Keynote Address
Ecumenical Institute Fall Lecture
St. Thomas University
Miami, Florida

Dr. Antonios Kireopoulos
Associate General Secretary – Faith & Order and Interfaith Relations
National Council of Churches USA

“Christian Unity for a Fractured Society”

Good Evening. And thank you for welcoming me to your community for this fall lecture of the Ecumenical Institute here at St. Thomas University.

When my friend and colleague, Rev. Dr. Elias Bouboutsis, invited me to speak at this prestigious event, I was honored, because of his trust in me that I would be able to address you in a way that does honor to this lecture series, and indeed to this university. But I confess that I was even more pleased by this invitation since, given the weather of recent winters in New York, I would be able to spend a couple of days in November here in South Florida. You can be sure I accepted without hesitation. And so, I wish to thank Elias, as well as the St. Thomas University President, Monsignor Franklyn Casale, and the STU School of Theology and Ministry Dean, Monsignor Terrence Hogan, for their invitation. I also wish to thank the founder of this lectureship, STU President Emeritus Fr. Patrick O’Neill, and Sr. Elizabeth Worley, COO of the Archdiocese of Miami, who is representing the archdiocese here this evening, as well as our student respondents, Shaleem Olatunji and Devin Ponder, and all of you, members of the extended STU family, for your warm – literally and figuratively warm – welcome this evening.

* * *

Where to begin on such an important, and extensive, topic as the Christian witness, and specifically the ecumenical Christian witness, as churches seek to bring about justice? Especially in matters having to do with race relations in a time of Sanford, Florida, and Ferguson, Missouri, and even Staten Island, New York?

In addition to this, I could speak to, among other things the ecumenical Christian witness on: gender- and sexuality-based discrimination, which is not a thing of the past; economic disparity, which on account of its growth is causing increased tensions between classes; religious intolerance, which shows signs of increasing again despite years of intense relationship building among different faith communities; community disharmony, which flares up in debates over immigration and other policy debates having to do with Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and even Cuba; and global warming and environmental degradation, which still threaten whole populations. Unfortunately time does not permit me to explore with you these and other areas, and the ways Christians are living out the imperative to bring healing to these situations. But even though we will not speak of these situations tonight, let us not forget that they, too, nevertheless do require us to work for justice.

On these and all such concerns, Christians (almost in a clichéd way) take as their inspiration the words of the Prophet Micah in chapter 6, verse 8:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”

Yes, God requires us to see wrong, and to “do justice.” But what I find interesting, almost humorous were it not for its seriousness, is that Christians typically forget to read the two preceding verses (6-7), which talk about repentance:

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

These verses indicate that doing justice, while an ideal in and of itself, is also the act of repentance – of “turning” – for which God is asking, or perhaps better, that God demands. Which begs the question: what “sin of my soul” are we who look to this verse for insight and inspiration need to repent of? It would seem that we need to turn from our complicity in precisely the injustices that require remedy. And while we turn away from this sin we are also required to turn toward love of kindness so as to walk humbly with God. Repentance involves a continuous turn, in the Greek of my own religious tradition, metanoia, not only in mind and heart, but also toward acts of fairness and justice that have been seeded with love.

* * *

It would be a very complex assignment, and perhaps even an unfair one, if I had been asked to dissect the complicity of the churches in all the injustices I’ve named, and others to be sure. The exploration would necessarily go back centuries, it would have to examine different cultural contexts, and it would of course cut across geographical boundaries. I would therefore ask you to go along with me on this assertion, to accept the premise that to one degree or another, and at one time or another, every church tradition – and indeed every religious tradition – and often with theological justification, has been complicit in injustice, sometimes directly, and sometimes indirectly, for example by being aware of an unfair situation but with an ability to oppose the wrong and yet failing to do so. To support this assertion I could cite, among only various relatively recent Christian examples, Anglican complicity in the slave trade, Methodist complicity in the destruction visited upon Native Americans, Lutheran complicity in the Holocaust, Catholic complicity in the Rwandan Genocide, and Orthodox complicity in massacre at Srebrenica. As you can see, no Christian tradition writ large is exempt from complicity in injustice.

