Freedom Through Unity -- Liberation Through Ecumenism

Jose Miguez Bonino Delivered at the University of San Francisco
1983

Franciscan Friars of the Atonement

"Unity" is one of those magical words which can, by its mere invocation, justify a discourse. Whatever produces unity is good; whatever destroys or threatens it is bad. In some areas of the world and some sectors of society, however, experience has taught us to ask questions about the frequent calls to unity that are addressed to us -- who calls for unity? with whom? against whom? on what basis? for what purpose? for whose benefit? Such questions may sound impertinent, even narrow-minded and ungenerous. But such people -- young people and women in the family, workers in industry, minorities in societies, dependent nations in the world, lay people in the churches, in general the poor and marginal, have so frequently discovered that such unity was simply co-option, for the sake of the economy, the authority, the comfort of the powerful, that they have become convinced that as often as not "unity" is a tool of oppression rather than of liberation. For them -- and this is the perspective from which I try to speak today -- the positive, even causal relation between freedom and unity implied in our title can by no means be taken for granted. Except, in any case, if it be corrected, supplemented and explicated by the obverse formulation: "unity through freedom, ecumenism through liberation".

      The task assigned to me for this evening has to do specifically with the search for unity within the Christian family, as experienced particularly in Latin America. Besides, I shall be speaking in a Catholic sponsored ecumenical forum as a Latin American Protestant, a spokesperson for a minority who has a century old history (in Latin America) of bitter confessional prejudice, strife and even discrimination and persecution. It is, nevertheless, my conviction, that we cannot approach the issue either as an "internal Christian affair" nor as a confessional question. Such conviction is not primarily the result of theological wisdom or speculation but of the experience of the last twenty years of struggles, sufferings, victories and defeats, of thousands of Christians in our sub-continent. We call it sometimes "a struggle for liberation". In it we are slowly learning to redefine our human and Christian identity -- to reorganize our priorities, to re-design the lines of separation and the bonds of unity. And consequently also to re-articulate the idea of unity and ecumenism as it relates to freedom and liberation. It is in this perspective that I shall understand our subject. I intend, however, to approach the question theologically rather than "testimonially" (there will be time for this in our conversation, if such is your interest) because we are convinced that this experience has enlightened and confirmed for us some of the deeper evangelical truths and, to that extent, it belongs to the whole Christian community and as to be shared with it.

The problematics of unity and division

      In faith we gladly confess that the Church is one. Phenomenologically, though, we must admit that the Church has been divided from very early in its history. Only political, ideological and theological manoeuvring has permitted us to claim that the Church is on in any empirical sense. The course of modern history, by taking away some of these props, has forced churches to face with greater realism the problem of division and the quest for unity. A growing shame, restlessness, dissatisfaction with the state of division has led the churches to explore, during the last hundred years, with increasing sense of urgency and commitment, the roads that might lead to the visible manifestation of the unity of the Church. The sum of such efforts is what we call today "the ecumenical movement".

      We can all gratefully acknowledge and celebrate the devoted and intelligent efforts and the significant achievements of what has been called "the great new fact" or "the miracle of the Spirit" in the life of the churches. Even the most cursory survey of Christian history since the beginning of this century could not fail to provide ample proof of the steady growth of a consciousness of unity and the imaginative efforts to give to such consciousness concrete expression. At the same time, as old prejudices vanish, ancient controversies subside and traditional oppositions prove irrelevant, history seems to raise new obstacles, kindle new discussions, uncover other oppositions.

