Part Three: “Who Speaks for Civilization?
In a previous essay, “Genesis and Ideology of the Cold War,” www.thebayviewreview.com, July 22, 2014) I spoke of the theological (or perhaps quasi-theological) aspect of the West’s anti-Communist rhetoric during the years of the early Cold War. Somewhere along the line, as our culture became anti-Christian and as our elected officials became embarrassed by religious expression, this theme went out of official rhetoric. Assisting this process, no doubt, was the fact that it became harder, during the Vietnam years, to sustain the thesis of an absolute moral difference between the causes of the Free World and those of the Communist World.
Running parallel to this history of retreat by politicians from the cause of “Christian” or “Judeo-Christian civilization is the story of abandonment by the once-established historic churches of their once-proud custody of Christian values.
The World Council of Churches and the Cold War.
In the early years of the Cold War, and to the astonishment of many secular commentators, it seemed that the churches, who, most assumed, would perceive benefit to themselves in this dualistic state-of-affairs, were proving reluctant to take up the cause of Christ versus Anti-Christ. [The next few paragraphs draw upon portions of Chapter Two of my book, Christian Attitudes Towards the State of Israel, (McGill-Queen’s U.P., 2001.)]
This was already becoming clear when the opening session of the First Assembly of the World Council Churches took place on Sunday, August 22, 1948 (just a few weeks after the State of Israel came into existence) at Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam. There, featured speakers fell all over each other in a contest to see who could be boldest about rejecting the concept of “Christian civilization.”
Ecumenical leaders had hoped to keep the Cold War off the agenda in the opening meeting of the World Council. They failed. John Foster Dulles, the principal foreign policy adviser to Republican Presidential candidate Thomas Dewey was there, drawing considerable press attention by warning fellow-delegates that the Christian way of life was doomed if the Church did not categorically denounce atheistic communism. On the other hand, Professor J. L. Hromodka of Prague was present to explain that Socialist systems were currently the best embodiment of the teaching of Christ. But the American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, wasn’t having any: there at Amsterdam, and repeatedly throughout his remaining years (until 1971), he warned that the once-established churches of Europe were falling into the trap of exaggerating the sins of the “capitalist” world while turning their backs upon the fact that freedom of religion had been snuffed out behind the Iron Curtain. He did not foresee the half of it.
The Post-Christian Voice of the Historic Churches.
The first formal Report of a WCC Assembly is entitled “The Church and the Disorder of Society.” Here we read that the presently disordered world has to be transformed into “the responsible society” by accepting “God’s design.” After a few years had gone by, however, the hearts and minds of Protestant churchmen began to turn more to recognition of the inhibiting effects of “order” or “design”. WCC position papers tended henceforth to see “order” and “disorder” in creative mix. By 1968, the Theology of Order was out, and the Theology of Liberation was in.
Position papers emanating from the Nairobi Assembly of the WCC inn 1975 drew upon Marxist, Leninist, Maoist and so-called neo-Marxist vocabulary, popularized by such fashionable left-wing commentators as Franz Fanon, as well as from Roman Catholic Liberation theologians resident in Latin America, such as Gustavo Gutierrez, Jon Sobrino and Leonardo Boff. Jose Miguez Bonino, one of the six members of the WCC’s executive and author of Christians and Marxists (1976), appealed to Karl Marx to explain “the obvious political motifs and undertones in the life of Jesus” and proposed that Christians should understand the Resurrection as “the death of the monopolies” and as proof that “a world revolution is necessary.”
Unlike the secular philosophers from whom they drew their primary insights, Liberation Theologians (both Roman Catholic and Protestant) made frequent use of short biblical passages (typically, with lots of dots in the middle.) But, like the secularists, they made no reference whatever to historic schools of theology. Noting this, Pope Paul VI admitted distress about the Church’s “loss of confidence in the great masters of Christian thought [which leaves a vacuum] too often filled by a superficial and almost servile acceptance of the currently fashionable philosophies.”
Among many other factors at work in this swift aliyah towards Marxism there was the desire to appear more relevant in academic-intellectual circles. The universities of the West were then undergoing siege by radical student movements, stemming ostensibly from the anti-Vietnam movement, but ultimately from a crisis of self-esteem which was taking place in the traditional civilization of the West. Courses in Western Civilization were driven to the periphery of the curriculum. The sins of Columbus became the newest theme as New Left alumni gained command of the academic associations.
