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Speaking for the Church to the World:
Reflections on a Theme by Paul Remsey
Richard John Neuhaus

In recent months, ecumenical agencies such as the World Council (WCC) and National Council (NCC) of Churches have been subjected to what is described as an “unprecedented” barrage of public criticism. Institutional defenders have issued expressions of pained surprise: Why didn’t the critics talk to us privately, through appropriate channels, instead of co-operating with the mass media in making their charges? In truth, many of us who have for years worked within the circles of ecumenical social ethics have raised objections with little perceptible effect. We have been a minority within those circles but an even smaller minority within the community of theologians concerned for the church’s social responsibility. Except for a handful of approved consultants involved in the perpetual conferences of Geneva and New York, people in the field have long since given up on the WCC and NCC as sponsors of serious intellectual exchange. This is a great sadness. As I will argue, the WCC in particular is, by its constituting vision and continuing potential, an instrument of importance in shaping Christian witness to our time.

The controversies of the last year and more will turn out to be, I pray, prelude to a renewing reappraisal of ecumenical Christian ethics. For that to happen, however, we need to understand how the ecumenical consensus that was carried by the civil rights movement of the late Fifties and early Sixties was broken, leading to the present state of disarray. There is no ethicist in the American church who can help us here more than Paul Ramsey of Princeton. In Who Speaks for the Church? (Abingdon 1967) he dissected the elements of the crisis by which we are still entangled. Reacquainting ourselves with his argument may move us toward a clearer understanding of the distinctive role of the church in the public arena.

A personal word may be in order. I first came to know Paul Ramsey around the time he published the book in question. Under the auspices of the Council on Religion and International Affairs, we took opposing sides in the debate over

U.S. policy in Indochina. As a founder of Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, I was suspect in the anti-war movement because of my insistence that, while disagreeing with Ramsey on the particulars of policy, we must heed his cautions against surrounding our prudential judgments with the rhetoric of “thus saith the Lord.”

Getting Beyond the Vietnam Debate

While my participation in the anti-war movement was haunted and tempered by the voice of Paul Ramsey, the questions he raised then go far beyond the debate over Vietnam. We could have another and no doubt useful conference on the diverse arguments made by Christians during the tortured years of that war. But this conference, I take it, intends to deal with less dated questions, addressing the perduring principles by which the church should shape its political witness and action. Perhaps only now, to the extent that we are extricated from the debate over Vietnam (and admittedly that extrication is not yet completed), can the full measure of Paul Ramsey’s contribution be taken.

Ramsey wrote his “little essay” in response to his experience at the World Council of Church’s 1966 Geneva

Conference on Church and Society.There, within a few days, more than three hundred people listened to addresses and broke up into sections and subsections to write reports that, taken together, came up with answers to a hundred and more issues of global import. Ramsey was appalled by the procedure and even more appalled by the principles, or lack thereof, that informed the procedure. He saw the event not merely as the miscarriage of one conference but as an indication of a syndrome that was rapidly undermining the integrity and credibility of the ecumenical movement. The conference was orchestrated, he wrote, by the “social action curia” and reflected a “Church and Society syndrome.” (He insisted that he did not use the term “curia” pejoratively, but it must be observed that nobody has used that term favorably for a long time.) By “syndrome,” he wrote, “I mean the passion for numerous particular pronouncements on policy questions to the consequent neglect of basic decision- and action-oriented principles of ethical and political analysis.”

Ramsey saw then the contradictions that still obtain in such ecumenical meetings: they style themselves as the voice of the church speaking to the world, especially to political decision-makers, and at the same time want to be seen as a prophetic voice speaking to the churches. They simultaneously presume to speak for the church while trying to persuade the church to their viewpoint. In Troeltsch’s well-known terms, they want at the same time to be both church and sect. In the tradition of the great cultural churches, they would speak truth to the power of which they are part. In the great sectarian tradition, they would speak a word of divine judgment against principalities and powers from which they have come out and separated themselves. You cannot, insisted Ramsey, have it both ways.

