Why I chose to become a homo oecumenica? Challenging the Politics of Labelling

May 30th, 2016 4:51 pm

HadjeHadje Cresencio Sadje is an associate member in the Center for Palestine Studies-SOAS University of London UK. He is currently a master student at the Protestant Theological University-Groningen and has been working with various professional and faith-based organisation including, PhISO, Peace Builders Community Philippines, and the Foundation University-Amsterdam The Netherlands. 

 

“When we require that all people must say the same words or subscribe to the same creeds in order to experience God, we underestimate the scope and power of God’s activity in the world.”.
—Rachel Held Evans

The future of Christian identity has become a general concern at this very difficult yet crucial part of the 21th century. We have entered a new phase in the debate about identity formation. A Jewish activist Judith Butler called it, “identity politics” discourse. While an American critical theorist Nancy Fraser described it as “politics of recognition” debates [1]. Although these concepts are contestable, it is suggested that our identity could be philosophically, politically, and socially construct based on the notion of “us” and “them”. As we go about our daily lives, we are polarized by categorical labeling, great inequalities, and injustices but we are also increasingly interconnected. Globally, everything is so interconnected by modern technologies that enable us to challenge those conventional notions of categorical labelling, identity formation, and the politics of representation.

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We find ourselves every day in a constant identity formation and identity crises. At all times, our lives are intimately interwoven in social networks, social expectations, and reproduction of meaning with other people. Definitely, the decisions of our immediate families, political affiliations, and social environments will probably have a major impact on our own choice and identity. In reverse, it might be said, that these social construct affect people’s perception of both themselves and their relationship to other people.

We, as faith community, have lived through a moment that will continue to define our capacity to face those daunting challenges of diverse trajectories. Therefore, we must be critical and reflective, as Ros Hague argues, to those we considered as unchosen or enforced identities upon us [2].

Many years ago, I was misinformed about the ecumenical advocacy of the World Council of Churches (WCC). Some of my “close Christian friends” wrongly equated the World Council of Churches vision and mission to religious syncretism. I was stunned how they categorised the WCC as false Christian organisation. Since the establishment of World Council of Churches, the ecumenical movement has been much maligned and severely misunderstood in the conservative Christian circle. Labels such as “conservative” and “liberal” Christianity are so insufficient or obscure concepts. I wilfully refuse to be labelled as “conservative” or “liberal” Christian because I believe that “categorical labeling” is a divisive language. Such label is used to interpret the stranger’s world into our own set of standard, norm, and biases. Despite Christian churches’ agreement that progress has been made in the last years of the 20th century, using superficial grasp or stereotype still continue to have distorted the imagery of the World Council of Churches, painting them all with the same brush. A common misconception about ecumenical movement is that it promotes “syncretism’ among Christian churches. Some conservative Christian communities have used some alarmist hate speeches against the WCC. For example, conservative views argues that WCC mission and vision statements paved the way for the Antichrist. Many conservatives regarded ecumenical movement as a form of New Age Movement or Satanism. For them, it is compromised that resulted in jeopardizing the Kingdom of God and loss of our Christian identity.

I am very grateful and honoured to be a member of the World Student Christian Federation-Europe despite the odds. As a member of WSCF-E I have become so vulnerable to moral panic. I have received much criticism after this public exposure. Last month, annoyed as I was, I tried to maintain my composure and calmly responded to those individuals who tried to question my faith, theological-orientation, and advocacy. I was politically-charged as a left-wing Christian. They thought that I was losing my Christian faith and identity. Honestly, I struggled to engage my conservative family members, friends, and colleagues who have been compounded by their lack of understanding of what WCC and WSCF-E do. As was to be expected, without taking a minute, they responded back to me by quoting Biblical verses, justifying their bigotry through the Christian Scripture.

Shortly after my three months of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) program, everything has changed. As a result of my understanding of Palestinian struggle, witnessing, and experiencing life under Israeli occupation I have realised that I needed to rethink my Christian theological stance. Undoubtedly, the EAPPI program was an eye-opener for me. It was a sudden realization that changed my life and how I see God working far beyond conventional human understanding. My growing dissatisfaction with some of my previous social organisations, cultural practices, and theological convictions led me to explore the social ministry of the World Council of Churches and World Student Christian Federation-Europe. I can say, I finally found my calling as a Christian human rights advocate. Most of all, I have found my answer to my earlier question, why I chose to be a homo oecumenica or ecumenical being. Because my insatiable curiosity led me to realization, far from imposing “categorical labeling,” and WSCF-E and WCC have been strong examples of resilience and dignity, and their insistence in building God’s Kingdom of justice, reconciliation, and peace (see Luke 4: 16-30).

