Dr. Ghassan Rubeiz, former Secretary of the Geneva-based Middle East World Council of Churches, was scheduled to deliver the following presentation about "Ecumenism as Liberation Theology: Building Bridges and Circumventing Walls". Unfortunately, his presentation was cancelled so that Al-Hewar Center could host a tribute to Dr. Clovis Maksoud who passed away on May 15, 2016. Our thanks to Dr. Rubeiz for preparing this excellent presentation and for his kind understanding.
My Journey in Ecumenism
Presentation prepared for Al-Hewar Center, Washington DC, May 2016
The future wellbeing of the inhabited earth requires perpetual celebration of diversity. Ecumenism is a spiritual movement best known for tolerance of difference in others and action for widening the scope of social opportunity.
A quote from Mahatma Gandhi illustrates the ecumenism of this Indian leader. In reflecting on his colorful identity Gandhi declared that he is a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist, and a Jew. But his innermost prayer was that a Hindu would be a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, a Christian a better Christian, a Buddhist a better Buddhist and a Jew, a better Jew.
Gandhi is intellectually modest, universal in perspective and appreciative of all faiths. Without his ecumenical spirit Mahatma would not have led the liberation of India.
I was born and raised in Lebanon as an Eastern Orthodox Christian. Since early adulthood I have tried to juggle my religious orientation with my other significant identities. I have a simplistic understanding of Christianity. For me, Jesus of Nazareth is a source of inspiration and a figure of healing, forgiveness and mercy. My personal view of my Christianity is neither typical nor representative of all ecumenists; however, my perspective connects well with Pope Francis’ affirmation that mercy is the primary name of God.
Had the current Pope been an Arab, he would find common ground with Islam in their opening prayer In the Name of God the Most Gracious , the Most Merciful (Bismi llah al Rahman a Raheeem).
As an Eastern Orthodox I have been wired since early childhood to enjoy byzantine liturgy. And having grown up in a largely Muslim neighborhood of Beirut I also find myself appreciative of many cultural, spiritual and artistic aspects of Islam. I do enjoy listening to a recitation of the Koran, especially when the rendering is “authentic”.
Sectarian thinking is troubling to any ecumenical thinker. In recent decades, the political environment of the Middle East has turned religion from a spiritual framework to an identity badge. Regrettably, many Middle Easterners, no longer think of being primarily Muslim; they increasingly tend to think of being Sunnite first or Shiite first, Salafi, Alawi, or Wahhabi first. Similarly, we Arab Christians no longer think of being primarily Christians; we are shifting to being Copts first, Catholic, Maronites, Orthodox, Melkites, Assyrians or Chaldeans. Obsession with denominational labels has marginalized citizenships and turned religious diversity from a blessing to a barrier. An obsession with sectarian identity is tantamount to a “medical condition”.
Ecumenism emerged as a reform movement in the early part of the 20th Century, with the triple aim of “de sectarianizing” Christianity, uniting churches and inspiring them to serve society prophetically. While ecumenism has not been capable of uniting the churches on a common theological agenda it has succeeded in engaging the international Christian community on issues of peace, welfare, human rights and social justice.
Although ecumenism is associated with Christianity, this no-borders spiritual concept arches over a single faith. Like the concept of “Ijtihad” in Islam, ecumenism is an attitude of seeking excellence on many inspirational levels.
Dr Maher Mahmassani’s Alhewar presentation (in April, 2016) of his book Islam in Retrospect shows understanding of ecumenism. He speaks of an open path to interpretation of the Kora’nic text; relies on reason in interpreting scripture; argues for adapting old insight to modern times. He reminds us that Islam is secular, freedom loving and open to all humanity. Mahmassani explains that Islamic institutions function better when they are separated from political and judicial structures. He asserts that there are no scriptural bases for the formation of an Islamic State or even an Islamic constitution.