However, what I can do tonight is talk about the Christian complicity of another kind, and the commitment and ongoing effort to repent of this sin. The sin I am talking about is no less than the weakening of the powerful message of the Gospel. It is no secret that the churches are divided. It has been so almost since the beginning. As no doubt taught here in the history and religion departments, over the centuries these divisions have led to estrangement, ill will, and even war. More profoundly, they have led to the inability to celebrate our common confession in Jesus Christ around the same Eucharistic table. But most tragically, in my opinion, is that they have led to a fracturing of the Gospel proclamation. How can we Christians proclaim with full integrity the reconciliation of the world to God when we cannot reconcile among ourselves and proclaim the Gospel as one?

In reality, this has always been so. And throughout the history of estrangements, and even heresies and schisms, the divisions have been drawn with hard and fast boundaries. But in our context, in our country today, when society seems more fractured than ever on every level, it seems that our sin is more pressing. What word can the churches bring to such a fractured society when our own proclamation is likewise fractured?

At the same time, over the last century we have seen what repentance for this sin looks like. And thankfully, for the sake of the world in which we find ourselves today, we are still engaged in this act of repentance. And what comprises this repentance? The search for Christian unity. The search for Christian unity is the goal and work of the ecumenical movement. While seemingly abstract, and with a seemingly eternal timeline, it is nevertheless the only thing that will in the end make our proclamation whole. It is, in fact, what Jesus prayed for in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he was crucified (John 17), when he knew his followers were certain to run in different directions, and when he no doubt foresaw that the Church they would establish would eventually divide into separate churches and likewise run one from another in different directions.

By the early part of the last century, the churches saw the consequences of the lack of unity – one of which was competition in the mission fields – and saw the need to seek together that for which the Lord had prayed. The 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, which is commonly thought of as the beginning of the modern ecumenical movement, was inspired by such a realization, and had as its aims “to avoid competition, to realize better stewardship of resources, and to provide more effective witness to non-Christians” (Gerald H. Anderson, Bibliographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, 102). Indeed, it is not surprising that the ecumenical movement started out of a concern for mission. As this concern was further reflected upon and addressed, at Edinburgh and afterward, the realization was precisely “that it was inconceivable to divorce the obligation of the church to take the gospel to the whole world from its obligation to draw all Christ’s people together; both were viewed as essential to the being of the church and the fulfillment of its function as the Body of Christ” (David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, 470). And so the search for Christian unity began, precisely as an attempt to make whole our proclamation of the Gospel.

But this search for unity has a corollary. While the search for unity is the goal, commonly affirmed as theological unity as reflected in fellowship around the same Eucharistic table, the recognition of the degree of unity which we already have, even as we are divided, by virtue of our common confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, is what compels us in very real ways to seek together to establish justice in his name even as we continue toward our eternal and seemingly elusive goal. And this is what I wish to focus on tonight: the ecumenical witness, as a reflection of the unity we seek, to bring about justice in a world rife with injustice. In doing so, I will center my remarks primarily on matters of race.

* * *

In talking about justice in the face of injustice, particularly having to do with matters of race in early 21st century America, in some ways tonight we take as our starting point this year’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. That landmark piece of legislation in 1964 marked a turning point in race relations in this country. Many Americans had been horrified in the years leading up to that year, and continued to be so afterward, by the bigotry and violence suffered primarily by African Americans, even if they weren’t as attuned to the institutionalized and pervasive discrimination that underlay the abuse. Before his assassination, President Kennedy, who called it “a moral issue…as old as the Scriptures and…as clear as the American Constitution,” sought to bring an end to this violence and suffering through legal remedy. Picking up the mantle, and basing it on these same moral, religious and constitutional principles, President Johnson carried on the fight for its passage as it wound its way through the legislative process.