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To avoid confusion, we need to define the word, “ecumenical” or “oikoumene” (Greek translation). It means simply “the whole world.” This does not mean syncretism but promoting unity in diversity among Christian churches to challenge social injustices around the world. I would say, we are united with Lord Jesus Christ, as a centre of integrating principle. Contrary, to Stanley J. Samartha’s description syncretism as an uncritical mixture of elements from different religions without a centre of integrating principle. Samartha contends, it leads to spiritual poverty, theological confusion, and ethical impotence [3]. However, Julio Santa Ana contends that the word ecumenical is interpreted differently by different Christian groups and different time periods [4]. So different types of Christian organisations developed their own understanding of ecumenical movement. In attempt to have a broader description Thomas E. Fitzgerald put it,

For Fitzgerald,

“…the ecumenical movement strictly refers to the quest for Christian reconciliation and the restoration of the visible unity of the Christian churches in shared Christian faith, in the sacraments, and in witness [5].”

Ecumenical movement is a form of awakening and responding to undaunted calls for “reconciling diversity.” Some of us tend to totalize our Christian identity. Worse, the rest of us tend to think that we have a monopoly of religious “Truth”. Admittedly, we were tempted to outcast, criticises and marginalizes people who do not share our views, beliefs, and convictions. Obviously, conservative views have no tolerance for diversity of rituals, social identities, and convictions. However, we Christians are called to embrace unity in diversity or “reconciling diversity”. The Holy Spirit that dwells in us, as community of believers, inspire us to unite against categorical labelling, discrimination, injustices, and to promote equality for all. This concept of “reconciling diversity” was introduces in the WCC document entitled, “The Church: Towards a Common Vision in 2013.” According to WCC document (2013),

“Legitimate diversity in the life of communion is a gift from the Lord. The Holy Spirit bestows variety of complementary gifts on the faithful for the common good [6].”

In this section, it is clearly stated that we must recognize, therefore, that diversity is a gift from the Lord. We, Christians from diverse backgrounds are called by God to make up the hedge and stand in the gap, in order to work toward peace based on justice and reconciliation. We, WSCF-E must challenge the misguided information shared by critics and those distorted imagery of the ecumenical movement.

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I should like, in closing this reflection, to return to how people use labels to assign how others should see themselves. As Steffi Retzlaff argues, labelling is a political act since labels include and exclude [7]. We should not deceive ourselves. “Categorical labeling” is a form of symbolic violence. In most cases, it is the exercise of violence that leads to the marginalization of those people who do not share our views, beliefs, and convictions. In the religious context, “conservative” and “liberal” Christian should not be used as general descriptors. Such labels or categories represents over-simplification of our individual identities, and the people living in the margins of society have no choice but to use them. In the process, labeling might leads to marginalization, discrimination, and moral evaluation against people who do not share our views, beliefs, and convictions. We must welcome, embrace, nurture, and promote the concept of “reconciling diversity” among Christian community (including non-Christian community). We should understand that God’s Spirit moves beyond the church. We cannot and should not limit God’s work. According to the Second Prophet Isaiah (55: 8-9);

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

We, Christians should challenge the politics of labelling. We should stop this exercise of violence, categorical labelling. We welcome the stranger and strange world. We, WSCF-E as student ecumenical movement called to join the advocacy of justice and peace action network.

Let me conclude this short article by inviting you to reflect on this powerful passage from the Gospel according to Mark 9: 39-41;

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

References

 

[1] Nancy Fraser, “Social Justice in the Age of Identity Politics: Redistribution, Recognition, and Participation,” The Tanner Lectures On Human Values Delivered at Stanford University (April 30–May 2, 1996), 1-67. Assessed May 5, 2016.  http://tannerlectures.utah.edu/_documents/a-to-z/f/Fraser98.pdf.

[2] Ros Hague, Autonomy and Identity: The Politics of Who We Are, (US: Routledge, 2011), 11.

[3] Stanley J. Samartha. “The Holy Spirit and People of Other Faiths,” The Ecumenical Review 42, no.3 (1990): 250-263.

[4] Julio de Santa Ana and Ninan Koshy. ‘On the Meaning of ‘Ecumenical’. In: Julio de Santa Ana et al. (eds.) Beyond Idealism: A Way Ahead for Ecumenical Social Ethics, 30–55. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006.

[5] Thomas E. Fitzgerald. The Ecumenical Movement: An Introductory History, (US: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., 2004), 4-5.

[6] World Council of Churches 10th Assembly Resource Book. Geneva: WCC Publications, 2013, 16.

[7] Steffi Retzlaff. “What is in a name? The Politics of Labelling and Native Identity Construction,” The Canadian Journal of Native Studies XXV, 2 (2005), 609-626.

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