The Rev. Dr. Robert “Bob” Edgar is the general secretary of the National Council of Churches, a partnership of “thirty-six Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox member communions, with 140,000 local congregations and approximately 50 million congregants.”
He was ordained as an elder in the United Methodist Church and served as the president of Claremont Theological School. From 1975 – 1987 he served as a member of the United States House of Representatives. Dr. Edgar was named general secretary of NCC on January 1, 2000.
Dr. Edgar took time this week to answer some of my questions about the mission of NCC, what it has been doing to promote peace in Iraq, and how NCC is launching a new nation-wide voter registration program.
Not everyone is familiar with the National Council of Churches USA. Could you give some background on who makes up the council and what the mission of the organization is?
The National Council of Churches is the nation’s leading organization in the movement for Christian unity, with 36 Protestant and Orthodox member communions (denominations) organized in more than 100,000 local churches with 50,000,000 members. The member communions regard the Council as a community in which they make their unity in Christ visible by working together on common tasks and by bringing a strong voice of faith to the public square.
Because our member churches have a concern for the whole person and the whole society, the work they do together in the Council is wide-ranging—everything from common Bible study outlines to faith-based training on environmental issues, curricula for congregations on the role of America in the world community, a multi-year anti-poverty mobilization and many other endeavors.
Over the last year the NCC has been involved in two high-profile issues: the war in Iraq and poverty in the United States. What are the theological assumptions behind having churches tackle these issues in particular?
Recently the Council issued a pastoral letter with the Iraq War as the context. In the letter we said, “Two central claims of the Christian faith are crucial in our thinking: that every person, as a child of God, is of infinite worth; and that all persons, as participants in God’s one creation, are related in their humanity and vulnerability.” That is why our member communions agree that war is contrary to the will of God.
Our member communions include those that subscribe to some form of just war theology and those that are pacifist. In theory, some would say the use of violent force may, at times, be a necessity of last resort, but all of our members who spoke on the subject denounced the War in Iraq. Ultimately, we all are disciples of Jesus Christ, who pronounces his blessing on the peacemakers.
The same faith claims about the inherent worth and dignity of each person and of our relatedness undergird our efforts to alleviate poverty. Furthermore, God calls us to be advocates for those who are most vulnerable in our society. We believe that you cannot read the Bible and escape this directive.
You recently discussed the situation in Iraq with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. Do you see any hope that the Bush administration will reverse course and truly involve the international community in rebuilding Iraq? Or is there a chance the situation will continue to worsen?
I don’t want to speculate on what the Bush Administration will or will not do in Iraq in the weeks and months ahead, but the emerging details of the so-called handover of sovereignty to Iraqis are extremely disappointing. The ever-expanding U.S. role in Iraq and the fact that U.S. troops and contractors remain above Iraqi law make a mockery of Iraq’s sovereignty. Things will surely get worse if we as a nation continue on a unilateral course of action. When Iraqis realize how much of the “handover” is window dressing, their dashed expectations will only increase the levels of frustration and anger directed against the United States.
Faith leaders in the U.S. have a far different vision of how America should act in Iraq and elsewhere around the globe. The leadership of the National Council of Churches and its member communions, along with other faith partners, continue to press toward the day when the United States will take its place among the nations in a cooperative, multilateral and sustainable way.
As you said, I led an international ecumenical delegation in May to meet with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to express our conviction that lasting peace and security will only come to Iraq when the international community is involved. We said at that time that we hoped President Bush would not just repackage the occupation, but rather welcome significant involvement by the United Nations, and allow the U.N. to function in an independent role. We continue to call for a change in our government’s direction that would make such a course of action possible.
We also are working so that people in our congregations might gain a deeper understanding of the events that are unfolding day by day and that have such a powerful impact on our world. The National Council of Churches has developed and tested a faith-based curriculum on multilateralism that can be used by congregations and other groups. Study groups that use the curriculum will come away with a better understanding of why America cannot afford to “go it alone.” We hope to market the study widely. Look for further developments at www.ncccusa.org.
FaithfulAmerica.org, one of NCC’s projects, is planning on airing television commercials in the Middle East. What is the purpose behind these commercials and when will they air?
