Tackling the World’s Unsolvable Problems

by Parker Rossman

Mr. Rossman has written on “Computers in the Church,” “Videotape and the Church” and, in The Christian Century, “The Church and the Forthcoming Electronic Revolution” (December 14, 1977).

This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 4, 1978, pp. 920-922. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Local pastors, where enabling leadership is concerned, may be at a better and more advantageous position to build a more effective peace movement than any other group in the world.

"Of course there is nothing I can do about war," the pastor of a small church declared. "Clergy do not have enough political clout to tackle the major unsolvable problems of the world; hunger, disease, pollution, overpopulation, crime, injustice, war"

He may be wrong. It may well be that, where enabling leadership is concerned. American clergy are in a unique, advantageous position, with an opportunity which few other people in the world have.

For example, anyone who reads the final report of the United Nations special session on disarmament will see that the delegates agreed unanimously on a surprisingly encouraging document. The words of hope written there may never become incarnate in the deeds of politicians, especially in the United States, which must lead the way to disarmament. But the stage is set for the final end to war, for the definitive outlawing of violence in the settling of disputes between nations -- and the opportunity for American pastors to tip the scales of history is tremendous.

We in the U.S. have become more and more conscious of the problems involved in mounting effective political opposition to the "military-industrial complex," which increasingly dominates our economic and political life. Even more difficult, on a world scale what forces can be built up to counterbalance the power of totalitarian states? World government could easily become a threat to freedom and justice if power were concentrated in the hands of oppressive leadership.


At the special U.N. disarmament session, confusion and sadness could be sensed in both Christian and Marxist groupings. Ideally both groups are committed to peace and disarmament, but some Christians find it difficult to take a pacifist, nonviolent line because they are compassionately involved with liberation movements seeking to overthrow dictatorial governments. On the Marxist side, some delegates were blunt in stating that, while the major powers must disarm, guns must be provided for people fighting for their freedom from "colonialism, racism and oppression." American gun-lobby supporters are unintentional allies of those who smuggle guns into South Africa, Katanga, Rhodesia, Northern Ireland, and to the PLO.

Reflecting at the end of the United Nations special session, Homer Jack of the World Conference on Religion and Peace urged careful study of the two significant social movements in the United States which have had success in achieving major change in recent years: the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam-war movement. He says that no one is really sure how such a movement is put together, what the role of individuals is, and what forces can be brought into play to bring forth the leadership of a Martin Luther King.

Dr. King began his civil rights crusade as pastor of a local church, and some of the key people in Clergy and Laity Concerned have been local pastors. We have been blinded by the possibility of spectacular legislation and leadership on the part of the federal government, and we therefore sometimes forget that not much happens in Washington until great pressure is exerted. There is evidence that President Carter and key legislators would like to move faster and further in the direction of disarmament, but they can find no organized public support. On the other hand, organized opposition is strong -- particularly in veterans organizations and Pentagon support groups.

We tend to forget that movements start locally, as small groups in many communities begin to create communications networks to exchange ideas and to support one another. Nothing much happens in a local community, however. unless there is an enabler: someone with time and opportunity to move around town and talk to numbers of persons; someone with a pulpit from which questions can be raised; someone with a constituency, such as a congregation, in which concerned people can be found.

Pastors may be the only people in a position to open communications networks -- by corresponding with other clergy all over the world to discuss how an international antiviolence movement can be created at the grass roots. As Dr. Jack has pointed out, the American government did not prepare well enough or participate adequately in the U.N. special session on disarmament because "there is no broad-based disarmament constituency" in this country. Although there is a great deal of local activity on disarmament in various parts of the world, there is no movement yet -- except perhaps in Japan, which sent 20 million signatures on petitions to the U.N. special session?

So American pastors have a special opportunity. Those who, like Homer Jack, have been studying and observing the stirrings of American concern in local communities suggest that "a movement does not take shape in a democracy simply because it is needed. Also, individuals cannot volunteer for leadership; leaders are made by circumstances which cannot easily be contrived." Leadership is discovered, not only when a church is bombed in Montgomery, or a woman refuses to go to the back of a bus, but when large numbers of persons are moving to communicate with one another and to find expression for their concerns. It may well be that if a charismatic leader emerges at the head of a world crusade against violence, that person will be another Gandhi, a black layperson, someone who is not a member of a Christian church.


The evils of the Hitler era are not over; torture, political lies, political imprisonment, military dictatorship, the exploitation and persecution of minorities -- all of these flourish. The U.S. government, with its huge, sophisticated military system, can do little in these areas, while Amnesty International and NGO groups (nongovernmental organizations) are discovering ways to build counterbalancing forces for world public opinion and citizen action. The decline of the church as a major world force is one factor which allowed the rise of Hitler and totalitarian governments. Hitler tried to use churches for his own purposes, and because religion in its institutional forms can be so vulnerable to state pressures, the religious involvement in providing a counterbalancing force to political structures and armies may take entirely new forms in the future.

