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They’re just ideas

Three World Council of Churches speakers share their thoughts on providing justice for more of God’s people

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Addressing a press conference Tuesday on “Affirming Justice and Human Dignity” are. left to right, the Rev. Dr. Henriette Hutabarat-Lebang, the Rev. Dr. Karen Georgia A. Thompson and the Rev. Dr. Gordon Cowans. (Photo by Sean Hawkey/WCC)

LOUISVILLE — Tuesday’s press conference put on by the World Council of Churches meeting in its 11th Assembly featured three leaders working hard at affirming justice and human dignity:

Tuesday’s press conference can be viewed here.

“When Christians speak of disabilities and the church’s response, very often it’s a question of whether it’s an issue of injustice or an issue of compassion,” Cowans told reporters. “I believe we need to speak very directly and clearly that in fact maters relating to disability are matters of justice — or, too often, injustice. The disability community within the church isn’t asking for charity and sympathy. Within the church we need to remind ourselves that the God of love is also that God of justice.”

Excluding anyone is unjust and is a sin, Cowans said. “Over the last 20 years I’ve seen significant change here at the World Council of Churches,” with regards to inclusivity, Cowans said. “Yet at the local level, in too many of our denominations and congregations, persons with disabilities are not sent forward” with the opportunities they deserve. “Persons with disabilities have something to offer,” Cowans said, “and the church is not fully the body of Christ until all of humanity is available to be involved and to participate.”

According to Thompson, the challenges facing women “are at pandemic proportions,” including the wage gap. The 2021 Global Gender Gap Report from the World Economic Forum says at the current pace it’ll take more than a century before women are finally able to achieve gender parity.

Gender-based violence remains “a major challenge for women,” Thompson said, and is “a serious violence of human rights.” It’s estimated 1 in 3 women will experience sexual or physical violence in their lifetime, Thompson noted.

“As we in the WCC and as [other] people of faith continue to examine the [gender] disparities that exist around the world, it’s going to be important for us to find ways to continue to be engaged,” Thompson said, “and, most importantly, call out ways in which the church continues to support structures that contribute to greater disparities.”

Hutabarat-Lebang, who’s from Indonesia, called Asia “a pluralistic continent and a very complex society.” Indonesians speak 700 languages and dialects, and the nation has seen plenty of development in recent years, she said — along with an uptick in greed.

The church there “is saying, ‘No. Stop it,’” she said. “The [Indonesian] church is developing a spirituality of moderation. In terms of food, if it’s enough, enough. Don’t consume more than your body needs. Stop it. Think about other people who don’t have anything to eat.”

During a question-and-answer session with reporters, Thompson said she believes that the ordination of women “continues to be a gender justice issue in the fellowship. Within the fellowship there are a multiplicity of issues on which we don’t agree and that is one of them. Multiple traditions among us don’t ordain women.”

“I am ordained,” Thompson said, “and on occasion I do experience what it means to be discriminated against because I am a woman. … I do think there is an ongoing need for us as women to advocate within the fellowship.”

Once they’re ordained, women can come up against “the issue of shared power, what it means for women to be in leadership,” Thompson said, “and for those positions held by women to be equally valued and equally seen in the fellowship.” Then there’s “how much we are paid, because usually that’s not equitable either,” Thompson said.

For the first time “in our North America [WCC] delegation, there were very few white men, if any,” Thompson said. “If we’re not willing to change the delegations we bring into these spaces, if we’re not willing to bring the representation of women, people of color, persons with disabilities and other marginalized people, then they fellowship does not change, because it is out of the representation that is present that the leadership is chosen.”

“If you’re not at the table, it’s hard to impact change,” Thompson said. “Structural change has to come in order for anything to be realized in the leadership of the WCC, but also in the leadership of our churches globally.”

“If we commit to inclusive participation,” Hutabarat-Lebang added, “then the delegates have to reflect that. Ecumenical leadership is very important so we can become ecumenical practitioners in our own churches and our own countries.”

The 11th Assembly of the World Council of Churches continues through Thursday in Karlsruhe, Germany. Learn more here.

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