We are deeply concerned when high government officials engage in splitting legal hairs in order to justify torture. We cannot be silent in the face of such a deep failure of moral leadership
Beginning June 15, viewers of Arabic-language television Al-Jazeera and Al-Aribiya began seeing our ad, which expresses the sorrow we feel about the abuse, our conviction that the abuse is sinful and that it has been systemic, and our pledge to work to right these wrongs that have been committed in our name. There has been a wonderful response to the ad in the Arab world, and to date some 100,000 Americans have endorsed the ad—and the number is growing. Visitors to the FaithfulAmerica.org site also have given $150,000 to put the ad on the air, and FaithfulAmerica has pledged to keep the ad running for as long as funds keeping coming in for that purpose. We see these responses as a hopeful sign that the cycle of mutual suspicion and dehumanization between the Arab world and the United States can be broken. You can learn more at www.FaithfulAmerica.org.
One of the exciting new projects launched by NCC is the “Let Justice Roll” initiative. What is the purpose behind this effort and how can individual Christians in local communities participate?
Poverty is once again on the rise in the United States, and we think that should be a campaign issue in this electoral season. We are asking the question, “What will you do to end poverty?” of both parties, their candidates and delegates to the party conventions. We are also asking a related question, “Why are low-income people less likely to register and vote than people in other income groups—and what can we do about it?”
Along with the Center for Community Change and a huge array of local partners, the National Council of Churches is pressing these questions in the “Let Justice Roll” Campaign, with events being held in approximately 15 cities this summer and fall—including Boston and New York during the Democratic and Republican Conventions respectively. The campaign is sponsoring a series of nonpartisan public events in each of the cities that will include rallies, worship services and press opportunities. We will seek commitments from local, state and national public figures and delegates to the Republican and Democratic National Conventions that they will work to shape public policies to help meet the needs of the poor. The project also includes support for voter registration, education and mobilization efforts in the cooperating cities—and such efforts will proceed throughout the electoral season.
Let Justice Roll offers great opportunities for faith and community voices to be heard in these cities—and I hope that many of your readers can join us. A list of the cities thus far committed to participate in the project and the primary sponsoring bodies in the several cities can be found at http://www.ncccusa.org/letjusticeroll/index.html.
The NCC will hold it’s General Assembly on November 9-11 here in St. Louis. What is going to happen at this event? How can people become involved with it?
When representatives of the Council’s member communions gather as the General Assembly once a year, it is the most visible expression of the Council as a “community of communions.” It can be a moving sight to see clergy and lay persons from so many different traditions united in worship, celebration, fellowship, and in the work of setting NCC policy on crucially important issues of our times. Our daily schedule for the upcoming Assembly is still developing, but interrelated issues of unity, poverty, peace and war, and protecting God’s creation are always high on our agenda.
The General Assembly, which this year explores the theme “Weave Anew: Unity, Peace and Justice, Hope (Ephesians 4:15-16), is an open meeting and visitors are welcome. Members of the faith community in St. Louis may be particularly interested in public events that are scheduled as part of the Assembly, including a worship service at Christ Church Cathedral the evening of November 9, and an awards banquet on November 10. If you are a young adult interested in what the churches are doing together, you may want to apply to the Stewards Program at the General Assembly, which provides a wonderful ecumenical experience for young adults. (Applications should be received by August 2, 2004.) There is also a day-long pre-Assembly event for young adults on November 8.
Many more details about all the events I have outlined will be available at www.ncccusa.org as we get closer to the General Assembly.
One final question: many of the issues you and NCC deal with are difficult ones. What is it for you about the Christian faith that keeps you hopeful and active during difficult times like these?
In James 1.22 we are encouraged to “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.” I would say that throughout its history the NCC and all the people associated with it have tried their best to be faithful doers of the word—and that frequently does require a giant leap of faith. That is true today and is has been true many times in our past. What keeps me hopeful and active in the face of difficult issues is the same thing that has always sustained the ecumenical community: We can act with certainty in an uncertain world because we trust the promise that no matter what happens, nothing can separate us from God’s love for us in Christ. In that conviction is our hope and our strength to persevere.