“This Is Who We Are”
Speech by Jim Winkler
NCC President/General Secretary
Christian Unity Gathering
May 19, 2014
God is good.
I want to say a special word of thanks to the Rev. Dr. Roy Medley, our board chair, for his leadership of the Council and for the wisdom and advice he has shared with me and to Kathryn Lohre, the most recent past president of the NCC. I am happy that one of my predecessors, the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, can be with us for this gathering, along with several past presidents of the NCC, and many friends and colleagues, including my brother, the Rev. Chris Winkler.
As I settle into my role as president and general secretary of the National Council of Churches, I find my own family heritage has been helpful. My great great grandfather, Christopher Philip Winkler, migrated from the kingdom of Bavaria to the United States following the 1848 revolution. He settled in Memphis, TN where he taught music at a Catholic girls' school during the week. On Friday nights and Saturday mornings, he was the organist for Poplar Street synagogue. On Sunday mornings, he was the organist and choirmaster for St. Peter's Catholic Church. Christopher Philip was a Lutheran from a predominantly Catholic country who married a Scots-Irish Cumberland Presbyterian. They raised their six boys as Methodists.
Sisters and brothers, there is diversity in our unity. We may not worship God in precisely the same way nor may each of our churches be organized in the same way and we may have disagreements on a variety of matters, but we are united in our witness on behalf of Jesus Christ, to our desire that it shall be on earth as it is in heaven, and our commitment to the last, the least, and the lost.
In announcing his public ministry in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah the words, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
The tens of thousands of congregations that comprise the National Council of Churches of Christ have long gone about the daily work and ministry of worshiping God, building community, educating the young, caring for the elderly, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and clothing the naked.
Freeing the oppressed and proclaiming release to the captives has been somewhat more challenging. It is there where local and regional ecumenical efforts and state, national and world councils of churches have complemented the role of local churches in confronting the war-making, desert-making, and hunger-making systems, the cosmic powers of this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
God’s Creation is plagued by war, violence, racism, disease, poverty, and climate change and yet this past century has not only seen the rise of the modern ecumenical movement and the growth of greater cooperation, dialogue and understanding among Christians, it has witnessed world-changing movements for civil rights, for women’s rights, for economic and environmental justice, for the rights and dignity of all people, for an end to the Cold War, the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, for an end to apartheid
The National Council of Churches played an active role in the civil rights movement. In 1957, the Council decided not to meet in cities where there was discrimination in public accommodations because of race. In 1963, the Council created the Commission on Religion and Race. This year, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, a landmark piece of legislation passed, in part, because of the hard work of the NCC and its member communions.
In 1963, the NCC, “with $10,000 in bail bond money provided by the United Church of Christ, secured the release of 17 young men and women in the Parchman MS penitentiary, and the 40 people still in the county prison at Greenwood.” An NCC staff person later wrote about going to post bail for two older women, ages 76 and 79 at the Leflore County MS jail, “The older of the two searched my face and then said to me, ‘Do I know you?’ I replied, ‘I am from the National Council of Churches.’ She turned to her companion and said, ‘Hear that? Praise God, the church has come and set us free!’
As the years went by, the National Council of Churches’ Bail Bond was utilized to assist economically and socially oppressed people in our society. 40 years ago, the Council noted “Although bail is intended as insurance that defendants present themselves for trial, there is increasing evidence of use of bail as a means of incarceration of poor and politically active minorities prior to trial. The economic oppression of poor/minority persons coupled with the abuse of the bail process in their cases is a double injustice.”
The situation has only worsened. In her seminal book, The New Jim Crow Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander describes it ‘as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control…’
We are part of the Faith in Action Criminal Justice Reform Working Group, which consists of more than 35 faith-based organizations seeking to strengthen sentencing-reform efforts and develop new legislation to reduce the impact of the U.S. criminal justice system. We are supporting the Smarter Sentencing Act, an incremental reform that addresses the overcrowding crisis in our prisons by reducing excessive sentences for low-level drug offenses and allows for judicial review of cases rather than instituting mandatory minimum sentences.
The bail bond and plea bargain systems are broken and thus, I believe, the NCC Ecumenical Minority Bail Bond Fund can most effectively be put to use by addressing reform of the pretrial systems. The most active reform campaigns are taking place on a state to state base. Mapping the intersection of strong state ecumenical councils, as well as local and regional ecumenical organizations with active state initiatives has the potential to create successful pilot projects. In partnership we can work for and support effective pretrial reforms that include risk assessment, alternatives to money bail, increased use of citation in lieu of custodial arrest, and other proven measures.
The Council’s focus on mass incarceration is rooted in its commitment to civil rights, to Jesus’ commitment to proclaim relief for the captives and freedom of the oppressed. Action on mass incarceration requires advocacy on behalf of criminals.
Most of our member communions have long been struggling with membership loss. Were our churches to have members waiting outside every day the nearly 5,000 jails and prisons in this nation ready and willing to welcome and aid the more than 600,000 people released each year not only would we reverse membership loss, we would be more fully living out the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Interreligious relations with a focus on peace requires us to confront powerful systems of domination and to be in solidarity with those who find themselves working for peace during war.
The NCC has stood alongside our Church of the Brethren colleagues who have a significant presence in Nigeria. Stan Noffsinger, Church of the Brethren general secretary, wrote to me to say,
“On behalf of the Church of the Brethren, I cannot begin to thank you enough for the support we have felt from the NCC and member communions spirited by the NCC news release on the Chibuk School girls. While the faces of the individual girls are unknown to many of us in the US, the heart string to them as sisters in Christ Jesus is so very strong and each of us are imagining them as our own daughters.
