A Lutheran Seminary keynoter and author proposed that the Church once more plays the kind of influential, international diplomatic role in human rights that its leaders were known for decades ago
During the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s influential church leaders profoundly shaped the international diplomacy and human rights issues of the day.
Could it happen again? British author Canon John S. Nurser, whose career has chronicled human rights history internationally, thinks it’s possible despite current challenges. Canon Nurser addressed an audience celebrating the life of the late Professor O. Frederick Nolde, who during the above period hob-nobbed with the likes of former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Eleanor Roosevelt and President John F. Kennedy while taking part in diplomatic talks surrounding Vietnam and the Suez Crisis. Nolde spent two years with others drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. Nolde penned sections on Freedom of Religion in the Declaration, which becomes 60 years old next week. In those days he often introduced himself to world leaders as a professor of Christian education at a Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia. The professor, who taught at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) for 40 years prior to his death in 1972, is featured in a chapter of a book authored by Nurser entitled For All Peoples and All Nations (Georgetown University Press, 2005). Nolde directed the seminary’s Graduate School during many of those years and lived in Wyndmoor, PA.
“What the ecumenical Christians of the 1940s called ‘Christendom-thinking’ accepted that in a global era that there no longer ought to be faith-based states, but that world Christianity is called to ask for a specific set of rights in secular states, provided those rights are equally available to all citizens, whatever their faiths,” Nurser said in remarks he titled, “Human Rights Needs the Churches: The Gospel Needs Human Rights.” “Whether that can hold today remains a vital question. Its fundamental assumption is the divine and human imperative of hospitality, of being ‘serious’ that our neighbors, within reasonable limits, should be at ease in their life situation. A Christian who follows St. Paul is above all concerned that a neighbor’s conscience should be so at ease. This is in my opinion a happy companion to the Golden Rule offered by Jesus and indeed by many others.” Nurser’s remarks were part of this year’s observance connected with the O. Frederick Nolde Ecumenical Lectureship and Seminar at the seminary.
Nolde, among other things, founded the World Council of Churches’ Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) and convened a May, 1945 meeting in San Francisco that decided on a commitment to human rights in the Charter of the United Nations.
But what of today? Could churches play a role in helping to establish a new and responsible economic world order with the United Nations and issues of human rights as part of the focus for a just world? “In our own time I suggest churches may be sensing a vocation to become ‘serious’ about the present economic and financial arrangements of the world,” Nurser said.
“These two, as was the case of matters in the 1950s, need to answer gospel questions and be changed. In the area of greed and economic privilege – so much closer to our daily life – we have become vulnerable. In my judgment, moving to a global economic order worthy of the task will be a long and painful struggle. Without the stamina that comes from religious conviction it will fail.”
Nurser said there is no way that global and economic financial life can be governed “without first agreeing on what institutions have to be set up to begin to undertake such regulation, and then establishing them. And how is such authority to be made to relate to political authorities? The United Nations’ human rights bodies have been emasculated from inside by precisely the states that have the most to answer for at that bar. Perhaps the United Nations itself will have to be reformed first. After all, for the first 10 years of its life the UN’s Economic and Social Council (to which the Human Rights Commission was responsible) was at the same level as the Security Council.”
Nurser called for the kind of spirit that can be found in an examination of Nolde’s life work, recognizing that “many voices in the public square, including Christian churches, are calling for a better way to be found to manage global economic and financial life.” He suggested that could lead to churches working together to set up an informed conversation about global markets – one that could lead entrusting an agreed-upon agenda to an appropriate officer and staff empowered to act on their behalf.
Following Nolde’s approach of decades ago, such an office would cultivate familiarity with the range of economic expertise, both practical and academic, he said. Those involved would get to know the relevant players in international conferences personally, as Nolde did, he said.
“Many Non Governmental Offices (NGOs) now do this, and follow where the CCIA led,” he said. “Perhaps the churches no longer have bodies that are sufficiently heavyweight and representative and trans-national in such a field,” he said. “Perhaps – above all – the churches have still to work at the mobilization of public opinion of which they are capable” in order for the original vision to be rekindled with relevance for today.
Nurser concluded by reading a paragraph, a kind of “credo”, framed by Nolde in 1954 for the occasion of the second assembly of the World Council of Churches in Evanston, IL, a credo that Nurser feels holds continuing relevance for today:
“This troubled world, disfigured and distorted as it is, is God’s world. He rules and overrules its tangled history. In praying ‘thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’, we commit ourselves to seek earthly justice, freedom and peace for all men and women. Here as everywhere Christ is our hope – The Fruit of our effort rests in His hands. We can therefore live and work as those who know that God reigns, undaunted by all the arrogant pretensions of evil, ready to face situations that seem hopeless and yet to act in them as men and women whose hope is indestructible.”
Video of Canon Nurser’s lecture, along with responses by LTSP students and alumni, and photos can be found online: www.Ltsp.edu/noldelecture
photo above: LTSP President Philip Krey with Nancy Nolde and Canon John Nurser