The Common Good
July 2005

The Miracle at Accra

by Rose Marie Berger | July 2005

German Theologian Ulrich Duchrow tells how a visit to an African slave castle - and the movement of the Spirit - created a "transforming moment" for Reformed Christians.

German theologian and economist Ulrich Duchrow explained the process that produced the World Alliance statement,

Last summer the World Alliance of Reformed Churches general council met in Accra, Ghana, to issue an extraordinary invitation to its 75 million members and Christians everywhere: Join us in declaring that the present state of the global economy represents heresy and threatens the very integrity of the gospel.

It’s hard to know how to respond when someone tells you that a system so seemingly entrenched as our current global economy—an more important, my little part of it—is a sin from which I need to repent, especially if I’m a North American or West European. My queasy stomach and the defensiveness I feel suggests that my conscience, at least, recognizes that the statement rings with truth.

Charlotte Denny, e conomic correspondent for The Guardian, put the global economy in sharp perspective when she wrote: “For half the world’s population the brutal reality is this: You’d be better off as a cow. The average European cow receives $2.20 a day from the taxpayer in subsidies and other aid. Meanwhile, 2.8 billion people in developing countries around the world live on less than $2 a day.”

German theologian and economist Ulrich Duchrow explained the process that resulted in the World Alliance statement, which he calls “the miracle of Accra.” It is a miracle indeed when a 20-year-long conciliar process results in as prophetic a word as: “We reject the current world economic order imposed by global neoliberal capitalism and any other economic system, including absolute planned economies, which defy God’s covenant by excluding the poor, the vulnerable and the whole of creation from the fullness of life. We reject any claim of economic, political, and military empire which subverts God’s sovereignty over life and acts contrary to God’s just rule.”

DUCHROW TEACHES systematic theology at the University of Heidelberg and specializes in ecumenical theology and in shaping a theological perspective on economics. Two of his most well-known books - Property for People, Not for Profit and Alternatives to Global Capitalism - are primers for anyone studying the connection between biblical values and today’s world economy.

As early as the 1980s, Duchrow was preparing the ground for the "miracle" that occurred at the 2004 meeting in Accra. The World Alliance of Reformed Churches consists of Congregational, Presbyterian, Reformed, and United churches. It’s made up of 218 churches in 107 countries, most of which are in the global South.

The regional preparatory meetings over the years revealed a fundamental rift in the alliance. Churches from the global South were very critical of policies generated from Western Europe and the United States. In 1999, member churches from Asia wrote a letter to the churches in Europe and the United States titled "You Can’t Serve God and Mammon." "We were facing a North-South split in the alliance," Duchrow said.

The divisions were evident when the representatives arrived in Accra. Should the word "empire" be used to describe the economic and military policies of the United States and Western Europe? Should the phrase "state of confession" (status confessionis) be used, with its implication that member churches that did not seriously address the issues of their complicity with an unjust global economy could be considered heretical?

"We had an excellent drafting group that was preparing the section titled ‘Reading the Signs of the Times,’" said Duchrow. "They analyzed in great detail how the global market works, namely that it sanctifies private property and the economic contract. They allowed us to see the ‘idolatry’ of the economic system. It requires sacrifice to an idol. You sacrifice human life to the idol. This analysis made absolutely clear what happens when we globalize this type of an unfettered capitalist market."

The second question facing the assembly was whether to use the phrase status confessionis. The church-speak can be confusing, but the issues are clear. Using this phrase would mean placing resistance to neoliberal economic globalization policies in the same historical stream as the 1934 Barmen Declaration adopted by the Confessing Church against National Socialism in Germany and the 1982 confession that declared South Africa’s apartheid policy a sin.

"There are times and situations," explained Duchrow, "when the integrity of the church, the credibility of the gospel, is at stake. Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa were situations where you could not be a Christian and at the same time befriend Hitler and the killing of the Jews or you could not uphold apartheid and splitting according to race. In Accra, the West Europeans misinterpreted status confessionis to mean throwing people who have a different opinion on economics out of the church. In the end we left out the whole name of status confessionis and instead used the phrase ‘faith stance’ or ‘faith commitment’ created by the Southern churches at a meeting in Buenos Aires. We used the Barmen formula, which says, ‘We believe’ and ‘We reject.’