“The Nigerian church is engaged in some incredible peacemaking as they bridge the gap in their home communities between Muslim and Christian neighbors. In the midst of the crisis is the church. They are steadfast in their faith as non-violent disciples of Jesus Christ, seeking to reconcile the brokenness between God and humanity to itself. Oh how I yearn for a people of this depth of faith in the USA, where our allegiances are clearly devoted to God, and not to a nation-state.”
We are in solidarity with our ELCA and Episcopal colleagues, among many others, as they respond to the unfolding tragedy in the Sudan and South Sudan. Just a few days ago, Bishops Elizabeth Eaton and Katherine Jefferts Schori noted,
“Our partners in South Sudan have suffered massive casualties. Their people have been murdered, raped, tortured, and burned out of their homes. Churches and entire villages have been destroyed. In spite of extensive displacement, Anglicans/Episcopalians and Lutherans continue to be active in relief and peacemaking efforts through our partners in the Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan, and the Lutheran World Federation.
“We urge you to join in prayer for the people of South Sudan and Sudan, for a lasting and meaningful peace, and for immediate aid and response to the needs of the myriad of displaced persons.”
We have spoken out on behalf of Armenian Christians who fled in the face of extremist attacks on the Syrian village of Kesab where churches were desecrated and believers were murdered.
We have called on the U.S. government to address the violence against civilians in Syria. Last week I attended a luncheon at St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral in New York City in honor of His Holiness Ignatius Aphrem II Karim, the 123 Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, known more recently to us as Metropolitan Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim, a member of the NCC Governing Board on behalf of the Syriac Orthodox Church.
We prayed for His Holiness and wished him well, but we also acknowledged that he is heading into a war in which two archbishops have disappeared, 200,000 people have died, and millions of people have fled from their homes.
His Holiness spoke of how much the ecumenical community means to him, of how much he desired our prayers, of how deeply he hopes peace will come to Syria so that we may visit him, and of the reality of martyrdom. It struck me very intensely that ecumenism not an empty concept or a polite notion.
We continue to raise up new generations of Christians. I confess that until I assumed the helm of the NCC I did not realize I am a graduate of the Committee on the Uniform Series. At the national Sunday School convention in 1872 a committee was appointed (does that sound familiar?) to select a course of Bible lessons to embrace a general study of the whole Bible. The Committee on the Uniform Series carries on this ministry today under the auspices of the National Council of Churches. Millions and millions of children, youth, and adults have been educated and nurtured in the faith through this vital ecumenical venture.
The National Council of Churches is the result of the merger of eight different entities including the International Council on Religious Education which helped lead the development of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, published in 1952.
When I became president and general secretary of the NCC, I was aware the NCC owned the copyright on the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible but I did not fully realize this would entail participating in significant discussions around licensing, marketing, and exploration of a possible update of the Bible.
The NCC’s purpose is to live as a community of communions called by Christ to visible unity and sent forth in the Spirit to promote God’s justice, peace and the healing of the world. The Committee on the Uniform Series and the Bible Translation and Utilization Committee further this vow as we engage in ecumenical worship and in biblical and theological study, share resources for unity and mission, foster education about and for ecumenism and engage in all educational efforts from an ecumenical perspective.
Theological work is at the heart of who we are as the National Council of Churches. Any ecumenical organizations such as ours has as its central task the pursuit of Christian unity. We come together as Christian churches, certainly to give witness to our faith commitments based on our common confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, but also in recognition that we are not fully united in Eucharistic fellowship around a common altar table. And yet it is just such intimate and profound unity for which Jesus prayed on the night he was betrayed.
Our commitment to pursue such unity, and to heal the divisions among us, has been profoundly demonstrated over the years through the Faith and Order Commission; our commitment to pursue unity and to continue addressing our divisions, remains steadfast as we move forward from this time and place through the Convening Table on Theological Dialogue and Matters of Faith and Order. Our Faith and Order work remains tied to the global Faith and Order movement.
This afternoon, for the first time, our Convening Tables will assemble. NCC member communions have named more than 170 people to these tables where they will join treasured colleagues from a variety of organizations including the US Conference of Catholic Bishops; the Society for Pentecostal Studies; the Graymoor Ecumenical and Interreligious Institute; the Church of Christ, Scientist; New Fire; Bread for the World; and the Children’s Defense Fund.
It is through these tables where we will continue theological work on Christian unity and division, deepen relationships with those of other faiths, carry forth a prophetic voice, and nurture Christian identity.
Now, we move into a new period in the life of the National Council of Churches. I have found that many want the support, endorsement and imprimatur of this great Council and, where appropriate, we are happy to provide it but we will find our true calling and renewal at the margins of society when we stand with the prisoners and the oppressed.
We are not here simply because we think it’s a nice idea to get together. We are here because God calls us to live our faith in community and to love one another so that we can experience strength, courage and vitality in our lives and our faith.
The life of Jesus modeled this vision. He ate with tax collectors and prostitutes, condemned the rich, called the poor blessed, criticized the powerful and praised the confessions of common folk. He mingled with foreigners and told stories about those who were far off; he embraced children, decried piety and noticed tiny acts of sacrifice in the name of friendship. Jesus constantly pushed against the powers and principalities that denied justice.
He also loved and welcomed those who were different from him, especially those whom society deemed unclean or unworthy—which means, I think, that the Gospel calls us to go the margins of our own spirits and sensibilities to discover what love is all about. We are not called to love where it is simple, acceptable and easy—in the heart of our own heart. We are called to go to the places where love is complex, difficult and even a little messy.
Trusting Jesus’ promise of eternal life means more than professing faith. It means bearing fruit. It means preaching the gospel and only using words if you have to. It means living a life of radical love. This is who we are. Thanks be to God!