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Religion: Going Beyond Charity

5 minute read

Over the past eight years the World Council of Churches has given $2,640,000 to groups that oppose “racism.” More than half went to black organizations in southern Africa that have used guerrilla violence in trying to overthrow white minority regimes. The revolutionary grants program began when the W.C.C. general secretary was Eugene Carson Blake, a liberal U.S. Presbyterian with a flair for politics. It was controversial from the start, but the W.C.C. easily lined up enough backing from its 293 Protestant and Orthodox member denominations to fend off critics.

Now the Program to Combat Racism is in hot water again. Reason: a recent grant of $85,000 to the radical Patriotic Front, which is seeking to bring down Rhodesia’s tottering biracial government and has been involved in ugly killings of unarmed civilians. The W.C.C. has been hit with a fierce wave of church protest.

Last week the council’s Executive Committee conferred at the Hanasaari Conference Center near Helsinki. After closed-door sessions, the jittery officials issued a terse endorsement of the grant. However, TIME learned that there was intense debate over a further statement to be issued this week, and about a bold plan to grant another $85,000 to the Patriotic Front.

That would inflame an already tense ecumenical situation. The Salvation Army has quit the W.C.C., at least temporarily, to protest the grant. There has been an “enormous disturbance” in British churches, says one Executive Committee member. As for West Germany—which now provides 42% of the budget for the financially pressed W.C.C.—official protests are muted, but one top churchman reports “bitter reaction in our churches.” At the recent meeting of the world’s Anglican bishops, a routine W.C.C. support motion got through only with an antiviolence rider attached. In the U.S., important elements in such W.C.C. member groups as the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese are upset.

A standard, but erroneous, defense of the grant is that it was meant not to offer a “political judgment,” as London’s Sunday Times put it, but merely to help the refugees—there are up to 100,000—who are cared for just beyond Rhodesia’s borders by the revolutionary Patriotic Front. Opponents of the guerrillas argue that many of the refugees were forced to flee Rhodesia by Patriotic Front troops. Even if that is true, there is no doubt that many women and children in the camps are in a pitiable state and that their need for Christian charity is overwhelming.

Traditional W.C.C. refugee assistance, though, is provided by the council’s nonpartisan and respected relief commission. Funds are given through the antiracism program to make a political statement. In an explanatory document, the World Council attacked Rhodesia’s so-called internal settlement between blacks and whites, arguing that it “leaves the illegal white minority regime in effective control and gives it a veto over real change for the next decade.” As it happens, two of the four leaders of the Rhodesian regime are W.C.C.-related black clergymen, Bishop Abel Muzorewa and Ndabaningi Sithole, themselves recipients of past grants.

According to an official W.C.C. paper, the antiracism grants, admittedly token amounts, allow the council to “move beyond charity and involve itself in the redistribution of power.” The anti-racist money, raised separately from regular W.C.C. dues, is earmarked for welfare purposes, not military spending, but the W.C.C. does not monitor its use. Opponents say the grants amount to a moral endorsement of terrorism. Even America’s pro-ecumenical Christian Century editorialized that because the welfare grants merely free funds for war use, those backing the armed struggle in Rhodesia should be candid about their role as “vicarious doers of violence.”

In a bitter struggle like the one in Rhodesia, atrocities on both sides are inevitable. The Rhodesian guerrillas are accused of many attacks on noncombatants, including the murder of as many as 40 missionaries and members of their families. In June alone, two Salvation Army officers and four other missionaries were shot, and eight adults and five children from Britain’s Elim Pentecostal mission were bludgeoned to death. The Patriotic Front officially disavows the Elim massacre and other bloody incidents. But the front’s leaders, Joshua Nkomo and the Marxist-oriented Robert Mugabe, are probably unable to control their own forces. Many guerrilla commanders consider missionaries part of the country’s administrative structure and may make religious groups targets for terror to undermine government control and encourage white flight. One guerrilla commander told TIME: “We’ve warned the missionaries to leave. If they don’t heed our warnings, we can’t help it if they get killed.”

The Rhodesian grant raises an ancient and troubling question: Just how deeply should the church get involved in violent political disputes? The W.C.C. staff, headed by General Secretary Philip Potter, a West Indian activist who refuses to answer questions on Rhodesia, believes that Christian justice demands the “liberation” of oppressed peoples, a program that includes an end to white minority governments. And in that process, violence may be necessary. The Rhodesian grant, in fact, is popular among most Third World churches, and was approved by Canada’s Anglican Primate E.W. Scott and other officers. The overall antiracist grants program survived unscathed at the 1975 W.C.C. Assembly in Nairobi, attended by delegates from all World Council member churches, where a pointed floor proposal to deny church money to violent organizations was voted down.

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