1 Introduction

1.2 The development of common positions on justice, peace and creation in the ecumenical movement

1.2.5 Amsterdam 1948

After the war, the peace issue became top on the agenda of the revitalized ecumenical movement. With memories of World War II still very much alive, the First Assembly declared in the form of a confession and affirmation that:

“War, being a consequence of the disregard of God, is not inevitable if man will turn to Him in repentance and obey His law. There is, then, no irresistible tide that is carrying man to destruction. Nothing is impossible with God ...“

The assembly then issued its well-known statement that “War as a method of settling disputes is incompatible with the teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ. The part which war plays in our present international life is a sin against God and a degradation of man. We recognize that the problem of war raises especially acute issues for Christians today. Warfare has greatly changed. War is now total, and every man and woman is called for mobilisation in war service...“

Though Amsterdam condemned war as contrary to the will of God, it also recognized the wide differences held by the churches vis-à-vis the question of war as a means of achieving justice. After denouncing war the Assembly then raised the question, “Can war now be an act of justice? We cannot answer this question unanimously.“ Three positions are mentioned as opposing positions of conscience regarding the question of war and peace. These positions were:

  1. the classical pacifism, which refuses in obedience to the faith, any participation in war and which opts for active peace service in the place of military force;
  2. the position of the classical ethics of the state, which holds that the state, as a divinely instituted order of preservation, must be ready to use force in order to defend justice, and can oblige Christians to take up weapons to defend their country;
  3. the position based on a rigorous application of the just war doctrine.

Because war had now clearly become “indiscriminate“ in its destructive power, the assembly stated: “In these circumstances the tradition of a just war, requiring a just cause and the use of just means, is now challenged.“

If anything typified the mood of the delegates in their concern for peace, it was their deep desire to overcome the root causes of war. The need to look beyond national interests was recognized. Emphasis was given to the importance of international law which all nations should respect. Much hope was given to the formation of the United Nations. Churches should “support immediate practical steps for fostering mutual understanding and goodwill among the nations“ and give help to the “common foundation of moral conviction without which any system of law will break down“.

The Amsterdam Assembly took place on the eve of the beginning of the Cold War and thus the following years were characterised by continual ecumenical attempts to promote the cause of disarmament.

Between Amsterdam and the following assembly at Evanston the Korean war gave even more urgency to the churches thinking about peace and justice. In 1951 the WCC Commission for International Affairs (CCIA) issued a statement entitled “Churches stand for Peace“, declaring that “we must neither purchase peace at the price of tyranny nor in the name of justice look on war as a way to justice or as a ground of hope.“

Having fought against the Nazi regime and being in strict opposition to Stalinism, the main concern of the post war period of the WCC was the issue of the freedom as over against the domination of the state. Between the dominant ideologies of its time the Assembly looked for a way of its own. “The Christian Churches should reject the ideologies of both communism and laissez-faire capitalism, and should seek to draw men away from the false assumption that these extremes are the only alternatives.“

As a result, freedom together with justice, a mixed economy and control over the powers of the state, became central categories in the concept of the “responsible society“ which was developed by the Amsterdam Assembly. “A responsible society where freedom of men who acknowledge responsibility to justice and public order, and where those who hold political authority or economic power are responsible for its exercise to God and the people whose welfare is affected by it... For a society to be responsible under modern conditions it is requested that the people have freedom to control, to criticize and to change their governments, that power be made responsible by law and tradition, and be distributed as widely as possible through the whole community. It is required that economic justice and provision of equality of opportunity be established for all the members of society.“ (Visser't Hooft, Willem Adolf (ed.): The First assembly of the World Council of Churches held at Amsterdam, August 22nd to September 4th, 1948. - London, SCM Press Ltd., 1948.)

General Information: Amsterdam (The Netherlands) August 22nd to September 4th, 1948, 351 delegates from 145 churches. Main theme: Man's Disorder and God's Design (Section I: The Universal Church in God's Design, Section II: The Church's Witness to God's Design, Section III: The Church and the Disorder of Society, Section IV: The Church and the International Disorder). Original Definition of the WCC: The World Council of Churches is a Fellowship of churches, which accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour.

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