The Red UMAVIDA is an ecumenical network, comprised of three Bolivian denominations (Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches) and six community organizations from around the country. At the annual assembly earlier this year I was invited to share some thoughts about what it means to be ecumenical, and why it is important. Here’s a bit of what I said:
“Ecumenism” comes from the Greek word oikoumene and the root oikos, which means house. Other common words including ecology and economy have that same root, and they are all connected. “Ecumenism” refers to the whole inhabited earth, the home we share; ecology is the study of the way that home works, and economy refers to the rules of order we employ in our home.
To be ecumenical, then, means to recognize that we are different but want to live together well and collaboratively, since we share a single home.
Within the diverse Christian family–Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, etc.–the term “ecumenism” generally refers to sharing among our different churches. That said, there’s no universal understanding of what ecumenism is about. Some believe that all the Christian churches should reunite as a single church. There’s also a substantial current of churches that are opposed to anything dubbed “ecumenical.” But the majority view is based on a desire to cooperate while respecting our distinct identities, engaging in dialogue and collaborating on projects of common interest. Oftentimes these projects seek social change, benefiting the impoverished in our globalized world, and more and more these efforts move us into the arena of social justice sought through concrete actions and political advocacy. And, as often happens in complex international relationships, an important first step is speaking out together.
A great example of this is the Accra Confession that came out of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches’ meeting in Ghana in 2004. It is not a confession of church doctrine but rather a challenge from the churches to the economic doctrines prevailing in the world today. It calls attention to the issues and calls for concrete actions to replace structures of death and economic violence with values that favor life in fullness for human beings and all of creation. It is a strong and jarring document for many churches in countries like mine, which contribute greatly to the problems with our current system. It is also a necessary and important document. But giving it life through action requires that it be adopted and taken on at the local level. And that’s where things get tricky.
We all know that working as a network isn’t always easy. Neither is working ecumenically. Each member group has its own history, its own values and priorities, and sometimes we can get into power struggles over who will set the course.
This is why the most successful networks have a clear and relevant focus. They have a common goal and decide to join forces to achieve it. Work for social justice–especially work like that of UMAVIDA, which focuses on the root causes of impoverishment and seeks to transform violent systems into life-giving channels based on justice and solidarity–that is difficult work, and it faces serious obstacles. But what happens when we work together?
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken. –Ecclesiastes 4:9-12
Even though it’s not always easy to journey together, we know it’s worthwhile. We’re stronger and safer that way, and we have companions to talk and learn with. We’re enriched by each one’s gifts.
In the Christian tradition, we often talk about the image of the body with its many interdependent members.
Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body.
–1 Corinthians 12:14-20
It may not always be easy, but we truly are better together. By joining together instead of working separately we benefit from the knowledge, experience, and strengths of each group, and we can support one another along the way.