“Some Impressions from Geneva,” by John C. Bennett
October 14, 1946
I have been in Europe nearly three months and have spent most of my time at the headquarters of the World Council of Churches in Geneva. There are several obvious things that must be said even though every traveller is likely to say them. From Geneva one is overwhelmed by the suffering of the people, especially in Germany and in eastern and in southeastern Europe. I hear about this suffering from those who have experienced it and who come for short visits to this strange Swiss paradise only to go back to purgatory and worse. The statistics are familiar but it does something to you when one person, a colleague in ecumenical work from before the war, tells you that he and his family have been living for many months on 800 to 900 calories without any supplementation of that ration. I marvelled at what he has endured and also at the way in which he has carried on his work and kept up an eager interest in the world outside, in Christian thought and in the problems of the ecumenical Church. He is fortunate compared with the many millions of people, of refugees and displaced persons, who suffer as great physical privation but who have no homes, no work, and as far as can be seen no future.
In western Europe one is often surprised by the extent of recovery that one finds on the surface. Holland, Belgium, Czecho-Slovakia, Norway and Denmark have emerged from the struggle and privation of the war and, if their people could see much hope in the general political condition in Europe, they could look to the future without anxiety. The situation in France is mixed, with better food but with deceptive black market prosperity and with dangerous internal conflict. There is new life in western Europe, but it is always under the shadow of the tension between the great powers, usually interpreted as a political struggle between Russia and America and in the midst of that conflict these European peoples feel themselves helpless spectators or future victims. In Germany the darkness seems almost complete. Stalemate between the victors, and a mixture of vindictiveness and bungling on top of the terrible devastation of the war offer little but a paralyzing uncertainty and physical suffering. Millions who have no Christian faith can only despair.
Next Winter will be better in the West but in Germany and Poland and other eastern countries it may again be a time of starvation. There will be no opportunity for America to relax in the midst of its abundance.
Two Achievements of the World Council of Churches
During the war great hopes were set upon the World Council of Churches. It remained as a symbol of new beginnings in the Church as soon as the war ended. How far can we say that these hopes are now justified? It must be remembered that the Council still is “in the process of formation” and that it is a miracle that it began this kind of existence in time so that it could survive the war. I shall emphasize two things that the World Council has already accomplished.
It kept Christians in touch with each other during the war. It did much to preserve the sense of belonging to the one Church of Christ in spite of the separations caused by the war. The second World War which divided humanity much more deeply than the first World War, divided the Church less. One reason for this is that the recent war, as far as it was a spiritual conflict, was a struggle within rather than between nations. Now that the war is over and communication has been partially restored, we know how true that was. It would be no exaggeration to say that among the leaders of the Churches on both sides of the war, reconciliation has gone farther than was the case eight or ten years after the Armistice of 1918. I have been present at many meetings in which Christians from Germany and the occupied countries have participated. And while at first there has often been a real sense of strain, and sometimes a feeling that we Anglo-Saxons make reconciliation too easy (for we have never heard German spoken in our cities by occupying troops and have never had to hide from the Gestapo), in each case a fine understanding had developed. There is only trust in and admiration for the Germans who have resisted. Their acknowledgment of guilt has prepared the way for reconciliation and among many Christians on the other side it is received without self-righteousness. So far as our churches are concerned this acknowledgment of guilt needs to be answered in the same spirit of humility, and as far as our nations are concerned, the existence of this German resistance should be accepted as a fact that alters the common generalizations about Germans.
It was the World Council of Churches that did most to prevent the resisting Christians in Germany from being isolated. One of the secretaries of the Council, Dr. Hans Schoenfeld, during the war—at least until July, 1944—was able to move in and out of Germany to keep German churchmen in touch with churchmen in occupied countries and in Britain and America. He succeeded in retaining the confidence of those who knew him on both sides of the international struggle. He often risked his life while on these ecumenical missions. What he did during the war had to be done in secret and there is danger that it may be forgotten but the debt of the churches to Hans Schoenfeld is very great.