As we know, this law outlawed discrimination based on race (and what we may not know, also on religion, sex, and national origin). While it proved to be the baseline for equality among the races, the Civil Rights Act did not end racial inequality or discord. It did ban discrimination in public places and school segregation. But it did not ban job discrimination or housing discrimination; it did not end police brutality against African Americans. It did not end racial tensions more broadly, as exemplified by the events of Selma, Alabama. But as the baseline, it went on to influence the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which mandated fair housing and sought to end the legitimacy of violence against people because of race.

As the events of the 1960s proceeded, religious voices were among the loudest calling for change. Of course, we all know the influence of Martin Luther King, Jr. But we can lift up so many more people of faith, some of them in the historic black churches that accompanied King on the African Americans’ march to equality, and consequently to his own martyrdom, some of them in predominantly white churches who likewise saw the injustice as a violation of their scriptures and a warping of their theology. All of these people drew moral authority and strength from their religious traditions to battle against the injustice. Many, and perhaps most, of the Christian religious leaders who joined this battle had met in the ecumenical movement and drew inspiration from this fellowship.

I can mention only a few here for sake of time, and will recall some of those during that period who were connected in some way to the National Council of Churches (and not in addition, for example, those standing in the ranks of the long and honorable social justice tradition of the Catholic Church and other church communities). For example:

Eugene Carson Blake, an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church, was president of the NCC in the 1950s. He helped organize the 1963 March on Washington and spoke a few minutes before Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Andrew Young, ordained in the United Church of Christ, would go on to become president of the NCC (among his other prominent positions for which he is well known) in the early 2000s. But back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was on the youth staff of the NCC before he became a “lieutenant” of King, his long-time friend, in the campaign for civil rights.

Archbishop Iakovos, of my own Greek Orthodox Church, marched with King in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, just days after another white clergyman was brutally killed by segregationists for promoting civil rights. The photographs capturing the moment, including the one on the cover of Life Magazine, with the archbishop dressed in his long black robes and veiled episcopal hat, seemed to convey the truth that all of Christian history and tradition was on the side of civil rights.

Arthur Sherwood Fleming, a United Methodist Church layman, was president of the NCC in the late 1960s, and he spoke forcefully about the need to “confess the guilt of racism” and “attack root problems of racial injustice.” He was present on behalf of the churches of the NCC to mourn King’s assassination.

Perhaps it was William Sterling Cary, a United Church of Christ clergyman who was president of the NCC in the early 1970s, and the first African American president of the NCC, that gave the most powerful theological reflection on that period. He said: “We as churchmen recognized the need to become engaged in efforts to empower people…And so, we felt it was important to say that the will of God was that people be engaged in this struggle against the powers and principalities that were oppressing them…[R]acial injustice [is] a legacy of the slave period…[A]nd …continues even to the present day” (NPR interview, npr.org, 2008).

Cary made these comments in 2008. Whether merely observation of the times or prophetic witness, his comments certainly resonate when thinking about Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown today. Indeed, what Cary said highlighted the fact that such racial tensions are not the stuff of ancient history, and the ecumenical witness similarly not relegated to past periods of church history. Today’s events reveal that the sin is still with us, and that the healing witness of the churches is still necessary.

* * *

When theologically considering the sin of racism, many believe that there is no such thing as race to begin with. If God created the one human race, then separations within that one race are false creations (Jack W. Hayford, “Confessing What Separates Us,” Ending Racism in the Church, 15). Instead, they see race as a “social construct,” with “prejudice” and “bigotry” being based on the belief in the superiority of one group over another, and “racism” itself being “the abuse of power by a ‘racial’ group that is more powerful than one or more other groups in order to exclude, demean, damage, control, or destroy the less powerful groups,” and the conferral of “benefits upon the dominant group that include…social privilege, economic position, or political power” (Susan E. Davies and Sr Paul Teresa Hennessee, “Introduction: What is Racism?” Ending Racism in the Church, 1). I would add to these aspects one other, namely fear, fear of others outside one’s group.

