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Kinnamon: ecumenists are 'hopeful realists'

Alexandria, Va., March 8, 2008  ̶  The General Secretary of the National Council of Churches acknowledged tonight that Christian activists who attend gatherings like Ecumenical Advocacy Days are accused of being "leftist."

"But we're not leftists," the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon told a gathering of Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and United Church of Christ conferees. "We're much more radical than that."

Kinnamon made the remarks during the sixth annual Ecumenical Advocacy Days, a movement of the ecumenical community that originated with the National Council of Churches. The gathering will continue until Monday, March 10.

Kinnamon described ecumenists as "hopeful realists" because of their determination to hold together two religious streams that are often considered in conflict: the pursuit of Christian unity and social activism.

"The National Council of Churches is both a forum where genuinely conflicting perspectives meet in dialogue," he said, "and where all are supportive of measures against poverty and for peace."

"I am involved in this work because it's Christians living together in community," he said, adding with a smile, "The fact that you engage persons you would ordinarily avoid like the plague is a sign it is God's work."

Even so, "There has always been a tension in the ecumenical movement and now there is a split," he said. Critics and scholars such as George Lindbeck claim the church's quest for unity is irreconcilable with its cooperative work for peace and justice.

Lindbeck had singled out Kinnamon in a recent article in the Christian Century in which he wrote, "Kinnamon actually tries to take both unity and justice seriously! This is a noble effort, but ultimately doomed because, when theology and politics (Faith and Order and Life and Work) are brought together as equal goals, politics always ends up dominating and the ecumenical movement becomes simply another arena for pursuing political agendas."

But Kinnamon admitted, "My whole ministry has been to hold these two streams together."

He cited the litany of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a dream speech" in 1963:

"I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice ..."

"This is not wishful thinking," Kinnamon said. "It is imagining the world as our gracious God would have it be, and it sets our secular agenda."

That, he said, is hopeful realism.

That special vision of the church applies to many secular issues, Kinnamon said, including the issue of national security.

"That's a dominant issue in the presidential campaign. But Christians have a definition of security that is unstated by politicians," he said. "Security is never won through unilateral defense. The security of one is inseparable from the welfare of others. U.S. security is dependent not on force but on addressing the injustices" that breed resentment and terror.

"My security is not gained at another's expense." Kinnamon cited Jesus' parable in Matthew 25, that those who feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and visit the imprisoned are doing Christ's will. "Christians are called to help the poor despite the effect it will have on us," he said.

Anxiety, Kinnamon said, "follows from trusting in the wrong things to protect us ... If our sense of self worth and security is tied to our bank accounts, then we will never have enough. Those who guarantee their own security at the expense of others will find they have even less security."

In this election year, he said, Christians can change the discourse by asking if it is necessary and legitimate to use force so the U.S. can continue its disproportionate use of the world's goods.

For Christians, security is not the ultimate goal.

"Christians know that to be human is to be vulnerable," Kinnamon said. "If we don't know it now we will surely know it at the moment of our death. The opposite of fear is not invulnerability but hope for God's future, not only for ourselves but for life on this planet ... This allows us to risk life in diverse communities rather than in guarded enclaves."

To be hopeful realists is to commit to a way of life that involves decisions to take risks, he said.

"We know life is filled with anxiety -- job security, health, family safety. But we will not be ruled by it or allow our view of the world to be defined by it. Ours is not an anxious human effort to create a better world but faith that God has overcome evil and death."

NCC News contact:  Philip Jenks, 212.870.2228,


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