The second major achievement of the World Council is its work of reconstruction. This is now in full swing. Much has been written about it in the United States but I shall say a few general things about it. It has given real substance to the life of the Council and has enormously increased its contacts and influence. The churches of several giving countries—Great Britain and the Dominions, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States—have sent their money to Geneva and here is assembled an international staff to supervise the allocation of these resources to the churches and peoples of the most stricken areas of Europe. Necessarily this work has been Europe-centered and through other agencies the giving churches have sent their aid to Asia. If we compare the gifts with the resources available in America or with the almost bottomless need they do not seem large. And yet in terms of human expectations the gifts are large and they do stand as symbols of Christian solidarity for they have been given without a spirit of patronage. That is the way things appear here. The staff under Dr. Hutchison Cockbum’s splendid leadership visits the receiving countries constantly and helps to keep the churches there in living contact with the churches in the outside world. Several members of this staff are sent by American denominations and they have subordinated their denominational interests to the interests of the World Council. The actual distribution of relief is delegated to ecumenical reconstruction committees in the various countries and so local and national initiative is encouraged. Originally the main emphasis in this work of reconstruction was upon the rebuilding of churches as communities and as institutions and upon ministry to refugees and displaced persons but now a large part of the work is the distribution of food and clothing. This material aid program had to be improvised about a year ago because of the limitations under which UNNRA has had to work, especially since UNNRA could do nothing for the Germans and other former enemy peoples. To live here and to watch this work makes me feel that this unexpected byproduct of the World Council has been its finest achievement so far.
The World Council Plans for the Future
The other major aspect of the life of the World Council is its work of preparing for a quite new stage of existence as it passes beyond its present provisional status. Central here are the plans for the first Assembly of the Council which was originally scheduled for 1940 but which has been necessarily postponed until 1948. When this Assembly meets in Holland it will be in a formal way the most representative conference of non-Roman churchmen since the Reformation. (Incidentally we lack adequate adjective to describe the World Council. It is not Protestant because it includes or is expected to include branches of Eastern Orthodoxy. “Non- Roman” is unfortunately negative but at the moment it seems to be the most accurate word that is avail- able.) This first Assembly will be in part a business meeting of the World Council and in part it will be a great Christian conference for the discussion of the meaning of the Christian Gospel for the present disorder of man’s life. Its subject is expected to be “Man’s Disorder and God’s Design.”
Three other organs of the World Council are now being formed. One is the Ecumenical Institute which will begin its first term at a chateau near Geneva in October. At first it will concentrate on the training of lay leadership for the churches of Europe. This is of special importance because of the part that laymen have played in the resistance movements in the churches. The program will vary from term to term, with opportunity in the second term for theological students and younger pastors to attend. Each nation will have a quota and the interest sin the Institute may be seen in the fact that there were nearly a hundred applications from Holland alone for the first term. There will always be some Americans in the student body and, it is hoped, on the teaching staff. Dr. Heinrich Kraemer has been chosen to be the Director of the Institute. He has become during the war one of the truly prophetic leaders of the European churches. I may say to those who have in the past associated him with a rather rigid form of what they call Neo-orthodoxy, would be surprised to find how broad and in the best sense “liberal,” his thinking is, and how radical his conception of the needed changes both in the Church and in the political and economic order.
A second organ that I can only mention is the Youth Commission which is now engaged in preparing for the second great world conference of Christian youth at Oslo in 1947. This will be what readers might recognize as a “second Amsterdam.”
