November 23, 2010
This is the first of three articles covering the annual National Council of Churches General Assembly in New Orleans. For the interfaith talk given by the Islamic Society of North America’s Sayeed M. Sayyid, please click here. For Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s talk, pleaseclick here.
Churches should work for loosened immigration policies, nuclear disarmament and an end to the war in Afghanistan, according to the General Assembly of the National Council of Churches (NCC) and Church World Service (CWS).
Meeting November 9-11 in New Orleans, the group of approximately 400 delegates met under the theme “Witnesses of These Things: Ecumenical Engagement in a New Era.” Presented as a “Centennial Gathering” to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the 1910 World Mission Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, the General Assembly delegates discussed how the member communions could work together “in an uncertain future”. Little, however, was said about missions and evangelism at the ecumenical council, which includes 37 churches primarily in the mainline, historically African American, Orthodox and Peace Church traditions.
Call to End the War in Afghanistan
While the centennial gathering was less focused upon debate of resolutions than a typical General Assembly, several resolutions and statements were either adopted or received.
The morning prior to the full General Assembly, the council’s governing board adopted a resolution calling for an end to the war in Afghanistan. The resolution calls upon President Obama to negotiate a withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan “to be completed as soon as possible without further endangerment to the lives and welfare of U.S. and NATO troops, Afghan troops and Afghan civilians.”
The resolution, which had been debated at the last two governing board meetings, was altered after feedback from member communions. The historic peace churches joined some other church leaders in objecting to language referring to the “just war” tradition, a concept that the pacifist churches reject.
“If we are Christians, there is no just war,” argued Archbishop Vicken Aykazian of the Armenian Church of America.
NCC General Secretary Michael Kinnamon and other NCC staff assured the governing board that the language was intended to convey that the Afghan war did not meet “just war” criteria, not that all NCC member communions subscribed to such a tradition. The resolution was passed by a unanimous voice vote.
(To read more about the Afghan resolution originally introduced at the Council’s May governing board meeting, please click here.)
Immigration and Nuclear Disarmament
Also unanimously adopted by the General Assembly was a “Call to Action on Comprehensive Immigration Reform”. Already passed by the NCC governing board, the resolution alleges an “increase of terror and fear in our communities due to anti-immigrant legislation and increased deportations.” The resolution commits the NCC to “engage national, state and local legislators to voice our opposition” to Arizona’s SB 1070 immigration law. Churches are asked to “actively engage” political leaders to “insist on immigration reform at every level.”
“We’re going to have to play defense to a bunch of nasty efforts,” warned Jen Smyers of Church World Service about immigration matters and the new Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee. Smyer’s colleague on the NCC immigration task force, the Rev. Jan Olav Flaaten of the Arizona Ecumenical Council, was even less optimistic, referring to a recent visit to the Arizona congressional delegation as “one of the most discouraging experiences.”
“Those who were on the extreme right gained even more control over the political process,” Flaaten said of the newly elected officials. The Arizona ecumenical leader complained that the officials were now more interested in “securing the border” and “can’t do immigration reform.”
(To read more about the NCC’s immigration resolution, please click here.)
NCC leaders continued their renewed efforts for nuclear disarmament. Following almost two decades of silence on the issue, the council last year began calls to ratify the START II treaty.
“A new agreement is needed in order to maintain momentum in nuclear weapons reduction,” read the statement that was unanimously adopted by the General Assembly. “The United States as a whole has the chance to contribute to this global movement by shrinking the largest nuclear arsenal in the world – toward the goal of their total elimination.”
The statement does not reference India, North Korea, or other states holding or pursuing the development of nuclear weapons, such as Iran.
Religious Liberty and Human Rights
The council passed a resolution calling upon the Iraqi government to protect Christians and other religious communities in Iraq, citing the October 31 bombing of the Syriac Catholic Church of Our Lady of Deliverance in Baghdad, which killed two clergymen and over fifty worshippers. While the NCC has previously issued statements of concern about persecuted Christians in Iraq, the resolution was noteworthy in that it specifically cited Iraq’s Al-Qaida affiliate as the perpetrator. Previous NCC statements have lamented anti-Christian violence in the Middle East, but declined to identify those responsible, presumably out of concern that naming Islamic radicals would contribute to anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States.
The military junta that rules Myanmar (Burma) also drew the ire of the NCC, which criticized human rights violations against the country’s people and Christian minority as well as a deeply flawed election that the council referred to as an “illusion”. The NCC specifically urged member communions to intensify their efforts to support refugees from Myanmar, as well as called upon the U.S. State Department to continue to promote an international investigation of human rights abuses in Myanmar.
General Assembly delegates also received a letter by Kinnamon and CWS Executive Director John McCullough written in response to the visit of an ecumenical delegation of church leaders from Southern Sudan. The letter notes that critical provisions of the African country’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement have remained unimplemented an unfulfilled, even as the January referendum quickly approaches.
“Violence and open civil war likely will return to the peoples of Sudan,” the letter warns, if the referenda related to independence are either not held on schedule or flawed.