The Common Good

Report from the Global Christian Forum in Indonesia: Day Four, Healing Memories

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fourth in a week-long series of reports from the Global Christian Forum in Manado, Indonesia filed by Wes Granberg-Michaelson, the former General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America.

In the Reformation centuries ago, the conflict was not only between the established (Catholic) church and the Reformers, but also amongst the Reformers themselves.

Sometimes it got ugly. Most notably, perhaps, was when the Anabaptists -- those today who are in the Mennonite and similar traditions -- broke from those following the Reformation leaders Martin Luther and John Calvin. The issues behind the conflict included baptism, non-violence, and the authority of the state. Lutherans and Calvinists not only condemned the Anabaptists theologically, but persecuted them physically. They were called heretics, were punished, and even killed.

At day four of the Global Christian Forum, we heard the story of how those in the Lutheran World Federation this year publicly asked forgiveness from the Mennonite World Conference for wounds inflicted by their forbearers centuries ago. As this account was shared by the Lutherans and Mennonites present at the forum, I was struck by the strong impression it made on the delegates. Unforgiven sin has a corrosive power, even over tens or hundreds of years. Forgiveness empowers and liberates those who have wronged one another.

Within church divisions, there is such a weight of unforgiven sin, entrenched in attitudes and religious consciousness that has endured through the ages. That's why it takes more than just a theological discussion to bring about reconciliation and healing. And I think that is a key to the approach taken by the Global Christian Forum.

When we start in groups with each participant sharing his or her faith journey, we not only recognize the reality of Christ's presence in the other, but we also see the sin of our own judgments and stereotypes -- often inherited and reinforced by our particular Christian tradition. Here in Manado, I find myself repenting from judgments and attitudes toward some here whose approach to living out their faith push my subconscious buttons.

We heard other stories about terrible persecution and pain, but also about healing of those memories.

Albania was perhaps the most closed society in the world during the Cold War, with absolutely ruthless persecution of all religion. Churches were destroyed in every corner of that country. Clergy were eliminated. Worship was outlawed. And enforcement was brutal.

When Communism fell, and the country opened for the first time in decades, the Albanian church began a miraculous process of rebirth. We heard the moving story of the Albania Orthodox Church, rebuilding countless church structures, but even more importantly, restoring faith in the hearts of its people. I've known its leader, Archbishop Anastasios, from past encounters at the World Council of Churches, and he surely is a saint. The revival of religious faith in Albania and its compassionate service to those in need is a magnificent story of the church's witness, and the Spirit's power.

For 30 years, the Cultural Revolution and its effects wiped out a generation of the church in China. We heard from three Chinese church leaders at the forum (a fourth never got her permission to leave China and travel to our gathering in Indonesia), the amazing story of the church's growth in recent years. This is taking place both in the "official" church -- those sanctioned by the government -- and in the unregistered church. No one knows for sure the full extent of these numbers. But these two facts seem certain:

  • There are more Catholics today in China than there are in Ireland;
  • On any given Sunday, more Chinese attend some form of church service than Christians in the United States do.

Here at the Global Christian Forum, we've moved beyond sharing our personal faith stories with one another to listening to the stories of whole churches in unique circumstances in various corners of the world. Our sense of what God's Spirit is doing in the world is expanded, and our inner posture of hope is strengthened.

Tom DeVries, the new RCA general secretary; Joel Boot, the Executive Director of the Christian Reformed Church; and I sat together at lunch. We were discussing the things that divide us, including painful memories from our own mutual histories in the 19th century that still need healing.

And it also seemed to me that our preoccupations, when placed in the context of the stories we are hearing at the forum this year, seem so small and so narrow.

Wes Granberg-Michaelson is former General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America and author of the book Unexpected Destinations, which includes a chapter about Global Christian Forum titled, "The Heartland and the Frontier."

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