      A superficial observer could conclude that, while the traditional divisions turned around religious and theological questions, the recent ones tend to gravitate towards social, political or ideological ones. When one surveys the nuclei which have centred the oppositions and contradictions in the life of the WCC during the last two decades, such observation might seem justified. Let us remind ourselves briefly of some of them: the relation between salvation and the transformation of society (discussions about evangelization), the Central Committee statements or public declarations concerning critical situations in Africa, South East Asia, Near East or Latin America, the Program to Combat Racism and other forms of support of popular movements with political concerns, the discussions about the characterization of a Just, Participatory and Sustainable Society, are only some of the instances that come to mind. On the other hand, some observers have called attention to the fact that it was the participation of the Third World churches in the ecumenical movement that brought to the agenda some of these controversial issues. The presence of Asia raised the problems of "rapid social change" and "nation building", Africa forced the consideration of racial discrimination and radical questions of intercultural relations, Latin America challenged the notions of development and insisted on the relations between cultural, social and economic issues. The traditional Western answers, as articulated in the idea of "the responsible society" proved unsatisfactory. The questions of radical change, ideology, political involvement could not be postponed.

      How should we speak of unity in the face of such developments? The immediate answer -- which is still supported in many ecumenical quarters -- has usually taken two lines (sometimes combined in different ways). One is the appeal to "unity in faith" in the midst of all these conflicts. We all believe in the same God, confess the same jesus Christ, have been made brothers and sisters through the same baptism. Our unity is already achieved -- objectively secured in God's own being and action -- in spite of all our conflicts and differences. The second is the idea of "pluralism": the unity of the Church is a "complex unity", which embraces many, and sometimes seemingly contradictory options. Such notion tries to reconcile unity and diversity in non-conflictive ways -- the diverse elements are in principle understood as complementary and mutually enriching.

      Neither of the two answers is in itself wrong. There is indeed a unity which relativizes our conflicts and to that extent there is also a legitimate plurality. But, at the same time, both answers are only partially true. Moreover, when they are assumed as adequate solutions to the problem of division, they become ideological in the negative sense of the word -- instruments of domination that hide the true nature of our conflicts. The "one faith", God's self-giving in Jesus Christ, is always received, confessed, articulated, lived our in particular historical situations: it is the faith of this or that group of human beings, living in this or that place, belonging to this or that class, seeing the world through this or that ideology of "Weltanschauung". Phenomenologically, these are the only "faiths" that exist and, although they claim to respond to a transcendent reality that is beyond them, even that very claim -- and all the ways in which they articulate it dogmatically, liturgically, praxically, institutionally -- are couched in terms related to their historical particularity. The appeal to a transcendent "unity" is therefore either a formal one -- useful as a horizon or a driving force but unable to settle the question of our differences -- or it is "filled out" historically and is therefore a "sacralization" of one particular historical "faith" which claims absoluteness -- i.e. an instrument of domination.

      Nor can we say that conflict arises at a secondary -- social, ethical, political, ideological -- level where pluralism can be accepted, while the primary level, that of faith, remains intact. Such answer seems to us to reveal, in fact, a serious misunderstanding of faith. It seems to conceive faith as separable from the "commitments" of faith -- perhaps as a subjective, or purely religious, or conceptual entity. We would claim that such view is neither empirically accurate nor theologically tenable. Empirically, faith can always be described as a particular way of being, understanding and acting in the world. Theologically, according to the Scriptures, it should always be so described, because it is a total response to God's being and action.

      Translated into ecclesiological languare, therefore, the issue is that of the "mission of the Church. Our differences -- now specifically the questions of dependence and domination, of racial oppression, of poverty and economic justice, of human and social rights -- are not adiaphora, issues peripheral to the life of the Church. They touch the very essence of the Church: the God we worship, the Christ we confess, the nature and task of the community of faith. If we satisfy ourselves with a formal appeal to transcendent unity or with a latitudinarian pluralism, we are "healing lightly" the wounds of Christianity. The question of unity is, as we see it, the question of the mission of the Church in the world. This is the real problematics of unity.

