Jim Winkler’s Address at Claremont School of Theology’s Commencement Exercises
Congratulations to all of today’s graduates! I am grateful to President Kuan, the board of trustees, and the faculty for this great honor.
There are many connections between Claremont School of Theology and the National Council of Churches. To name but a few: President Kuan serves on the Interreligious Concerns Convening Table of the NCC. I have served on the board of trustees of Claremont. One of my predecessors at the Council, Bob Edgar, was once president of this school. Ms. Hae-Jin Park, one of today’s graduates, participated earlier this month in the NCC’s Christian Unity Gathering. And, Professor Najeeba Syeed is the daughter of Dr. Sayyid Syeed of the Islamic Society of North America, a close partner of the NCC. I am grateful for these and many other ties that bind us together.
The ecumenical movement has played a vital role in connecting Christians across denominational boundaries. Some 150 years ago, young people created organizations such as the Young Women’s Christian Association, the Young Men’s Christian Association, and the World Student Christian Federation. Those young people were not as concerned about or loyal to denominational silos as were their elders and sought new and creative ways to share God’s Word and love with one another and the whole world.
Gradually, ecumenical bodies formed at the local, regional, national, and global level. Our seminaries began teaching our clergy that being a faithful Christian was more important than belonging to a particular church and those clergy began teaching the same to us laity. Now as our nation grows ever more diverse, interfaith councils and associations are springing up everywhere.
Claremont’s strategic plan recognizes “that it is no longer enough for a graduate theological school to imbue its students with a fundamental knowledge of scripture, liturgy and theology. The needs of the church and the world demand religious leaders who are innovators – capable of using the tools and frameworks of ancient traditions to bring about real and embodied transformation of contemporary life.”
This is the contemporary religious world you graduate into. Claremont has sought to provide you with the skills to transform communities and the world and I am thankful to God for that. You will need all your talent and commitment and all your faith to navigate through the challenging years ahead.
Many of the 38 member communions of the NCC are in numerical decline. Membership loss has created panic, a crisis of confidence, and soul-searching among our churches. Declining resources have led to a reduced commitment, in many quarters, to the daily work of Christian unity as churches turn inward while searching for ways to reverse their statistical descent.
This morning we gather on the grounds of one of the 13 seminaries of the United Methodist Church. Just last week, I attended a portion of the United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Oregon. The sharp disagreements in our church over what it means to be a church, a global church, in particular, and, most notably, over whether we will treat LGBTQ sisters and brothers as fully human has brought the denomination to the brink of dissolution. As daunting as that may seem, I know God will see us through if we are faithful to God. Denominations rise and fall, theological disputes come and go, but God’s word is eternal.
You leave here to serve God’s Creation in a variety of ways. It is a Creation groaning with pain. The earth is in the grip of three interlocking systems of vast power and scope: hunger-making, war-making, and desert-making systems.
Dr. King named three giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism. William Sloane Coffin named the real axis of evil as being environmental degradation, pandemic poverty, and a world awash with weapons.
I believe we continue to unmask three great myths that make it difficult for us to move forward faithfully as God’s people. These are the myths of white supremacy, male superiority, and American exceptionalism.
These myths manifest themselves over and over. Soon, the United States will no longer be a white majority nation. Southern California is far ahead of most of the country in this regard, already. While a beautiful flowering of diversity is revealing itself daily across our land, a rearguard action is underway of those who desire to return to an era in which people of color were forced into second-class status. People of color are consigned to prison in numbers vastly disproportionate to their share of the overall population, are kept from exercising their right to vote through restrictive laws, and from immigrating into the United States.
The myth of male superiority exhibits itself in so very many ways it almost seems unnecessary to list examples such as the facts that on average women earn less than men for the same work, that few women lead major institutions and corporations, or that we still have not had a woman president.
The myth of American exceptionalism continues to cripple our foreign policy and our ability to work with the rest of the world in a fair and just manner. Our nation continues to act as if it can intervene militarily or by covert means anywhere it wishes at any time. We use drones to kill people the world over, maintain secret prisons and military bases all over the globe and spend an obscene amount of money to ensure our dominance because, quite frankly, we think we are the best nation on earth.
This is a spiritual and moral crisis and you will need to help people of faith grapple with and overcome these myths during your life and ministry. This is challenging and sacred work.
I am thankful for Claremont’s commitment to inclusiveness, diversity, and interreligious dialogue and understanding. I trust you are prepared to help lead people of faith as we contend with racism. Last month, I helped to host a World Council of Churches racial justice pilgrimage through Washington, Charleston, Ferguson, and Chicago.
When we gathered on the final day of the pilgrimage to share reflections, the WCC leaders, who were from Africa, Asia, and Europe, told us they were shocked at the depth and prevalence of racism in this nation and called upon the National Council of Churches to undertake the demanding ministry of establishing a truth and reconciliation process. It was noted the first step of such a process must be for the white churches to repent of our complicity and active involvement in white privilege now and in the past.
Just imagine how liberating it will be when white Christians in this nation, collectively, not only confess to our racism but begin to atone for it. This will only happen if people of faith lead the way. I ask your prayers and your active involvement in this historic effort.
Your task, my sisters and brothers, is to bind up the wounds of the people and offer them a vision of God’s preferred future so that it may be on earth as it is in heaven. The years ahead will be strenuous, the task herculean, but the work must be done. Climate change, war, racism, violence, increasing inequality, growing fundamentalism in all major world religions—these and other phenomena have the potential to paralyze and overwhelm us, but we are a resurrection people.
Earlier this month, the National Council of Churches held our 3rd Christian Unity Gathering. Our theme was, “Fear Not: God’s Love in an Anxious Age.” We took as our text 1 John 4:16-21 in which are found these words, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”
Our bible study leader at the Gathering was Rev. Neichelle Guidry who taught us that F.E.A.R. stands for False Evidence Appearing Real. In this anxious age of mass shootings and terrorism, fear can incapacitate and exhaust us. A preacher recently told me he had been in a meeting of clergy in Ohio and asked them how many carried a gun into the pulpit on Sunday mornings. Every one of them said they did so.
The social fabric seems to be fraying. So we must respond not only with prayer and fasting but through action. People of faith are not powerless to resist the voices of doom and gloom. We must protest, we must organize, and we must be bold.
A few examples:
- Next month, the NCC is inviting senior faith leaders to come to Washington to push for passage of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act as one step in ending the crisis of mass incarceration;
- In September, church leaders from the Holy Land and this nation will gather to call again for an end of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine;
- Jews, Christians, and Muslims are standing shoulder to shoulder against acts of anti-Muslim bigotry and discrimination;
- Catholics, evangelicals, and the NCC are committed to a circle of protection around public programs that assist those living in poverty;
- Jews, Catholics, evangelicals, and the NCC work together in the National Religious Partnership for the Environment.
God’s love compels us to action. What is happening around us is not by accident. Our salvation is tied to how we respond. I believe the fundamental trajectory of God’s history is in the direction of grace, love, mercy, unity, justice, and forgiveness and that we are living through the agonizing death throes of patriarchy, racism, homophobia, and narrowmindedness. But the way forward depends on you.
If our children and grandchildren are to have a decent future it will be because we continue to work as children of God to change the direction of our nation and of the world to one committed to cooperation, justice, and peace. I am committed to that struggle and am honored to be with you in it.
These remarks were delivered at Claremont School of Theology, May 24, 2016.