Ecumenists do not indulge in theological disputes. They could be traditional believers or like me, afflicted with an attention-deficit to frozen dogma. Regardless of how conservative or radical ecumenists are, when they differ on ideas they smile. They do not demonize, sweat or hate when they disagree. They live with doubt comfortably; they deal with ambiguity with inner peace.
As an international organization, Ecumenism emerged with a progressive voice after the Second World War. The headquarters of ecumenism, the World Council of Churches, WCC, was established in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1948. WCC is a global instrument of the churches. WCC responds to issues between and among the churches, on one level, and between church and society on another level. The “church and society” part highlights concerns about poverty, war, inequality, gender issues, asylum seeking, human rights and political liberation movements.
Ecumenism started as a Protestant idea, but it soon appeared agreeable to the Orthodox churches, which for centuries had been complaining of losing adherents to the Protestant and Catholic missionary schools overseas. At an opportune moment in history the Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican, Episcopalian and many, many, other main line churches adopted ecumenism as an international platform for peace and justice, as well as an initiative to slow down proselytism.
The Catholic Church leadership in Rome was not totally comfortable in joining the World Council of Churches. The Vatican at an earlier era had no patience for socially minded ecumenists who appeared to the Vatican too “liberal” and too risky in interpreting dogma and authority.
At heart, ecumenism is a church renewal movement. One might ask “why is the church in need of renewal”? And “how much reform does the ecclesiastical institution need”?
Here is a bit of sociology: Any institution left to run its course without deliberate reform, is bound to deviate from the purpose for which it was created. This is why clerics, doctors, prison wards, parliamentarians, government official, judges, all who make a living in serving private or public authorities, need to be constantly reminded of the original goals of the institutions they served. This is what Luther did in 16th Century Europe: he reminded popes and cardinals what the church was meant to serve.
In a sense, Ecumenism may be viewed as a wave of protest against the extreme, triumphal Evangelical church. Main stream Christians are perturbed by the growing power of the extreme Evangelical church in world politics. In my opinion, an over-politicized church, mosque or synagogue is a sign of an institutional deviation. The proliferation of TV and radio channels commercializing heaven is a symptom of a temple seeking money and power. The booming business of saving souls on the air wave plays the role of a legally un-regulated, after-life insurance industry. A human rights agency to lobby against selling heaven on earth is desperately waiting to be born.
There is more to worry the Ecumenist in the Middle East. Religious leaders who promote hate and paranoid ideas about Western civilization and about other faiths illustrate deviation from the original message of the mosque.
To be fair, not all is well with ecumenism. Ironically, as an institution, ecumenism itself is in need of renewal. This interchurch initiative is supposed to unite the churches. But over two thousand years the churches seem to have moved too from their original intent. It is no wonder that the world churches are unable to agree on a common agenda. Though the churches have failed to unite, they have come alive in humanitarian service and in efforts of social justice.
In 1979, at the age of 39, I was invited to work in Geneva in the World Council of Churches. I had no full preparation for this job; I found my way through practice on the job. As Director of the Middle East Desk I served the World Council of Churches for 13 years. I visited churches and social welfare agencies of my region. I received donor representatives who were eager to designate funds for building churches, youth clubs, women’s programs, vocational training and economic projects. WCC was as eager to serve Muslim communities as well as Christians. It is a strong violation of ecumenism to serve Christians ahead of Muslims in the Arab largely Muslim world. I was often challenged by conservative circles to defend this egalitarian aspect of my professional ethics.
I was instrumental in the distribution of funds from industrial societies to struggling communities, civic groups and churches. WCC supported programs and projects which discouraged sectarianism, Islam- phobia, anti-Semitism, Christian triumphalism and all extreme ideologies.
Our Middle East Desk served a wide diversity of Middle East minority communities: Armenians of the region, Copts of Egypt, Assyrians of Iraq, Maronites of Lebanon, the Kurds spread over five borders, the Syrian Orthodox community of Turkey, the displaced Sahraouis of Morocco in Algiers, and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza and 1948 Israel.