But this contradiction was not the chief concern exercising Paul Ramsey. In whatever mode the ecumenical movement speaks—whether as church or sect, whether as church to the world or as prophetic voice to the churches—the main problem, he thought, is that it is speaking to the wrong purpose. It is speaking primarily to influence public policy specifics rather than as a teacher determined to elevate the thought and discourse by which such policies are formed. “Radical steps need to be taken in ecumenical ethics if ever we are to correct the pretense that we are makers of political policy and get on with our proper task of nourishing, judging, and repairing the moral and political ethos of our time.”

Although Ramsey did not put it this way, his argument is sympathetic to the proposition that politics is in large part a function of culture, and at the heart of culture is religion and the ethical reasoning that is grounded in religious belief. When Christian leaders believe that policy formation is “the big time,” and the formation of culture is therefore a lesser task, it says more about their religion (and their sociological understanding, or lack thereof) than about their politics. It is not a step upwards toward relevance but a step downwards toward trivialization when churches are more concerned about the pros and cons of the MX missile than about underscoring the ontological dignity of the human person. Those who think that the ontological dignity of the human person can be taken for granted, and that it is more important to “do something” about the MX missile, have little understanding of the cultural corrosion that has produced this era of moral decadence.

Quite apart from which tasks are more important, however, Ramsey contends that the church is called to do well the distinctive task that is the church’s, qua church. “Our quest should be to find out whether there is anything especially Christian and especially important that churchmen as such may have to say in the public forum concerning the direction of public policy—not directives for it.” Acknowledging that the line between “directions” and “directives” is not always clear, he urges that we should at least be clear about our distinctive intention. Our intention is not so much to tell policy-makers what they should do as to enlighten them as to what they must take into account in deciding what to do.

Defending Pious Generalities

Ramsey is aware that this may sound like an argument for the church’s speaking pious generalities and avoiding the controversies of policy specifics. If his argument is taken seriously, however, it becomes clear that “pious generality” is a dismissive phrase only because the pious have not thought very carefully about their generalities. Ramsey wants to insist upon the admittedly difficult distinction between enprincipled reflection and policy specifics. The church is not fulfilling its task if it is content either with the moral truisms appropriate to Mount Olympus or with the mobilization of influence appropriate to club house politics. The distinctive task of the church is to be found in the shifting ground between the pseudo-transcendence of aloofness and the myopic immanence of political partisanship.

“Must those who undertake to speak for the church, or in the name of Christian truth, choose between abstract irrelevancies and policy-making exercises?” he asks. His answer is clearly negative. In an especially insightful section on “the abstractness of concrete advice,” Ramsey notes that what are offered as policy-making exercises often result in vacuous generalizations. In a particular circumstance the church may think it is being very specific and practical in calling upon warring parties, for example, to declare a cease fire and negotiate their differences. If in that particular circumstance, however, one party to the conflict has tried just that and the other party has demonstrated its determination to intensify the fighting, then the advice is utterly without practical import. It sounds very specific and policy-oriented, but in fact translates into nothing more than the bland abstraction, “Let there be no war.”

As he wrote about “the abstractness of concrete advice,” Ramsey might also have written a section on “the concreteness of abstract advice.” That is, in the rhetoric of specific conflicts, the most abstract generalities translate into the most concrete policy recommendations. During the Vietnam years, “No more war!” was translated to mean U.S. withdrawal from Indochina. “America should be on the side of the poor and oppressed” is today translated to mean no more aid to El Salvador. “Taking risks for peace” frequently means risking war by unilateral disarmament. In short, the choice is not between the abstract and the concrete, for our abstractions become concrete advice and, as Ramsey illustrates, our concrete advice becomes an abstraction.

In the spirit of Ramsey, I would suggest that an alternative begins with an understanding of the connection between the transcendent and the immanent. We must work within and accept responsibility for a specific historical moment which is —as are all historical moments short of the Kingdom of God—deeply unsatisfactory. There has been much talk in recent years about doing ethics “contextually.” But the context that is this historical moment has itself a context—a context of time-transcending, even eternal, truth and promise. Without the “context of the context,” there is no transcendence. Then the World Council of Churches was right to adopt the slogan, “The world sets the agenda for the church.” For then there is no other agenda, there is no other game in town. Then there is nothing else to be “relevant to” than the specific policy decisions and power wieldings of this historical moment. This “loss of transcendence” is the core problem underscored by the Hartford Appeal for Theological Affirmation issued by an independent ecumenical meeting in 1975.