The Test of Unity

      Is there any way of approaching the question of unity from the perspective of mission? All I can do ere is to offer a brief view of the way in which many Christians in Latin America have tried to understand in theological terms their own faith and commitment. We have found that such approach has raised conflicts and crises. But we can also witness to the fact that it has created a unity across denominational and confessional boundaries -- a unity tested in suffering, celebrated in praise and prayer, embodied in action and sealed by death. We won't claim that it is "new". Wuite to the contrary, we claim that it is the unity rooted in the Gospel itself, in the very life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and therefore that it is, in the deepest sense of the word, a unity in faith.

      What are, in fact, the framework and the points of refernce for a right understanding of the unity of the Church? The churches rightly claim that Jesus Christ is the center and the power of unity. Which Jesus Christ, however, are we talking about? It is our contention that the only Jesus Christ who can gather and unify his Church is the Jesus Christ of the Gospel, whose ministry, death and resurrection are witnessed in the New Testament. Such affirmation -- as Biblical scholarship seems to make increasingly plain -- means a double de-centering. The first affects ecclesiology: the Church cannot find its center of unity and mission in itself, by a concern for its own well-being, growth or prestige. The Church can only understand itself by reference to Jesus Christ, to his message, mission and person. Its own health, well-being, its very existence is wholly dependent on its faithfullness to the Center. But, as the Gospels make abundantly clear, there is also a Christological de-centering: Jesus understands himself by reference to the Father's will and promise -- now made historically present and operative in him -- of bringing in his Kingdom in struggle against the pwer of death, injustice and lie active in the world. Or, if we want to speak a more sacramental language, we can say that the Church proves itself to be the true body of Christ by its visible identification in faith and praxis with the Christ of the Gospel, just as Jesus (particularly in the johanine writings) attests his unity with the Father, by doing "the works of the Father".

      If these affirmations are to any extent true, two consequences follow inevitably for our theme: (1) The unity of the Church cannot be conceived or realized aside from the Jesus Christ who came and still comes in his Spirit to announde and bring in his Kingdom -- a Kingdom which strives to become visible and operative in history, in the concrete actions and relations of human beings -- until it is finally established in full power by God himself in the consummation of history, and (2) such Jesus Christ cannot be known apart from obedience, as we take the "yoke of the Kingdom" and follow him. Unity cannot be achieved except through discipleship. Any other unity cannot be a unity in Him, and therefore a true unity of His Church.

      Bur we must move one step further. If we take seriously the fact that "the Kingdom strives to become visible and operative in human history", we are confronted with the inevitable responsibility of "discerning" the concrete signs of "this striving" in our time. In other words, we are called -- and, according to Jesus' own promise, empowered by the Spirit -- to re-interpret the "project" and shape of the Kingdom, its promises and demands, in the light of present historical conditions. Such process begins within the New Testament itself and has continued thgouthout history. The different "Christianities" that have emerged in the course of history -- Palestinian or Hellenistic, Eastern and Western, feudal and moder bourgeois, to name the ones that come to mind immediately -- are all re-readings of the promise and call of the Gospel at differnt points in history, from different social, cultural, and national perspectives. The fact that they all have developed also their own ambiguities, failures or deviant forms, while it should warn us, cannot exonerate us of the responsibility of taking our place in our contemporary history. Unity and freedom, consequently -- to come back to the terms of reference of our subject -- cannot be defined abstractly and unhistorically but in the context of today's conflicts and un-freedoms. God's Kingdom of true freedom and true peace (shalom) strives to become historical today in the struggle against the present shape of destructive conflict ( the violence of oppression and injustice) and false peace (the order of repressioni and terror).