These diverse groups within the one race of humankind are rarely self-defined, and commonly defined by the dominant group within the whole. And herein lies the root of the sin, as articulated by a long-time ecumenical colleague, Leonard Lovett, of the Church of God in Christ. As he writes in an essay as part of a volume published in 1998 called Ending Racism in the Church, which partly evolved out the work of a study group of the Faith and Order Commission of the NCC in the 1990s: “the roots of racism lie deep within the soil of human pride and the pervasive will to be different and superior…Because racism is grounded in pride (hubris, which is the exaltation of the self), it may very well be classified as one of the sins of the spirit…It is the perverse worship of the self, rooted in spiritual pride…self-deification in its purest form…the worship of the creature rather than the Creator” (Leonard Lovett, “Color Lines and the Religion of Racism,” Ending Racism in the Church, 24-25).

Lovett’s observation – again, might this be considered prophetic? – is that “to break down the divisive walls of hostility will require a different kind of solution from any that Congress can provide” (25). Interesting, given the recitation a moment ago of the ecumenical witness during the civil rights struggle surrounding the passage of the Civil Rights Act and other pieces of legislation. But herein lie the twin aims of ecumenism made real: to provide a common witness to justice in everyday contexts of injustice even as we seek unity to proclaim the Gospel of reconciliation in all its fullness. Or, as we noted earlier, Christian ecumenism’s conviction that we cannot separate living the gospel in the world from the obligation to unite all Christians, but instead that we see them both, necessarily intertwined, as essential to being the embodiment of Christ.

As the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown show us, we have a long way to go, on both counts. Without going into the details of either case, what should be evident are aspects of the sin of racism – whether personal, cultural, or institutional – and our complicity in it. What should also be evident is that the churches have a role in bringing about justice, healing and reconciliation to a society plagued by such brokenness.

* * *

The persistence of racism, and the tentacles of this sin, go beyond the individual and tragic events that make the headlines. Indeed, they point to a systemic problem.

In a recent series of three articles, The New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, enumerated some of the places where these tentacles reach. In terms of net worth, “average black household in the United States is $6,314, compared with $110,500 for the average white household…and the United States now has a greater wealth gap by race than South Africa did during apartheid” (“When Whites Just Don’t Get It,” August 30, 2014). Life expectancies are shorter among blacks than whites, educational failure is greater, and mass incarceration rates are higher. With regard to the latter, “nearly 70% of middle-aged black men who never graduated from high school have been imprisoned” (August 30, 2014); “black men get sentences one-fifth longer than white men for committing the same crimes” (“When Whites Just Don’t Get It, Part 2,” September 6, 2014); “similar percentages of blacks and whites use illegal drugs [while] blacks are arrested for such drug offenses at three times the rate of whites” (“When Whites Just Don’t Get It, Part 3,” October 11, 2014); and “blacks [make] up 16 percent of observed drug dealers for the five most dangerous drugs and 64 percent of arrests for dealing those drugs” (October 11, 2014).

These latter statistics and others reveal why racial “inequity is embedded in our law enforcement and criminal justice system” (October 11, 2014). And this is why mass incarceration has become such a burning issue in the minds of people in all sectors of society, including religious communities. This includes the NCC.

I confess that I was ignorant of the state of this issue when the NCC chose mass incarceration as one of its priorities for the current period. I had heard anecdotally that the US incarceration rate was highest in the world. But I didn’t know that (for 2012), this meant that there were 2.2 million adults in US prisons, and that “close to 25 percent of the world’s prisoners were held in American prisons, although the United States accounts for about 5 percent of the world’s population, [or that] the U.S. rate of incarceration, with nearly 1 of every 100 adults in prison or jail, is 5 to 10 times higher than rates in Western Europe and other democracies” (Jeremy Travis, et al, eds., The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences, National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, 2014, 2).

