2008 marks 100 years since the Federal Council of Churches was founded in Philadelphia. The past century has been rich with events and programs in which all member communions have played an important role: civil rights, peace, Bible translation, evangelism, church school development, faith and order, interfaith relations and many more.
Other Ecumenical Moments:
January: marching together
A moment in ecumenical history
March 1942: Federal Council of Churches envisions a civilized end to World War II
It took a lot of faith to be optimistic about the war in March 1942. The Nazi war machine seemed ruthless and invincible. The Japanese army conquered Java in eight days in what Time magazine called a "complete and swift" victory. American citizens were being rounded up and locked in "reception centers" because their ancestors were Japanese. And President Roosevelt, beginning his 10th year in office, hoped his health would rebound after "a winter's overwork."
Despite the bad news and daily reminders that an Allied victory was by no means inevitable, Americans kept kept their spirits up with a patriotic fervor and an exaggerated demonization of people in enemy nations, especially the Japanese.
Given these stark realities, the meeting of the Federal Council of Churches at Ohio Wesleyan University generated some astonishingly progressive – and Christian – proposals for a humane and forgiving end to the war. "As Christian citizens," said the 375 representatives of 30 member communions, "we must seek to translate our beliefs into practical realities and ... insure that the United States shall play its full and essential part in the creation of a moral way of international living."
Their idea of a Christian end to the war was set down in a ten-part program for a "just and durable peace." Among their proposals were ideas that would win little popular support even today, including "worldwide freedom of immigration," "strong immediate limitations on national sovereignty," and "a progressive elimination of all tariff and quota restrictions on world trade."
But the proposal that alarmed Americans most was a call for "no punitive reparations, no humiliating decrees of war guilt, no arbitrary dismemberment of nations."
Not stopping there, the conference heard a report from its inter-church Commission to Study the Bases of a Just and Durable Peace that warned against putting all the blame for the war on Germany and Japan, but also cited "the shortsighted selfishness of (U.S.) policies after World War I."
Granted, these proposals came months before the full extent of Nazi and Japanese warlord atrocities were known, but the theological and biblical motivation of the conferees was clear.
Time magazine's coverage of the conference railed against its "sensational" opinions, especially "in a week with the Jap(anese) were taking Java," and even now it's hard to look back on the conference without being amazed by its candor and courage.
Even more startling is the line-up of Christian statesmen (all of them males) who led the conference, described by Methodist Bishop Ivan Lee Holt of Texas, as "the most distinguished American church gathering I have seen in 30 years of conferencing."
The distinguished participants included John Foster Dulles – the author of the "Bases of a Just and Durable Peace" – who later served as President Eisenhower's secretary of state and is remembered for his "brinkmanship" on the edge of war with the Soviet Union.
Also in attendance were industrial giants like Harvey Firestone, Irving Fisher and John R. Mott, who was to share the 1946 Nobel Peace Prize with Emily Greene Balch, president of the International Women's League for Peace and Freedom.
The March 1942 conference of the Federal Council of Churches is generally lost to history. But as subsequent generations of Christians find themselves striving to express biblical truths to the architects of war, it's worth remembering that the struggle is not new, and the message of peace and justice – even when it seems no one is listening – is always worth declaring.
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