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ECUMENICAL AND INTERFAITH RELATIONS – August

(Offered By the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee of the Southern California Nevada Conference, UCC, and the Pacific Southwest Region, DOC)

EIRCChinese Government Feels Threatened by Christians

The New York Times reports that the Chinese government has undertaken a demolition campaign against churches which display crosses or crucifixes on top of or on the side of their buildings.  Since early spring, the authorities in Zhejiang Province have issued demolition notices to more than 100 churches, on the grounds that their structures violated zoning regulations.  And these have been state-approved churches, not the underground congregations which otherwise have been more at risk from the Chinese power structure.  In one case, a highly visible landmark church was torn down entirely, although it had been previously cited by the local government as a model project.  Church leaders say that this new offensive against churches, which in some cases has been met with nonviolent resistance by congregants, highlights the Chinese leadership’s discomfort with the growing allure of Christianity, whose adherents are now said to rival in number the 86 million members of the Communist Party.  The current crackdown coincides with a nationwide campaign directed at legal rights defenders pro-democracy advocates, and liberal online commentators.

Let’s keep the courageous Chinese brothers and sisters of our faith in our prayers.  China is a great nation, with a magnificent history and its own profound religious traditions.  But these Chinese traditions have been of the more mystical and individualistic sort.  They have largely lacked the biblical thrust toward separation of church and state and the biblical insistence on the sovereignty of God and God’s justice over all human affairs, which have been increasingly introduced into China by centuries of missionary effort and church growth.  The situation in contemporary Russia, in which the Orthodox Church, after nearly a century of heavy Communist oppression, has again by the government been welcomed and affirmed as an indispensable part of Russian culture should be taken note of by the political leaders of China.  The Church cannot be killed or stifled for long.

What Is Holy about the Holy Land?

The news reports of fighting between Israel and Gaza can only be very upsetting to Christians who feel connected through their faith to the land of the Bible and who is some cases have visited there.  To this is added the fact that many of us have had Jewish friends for years, and those of us in the Disciples and the UCC who have some interfaith contacts also are starting to have Muslim acquaintances and friends.  So the conflict there carries extra emotional charge for many of us.  On the one hand, we are aware of the terrible persecution of the Jewish people in Europe, culminating in the horror of the Holocaust.  It is totally understandable that Israelis would want their own homeland, and yet, once in it, would have extra levels of anxiety about their security, surrounded as they are by countries and movements which often express hostility to them.  On the other hand, it is sad and angering how the Palestinian people have been and still are dispossessed and dealt with so oppressively by the Israelis.  This is a classic situation in which there is plenty of guilt to go around for everyone, not just the Hamas leaders who crazily put their people so at risk and the Israelis who respond so brutally, but also us Christians, because the history of anti-Semitism (and imperialistic domination of Muslim lands) is above all our history.  In the United States, thankfully, anti-Semitism is at a low ebb, but it is the sort of thing we need to keep a very close watch on.  Karl Barth called anti-Semitism “the sin against the Holy Spirit,” referring to a very hard word of Jesus.  We need to be praying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us sinners—all of us: Christians, Jews, Muslims.  Have mercy on us and empower us to take greater risks for peace.”

Sacrifice?

Most of us accept without further thought that Jesus died on the cross—that he was put to death unjustly.  But among many of us, there is these days considerable thought as to what his death meant, and means for us, in a positive sense.  There is a strong tendency in liberal denominations such as the UCC and the DOC to focus on Jesus’ life, his teaching, his ministry of healing.  We think of ourselves as engaged to relieve the suffering of human beings and to create greater justice in the world.  To the extent that his death is mentioned, it is often in the context of his having rocked the boat too much, as far as the Roman overlords and the Jewish religious leaders were concerned.  He threatened them, so they got Him out of the way.

For the vast majority of Christians ever since Jesus’ time, however, his death has meant a great deal more than that.  It is interpreted as atonement for the sin which afflicts all of us.  It is what redeems us, restores our full humanity—insofar as we say yes to it.  And, because Jesus is affirmed to be divine, his death is seen as sacrifice: THE sacrifice par excellence, which enables the world to live.

There are now theological thinkers and ministers, many in the younger generation, who are uncomfortable with the language of atonement and sacrifice for the death of Jesus.  Some say they cannot believe in a God who would allow or arrange his own Son to be sacrificed.  They find such a thought abhorrent, having no relation to the God of love and justice in which they desire to believe.  Recently the PSWR Committee on Ministry interviewed for ordination an exceptionally articulate and committed seminary graduate who courageously raised questions about the sacrificial language in relation to the significance of Jesus.  She stated her sense that the language of sacrifice as used in traditional Christianity is part of what has contributed to the oppression of women and other groups over the centuries.

The Committee on Ministry voted unanimously to ordain this young woman—even though not everyone on the Committee agreed with her theology.  We were proudly conscious, however, of the Disciples watchword, “No creed but Christ”—which is congenial to many UCC people as well.  In our type of church, there simply will be deep differences in understanding who Jesus was and is, what He did and does.  We just need to keep talking and sharing with one another about this, with respect and with love.

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