Interview with the Rev. Dr. Robert Edgar of NCC

( [email protected] ) Apr 28, 2004 01:48 PM EDT

In 1994, some 800,000 Rwandans – mostly Tutsis but also politically moderate Hutus – died in a bitter genocide. The National Council of Churches USA (NCC) held a commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide with an April 23 event in Los Angeles. "Remembering Rwanda - Ten Years After the Genocide" featured Samantha Power, who won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for her book ‘A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide. The Christian Post held an exclusive interview with the Rev. Dr. Robert Edgar, General Secretary of the NCC, before the event in Los Angeles.

What general statement would you like to say to the Christian audience about what happened in Rwanda 10 years ago?

Many Rwandans were schooled by Christian missionaries, and a majority of Rwandans are Christians. Yet hundreds of thousands of people were killed in a short period of time, and the path of destruction was horrendous. I think the question for us as Christians is, “Why didn’t our Christian teachings stop the ethnic hatred and killing?”

Also, we need to recognize that even at this moment, there is a possible genocide developing in Sudan. In my lifetime there was genocide in Rwanda. The tragedies in Iran and Iraq and also the genocide that took place during the Nazi Holocaust are ones that happened on our watch. And we as people of faith need to think of how can we live according to the fact that Jesus cared about peace and peacemaking and blessing the peacemakers, and would not have condoned our inhumanity to each other.

Recently the World Council of Churches held a conference in Rwanda, admitting its guilt, asking for forgiveness and calling for a healing process. What more can we do now as churches?

Some Christians have asked forgiveness, and others have not. We must all recognize our silence and our involvement. God will forgive us, but not if we don't learn from that inaction.

I think there are three things we can do. First, religious leaders need to go to Rwanda to understand what the violence has wrought. Second, we need to work through aid agencies like Church World Service, World Vision and Catholic Charities to put as many resources as we can to rebuild. Third, we need to advocate in Washington, D.C., and at the United Nations to make sure that the U.S. and U.N. do all they can to stop genocide in the future.

What other goals does the National Council of Churches have?

We have four main goals.

First is the building of a larger Christian table. In April of next year, a new organization will be established, called Christian Churches Together in the United States, and for the first time we will have an ecumenical body that is inclusive of the NCC’s member churches, the Roman Catholic Church, the Salvation Army and several other Evangelical Protestant groups that do not take part in the NCC. And it is important that this new body is a place where Christians can learn to work with each other, talk with each other and find some common ground. There will still be a role for the National Council of Churches and its particular ministries, but this larger body will be very important.

The second priority for the NCC is our mobilization against poverty. Jesus said the poor would always be with us, but in saying that, I don't think Jesus meant we should not care for the poor. He says what you’ve done to the least of these brothers and sisters is what you've done unto me. Christians can read the Old Testament and New Testament and disagree on lots of things; we disagree on homosexuality and abortion, but we can’t read the Bible and not believe that God cares about the poor. Churches like to talk about helping the poor but often our help is pretty minimal.

So some of us four years ago said, "Let's look at the trendlines and set achievable goals, and then market those goals broadly so that the most conservative and the most liberal groups are doing the same thing. Then do something that churches hate to do and that's measure results."

Why is it that 9 million U.S. children lack health insurance and when will that number be cut in half? Why is it that the churches that created public education no longer support it in the way that it needs to be supported so that every child gets a quality education? Why is it that we continue to live in a world where one billion people live in substandard housing, one in four people cannot read or write, and more than 800 million people go hungry? We need to do something about it, and we need to measure those results.

The third issue for us is the environment. Christians really don't disagree that God created the heavens and the earth, or that God created the heavens and the earth for our stewardship during this fragile time. So a group of us wrote a letter to President Bush, saying, "Mr. President, the regulations you are putting forward on your Clear Skies Initiative will make the skies dirtier." We think that the water ought to be clearer, the air ought to be cleaner, automobiles ought to be more fuel-efficient and we've got to figure out how to live on renewable energy rather than sucking all the oil out of the ground and consuming it. The oil we're consuming took 5 billion years to create, and that belongs to our future generations.