I also didn’t know that (for 2011), according to The Sentencing Project, while “38% of people in state or federal prisons were black, 35% were white, and 21% were Hispanic,” it was also true that “1 in every 13 black males ages 30 to 34 was in prison, as were 1 in 36 Hispanic males and 1 in 90 white males in the same age group,” and that “black males have a 32% chance of serving time in prison at some point in their lives, Hispanic males have a 17% chance, [and] white males have a 6% chance,” and that “the rate of prison incarceration for black women was 2.5 times higher than the rate for white women [while] the rate for Hispanic women was 1.4 times higher” (Facts About Prison and People in Prison, January 2014). In broad terms, this means that (in 2010) “blacks were incarcerated at six times and Hispanics at three times the rate for non-Hispanic whites” (Travis, 2).

I’m sure you find these statistics as shocking as I do. While it is difficult to find causal relationships in terms of other social factors – in the age old childhood theological question, which came first, the chicken or the egg? – it is nevertheless true that, with changes in criminal justice policy over the last few decades, including most pertinently increased punishment related to the war on drugs, the problems associated with mass incarceration fall disproportionately on communities of color.

* * *

In her seminal book on this subject, Michelle Alexander calls mass incarceration the “new Jim Crow” (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” 2010). More than just the criminal justice system itself, which gives rise to the statistics just highlighted, she argues that mass incarceration includes legal post-prison discrimination in housing, employment, voting rights, and social benefits that together provide systemic reinforcement of the kind of double standard that leaves the black community forever at the bottom of the social hierarchy. In her words, looking at the evolution from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration, “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it” (2).

Whether one agrees with her conclusions or not, it is difficult to not look at the evidence and agree that she is on to something, and that something is radically wrong. For example, she states that she “came to see that mass incarceration in the United States had, in fact, emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow” (p. 4). It would seem that the evolution of this system, according to her assessment, had been guided by some sort of intention and planning.

Might she be right? Citing the war on drugs, she notes that “sociologists have frequently observed that governments use punishment primarily as a tool of social control, and thus the extent or severity of punishment is often unrelated to actual crime patterns” (7). Referring back to the statistics above, that despite relatively equal drug use, blacks are three times as likely as whites to be arrested for such offenses, it would seem that the statistics bear her out. Again, I’m not asking you to necessarily agree with her conclusions, especially when it requires an acceptance of intention and even collusion in designing this system in order to be able to say, as she does, that “mass incarceration…is the most damaging manifestation of the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement,” (11). Still, there seems to be truth in the notion that rules and laws designed to protect against crime reinforce this reality.

Whether we accept her conclusions or not, we must still recognize the damage that informs her conclusions. Especially when we consider the perpetuation of the situation for generations to come, we cannot turn a blind eye to it. When “more than half of the young black men in many large American cities are currently under the control of the criminal justice system (or saddled with criminal records)” (16), the exponential progression of the problem becomes almost unimaginable. If these young men are or become fathers, this means that their children become fatherless for a good amount of time in their childhood. If and when these fathers return to their households, they are consigned to unemployment rolls, marginalization from society, and likely a return to crime, if not to prison. All of this and other factors breed ongoing poverty, and the cycle begins again, within the same generation, and from one generation to the next.

This is not only a social concern. It is a moral concern. It is a pastoral concern. The challenge to the churches is huge. If the task of the churches includes a turning toward loving-kindness and to walk humbly with God, then affirming the dignity of each person, responding with compassion, and building a positive future in concrete ways are equally part of the task. If this isn’t a spiritual imperative, I’m not sure what is.

Michelle Alexander is urging a building effort of another kind, that of a social movement to cultivate the necessary changes in society that will ensure this type of positive future for all. It is a worthy call, quite frankly for any situation of injustice. And, as just intimated, there is a role for the churches here. The role…the imperative…the calling… is to name the injustice, to affirm the dignity of those around us, to work for change, and to provide a vision of what can be.

At the risk of being repetitive, the kind of change that is needed is moral, spiritual, and practical. Therefore, one of the practical things church communities can do, even as they minister to the incarcerated and their families, is to advocate for sensible policies that can alter the criminal justice system. One of the recommendations of the National Research Council is:

“Given the small crime prevention effects of long prison sentences and the possibly high financial, social, and human costs of incarceration, federal and state policy makers should revise current criminal justice policies to significantly reduce the rate of incarceration in the United States. In particular, they should reexamine policies regarding mandatory prison sentences and long sentences. Policy makers should also take steps to improve the experience of incarcerated men and women and reduce unnecessary harm to their families and communities” (9).

