Is unity part of our Christian call?
By Martha Moore-Keish | Presbyterians Today (August/September 2017)
The movie Places in the Heart tells the story of Edna Spalding, a widowed white mother in a small Texas town during the Depression. Against all odds, with the help of a transient black man and a disagreeable blind boarder, she plants and harvests 40 acres of cotton to keep her home. Throughout, characters engage in murder, adultery, theft, assault and plain mean-spiritedness. The final scene shows a congregation in a local church gathered for Communion.
As the bread and juice are passed down the pews, the camera focuses on one face after another: first, anonymous members of the community; then Edna’s sister, who passes the tray to her cheating husband; then members of the Ku Klux Klan, who share the elements with the black man they had beaten up; Edna herself; and finally, in a glimpse of life beyond death, Edna’s husband, the sheriff who had been shot and killed at the beginning of the film. Sheriff Spalding then passes the bread and cup to his killer, saying, “The peace of Christ.”
This vision of sharing bread with unlikely people across lines of difference captures the heart of the modern ecumenical movement. In the 20th century, many Christians in the U.S. and Europe were inspired by a vision of church unity, rooted in God’s reconciling love in Christ for the “whole inhabited world” (oikoumene).
Several factors contributed to this. The 19th-century missionary movement had inspired cooperation among churches and denominations. Churches in Europe reached across divides caused by centuries of religious conflict and two world wars. This ecumenical movement produced national and international organizations seeking church unity, including the World Council of Churches in 1948.
It was a bold vision, rooted in the conviction that in Christ, God seeks reconciliation of the whole world. In recent years, however, some of the original ecumenical energy has faded and divisions have re-emerged.
Does ecumenism matter? Yes, now more than ever.
One text on unity, Jesus’ prayer for his disciples in John 17:20–23, includes the repeated petition “that they may all be one.” This prayer for unity does not simply — or even primarily — call for union of official church organizations. Jesus here voices his eschatological longing for all of humanity to be reconciled to one another and to God. Like Isaiah, Jesus imagines lions and lambs, wolves and sheep, looking at each other in surprise and sharing a meal. Such a prayer for unity does not mean that differences are erased; it means that differences are embraced.
We can think of ecumenism in three ways: official, everyday and “wider ecumenism.” Each points to the reconciliation for which Jesus prays.
- Official ecumenism. In 2013, after years of discussion, Catholic and Reformed Protestant Christians in the U.S. signed a historic agreement affirming “mutual recognition of baptism.” This significant step in official ecumenical agreement embodies the conviction that at least in baptism, there are no divisions.
- Everyday ecumenism. At Columbia Seminary, where I teach, Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans, Pentecostals, nondenominational Christians and Presbyterians study theology together. Students learn that theology itself is dialogue. Every day, students learn to listen respectfully to other Christians across time and space (and across the classroom) who interpret the gospel differently. In the process, they learn to voice their interpretations of sin and salvation, cross and resurrection with courage, but without shutting down their fellow students. This too is ecumenical dialogue.
- Wider ecumenism. Increasingly, Christian leaders are seeking common understanding not only within Christianity, but also with other religious traditions. This is especially vital in these days when emphasis on Christian unity can unwittingly contribute to prejudice against Muslims (for example, in proposed differential treatment of Muslim and Christian refugees from Syria). If narrow definitions of ecumenism work against Christ’s call to care for vulnerable people anywhere, then we need to widen our definition.
In a divided and angry world, we need ecumenism more than ever. Jesus’ prayer “that all may be one” still summons us to reach across divides and offer bread to our neighbors — across the aisle, across the room, across the globe. As Sheriff Spalding reminds us, this is “the peace of Christ.”
Martha Moore-Keish is the J.B. Green Associate Professor of Theology at Columbia Theological Seminary. She teaches and writes on sacramental, ecumenical, interreligious and feminist theology.
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