The drafters of the Hartford Appeal put together a group of essays in Against the World for the World, and it should be read alongside Ramsey’s Who Speaks for the Church? Such a comparison reveals many similarities, but it also points up a significant difference. Ramsey’s argument would have been stronger, I believe, had he attended in this book to the theological debilitation that results in the miscarriage of social ethics. For example, he rightly excoriates religious leadership for prescribing political policy-decisions when they themselves do not accept responsibility for the consequences of such decisions. It is a form of cheap prophecy. “Political rulership” he writes, “makes life-giving, or at least actuality-giving, deeds out of words.” “The religious communities have a less awe-full responsibility,” he suggests. But I would urge that Christians, who understand the awe-fullness, the ultimacy, of the Word, should not accept this distinction between words and actuality. My suspicion is that Paul Ramsey would agree with me on this. His unfortunate choice of language in Who Speaks for the Church?, however, may have given aid and comfort to the opponents of transcendence.

A Ramsey repeatedly calls upon Christians who are dealing with public policy to impose upon themselves “a self-denying ordinance.” By a self-denying ordinance he means that “no more be said in addressing the urgent political problems of the present day than can clearly be said on the basis of Christian truth and insights.” The call for a self-denying ordinance is exceedingly important, but it will not be heeded if it is perceived as a call for the church to do less rather than more. It is tempting at this point to invoke the axiom that “less is more.” But the church’s speaking less specifically, or less promiscuously, or with less certitude to policy questions does not necessarily mean that the church will be speaking more of that truth which is distinctively appropriate to the church. Without a vigorous reappropriation of that most appropriate truth, the call of Ramsey and others to speak with self-denying carefulness will be seen as a diminution of the church’s role in the modern world.

The Church’s Truth Is the Gospel Story

I take that most appropriate and imperative truth of the church to be, quite simply and complexly, the gospel. It is the assertion of the story—centered in the life, death, resurrection, and promised return of the Christ—by which all of reality is to be rightly understood and, one day, rightly ordered. This gospel challenges the notion that the most “awe-full” responsibility is exercised by those who wield and influence political power. Indeed this gospel defies the imperiousness of the political in our time. It denies the illusion that the most important events of our time appear in the pages of the New York Times or that the evening news can begin to convey, as Walter Cronkite used to say, “the way it is” any day of the week.

Those who believe that God worked his eternal purposes through an obstreperous tribe of Semites and revealed himself most fully in a derelict preacher crucified one Friday afternoon outside Jerusalem two thousand years ago can and must take seriously, but can and must not take too seriously, what the New York Times declares to be the world-shaping and world-shaking events of our day. Those who believe that in baptism they have already died with Christ, and that “doing this in remembrance of him” engages the cosmos in the triumph of its Lord—those who believe that cannot be intimidated by the threats nor seduced by the promises of politics. God works along the fault-lines of history, in the shadowed interstices of the conflict between good and evil. It is more than possible that in the sight of God, which is to say, in truth, there is no more important thing happening this day than is happening to an adolescent in Tanzania who is choosing the good, or to a prisoner in the Soviet gulag who knows a liberation beyond his captors’ imagining or control, or in a nurse’s act of love toward a dying woman in the cancer ward of some hospital.

What I am saying is that the crisis in Christian social ethics today is, far more than anything else, a crisis of faith.

We must indeed find better, more careful, more credible ways to articulate religiously-grounded truth in the political realm, but our most important contribution as believers is to relativize the realm of the political. Our engagement in the provisional politics of the present must be informed by our commitment to the radically “new politics” of the promised Kingdom. A “self-denying ordinance” can only be accepted by a church that knows that the politics of the present is not the only game or the most important game in town. Today’s dispute over the church’s role in politics is, in large part, a quarrel over portions of the mess of pottage for which the church has sold its birthright. Liberals, conservatives, and those who travel under other banners are scrambling to capture for their purposes a larger part of the residual resources of a faith that was brought into being by transcendent hope.