At the Uppsala Assembly of the WCC in 1968 the “Program to Combat Racism” was adopted. The document bristles with “Third World” rhetoric and Marxist-Leninist insights on “fighting racism.” On August 10, 1978, the World Council of Churches announced a grant of $85,000 to the Patriotic Front guerrillas which to that date had murdered 207 white civilians and about 2,000 black civilians. Especially galling to many Western Christians was the knowledge that this number included several entire missionary families murdered in Rhodesia. There followed other grants to other guerrilla movements. At the same time, a document, “Violence, Non-violence and the Struggle for Justice,” published by WCC Central Committee, Geneva, 1973, found the United States to be exercising “massive, obvious violence” in Vietnam and “economic domination and political interventions, sometimes openly violent, in Latin America.” No hint of oppression was discovered in any Communist regime of the day.
Since 1961, there has been very close collaboration between WCC bodies dedicated to social and political matters and bodies established by the Vatican for similar purposes. A Joint Working Group sees to it that all these bodies are on the same page with respect to current issues – and most conspicuously with respect to what WCC documents consistently identify as “Occupied Palestine/Israel (OPI.)”
WCC declarations on world affairs throughout the 1970s and 1980s not only confirmed the commitment of WCC’s intelligentsia to leftist ideology but revealed a substantial adherence to the Soviet view on current world issues. “Western capitalism” and “the profit motive” were seen as the fundamental forces tending to war. When Moscow invaded Afghanistan in December of 1979, the WCC echoed the Soviet Union’s explanation that it was all done to restore order. After the U.S. left Vietnam, the WCC turned a deaf ear to the colossal liquidation and persecution that ensued in Vietnam and in Cambodia while WCC General Secretary Philip Potter praised the Communist victory in Vietnam, as “the most dramatic manifestation of hope in our time.” South Korea (but not North Korea) and Taiwan (but not China) were regularly denounced for their oppressiveness.
National interchurch groups (like the National Council of Churches, U.S.A., the Canadian Council of Churches, or the British Council of Churches) study WCC papers at their meetings, and almost invariably adopt them or express support, in deference to expert knowledge. Across the boards, Christian progressives go on to this day fulfilling Lenin’s description of them as “useful idiots.”
The United Nations has been dealing with the WCC for over half a century. It is one of the oldest of the international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which, in effect, piggy-back upon U.N. humanitarian and educational operations, serving, in return, as allegedly-disinterested gatherers of information in various fields.
Few individual Christians give much thought at all to the WCC. An individual Christian may find a reference, buried deep in his daily newspaper or in his denominational paper, to a statement emanating from WCC or NCC or Roman Catholic Council of Bishops about something or other and will fire off a letter of approval or dissent to The Editor. That usually ends the shelf-life of the story.
Sadly, political leaders who have no time for church in their own lives imagine that the WCC and Ecumenical Working Groups provide them with a wholesale product – The Opinion of the Church. But politicians in democratic countries who take this bargain at face value are likely to find themselves in trouble at the polls, where the customers show up one at a time.
Who Speaks for Civilization?
It has been clear for decades that institutions claiming to have custody of the “Christian Conscience” are perpetrating a fraud – a “pious fraud,” perhaps, but a fraud nonetheless. The rank-and-file of regular church-attendees pay no heed whatever to the positions taken on secular issues by the self-recruited and self-perpetuating office-holders at the top of the several denominations. The Roman Catholic church is a partial exception to this generalization, in that its topmost leader, the Pope, the vicar of Rome, has stood fast in claiming the right to speak for the Christian conscience and has been for decades been presenting a detailed Christian political agenda, the best-known parts of which have to do with sexual ethics and definition of marriage. Still, there is no reason to imagine that nominally Roman Catholic politicians feel any obligation to defend let alone advance this programme.
Meanwhile under Vladimir Putin, there is taking place in Russia a remarkable recovery of the public role of the historic Orthodox Church. This accompanies a modest but significant return to faith in the Russian public. Lately, Putin has taken to mocking our Western, post-Christian culture for its evident depravity and our political leaders for their acquiescence in it. Putin has seized our clothes while we have been frolicking and is now denouncing our leaders for leading the West “down the path of degradation.”
Putin deserves full marks for one thing at least – that is, his clear-eyed understanding of the inevitability of political collapse following cultural collapse. We imagine that the current President of the Russian Republic, surveying this from half-a-world away, perceives an opportunity to at least soften the loyalty that Christians in the West feel towards their secular political establishment by presenting himself as the truer champion of Christian values.
How all of this relates to recent chapters of Putin’s foreign policy is another matter- which I hope to deal with in a subsequent essay.