      Ecclesiology, in turn, should be interpreted in terms of these parameters, as a community of "congruence" with the Kingdom's present struggle to become historical, as a community of "praxical hermeneutics" of the Kingdom. It seems to me that classical ecclesiology has, in fact, privileged those sighns of the true Church that attest its identity with the origin (sacraments, true doctrine, apostolicity). This is in itself quite correct. But in a static visioni it is easy to think of the "origin" as a fixed point, a given and unchanging "deposit". The origin of the Church, quite to the contrary, is nothing less than the living Lord himself, who in the power of the Spirit is always creating the "new", in a dynamic congruity with the original minitry of the Messiah. In this direction, the signs of the true Church are not merely the marks of its identity with the historical origin but those of its identity with the promised and expected consummation -- the "congruity" whith the Kingdom of justice and shalom. or, if we prefer other formulation: the ture memory of the Church is "the dangerous memory" of the Crucified, the Risen, the Coming One. The test of the unity of the Church can only be, therefore, its interpretative and praxical ability to overcome -- in reality and not only in the realm of ideas -- the concrete unfreedoms and destructive conflicts of our present history in the direction of the Kingdom.

      From our perspective -- as Latin Americans, to be sure but also as part of this much larger world of the defeated, the marginalized, the objectified, the declared redundant of thie world -- we think we can give names to the unfreedoms and destructive conflilcts of today's world and therefore also to the shape of the greedom and unity in which the Kingdom attests its presence in our time. The word "liberation" has come to represent, both in its comprehensiveness and it its sharp focus, the center of htis perspective. The Latin American churches have frequently defined its major dimensions as (1) a militant option for the poor -- i.e. the struggle of the poor and the struggle against de-humanizing poverty is the historical process through which humankind -- both rich and poor, powerful and powerless, opperessed and oppressorss -- can gain (or re-gain) their true humanity. This is true not only because the Bible clearly asserts God's particular concern for the poor but also because unnecessary and surmountable, but also growing and artificially increased poverty is the characteristic that defines our contemporary world. (2) In such a world, justice (in economic socail, political and racial terms) becomes the concrete expressian of of love. Love the center of divine and human existence, overflows itspurely sugective, indificual interpretation, to regain its social, structural, collective significance in the struggle against injustice and oppression. (3) The identification of "salvation" and "liberation" which some critics -- sometimes quite honestly, other times not so innocently -- have imputed to Latin American theologians of liberation is not -- to the extent that such identification wxists -- a reductinoist, horizontalist, "flattening" of the trascendent. Quite to the contrary, it is a struggle against the spiritualistic, individualist, otherworldly reductionism which plaguew (and intrumentalizes ideologically) so much Christian theology and praxis. It is precisely in faithfulness to the Biblical transcendence (the transcendence of the Incarnate Word, of the sacraments, of the ecclesial Body of Christ) that we do not know a Spirit which does not brood over the face of Creation, that does not overcome the bonds of oppression, that does not set the captive free, brings good news to the poor, prolaims the full redemption of the Jubilee. This is an understading that we have gained in the struggles of the poor in Latin America. But it is not our particular possession. Poor and oppressed have reached it in many parts of the world and in many sectors of society. And, since we live in the same -- unjust, unequally divided, conflict-torn -- world, to the extent that such perspective is true for us, it should also be significant for others.

      When we reach this level of concreteness in our definition of the nature of freedom and the bond of unity, an inevitable conflict arises in teh churches. We cannot enter here into a detailed analysis of the plural causality of this conflict nor of the different forms that it takes. Such an analysis -- which is necessary, however painful -- should carefully avoid both an "irenic" relativization (the pitfall of superficial pluralism) or a manichean pseudo-radicality. It has to see conflict both as the transformation -- and therefore the preservation -- of the past and as its overcoming in the power of the new. But it cannot ignore the true radicality of the conflict. The Kingdom, according to the Biblical perspective, always asserts itself conflictively in history, because the forces of the anti-Kingdom continue to operate in history, and become also entrenched in the very structures, theologies and life of the Christian community. Taking the yoke of the Kingdom has always traced a line of division as well as a line of unity, a frontier of separation as well as a community of total mutual surrender. We should not artificially hardern this line. But we dare not artificially erase it in the name of some abstract, uncommitted, one faith or indiscriminate pluralism. It is in the context of this tension that we experience liberation through unity and unity through liberation.