You may suspect that I have wandered rather tendentiously, even homiletically, from our subject. But I do believe that a reconstruction of Christian social ethics depends upon a reconstruction of Christian faith. We are rightly concerned for the integrity of the political community, but if we, as church, are to make any contribution to the political community we must be first concerned for the integrity of the community of faith. And that means that we must be concerned for the truth by which that community lives. It is in this shared conviction that I so powerfully sympathize with the work of Stanley Hauerwas, a student of Paul Ramsey’s and, I believe, one of the most seminal thinkers in Christian ethics today. Hauerwas has, in my view, leaned too far toward the “sect” side of the church/sect distinction and has thus too easily resolved some of the problems in which I find myself embroiled. But he is surely right in saying that the church must be emphatically and distinctively the church, or else it is not really very interesting who presumes to speak for it.

Buried in a footnote of the book under examination, Paul Ramsey admits: “I am suggesting, in effect, that ecumenical ethics needs to return to Oxford and begin again.” He is speaking, of course, of the ecumenical movement’s Oxford Conference on the Life and Work of the Church of 1937. There Christian leaders deliberated under the threatening shadow of the Third Reich. The “German Christians,” those who hailed Hitler, believed that the world sets the agenda for the church. No transcendent judgment was to be allowed. Theirs was a God entirely immanent in history, and there, at the crest of the divine insurgency in time, was Der Fuehrer. Against this idolatry, Oxford declared, ‘’Let the church be the church!” It is a declaration desperately needed today.

Playing According to Secular Rules

The alternative to this renewal of faith, this theological reconstruction, is a continued and pitiable division of Christians along political lines. When we stop believing the faith, we start figuring out how to use it. When we stop saying our prayers, we are reduced to sniffing around for other powers to change the world. Or, if we do say prayers, they are mainly against our political opponents. When we stop believing in the “magic” of Word and Sacraments, we succumb to believing in the magic of political transformations. When we have no longer the courage to challenge secularism, we learn to play by secularism’s rules. One such rule is that all of politics be reduced to material, mainly economic, forces. Another is the maintenance of the naked public square, a public arena sterilized of references to the transcendent. And so we check our embarrassingly specific Christian beliefs in the cloak room before entering the public arena. When by our religious selves, in our solemn assemblies, we may append a Bible passage or two to our pronouncements, but when those pronouncements are submitted in the public arena they carry no suspicious taint of their religious origins. They have been sanitized. With respect to what they really say, the magistrate in the public arena would not know whether they come from the United Methodist Church or from the John F. Kennedy Democratic Club, from the Thomas Road Baptist Church or from the Heritage Foundation.

Paul Ramsey would remind us that a Christian statement on public affairs is not significantly Christian just because it is made by Christians. There is, in sociological jargon, an elective affinity between Christians who address public affairs. As often as not, the affinity is based more on one’s politics than on one’s Christianity. In truth, one’s Christianity comes to be defined by one’s politics. Among the “social action curia” of 475 Riverside Drive, headquarters of the National Council of Churches, actual Christian fellowship is often determined more by one’s attitude toward Ronald Reagan than by one’s faith in Jesus Christ. Similarly, among other Christian activists, it is more important that a person be solid on the pro-family agenda than that he not be sleeping around. And we have arrived at the sorry state where innumerable Americans choose their church by their choice of politics. This makes a mockery of the notion that the church should inform the political decision-making of its members. It also makes ludicrous the notion that the church has anything of significance to say to the public order. To that notion, the obvious response is, “which church?” The secularist custodians of the naked public square take great and justified comfort: the threat of the church’s witness has been replaced by the impotent, if irritating, cacophany of religious caucuses trying to out-shout one another. The resulting noise is called pluralism.

Perils of “Resolutionary Christianity”

In 1967 Paul Ramsey saw what might happen, what now is happening. He saw that, without radical changes, “the result will be that there will be more and more specific recommendations and less and less of Christian substance informing our ecumenical councils and remaining in our culture.” The prevailing pattern of “resolutionary Christianity” results in a promiscuity of pronouncement by which we fault the consciences of others while easing our own consciences. This is more pathetic than prophetic. The language notwithstanding, there is little about it that is radical. It is a self-serving syndrome, reinforcing illusions of self-importance. It is a bid to play with the big boys in “the real world” of political power, and, if they will not let us play with them, we will stand on the sidelines and jeer, and call ourselves prophets. The “social action curia,” as Ramsey calls it, has little to say about discipleship, to which all Christians are called, but much to say about prophecy. Prophecy is a notoriously special vocation to which God calls very few. The Bible is very hard on false prophets.

