Theologians confront the roots of cruel and degrading treatment

By staff writers
12 Dec 2006

The image, message and reality of the crucixion of Jesus Christ "calls us [Christians] not to glorify, but to attend to the suffering in the world and to struggle for its elimination," said the participants of a recent theological consultation on cruelty organized by the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in partnership with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

The conference took place from 5-8 December 2006 in Puidoux, Switzerland, against a backdrop of rising concern abour religious violence and what looks like a global upsurge in cruel and degrading treatment - from Guantanamo Bay to the brutal inter-communal violence of Iraq.

Other major concerns include sex trafficking of women and children, walls going up in the name of security, new justifications for the torture of human beings. These and other forms of cruelty were some of the issues tackled by 25 theologians and social scientists who attended the conference.

In reflecting on such structural and institutional forms of cruelty as patriarchy, racism, casteism, and xenophobia, participants noted that as well as being inherently cruel in and of themselves, such structures and institutions also legitimize and perpetrate cruelty against the vulnerable and the disempowered.

"For over two thousand years we have talked about cruelty. It is an ugliness that implicates us and tears the fabric of our societies," said Dr Michael Trice of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, whose theological study provided the theoretical framework of the consultation.

"We have gathered here," Trice noted, "in order to learn what churches can do to respond to inter-generational cruelty that is created and perpetrated at institutional and structural levels."

"Given the role of slavery and its allied ideology of race-thinking in laying the foundations of current-day racism, shouldn’t the church go beyond merely apologizing for its role in making slavery palatable?" asked Dr Lerleen Willis of the Sheffield Black Theology Forum, UK, in a presentation on 'Hierarchies of humanity: the dehumanizing potential of racism in Europe'.

"This is an attempt to do theology from below, on the basis of the experiences of people living in contexts and situations of acute violence. Such a theology has the potential to inspire churches to champion life in a world overwhelmed by a culture of death," said Dr Deenabandhu Manchala of the World Council of Churches.

The cross of Jesus, participants affirmed, "goes before us as a pledge that God is leading us to that time when God will wipe away every tear and there will be no suffering or mourning or death anymore. It reminds us of, and to live in, the confidence that God is already overcoming that suffering in our world."

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