"In the Accra Confession we said, ‘Today we come to make a decision of faith commitment.’ Then we added that this ‘faith commitment may be expressed in various ways, according to regional and theological traditions as confession, as confessing together, as faith stance, as being faithful to the covenant of God.’ You can’t simply go with a system that excludes, like apartheid, or a system like this current global economy that is only allowing owners and those who have a contract on their labor to be part of the economy. Instead, it must be an economy for the life of all. That is exactly what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11."

THE TRANSFORMING MOMENT for the Accra meeting came when delegates visited the slave castles on the coast of Ghana. Four hundred delegates traveled north on buses to Cape Coast and Elmina to see the dungeons from which human beings were trafficked into slavery over a 300-year period. "Every 20 miles you have a slave castle," recalled Duchrow. "Seventy million people were robbed from Africa. Only 25 million arrived at their master’s house - the rest were just dead on the way."

At Elmina, the group made its way down the treacherous steps into the women’s dungeon where more than 500 women were stored for six to 12 weeks until the slave ships arrived. The delegates stood in the semi-dark imagining the agony that took place there, knowing that for 235 years their denominational ancestors had worshipped over a pit of hell. The pastoral letter from Accra elaborated on this moment. "At the Elmina Castle...we entered a room used as a church, with words from Psalm 132 on a sign still hanging above the door ("For the Lord has chosen Zion..."). And we imagined Reformed Christians worshipping their God while directly below them, right under their feet, those being sold into slavery languished in the chains and horror of those dungeons."

The letter from Accra continued: "In angry bewilderment we thought, ‘How could their faith be so divided from life? How could they separate their spiritual experience from the torturous physical suffering directly beneath their feet? How could their faith be so blind?’"

"This led us to consider our present situation," recalled Duchrow. "Do we want to continue these colonial habits? Because this is happening right now. The United States is leading the empire. Four hundred and ninety-seven billionaires hold as much wealth as 57 percent of the world’s population. If those 497 people would share 5 percent of their wealth, all the basic needs of the world could be covered. We wouldn’t have a child dying every 5 seconds.

"So having this emotional experience - we had a wonderful worship service commemorating our own history - together with those shocking figures brought the kind of atmosphere that the Westerners simply couldn’t be too resistant to. Nobody could seriously opt out of the process. In spite of 20 years of work, in spite of all the processing, if the Holy Spirit had not been there we could have forgotten about it. It was really an event of being the church. It was wonderful. That’s why I call it a miracle."

BUT WHAT DOES the Accra Confession mean for me or for the life of a local congregation? How do I bear witness to the gospel through my actions and my choices? "Christians and churches deal with money," answered Duchrow. "Jesus says mammon is the accumulation of treasures. As Christians, we must ask: Where do we put our savings, our treasure? Do we put them in normal commercial banks to build up profit through speculation and tax evasion? This is what used to be called ‘usury.’ Or do we put it into social economy? The social economy gives you less interest, because you only get interest according to the outcome. If you take more interest than the surplus that the economic activity produces, then you are a robber. A usurer. As far as I can see, we are all participating in that.

"The other thing is lifestyle. Consumerism, which produces wealth creation and destroys nature, touches us every day. In Germany we have a movement with a slogan that says, ‘If you live differently, you live better.’ If you go to a local farmer’s market where the vegetables are still wet with the water of the morning, it’s just a joy to get your vegetables. Then if you go to a supermarket and see these dried-up things in plastic that are supposed to be vegetables, it’s bad. You don’t want to see them. Local production and marketing of basic goods are just much better for life. It’s more joyful.

"It’s challenging for churches and individuals to address these issues," Duchrow said, "but it is also a great chance for a better life. That is why, in Accra, we chose the title ‘That All May Have Life in Fullness’ (John 10:10). It’s fullness of life in all dimensions, with an economy of enough for all - a ‘manna economy’ - rather than the wealth accumulation economy for the few. That’s the basic choice."

Rose Marie Berger is an associate editor of Sojourners. For more on the Accra Confession, visit www.warc.ch.

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