Open questions and tasks

      We are called to look for that unity which is based on obedience to the message and the praxis of liberation and to that struggle for liberation which envisages and prepares the unity and reconciliation of the Kingdom. Can anything be said from this perspective about the "classical" ecumenical questions? Do we find in it any "tracks" along which ecumenical concerns can make some progress? As an open conclusion to our reflection this evening and as an invitation to further dialogue, I would like to make three initial comments about the quest for unity. They will deal with the tensions and apparent oppositions that the ecumenical movement experiences in the effort to give visibility to the unity of the Christian family. I will make these comments from the Latin American experience and, more specifically, from the experience of Roman Catholics and Protestants of different confessions jointly engaged in this kind of Christian witness and praxis that we call "the struggle for liberation".

      The first tension has to do with the old question of unity emerging from teh "base", from the comon life and action of Christians in the everyday struggles of the hujan community and unity structured hierarchically through the institutional instances that define and direct the organized life of the churches. I refuse to use the common expression "from above" and "from below" since, theologically, we should say that genuine unity is in both cases inspired by the Holy Spirit -- thus from "above" in a strict sense, and sociologically, both can be analyzed through the instruments of social analysis -- thus, they are both "from below".

      In our experience, the relation between the two dynamics of unity -- and division! -- is both very important and difficult to define. Within a common commitment to themission of the Church, "base" and "hierarchy" reinforce and challenge each other in a fruitful but "restless" counterpoint. Bishops, synods, Church Assemblies issue declarations, perform symbolic actions that -- even when they do it as separate confessions -- open space for common Christian action at the base. Medellin, for instance, is an ecumenical hierarchical act -- although there are very few explicitly ecumenical references in it. At the same time, by assuming in such delarations and parabolic actions the struggle of the base, the hierachy incorporates it into the consciousness of the Church universal and gives it a permanent place in Christian tradition. On the other hand, it is only the witness, suffering, perseverance of Christians at the base which has made and is making possible the almost miraculous transformation of the mind and consciousness of significant sectors ofchurch leadership in Latin America.

      A word should be said in this context about the role of theology, since it moves somewhere between -- or perhaps it should be said that it "shuttles" between -- the two instances we have been discussing. Theology has gained significane in Latin America because and insofar as theologians have identified with the struggle of the poor, have tried to understand it from the inside, to reflect on it and to articulate it for the sake of the Christians involved in the struggle. But they do this by drawing critically from the resources of their theological tradition, the "tools" and achievements of theological work everywhere, the terms of reference of Scripture and tradition. Thus, theology plays also a mediating role, incorporating into the theological treasure of the Church the "discernment" of faith of the Christians at the base and feeding into this experience the richness of tradition -- both historically and geographically.

      It is within this common task that we should place a consideration of the "confessional" theological loyalties. Naturally such distinctions are radically relativized. While we all know that some are Catholic, some Reformed, some Lutherans, some Methodists, hardly anybody committed to the struggle of the poor would claim for such identities a high priority. They would provide neither the starting point for the final norm ofr theological reflection. But such distinctions are significantly and positively present as instruments, raising questions, providing alternative interpretations, challenging our "received" assumptions in the consideration of our common theological questions. Nobody will deny that Catholics and Protestants place themselves "instinctively" differently in relation to the question of "popular religion" (whether of one or the other confession), that Lutherans and Reformed hurt at different points in articulating the relation between the Kingdom of God and human historical achievements, that classical Protestants and Methodists are not equally "scandalized" by the Catholic manifestations of "synergism" and the eschatological significance of "works of love". A number of outher questions concerning ecclesiology, eschatology, etc. could be mentioned. Such distinctions are not irrelevant nor should they be hidden or lightly given up. They represent permanent concerns in the effort to understand Christian truth. But they are placed at the service of the common effort, they are expressed and discussed not in the abstract, as theologumena, but in the process of understanding and articulating the theological problematics of the Christian community involved int eh struggle of the poor. Here again, base and instituted instance, in the framework of a common mission, reinforce and challenge each other.