The WCC partnered with an international circle of regional Councils of Churches. Our Geneva regional Desk worked closely with the Beirut and Cyprus-based Middle East Council of Churches, MECC. During the last three decades of the past century the center of ecumenism in my region was the Middle East Council of Churches, MECC. Regrettably, at the present MECC is a shadow of what it was in the past.
MECC managed to bring a widely diverse range of churches to cooperate in serving the victims of the Lebanese war, and in responding to the Palestinian refugees- and to defend their case for political liberation.
On the “interfaith” front the ecumenical movement promoted dialogue with the Muslim world. The WCC and MECC also showed serious interest in working with peace activists in the Jewish world.
At the national level the ecumenical movement encouraged the local churches in the occupied territories to develop Palestinian liberation theology. The Palestinian churches remain active in building a theological case for the independence of Palestine and for dialogue with the Jewish community. Some Christian Palestinian leaders, notably al Sabeel, have tried, and are still trying, their best to promote peace between Palestinians and Israelis.
Discouraged by disproportionate devastating war- consequences on Christian communities, some Middle East churches have in recent years retreated (inward) in their advocacy of victimhood to “protect” the rapidly eroding Christian presence in the region. Indeed this is a sad story, a sensitive one, deserving deep inspiration and further reflection. In my view, it would best serve the Middle East Christians in the long run to remain active participants in their society of roots than to adopt a defensive mode of escape from homeland. Portrayal or positioning of Christians as “persecuted minorities in a sea of Islam” is a hazardous self-fulfilling mindset. The ecumenical movement has consistently encouraged the Coptic community, the largest Christian body in the region, to continue to serve the wider Muslim Egyptian community.
Ecumenism may have inspired some progressive elements in the Jewish community to establish their own movement of ecumenically friendly, liberation theology. Liberation theologians from the three Abrahamic religions have their own forum of peace building. To read more on Jewish Liberation theology look up Marc Ellis. He is one of many theologians advocating a “two-state” solution.
The Muslim world does not have to reinvent the wheel to “ecumenize”. Jalal Din Al Rumi, a thirteen century Sufi poet is a rich source of ecumenical thinking. Moreover, seven hundred years of progressive Muslim presence in Spain provided an oasis of interfaith cooperation between and among Muslims, Jews and Christians. Read the Ornament of the World by Maria Rosa Menocal.
The WCC had its days of glory in the twentieth century. Over recent decades the decline of the main line protestant churches in parish membership has weakened the ecumenical movement. The internal squabbles over social issues have made the main line churches less relevant in the shaping of the global moral agenda. Ironically the save-your-soul before saving-the-world church is now among the most powerful political movements in the western world, particularly in America.
Years of reflection and wide exposure to diverse forms of religions have liberated me from strict denominationalism. Through ecumenism I have learned that forgiveness, humility and compassion connect me with all people, regardless of how they organize their thoughts in approaching the Divine or the mysterious.
In ending this lecture I come now to a highly personal note. I lost both parents during the civil war. I could not attend their funerals to shed tears over their sudden departure. As I age I find myself compensating the unshed tears of Beirut by expressing tears of joy whenever and wherever I witness signs of healing and justice. Uplifting events such as the crossing of cultural borders, the embracing of the adversary, acts of forgiveness, reconciliation films, bridge-building politics and initiatives of search for common ground, all such gestures, are at the essence of ecumenism. I have inner tears of hope attending a symbolic Israeli-Palestinian intercultural activity. I rejoice witnessing brave acts of advocacy in the Jewish Voice for Peace movement. I admire the voice of Irshad Manji and Leila Ahmed, two Muslim feminists, who contribute to a genre of Islamic liberation theology.
If I had one magic wish for the Middle East, it would be the emancipation of the freedom of conscience. Like Gandhi and Al Rumi, sentimentally, I am a Christian, a Muslim and Jew; and my inner prayer is for a Christian to be a better Christian, a Muslim to be a better Muslim, and a Jew to be a better Jew.
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