Wethen, 5 October 2023
Church and Peace Conference: Racism is growing in our European societies. Churches need to ask themselves how they have contributed to racism, discrimination, and slavery.
“Overcoming racism in the church” was the theme of this year’s Church and Peace conference in Baarlo, Netherlands. Geert van Dartel, President of the Dutch National Council of Churches explained in his welcoming address how the Dutch churches have embarked on a painful journey of reconciliation and reparation.
Hedwig Komproe, board member of SKIN (Together Church in the Netherlands) stressed that the current practice of racial discrimination can only be effectively addressed and opposed if the history of the churches’ involvement in slavery and colonial exploitation is first acknowledged and mourned. He said that it was therefore of great significance that the commemorative year marking the end of slavery in the Netherlands and the former colonial territories 150 years ago was launched on 1 July this year.
Nearly 100 people from 15 European and non-European countries came to the conference. People of colour, affected by racism, contributed their experiences and analyses as speakers during plenary sessions and in workshops.
“Being made in God’s image means that we have been created to be in relationship with others,” said Yawo Kakpo, a pastor and professor from Togo, “because at the end of the day, it’s all about enabling everyone to participate in social life and to access social, cultural, political, economic, and spiritual resources on an equal footing.”
But it is precisely this that creates fear among rich Christians in the Global North – fear of losing their own privileges. Theology and churches must therefore address this split between rich and poor by addressing their colonial heritage and making visible the persistence of colonialism today.
Adejare Oyewole from London, treasurer of the Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe (CCME), pointed out that overcoming racism has been a central concern of the ecumenical movement since its beginnings. “The first Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Amsterdam in 1948 recognized that “prejudice based on race or colour” and “practices of discrimination and segregation” are “a denial of justice and human dignity”.
“It is in this context that CCME emerged as an anti-racism campaigning organisation of European churches, advocating for all persons made in God’s image to be treated with dignity respect and seen as neighbours rather than “the others”.
CCME’s work confronts us with the concrete experience of people from migrant churches. This includes the fact that discrimination is increasing to the same extent that hostility towards refugees is growing.
“The issue of racism is very broad in Europe,” Oyewole said, “going from the situation of Roma in Europe to the treatment of indigenous populations, right into the history of colonialism, and the intersection between racism, and discrimination of migrants.”
Oyewole warned, “The perception that mission can only be done by the powerful to the powerless, by the rich to the poor, or by the privileged to the marginalised contributes to the oppression and marginalisation of global majority people.” Instead, mission is about sharing resources, viewing each other as equal partners, and witnessing together. And migrants must be included in the leadership of mainline churches and ecumenical bodies.
Nicole Ashwood, programme executive for Just Communities of Women and Men of the WCC, and her colleague, Thandi Soko de Jong from the Netherlands, recalled: “Starting in 1969, the WCC through the Programme to Combat Racism, was actively engaged in and recognized for its influence in bearing spiritual and political pressure through its member churches and by the tireless work of individuals for the end of apartheid in South Africa…What this has meant is that people of all races, classes, and ethnicities have worked assiduously as advocates and activists, risking life and limb, but never their faith, to ensure that the visible unity of the WCC is manifested in the pluralistic representation of peoples created in the imago Dei.”
The two speakers referred to the 2004 Accra Confession, which states, “Therefore we reject any ideology or economic regime that puts profits before people, does not care for all creation and privatizes those gifts of God meant for all.”
With the relaunched 2023 programme “Overcoming Racism, Xenophobia and Related Discrimination” “we are nevertheless closer to transformation, even if the goal has not yet been achieved,” Ashwood said.
Transformation – that is the challenge we want to face as Church and Peace. We want to allow ourselves to feel the fear of being disturbed or irritated and nevertheless to be woken up whenever we are not aware of our racism or discriminatory behaviour.
People who have been subjected to discrimination spoke of the thousand small pinpricks of racism. “As individuals, we can and want to counter this with a thousand small steps of love”, said Yawo Kakpo in his sermon during the closing worship.
If we are to truly move forward, we must first step out of our comfort zone and face the questions that were put to us by Dr Masiiwa Ragies Gunda, WCC programme executive for Programmatic Responses on Overcoming Racism:
What do we fear about being equal to and with other people?
Is heaven so small that we fear space will run out before we have our own space?
Is the earth so poor that its resources are not enough for all of us?
Is the grace of God in such limited supply that we fear it will run out, if it has to be shared among all the children of God?
Why do we fear justice, equality, and fairness?