The environment is very important to us, and so we look at global warming. We work with a group called National Religious Partnership for the Environment, which has four partners: the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, the Evangelical Environmental Network and the National Council of Churches. And for more than 10 years, the NRPE has been addressing this and other environmental issues and teaching our constituents about our views.

Finally, the fourth initiative is trying to find a way to live together as brothers and sisters on this fragile planet and to seek peace. So, the NCC joined with evangelicals and liberals in opposition to the war in Iraq, and we cry every night not just for the young American men and women who have been killed, but also for the hundreds and thousands of Iraqis who have lost their lives. If we believe God is the creator of all children, then why is it not as important for us to mourn the death of Iraqi children as for own children who are fighting that war? Can't we find a way in this decade and century to use all diplomatic means to prevent war and to move away from thinking that we're going to address terrorism by dropping bombs on countries?

We believe very strongly that peace is important, and that justice is important. Let me give you another illustration. There are nearly 600 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. They are there without access to families, lawyers and due process. This is not democratic, not fair, and even without saying anything about their guilt or innocence, they deserve to have due process. There is a person by the name of Terry Waite, an Anglican layperson working for the Church of England, who was a prisoner of Hezbollah in Lebanon for more than 1,700 days. He stood in front of the Supreme Court recently at an NCC news conference, in front of some 35 television cameras from around the world. He looked straight into those television cameras and said, "I was held hostage for over five years without access to lawyers, due process and family. And everybody in America was upset about the fact that I was being held hostage in Lebanon. Then why do you think it's different to hold prisoners from Afghanistan in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in the same way? What makes your holding of those prisoners right and those who held me in Lebanon wrong?"

I think God is challenging us with this point. When we did our press conference a couple of weeks ago, the U.S. let out several British detainees who returned to their country and were not charged. We held them for two years and yet they were innocent. How many of the nearly 600 other prisoners there are innocent? If you really care about democracy, you need to care about civil rights. It's not a liberal or conservative issue. The Constitution supports civil rights.

Other than political action in Washington, what do the members of the National Council of Churches do together as an ecumenical body?

First, we are not only politically active, but we are spiritually active. Fifty years ago, we published the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which was the first major English language translation of the Bible since the King James Version. We have 11 of our 36 member communions that are Orthodox, both Eastern and Oriental; seven that are historically African American; others that are “mainline” and “living peace” churches and we work to understand each others' theologies. We operate with five commissions: communication, faith and order, interfaith relations, education and leadership, and justice and advocacy. So we are a very complicated and large ecumenical body doing spirituality, theology, social action and social justice.

We often get misunderstood and get thought of as that “liberal” group. But I don't think we'd call Coptic Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox and Syrian Orthodox liberal. I don't think we'd call the historic black churches liberal. We have the Quakers and the Brethren who are the living peace churches. We have churches like the United Churches of Christ and others that are very progressive. So we like to think of ourselves as not liberal or conservative, but as a collection of Christian communities that would like to improve the quality of life on our planet.

In an earlier comment, you mentioned that Protestants seem to break up more than unite. In that sense, what has been the binding that kept the 36 denominations united under the NCC?

We believe strongly in the biblical mandate to be one. I have two pieces to my character. One is a sense of humor and the other is a sense of hope. If you take yourself too seriously, you're going to fail. When I took over the NCC, it was taking itself too seriously because it was in all sorts of financial trouble. It thought it was in a two million dollar deficit but it actually was a 5.9 million dollar deficit and was about to go out of business. It thought its problems were financial, but what we discovered was that most church challenges are not financial; they are about vision and mission. Since we formulated a vision of a larger table and focused on poverty and peace, support has followed, including financial support. Debts have been paid and long-term reserves have been increased. We're doing much better.

What, then, is the most challenging part to uniting these different groups?