For several decades I have been paying close attention to undergrounds, which, of course, provided the only effective internal resistance to Hitler. The Soviet Union today is honeycombed with small underground groups -- which help to explain why "civil rights", issues are so threatening to the government there. In Russia and in other totalitarian states, both left and right, the most fearless advocates of human rights are usually nurtured in minority religious communities which on the surface have no power at all.

From such seemingly inauspicious beginnings a worldwide movement to outlaw war can be built. Perhaps the most effective mobilization of church power for social change in recent decades has been on the part of black churches in the south in support of the civil rights movement. Small, poor, "otherworldly" congregations were able to motivate people even in the face of armed police and angry mobs. Many of us assume, looking back at what history tells us, that when the institutional church grows weak and ineffective the churches themselves have no power as a counterbalancing force. Today, however, as the world grows smaller, as communications become swifter and more sophisticated, networks of support and interrelationships emerge which are not centered in the institution or controlled by the ecclesiastical hierarchy. It will remain difficult to project the future of any changes in church-state relationships until a new shape for religious institutions comes into clearer focus. It is possible that a hurricane of change awaits both church and state in the next half-century, for observers who are cynical about the institutional church often fail to take note of the equal cynicism about the state in communist countries.

Counterforce networks -- often made up of faithful individuals in opposition to institutions, systems and oppressive governments -- may have much more influence on the future than we can foresee at present. Nor can we safely predict the amount of institutional power which NGOs, including churches, will have. One must be wary when politicians embrace religious institutions -- even when UN. politicians embrace NGOs. If the day of the formally established church ever ends once and for all, then transnational religious movements may be increasingly valued and supported and perhaps can be more effective as peace agents if they remain institutionally poor and weak.

The national states, of both East and West, seem inclined to keep close rein on all other possible international counterforces; e.g.. education and science are government-financed. But the churches keep bubbling up, thriving on persecution, and their vitality seeps across boundaries to plague the states that oppress human beings and utilize violence. I find it amusing that the Soviet government this past Easter had to schedule rock concerts and American movies at the hour of Easter church services. It has frequently been noted that Stalin turned to the churches when he wanted help in getting the Russian people to rise up and fight Hitler, but it has less often been noted that the Soviet government also turns to church leadership -- both Orthodox and Protestant -- when it wants to take initiatives toward peace and arms reductions.


On a trip to Poland my wife and I found that many church officials were cautious and fearful of losing institutional privileges and prerogatives. In contrast, young Pentecostals, converted to Christianity within a communist society, were displaying some of the same audacity so evident among southern black Pentecostals in the 1960s during the civil rights demonstrations. East European Pentecostals have no wealth, institutional power or privilege to lose; so when need arises, they go to prison and turn their prisons into "Bible schools" to convert their jailers, as St. Paul did, They spread faith and hope to fellow prisoners as Black Muslims have done in some American prisons. Powerless, they bring a new type of creative tension into the conflicts between people and government.

And that tension may be crucial for preserving the human spirit and human freedom, so that honest politicians who sincerely desire to transform the war system into global structures for peace and development will heed a new movement. They can begin to welcome -- gingerly perhaps -- the churches and other NGOs as consultants and partners in the process of formulating ideas and programs, and in mobilizing public opinion in support of proposals that may make it possible for humanity to survive and thrive on this planet in a nuclear space age.

Now it is up to the clergy, who more and more can begin to act on the convictions expressed by the U.N. report, which opens with the words "Alarmed by the threat to the very survival of mankind," and proceeds: ". . . the accumulation of weapons, particularly nuclear weapons, today constitutes much more a threat than a protection for the future of mankind. The time has therefore come to put an end to this situation, to abandon the use of force in international relations and to seek security in disarmament." Special measures were called for to "mobilize world public opinion on behalf of disarmament."

This call goes directly to the churches and their pastors. Perhaps the enabling leadership of a movement for disarmament and against war and violence will be discovered among the increasing numbers of women clergy. Maybe it will come from the retired clergy, who feel less vulnerable to community pressures. But to the pastor who said, "Of course there is nothing I can do about war; clergy do not have enough politica1 clout to tackle the major unsolvable problems of the world," I would reply that the local pastor in the United States today has an opportunity unparalleled in history to make possible the emergence of a movement that can turn the world around.

This is a crucial time of decision, with the future of humanity at stake. The nations of the world need not follow the path to annihilation. Science and research, and the vast financial resources of the major countries, can be turned from the arms race to solving basic human problems. Never before has there been such a moment of opportunity for Americans to take the initiative for the achievement of world justice, peace and prosperity for all peoples. And it may well be that, more than anyone else, the local pastor and a few key laypeople in the local church are the ones who can do it.