Then, there is the new Commission on International Affairs which was created in a provisional way last February but which was given definite form at the Cambridge conference on international affairs in August, 1946. This commission will be what we might call in America the “social action” arm of the World Council. It will function on a world scale in somewhat the same way as the Commission on a Just and Durable Peace has functioned in the United States. It will have offices in both London and New York and will establish regular consultative relations with the Social and Economic Council and other agencies of the United Nations. It will have a far more difficult task than the American commission had during the war. It will be so much more complicated to deal with the public opinion in many nations. Also, each concrete problem is now much more perplexing than the general problem of world organization on which the Commission on a Just and Durable Peace did such a good job. As an illustration of the difficulties confronting the new commission, one of the major issues to which it will give attention is the question of what attitude Christians should take toward the tension between Russia and the West, toward Russia as a great power and Russia as the fatherland of Communism. This is a subject on which there is profound disagreement among the non-Roman churches, both Protestant and Eastern Orthodox. It is now safe to predict that the World Council will avoid the kind of fanatical religious campaign against Russia and Communism that we associate with the Roman Catholic Church. It may be difficult to find the right answer here but the Roman Catholic answer is certainly not the right one. It fails to recognize the responsibility of the Church for the spiritual chasm between Communism and Christianity, and it is not open to any understanding of real differences between Communism and National Socialism, differences that may make possible future reconciliation with Russia and with Communism.
It should be said that this new international commission is a joint project of the World Council of Churches and the International Missionary Council. There is a complicated institutional problem that cannot be discussed here, but it should be understood that both the size of the world and the special history of the churches in mission lands has so far prevented the merging of these two bodies. But they have re- solved to grow together so that in a few years there may be one ecumenical movement that is able to represent adequately the churches of both East and West.
I shall conclude by mentioning two aspects of Christianity in Europe which form the background for the development of the World Council and which are definitely favorable to its work.
There is a revived interest in Christian faith on the continent. This is not what we may call a religious revival. The people who came through the resistance when the churches showed great strength are disappointed at the results. I think that they expected too much and did not make allowance for the inevitable sag that comes after any great effort. Sometimes they say, as a joke that has a real point, that they miss the Germans, because while the Germans were occupying their countries they knew what to be against, and while decisions were often bitter, there was a kind of simplicity about them. It remains true that the churches, both Catholic and Protestant, have shown unexpected strength and in spite of some disillusionment, this strength has not been lost. It is also true that Christianity is more clearly than ever the only faith that gives life meaning amidst the conditions of existence in Europe. Communism is, of course, a contender for the soul of Europe, but it can hardly be said that as a faith it illumines life, for it is too much corrupted by the opportunism of Russian policy. Gospels that are based upon optimistic doctrines of assured progress, or of the self-sufficiency of the human spirit, are no longer credible. Under these circumstances, if the Christian Church finds the word to speak to the world, its voice will not be drowned out by the many plausible voices that until recently people preferred to hear. Under Hitler there was a desperate decision: Christ or anti-Christ; today, it is rather the decision: Christ or complete meaninglessness.
Also, I am impressed by changes in thought in the European churches that should make cooperation between European and American Christians easier than was the case before the war. Curiously enough, Karl Barth can be mentioned as a major factor in this change. His own method of theological thinking would be as widely rejected as ever in America, but he has come to conclusions that are to be welcomed. I am convinced that Barth needs a new set of interpreters in the Anglo-Saxon world and that, above all, his more recent writings should be translated without delay. He has done a great deal to persuade Christians that they should take responsibility for political action. He has made Christian faith and ethics relevant to social problems. He is a prophetic spirit who now has a positive message about the whole world of God’s creation. But this emphasis upon the social implications of Christianity is quite pervasive. Brunner and Kraemer, to mention two thinkers who are well known in America, represent it quite as much as Barth.
I shall not forget one meeting of representative thinkers from Europe where two things were stressed in the discussion: (1) that the chief point of contact for evangelism today is to be found in the relevance of Christianity to social problems, and (2) that one of the chief hindrances to evangelism is an environmental condition that is unjust. I could hardly believe my ears because it all sounded so much like what I used to hear in America twenty years ago. I do not doubt that these ideas are now accompanied by fewer illusions than was the case with us at that time, but there is here a startling conversion of interest and conviction as between American and European Christians.
John Coleman Bennett was a co-founder of Christianity and Crisis with Reinhold Niebuhr and later served as the president of Union Theological Seminary from 1963 to 1970. His books include Christian Ethics and Social Policy, Christians and the State, and Foreign Policy in Christian Perspective.