab “United Nations English” in which many official ecclesiastical pronouncements are cast, the fire of the biblical message is gone. The handiest of all handy texts in recent years has been Luke 4:18, with its announcement of good news to the poor, release of the captives, and liberty for the oppressed. It is therefore not surprising to find this text used as the cornerstone of the NCC’s response to the January 1983 Reader’s Digest article, “Do you know where your church offerings go?” But even the most powerful Scripture passages begin to sound like slogans when regularly appended in pro forma fashion to the pronouncements of various solemn church assemblies.

I agree that not all criticism leveled at the NCC and WCC is fair and balanced, but I would also claim that some of the unfairness is invited, even cultivated. We insiders are well aware that revolutionary rhetoric is not representative of many ecumenical programs nor of the views of most delegates to ecumenical assemblies. But it seems clear to me that people who must depend on official releases and who listen to some of the recent high-visibility ecumenical spokespersons could hardly come to conclusions different from those reached in the writings of critics. The more sensational bits of information reported in the communications media are precisely the emphases that some members of mainline officialdom have been trying very hard to sell.

Article continues below
The New Romanticists

Ideological bias tends to produce a certain disorientation of perspective. For example, the good old U.S.A. is certainly not the same as the good news of the gospel. But when the U.S. is constantly portrayed in the worst possible light (the Weather Underground spoke of “exorcizing Devil America”), while the faults of so-called revolutionary movements are passed over or their alleged achievements glorified, this inevitably creates the impression that one is dealing with people who are incurably romantic about revolution and quite naïve about tyranny on the Left. At times passionate talk about liberation in general seems curiously combined with indifference about freedom in specific situations.

Also, Christians enamored of “Marxist analysis” as a tool of liberation in most cases appear totally oblivious to the fact that Marx’s political-economic analysis became blended with a biological evolutionism that led him to talk with utter contempt about black people and various ethnic groups he deemed racially inferior. It is hard to understand why Christians, and “Third World” Christians in particular, are so eager to proclaim such a person the prophet of a new and just social order.

Finally, there is a tendency to portray revolutionaries as by that very fact beneficent agents of change (even when their revolution takes the form of terrorism against unarmed civilians) while their opponents are automatically described as ruthless, murderous fascists. Such one-sidedness hardly enhances one’s credibility.

The Feel From The Airport

When this kind of thinking penetrates the world of theological education, there is virtually no limit to the mindlessness it produces. During the year I served as a lecturer at a theological seminary, one of our senior students found himself on a plane hijacked to Cuba. He wrote a glowing report about the experience, entitled (what else?) “To Cuba with Love.” He described his six-hour stay at the Havana airport as an almost ecstatic thrill. He assured readers that “the atmosphere was saturated with a spirit of joy and celebration,” and admonished possible elect ones who might face a similar experience to “try to feel and hear the rhythms of love and struggle for a new social order.” New York Times religion editor Kenneth Briggs, who during a visit to Cuba ventured beyond the confines of the Havana airport, told a story (issue of April 19, 1981) of a less heavenly reality, especially for professing Christians.

Article continues below

Not only does ideology tend to distort perspectives, it also endangers dialogue; and this strikes at the heart of ecumenism. When it comes to certain crucial and controversial issues, be it the Middle East or the Moral Majority agenda, there is a definite tendency to avoid any form of conversation. While we advertise our desire to engage in dialogue with persons of other faiths and ideologies as well as people of no faith, we tend to write off as beyond hope cobelievers with a different perspective. It is true, of course, that quite a few fundamentalists are strict isolationists, as were many Roman Catholics not so long ago. But the ecumenical movement will cease to be a movement and will increasingly take on the characteristics of a tired and defensive establishment if it abandons the restless search for open doors and possible meeting grounds.

Party-line thinking that leads to politicized processes (“by all means don’t break rank or we’ll be forced to fight you!”) are in my opinion a betrayal of, as well as a basic threat to, conciliar ecumenism today. The NCC Office on News and Information is doing what it does best: sending out voluminous packets defending every action that has come under attack and providing people with information on where to send their protests against recent media presentations. But surely there must be church leaders out there who know that a strategy of just blaming the critics is neither going to work nor worthy of a Christian movement. Any movement that tries that hard to save its life through defensive polemics will lose it.

During my years as a church bureaucrat I became convinced that if the conciliar movement were to suffer a period of decline, it would be due mostly to people with suicidal tendencies on the inside (the triumph of their slogans is much more important to them than the survival of the organization they serve), and very little to attacks from people on the outside. The latter, delighted to quote some of the more extreme and mindless statements that all bureaucracies produce, are not the real problem, even though at times they may give us problems. In short, the NCC—if it is to experience the radical renewal it has urged upon so many others—needs the courage to take an honest and critical look at itself.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.