The only prophet to be trusted is the reluctant prophet. The true prophets were pursued by Yahweh until finally, worn down by the chase, they accepted the task to which he appointed them. Today what is called prophecy has been routinized into a career pattern of ecclesiastical advancement. We even have committees and commissions for prophetic utterance, “inclusively” appointed by quota systems. They operate by the self-righteous assurance that, if what they say and do is controversial, it is not because they may be wrong but only because they are being prophetic.

While using radical language, they respond to criticism by resorting to the most conservative of justifications, namely, they are authorized to speak by the religious establishment, whereas their critics are “self-appointed mavericks.” The church’s social witness would be greatly enhanced were we to impose a ten-year moratorium on the use of the word “prophetic” in connection with institutional words and deeds. The meaning of prophecy is debased by tenured prophets and prophecy-by-committee. Indeed, if the Bible is right about prophecy as a sacred vocation, present practice is more than debasing, it is blasphemous.

Blasphemous is a strong word, but it is required, I am afraid. Paul Ramsey used another strong word to describe the situation in 1967, and I expect he would still use it today. That word is heresy. “The identification of Christian social ethics with specific partisan proposals that clearly are not the only ones that may be characterized as Christian and as morally acceptable comes close to the original and New Testament meaning of heresy,” he wrote. “This, at least, was Paul’s meaning when he condemned the factions (hairesis)” among the Christians in Corinth and in Rome. In recent times, the religious New Right has been much and justly criticized for suggesting that there is only one Christian position on a multitude of political issues. Ramsey noted then what is much more dramatically evident now, namely, the ways in which the religious left and right mirror one another in both substance and style. If it did not violate my proposed moratorium on the term, I would say that Ramsey’s observations in this connection were prophetic. He understood that the victim of conventional practice is not only the integrity of Christian social ethics but also Christian ecumenism.

The damage to ecumenism results from the illusion that it takes courage to address policy specifics, whereas the working out of enprincipled directions is in the realm of safe generality. In fact, however, in the national and international church councils there is no price attached to railing against Reagan or condemning the oppressive and imperialist power of U.S.-based capitalism. To the contrary, in these exotic ecclesiastical circles it takes courage to challenge that established orthodoxy. North American and Western European participants say they are only being responsive to the voice of the Third World. But Ramsey saw then what is even more evident now, namely, that the established orthodoxy is overwhelmingly the creation of American and Western European actors and reflects much more the global dichotomy between East and West than between North and South. Indeed what are called Third World concerns are largely crafted by First World functionaries, as they also certify who is and who is not an “authentic voice” of those concerns. Again, it is an instance of elective affinity, which is the opposite of ecumenism. Giving up on the more difficult task of elevating moral discourse in public debate, church leaders settle into the partisanships of their choosing, and thus the ecumenical movement becomes ever more sectarian and divisive.

Partisan and Sectarian Asymmetry

While one wants to be balanced and even-handed, it is not adequate to note that there are religious actors who are equally partisan and sectarian on the other end of the political spectrum. The symmetry does not hold. And that for the simple reason that those who claim to be ecumenical Christians have the primary obligation to be ecumenical. Jerry Falwell, Ed McAteer, and other New Right leaders may not recognize us as brothers in Christ, but we acknowledge them as such, and with that acknowledgment comes a very heavy ecumenical responsibility. In 1967 Ramsey noted the excitement about Christian-Marxist dialogue in Europe. Agreeing with Kenneth Boulding who was also at the Geneva meeting, Ramsey observed, “The parallel to this for us [Americans] would be if steps were taken to open dialogue between the liberal church opinion represented in the NCC and the conservative evangelicals — the right wing.” Then and now, the putatively ecumenical Christians claimed that the evangelicals and others had “dropped out of the dialogue.” In truth they were never included. The history of the NCC is one of attempted consolidation of liberal, mainline Protestant hegemony in American life. To this extent it was and is anti-ecumenical in originating impulse and continuing practice.

