Two weeks ago now I found myself at the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, the World Council of Churches’ center for encounter, dialogue, and formation. They hold classes and offer degrees in ecumenical studies there through the renown University of Geneva, and Bossey is a retreat center for many of the WCC’s meetings. Earlier this year, I had the wonderful privilege of meeting up with The Episcopal Church’s Ecumenical Officer, the Rev. Margaret Rose, to discuss the ecumenical work of the Church in relation to other churches around the world through the World Council of Churches’ platforms and ecumenical dialogues. I also got to share with her about my YASC experience on that wintery blizzard of a day.
No matter what the weather is or the season, this place is stunningly beautiful, overlooking the countryside and vineyards surrounding Geneva, the lake in the valley and the mountains in the distance.
This time, I was attending Bossey for an Ecumenical Formation retreat that the WCC had organized for their interns. Though I am a mission volunteer with the World Student Christian Federation, I was grateful for the opportunity to join 10 other phenomenal young men and women to learn more about the history of the Ecumenical Movement and the WCC’s approach to advocacy at the United Nations, interreligious and ecumenical dialogue, and work for peace and justice in the Middle East. The other participants were from Italy, Switzerland, the U.S., Hungary, South Africa, Hong Kong, Germany and Congo.
It was an eventful week. One of my favorite sessions was when we broke up into groups and did a mock UN council and deliberated over national boundaries in the Middle East. Deep-cutting religious divides among Orthodox and Catholic Christians, and Sunni and Shiite Muslims had forced the council to convene and discern if breaking up the nations according to religious persuasion instead of the boundaries set by two European white males in the 1800s might actually bring more peace to the tumultuous territory. Unrealistic, but interesting nonetheless.
Of course, I had volunteered to represent the WCC and the ecumenical organisations with two others on the panel (we were later termed “the ecumanias”), and we were facing off with the Arab League and the European Union. A lively debate ensued. The Arab League was vying for religious states, the EU was more cautious about the radical change and were arguing for religious counties as a first step, and we the “ecumanias” were, of course, fighting for justice, peace, and the dignity of all humankind.
It was frustrating, though, because we realized we could not take a firm political stance unless it really involved a clear defense of human rights or religious freedoms. We just kept pointing toward the ideal, toward a vision of peace, human flourishing, and unity in difference. A magical world without the need for boundaries and borders.
The limitations – but also the opportunities – of the ecumenical approach to advocacy at the UN soon became evident to each of us involved in the trial. When it comes to political ideologies and viewpoints surrounding Church and State relations – especially in the Middle East – the answers are not easy. When you are designated by your religion on every form of official ID then questions of citizenship, the private and public sphere, and community are immediately more complicated and difficult for someone like myself from an entirely different context to understand.
However, though we may not be able to sort out the matters of politics and borders so easily as Christians, the UN is definitely a powerful platform to advocate for peace, security, and even (perhaps most importantly) hope. Ecumenical organisations like the WCC, the WSCF, the Lutheran World Federation and others continue to strive to represent the needs and stream the voices of their constituencies across the globe; they strive to herald the Ideal in the face of unbelief, disorder, and despair.
Many would disagree with me, and say that the United Nations is useless and corrupt, and Christians cannot make a difference there anyway. Perhaps especially Christian councils that are just a bunch of talking heads feeling good about themselves and speaking Christian-ese (yes, clearly I am not a stranger to these accusations). But, I ask this — echoing what Samuel shared in his speech last month — where would the world be without the UN? And without a proactive Christian voice?
As Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., a former US Ambassador to the United Nations once said:
“This organisation [the United Nations] is created to prevent you from going to hell. It isn’t created to take you to heaven.”
As a young person, and as a committed Christian, I strive to make the world a better place and all of my hopes have not been dashed upon the rocks. But we are human nonetheless–redeemed and redeemable–but always reminded of the ways we fall short. Man-made (I’m using man intentionally here) institutions and all.
But as Dr. Clare Amos, the WCC’s programme executive for interreligious dialogue and cooperation, shared with us in a session recently: the blessing is in the struggle. Jacob was named “Israel” only after he pushed and pulled the angel through the night.
“Then the angel said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Genesis 32:28
Alexander Ivanov’s depiction of Jacob wrestling the angel.
Overall, I am grateful for the reflection this simple activity brought about in me. As I head into the final weeks of my position at the WSCF, I have a renewed desire to learn more about the platforms, positions, and activities of the organisations all around me in the Ecumenical Centre, and to discern my place within all of it. Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts, for your prayers and support.