There’s a lot of work to be done if this recommendation is to be implemented. But for the churches’ words and actions to be most meaningful in such actions, their first act is to acknowledge ways in which they may be complicit in the problem, and then move in positive directions.

Is mass incarceration the “new Jim Crow?” Maybe, maybe not. Is it a morally unacceptable situation? Most definitely.

* * *

A half-century ago, Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” He was talking in the midst of the civil rights struggle.

Today, his words are being echoed by others when it comes to the racial divide. As Nicholas Kristof puts it: “Today we sometimes wonder how so many smart, well-meaning white people in the Jim Crow era could have unthinkingly accepted segregation. The truth is that injustice is easy not to notice when it affects people different from ourselves; that helps explain the obliviousness of our own generation to inequity today. We need to wake up” (October 11, 2014).

More specifically related to mass incarceration, Michelle Alexander has written along the same lines: “…racial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference…” (14).

The churches are waking up to the problem, and are joining hands with others to provide solutions. This is part, dare I say it, of the prophetic word to be said in our time, in our place. Personally, I don’t like to use the word “prophetic” when talking about ourselves as Christians, or about our own communities as churches. It is up to others to see in a person’s words and actions, and in our churches’ words and actions, what is prophetic. If our words and actions don’t reflect a divine judgment on a situation of injustice, then they aren’t prophetic; if they don’t reflect a divine response to that situation of injustice, then they likewise aren’t prophetic. Still, in this case, in this time and place, what is needed from the churches, and from each and every one of us, is a prophetic word, both as a judgment on the injustice and as a vision of what can be. In the face of this moral, religious, and spiritual problem, we cannot be silent, oblivious, or indifferent.

* * *

The ecumenical community – those churches who are formally part of the ecumenical structures within the movement, and those who are perhaps not formal participants but ecumenical partners nonetheless – has long been concerned with racism, and has likewise long been concerned with aspects of the criminal justice system. These concerns arise from the theological convictions these churches hold regarding the human person and our treatment of one another.

Mass incarceration is the new face of this racism. It links racism as a general sin with the particular sins we visit upon one another through an otherwise legitimate attempt at criminal justice. By highlighting this phenomenon, the ecumenical community is witnessing to justice in the face of injustice. Time will tell if this witness is prophetic.

I would issue a caution here as well. The problem of mass incarceration came about largely with the “war on drugs.” We are now also engaged in a “war on terror.” Drugs are evil. Terror is evil. But as we contemplate the implications of our self-described wars on these evils, what sins related to religious intolerance might we, as a society, commit against one another – I’m thinking of our Muslim neighbors now – even as we appropriately address the terrorism that has marked the last decade-and-a-half? We’ve already committed some sins in this regard. Torture and Guantanamo immediately come to mind. Let us not allow the tactics of this “war on terror” continue to take us down a path where we become less than we are, or less than we are called to be, as we have in the “war on drugs.”

What makes this more difficult is the extent of the fracture in society. The increasing gap between rich and poor; the growing chasm between immigrant and native; the unprecedented inability to compromise between Democrats and Republicans; the persistent distance between people of different faiths: all of these contribute to the fracturing of our society. This reality calls for a united witness for justice among Christians, and together with people of other faiths. But more so, it calls for vigilance in the search for Christian unity, so that the gospel of God’s reconciliation and salvation we proclaim resonates fully in the hearts and minds of all.

For this reason, I am so glad for this ecumenical institute and the work it does together with the school of theology and ministry, with the whole of this university, and with other like-minded academic and other institutions around the country. It means the future of ecumenical engagement will continue, to the glory of God.

Thank you.

Dr. Antonios Kireopoulos
Associate General Secretary – Faith & Order and Interfaith Relations
National Council of Churches USA