26. Aug 10 - 29. Aug 10

Racism Today and the Rationale for Continued Ecumenical Engagement

Cleveland (Ohio), United States of America


A WCC conference in partnership with the United Church of Christ in the USA and KerkinActie, The Netherlands


Radissons Hotel, Cleveland, Ohio, USA  August 26-29, 2010


As part of WCC’s legacy of resistance to racism and similar instruments of discrimination through its erstwhile PCR (Programme to Combat Racism) during the past four decades, this conference will attempt to address certain contemporary challenges with a view to discern new directions for continued engagement. While acknowledging that this confrontation with racism has kept human dignity and social justice high on the agenda of churches’ collective witness and action and has also shaped WCC’s work and dynamics to be creative and credible, this conference will also respond to certain current trends in churches’ attitudes and responses to racism today.


First of all, it will wrestle with the divided opinion within the ecumenical community with some holding that there is perhaps nothing more to be done on racism than has already been done while others view that churches must persist because of the rise of racism in many places on account of large scale migration, rightwing extremism, and impoverishment of large sections of people. This conference, therefore, will address certain basic questions: How important are these accents today to the ecumenical movement and its vocation? Why should the churches, councils of churches and ecumenical organisations persist in these areas of discrimination and exclusion? What would they lose if they don’t; what would they gain if they did; and how could they creatively contribute to these wider struggles for human dignity and rights?


Secondly, it will grapple with the reality and dynamics of racism within our churches and communities. Racism is not an ideological or structural phenomenon any longer that churches could join with others and end it the way they did in South Africa. It operates as a cultural phenomenon, as an instrument of power and domination, and is reflected in attitudes, views of oneself and of the other. After all, Christians and churches are not immune to these influences. Isn’t it true that there are churches in different parts of the world which discriminate and exclude others in many subtle ways on basis of the colour of their skin (or caste as in the Indian sub-continent)? Isn’t it also true that it is precisely this response that seems to drive many migrant communities to form churches based on racial and ethnic identities? How then do we address these issues theologically recognizing the ways in which the global community has changed in the last 40 years?  With the increased movement of people, these attitudes of hatred, suspicion, discrimination and exclusion, are bound to cause more violence bedsides fragmenting our societies further. The internet too has been a tool transporting as much hate and violence as it does in providing facts and truth.  These realities, therefore, certainly, point to the need of anti racism work within our churches and the global community, particularly in identifying and dealing with the systemic causes of racism and others forms of discrimination.


Thirdly, experiences of racism, gender discrimination, caste discrimination, etc., do not seem to provoke indignation except in those who are directly affected by these. If those affected communities and people do not talk about these, others don’t and some even deny it. To that extent, racism is often seen just as a social phenomenon or one that requires diakonal response to its victims, somewhere in a distant location and rarely as a spiritual and moral challenge. What then needs to be done theologically to address this apathy and indifference, and highlight the serious contradictions such attitudes pose to the profession and practice of Christian faith?


Fourthly, churches are often not aware of the presence of such practices within and do not see the need to change according to the changing social and ecclesial landscapes. Churches are called to be just and inclusive communities, not only seeking unity among themselves but making that unity real by becoming inclusive inside and outside of the church. As part of their witness they have the responsibility to confront and transform these cultures of violence and death that deny, abuse and destroy life. Such radical approaches within are necessary to validate our claims in pride about our ecumenical heritage.  What useful directions can the conference offer to the churches and ecumenical organizations around the world to become more authentic and credible? Recently some churches in Germany have initiated a study and visitation programme by an international group of anti-racism partners to become more aware of the dynamics racism right within the German society and churches, and welcomed their findings. We wish that many others around the world would follow this example, opening themselves to account for failures, admitting where change needs to happen, and formulate appropriate responses. For more on this, click here.


Furthermore, the World Council of Churches, as a culmination of its efforts during the Decade to Overcome Violence 2001-2011, is preparing towards the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC) in Kingston, Jamaica in May 2011 and also working on a Draft Ecumenical Declaration on Just peace. (For more on these two, please visit: http://www.overcomingviolence.org/?id=2913 )  The Core Group which advises WCC’s work on Just and Inclusive Communities has decided to contribute to both these processes from the distinct perspective and experiences of people struggling to overcome the violence of racism and casteism – which stand out as two most violent cultures of domination and discrimination. These allow, encourage and legitimize violation and violence against some because these hold the same as inferior and therefore expendable. So much so that majority of victims of any form of violence are those who are thus discriminated, despised and disempowered. Therefore, this conference in Cleveland by reflecting on just peace from the perspective of those struggling against racism and casteism (Dalits in South Asia), will attempt to contribute to the work on Ecumenical Declaration on Just Peace.


This event is being organized by WCC’s Just and Inclusive Programme as a follow-up to the “Conference on Racism and related forms of discrimination and exclusion”, convened to commemorate the 40 years of WCC’s Programme to Combat Racism, in Doorn, Netherlands, in June 2009. About 55 people who are deeply engaged in churches’ anti-racism work in different parts of the world participated in this event that tried to discern the way ahead. The statementis available here. Later in 2009 and early 2010, some of those who were in Doorn, participated in an e-mail exchange of views and possible directions and advised that a coming together is likely to prove more helpful in identifying the rationale and directions for churches’ anti-racism work ahead. Some of those who were at the Doorn Conference too will be present in Cleveland which is being hosted by the Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ in USA.


The Statement of the consultation can be downloaded here.