Article Note: Hedwig Richter, “Der Protestantismus und das linksrevolutionäre Pathos. Der Ökumenische Rat der Kirchen in Genf im Ost-West Konflikt in der 1960er und 1970er Jahren”

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 17, No. 2, June 2011

Article Note: Hedwig Richter, “Der Protestantismus und das linksrevolutionäre Pathos. Der Ökumenische Rat der Kirchen in Genf im Ost-West Konflikt in der 1960er und 1970er Jahren,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 36 no. 3 (July-September 2010): 408-436.

By John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

Hedwig Richter, who teaches in Bielefeld, takes a highly critical, indeed sceptical, look at the World Council of Churches’ political attitudes in the 1960s and 1970s, claiming that these amounted to an attempt to give legitimacy to left-leaning utopian ideals, including even the idea of revolutionary violence.

The World Council of Churches was officially established in 1948,but had been preceded by several decades of endeavour to foster ecumenical cooperation between the Protestant churches, and to overcome the doctrinal animosities which had for so long marred their relationships. In the eyes of church leaders, these scandalous divisions had rendered in vain the churches’ witness for peace and international brotherhood in a century when the world was torn apart by war and revolution The task of creating a credible international institution to give effect to these goals was superbly carried out by the first General Secretary, Willem Visser ‘t Hooft. But its political outreach concentrated on rebuilding Europe after the catastrophes of the Second World War, which had shown the fragility of church relations, and their lack of influence on national politics.

By the end of the 1950s, however, a new era began. This was a period of rapid secularization. The churches lost support, their social relevance diminished, and their funding bases declined. In this crisis, Richter contends, the WCC’s leaders believed they could regain credibility for the Christian cause and for their institution by embracing the left-wing politics of the radical Christian fringe. Under the leadership of the third General Secretary, Philip Potter, a West Indian, the WCC promoted the slogan that the Church and the WCC shoud become “the voice of the voiceless” and that its resources should be used to advocate policies of benefit to the world’s neediest and most oppressed peoples. Such a stance included a deliberate bias against colonialism, capitalism, overseas exploitation, the arms race and other forms of military tyranny. Not surprisingly, the increasing power of the United States, and its European-based military alliance, NATO, became an easy target, despite the fact that the American Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, had been an early champion of the WCC in the 1940s.

In 1961, at the WCC’s third General Assembly in New Delhi, representatives of the Orthodox Churches, including those from the Soviet Union, joined the Council, obviously with Moscow’s agreement. The predictable result was to curtail criticism of conditions in the Soviet-controlled parts of Europe, and the suspicion, which Richter does not refute, that the WCC was used to infiltrate Soviet agents to the west. The fact is undoubted that in the 1960s the WCC’s witness was unbalanced—polemic against the West, silence towards the Communist empire. Even the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 was passed over without protest. Khruschchev’s anticlerical persecution in Russia, and the Orthodox Church’s apparent complicity, though deplored, was not allowed to hinder the continued adherence of this Church in Geneva.

In the 1970s the WCC took the significant step of promoting its Programme to Combat Racism, which sought to oppose, and even overthrow, those regimes, particularly in southern Africa, which practised racial discrimination. Large sums of money were raised to support the opponents of apartheid. Enormous controversy arose when it was rumoured that these monies were being used to purchase arms for revolutionary attacks by guerrilla forces against the oppressors. The World Council was at pains to claim that its assistance was solely for humanitarian purposes, but the lack of controls and its unilateral approval of the anti-apartheid cause weakened its stance. In Richter’s view, a double standard prevailed. By adopting what she calls the “mythology” of the anti-racial campaign, the WCC sought to gain institutional legitimacy and popular endorsement from left-wing circles beyond the church doors. This policy, she believes, was a serious distortion of the WCC’s original priorities to promote mission and church unity. Theological insights were displaced by overly political considerations, as though the vocal support of left-wing policies could restore the churches’ fortunes when their proclamation of the Gospel had so obviously failed.