Fifteen years later, the insurgency of evangelical and fundamentalist religion in the public arena has made Ramsey’s plea yet more urgent. In addition, the subsequent move from Christian-Marxist dialogue to Marxist Christianity and Christian Marxism, under the banner of sundry liberation theologies, has made a positive response to that plea yet more difficult. Ramsey saw then two alternative models that, if heeded, could restore ecumenism to the ecumenical movement. The first model was the Faith and Order work of the World Council of Churches. He pleaded that the social action sectors of the WCC should emulate the theological and intellectual seriousness of Faith and Order. The plea is still in order today. Many of us continue to be committed to the WCC because of Faith and Order which —as, for example, in its recent production of “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry”—continues to keep alive the originating and unifying vision of the ecumenical movement. Sad to say, under the WCC’s present leadership the role of Faith and Order has been diminished sharply, while resources and attention have gravitated toward the organs of divisive political partisanship.

The second model in which Ramsey saw reason for hope was the Roman Catholic Church, and most particularly the process and product of Vatican Council II. The council, he said, provided a model of genuine deliberation, in contrast to the predictable and promiscuous production of positions which mark the activities of the WCC and NCC. In addition, the Vatican Council exercised a self-denying ordinance that respected the difference between moral directions and policy directives. Today there is worry about whether Roman Catholic leadership in America is not imitating the pattern that has brought liberal Protestant social action into disrepute. The worry is not without foundation, yet I believe that the process of consultation and deliberation surrounding the recent pastoral letter on nuclear arms, for example, is still far superior to that which produces most liberal Protestant statements. While the bishops might in the long run succumb to the overweening influence of a budding bureaucracy of presumed experts, they today still have an understanding of their teaching (magisterial) authority that is lacking in Protestantism. More than that, God has raised up in John Paul II a man who has a powerful and exquisitely nuanced understanding of the church’s distinctive role in political change. For these reasons I believe that Ramsey’s hope is still justified today, the hope that the Roman Catholic model can recall to ecumenism the Protestant churches that call themselves ecumenical.

As a result of the controversies of the past year or so, there are a few promising signs of self-examination in these churches. Not yet, unfortunately, among the leaders of the councils and their dominant member churches, but in publications such as Christian Century, Christianity and Crisis, and the United Methodist Reporter. The self-examination to date is largely limited to structural questions, but that may be a start. As Ramsey also noted, the churches are practiced in issuing facile calls for governments and socio-economic systems to restructure themselves radically but have shown little inclination or ability to criticize their own structures. For the NCC, it may be too late. Martin Marty of the University of Chicago is a conscientiously mainline observer who has often implied that the NCC may be a residual bureaucratic shadow of its originating purpose. It began at a time when mainline confidence was high and it was assumed that the resources of the mainline could be channeled readily into causes of social change.

Marty notes in a recent interview: “The NCC never caught on to what hit it, and so there is a cultural lag. Their responses today are reflexive and automatic. I almost never look with hope to their documents. . . . Their fundamental problem is that they live as if the spiritual and moral capital and power of the 1950s could be spent forever. They must begin to realize that you have only as much power as the current generation is investing.” (Chicago Tribune, January 30, 1983)

The Crisis Is a Crisis of Faith

Questions of structure and cultural change are important, but I conclude by returning to the contention that is largely implicit in Ramsey’s analysis of 1967: the crisis is a crisis of faith. We can doubtless all agree on the need for a spiritual revival in American and world Christianity, but the idea of spiritual revival may seem somewhat amorphous. I mean more specifically a theological and ethical reconstruction based upon devotion to the radical distinctiveness of the church and its gospel of salvation. I mean the courage to believe that a self-denying ordinance in the political arena is required, not because the church’s mission is less than, but because it is ever so much greater than, the partisanships to which some would make that mission captive. I mean the boldness to defy the idols—also the political idols—of secularism.

But effective defiance must be emphatically ecumenical; it must more believably present the community of faith as a source and promise of the unity the world seeks; and therefore it must engage more intensively the largest single communion of believers, the Roman Catholic Church. What then do I mean by spiritual, theological, and ethical renewal? I mean a call from the past which is, now more than ever, the challenge of the present and the promise of the future. I mean the appeal of Oxford in 1937 and the plea of Ramsey in 1967. I mean, “Let the church be the church!”

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