      The second tension is closely related to the first. It is the tension between unity which is created "from within" the churches, in the classical sense of ecumenical relations, and unity which emerges in relation to actions, projects, affirmations which respond to the questions of the larger human community in which Christians participate with people of other religions, creeds, or ideological convictions. Sometimes we have spoken in this respect of a "new ecumenism", a "wider ecumenism": the unity that is created among Christians and non-Christians engaged in a common task in the world. This has become for us a common, perhaps the dominant experience. There -- in the struggle for human rights, for social transformation, for political participation -- Christians of different confessions participate with women and men of different ideologies, without claiming any special privilege, without hiding or watering down their own Christian convictions, and discover both their common humanity and their Christian identity as an unexpected "gift". Such fact cannot be considered a merely "secular" one. Such unity is not simply a "functional" unity. If our confession of the pwoer of the Spirit has any meaning, then the unity which is created in such common human effort has to be seen as part of that same unity which Christ has entrusted to the Church for the sake of the unity of humankind -- as the epistle to the Ephesians puts it. In terms of the Incarnation and the ministry of Jesus we cannot accept an opposition between Christian identity and human indentification. Identification with the poor in their struggle is not a "danger" to our identity as Christians. It is, on the contrary, the only way to "identify" with Christ and consequently to reach our true Christian identity.

      The world has proved to be the matrix for forging a human unity within which Christians come into their own inheritance. This does not disqualify or minimize the significance of specific Christian and institutionally ecclesiastical instances. Christian base communities, ecumenical Christian projects and groups, Church consultations, interchurch projects, institutes and workshops for study and reflection on issues of spitituality, theology, etc. in relation to the common task -- all these things to which hundreds of specific names and locations could be added, have at least a triple function: they celebrate the unity that Christians find in the struggle for liberation, they deepen and strengthen the commitment by uniting it indisolubly with our Christian identity and making us aware of the specific motivation and horizon of Christian commitment, and they make such experience available to other Christians both at home and abroad.

      I will only mention -- because it raises a number of important theoretical and practical questions -- a third tension: that between unity at the local level (such, for instance, as is emphasised in the New Delhi statement on unity in 1961) and unity at the universal level (as, for instance, characterized in the section on "catholicity" of the Uppsala Assembly of 1969). The mention of these two ecumenical statements tries to remain open to the other dimension and to integrate its concern. But, beyond the theological discussion of this tension, we face in the struggle for liberation a particular form of it in relation to Christian unity, because the ecclesiastical structures of unity (institutional relations, theological definitions, channels of relation) are intertwined with the structures of oppression, exploitation, repression and marginalization of the poor -- sometimes through unconscious ideological distortion, sometimes by the very nature of the "technical" means involved, sometimes quite consciously and purposefully. On the other hand, we find accross the sociological frontiers (both in the local situation and at world level) genuine unity in mission , authentic options for the poor that contradict all sociaological determinisms. In the understanding of the relation between unity and liberation at world level, we have therefore to assume as relevant "ecumenical" question the geographical, ethical, class conflicts and dominations that create genuine and necessary confrontation. But we have also to honor theunity in diversity that includes the diverse forms in which the struggle for freedom is waged in different parts of the world and sectors of society.

      Freedom and unity seem to be, therefore, as seen through our experience, neither to implicate or to cause each other automatically, nor contradictory. Both can be genuine or false. Both can be at the service of the mission of the Church as defined by the witness and redemptive work of Christ, and both can be manipulated ideologically at the service of oppression. The measure is not, therefore, either unity or freedom conceived abstractly, but that freedom and unity which correspond to God's promised and coming Kingdom. When the Church engages herself in this mission, she finds unity in her struggle for liberation and that unity strengthens and deepens her commitment to freedom. Such unity and such liberation, we claim, the Church can find today when she identifies with her Lord by committing herself to and participating with the poor in their own struggle for a new day for the whole of humankind.