Sometimes liberals and conservatives judge each other too harshly. I think the first thing we should do is just lower some of those barriers and get to know each other. Secondly, we need to recognize that we can't do everything, so we've got to do a few things really well. The Council got itself into a little bit of trouble because it tried to be all things to all people. That doesn't work. We really have to say, we are going to address poverty and set achievable goals. We are going to address environmental issues and set achievable goals. We are going to seek peace and address the issue of stopping preemptive strikes and promote using diplomacy. Christians don’t have boundary lines; we have brothers and sisters in every nation. Last year The New York Times said the U.S. is one of two superpowers: the other is world opinion. In lots of ways, we are chaplains to world opinion. I think we are not doing as well as we need to, but we are learning.

Do you believe the commemoration of the Rwanda genocide was a table at which Christian liberals and conservatives were able to come together? Has this improved the ecumenical efforts of the NCC?

It is a table where we all need to come together. We need to ask forgiveness every year, not just this one year. We need to ask ourselves every day, "What violence am I condoning with my silence?" Even through things like what coffee we drink and what clothes we wear, we may be abusing people around the world. We celebrate overcoming slavery in this country but we condone it in other places around the world for business reasons and capitalism reasons. We reject child labor in this nation but we condone it in other places. And I think every day we need to ask for forgiveness, and we need to ask God to give us this strength not only to address the issues on Rwanda but also the other pain that exists in the world.

Do you think Christians in particular are silent because they are unaware?

I'm going to say something that is probably not fair. Many Christians are comfortable and many Christians are lazy. Many Christians think being Christian only means going to church and going through ritual. A good question to ask all of us as Christians is why aren't more of us persecuted? Jesus, in the Beatitudes, says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for my sake.” But we don't like to be persecuted, we don't like to be not liked, and we often fail to recognize that none of the Old Testament Prophets, none of the New Testament disciples ever took a popular vote to figure out what God's will was, and not one of them ever had a majority. We need to make room for a remnant minority that may be right. We need to open our eyes and our ears to the justice questions that those prophetic voices are raising.

For the last question, there are many Christians who have expressed concern and fear that America is no longer a Christian nation. What is your thought on this?

The U.S. has never been Christian. It's made up of people who have a variety of religious traditions and for a long time, the Christian faith has been a majority faith. Many people fled persecution in Europe to come to the United States. We have a history where initially Roman Catholics suffered discrimination, Jews suffered discrimination, but we've evolved into a country that respects a pluralistic religious tradition. The Muslim community was very small back in the 1940s and 1950s, but is growing. So we are a nation that isn't Christian but is a pluralistic nation, and is one of a few examples on Planet Earth where a variety of faith traditions can live in harmony with each other. And we need to respect that.

Secondly, those of us who are Christian in this nation need to fully understand what that means. One of the things that means is that God is challenging us to do the best job in caring for each other, loving one another, loving our enemies, loving our neighbors and loving ourselves, remembering always that Jesus said, "I'm coming to give my life for all of you; and my spirit is available for all of you."

The National Council of Churches USA is the leading U.S. organization in the movement for Christian unity. Thirty-six Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox member communions, to which more than 45 million congregants belong, work together in the Council to promote unity and to serve churches and people worldwide.

General Secretary since January 1, 2000, Dr. Edgar previously served as President of Claremont (Calif.) School of Theology (1990-2000) and as a six-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Pennsylvania’s Seventh District.

An active volunteer, Dr. Edgar serves on several boards, including that of Independent Sector, an alliance of national organizations interested in fostering not-for-profits’ contributions in society, and of the National Coalition for Health Care.

He is a member of the Board of Trustees of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment and the Board of Directors of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, an independent, non-profit organization that is a principal resource for Congress on environmental and energy issues.

Dr. Edgar received the bachelor of arts degree from Lycoming College, Williamsport, Pa., and the master of divinity degree from the Theological School of Drew University, Madison, N.J. He holds four honorary doctoral degrees.

Many national organizations have recognized his work with awards, including the American Legion, Vietnam Veterans of America and the National Taxpayers Union.