Sifting faith and action, Bishop Cousin seeks religion's `wholeness'

PHILIP R. Cousin is a soft-spoken preacher who sees strength in a religious dilemma: reconciling faith and works. ``I am constantly torn between Paul and James. I must be a man of faith, but I must also be a man of works,'' he says. The idea that a Christian must demonstrate devotion by words and works is central to the New Testament and an underpinning of much of religious thought.

As president of the oft-controversial National Council of Churches of Christ (NCCC) in the United States, Bishop Cousin sometimes feels the ``heat'' over the dichotomy of faith and works. He is the titular head of the largest ecumenical organization in the world, consisting of 31 diverse Protestant and Orthodox groups representing some 40 million Christians. These are clusters of congregations that often differ significantly on social and political philosophy -- and even on religious direction.

Bishop Cousin, however, says he is not so much concerned with blurring these secular differences as he is with emphasizing these churches' commonality -- a ``healing wholeness,'' an ``at-one-ment with Christ.''

``We are endeavoring to establish the fact that we are a community of communions seeking to work for the common good,'' he said during an interview at NCCC's national headquarters in New York City. A bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jacksonville, Fla., Bishop Cousin is the first representative of a predominantly black denomination to serve as NCCC president. He assumed his NCCC post in November 1983 and will serve through 1987.

Further discussing his goal of bringing Christians together, he says: ``As believers in the power of the Holy Spirit, we are seeking to allow that belief and the power of the Holy Spirit to lift us above the petty differences which would divide us in terms of political ideology or social ideology. . . . There's a higher goal, a higher force, a higher power, a stronger source of impetus which gives us our meaning and our direction.''

This emphasis on ``things of the Spirit'' is not new for the NCCC, its president insists. But he admits that today's renewed focus on faith comes in the face of recent sharp criticism of the organization for leaning too heavily on works -- in terms of social and political action.

Of late, some of the council's more conservative members have left the fold because of what they see as a preoccupation with a liberal agenda. Those on the religious ``right,'' including the Rev. Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority, depict the NCCC as communist-leaning.

A much-discussed Reader's Digest article in 1983 and a highly controversial report on CBS's ``60 Minutes'' that same year suggested that the Christian umbrella organization had direct links to the Soviet Union and to left-wing revolutionary causes in Latin America.

Bishop Cousin insists that these charges were completely unwarranted -- and have tended to overemphasize NCCC's social agenda rather than its commitment to Christian values. ``There has been a distortion of our purpose and a distortion of our image,'' he says. ``The National Council of Churches of Christ is not a monolithic, knee-jerking, liberal, lefist organization. We go from left to right. And we have a center.''

In an effort to shed this political albatross, Bishop Cousin points out that his organization is restructuring its ``world service'' as a separate unit within the NCCC. Up to recently, social action was part and parcel of NCCC's ecumenical thrust. The change in emphasis is intended to calm some critics who have felt that social action was completely preoccupying the group. But NCCC has no apologies for its political and social positions, which Bishop Cousin says are ``an outgrowth of faith.''

For instance, the NCCC leader says it is a Christian's duty to condemn racial prejudice in the US and apartheid in South Africa. His group has opposed Reagan administration policies in Nicaragua and supported, at least in principle, sanctuary for political refugees in the US.

Although Bishop Cousin prefers the politics of negotiation to that of confrontation, he has at times personally resorted to the latter. He and NCCC's national secretary, Arie R. Brouwer, were arrested earlier this year in Washington, D.C., for participating in an anti-apartheid demonstration at the South African Embassy.

The clergyman talks about the necessity of ``bearing the cross of a Christian'' to help accomplish that which one considers to be politically just and morally right.

``Christians must run the risk of being socially ostracized, verbally abused, and even perhaps physically harmed,'' Bishop Cousin says. ``How else can you show your beliefs other than to live them in the face of difficulties which would thwart your forward thrust?''

He says the sanctuary movement provides a test for those who cherish religious teachings. ``The Christian must ask: `Am I my brother's keeper?' Do I have a responsibility to provide for and protect [others] even at the risk of my own security?

He stresses that it is the duty of Christians to be good citizens and obey the law. ``But within this mandate is the demand that we participate in government'' and work to change and restructure those laws ``which come in direct conflict with the Christian concern . . . .''

Despite his belief that Christians, as individuals committed to a rule of law, should take an active role in government, Bishop Cousin is also a strong advocate of the separation of church and state. He allows that there is a ``natural overflow of ideas and philosophy from one to another.'' But he opposes any ``dictating'' of the state to the church or the church to the state.

``You cannot have a state do what a church should do. And you cannot have a state do what a family should do,'' he says. ``You can't legislate and make everybody moral. That has to be taught in a different setting with a different kind of discipline.''

Bishop Cousin says that during the next year his organization will stress a ``celebration of the gospel'' -- which he explains is a coming together of a host of Protestant groups to share their common and diverse ideas and is aimed at promoting a ``unity among Christians.'' The NCCC will also launch interdenominational dialogues in an attempt to provide closer fellowship among Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Jews.

The Christian prelate says religious understanding and world peace largely depends on two human qualities: patience and tolerance. ``The one thing Jesus stressed was patience and tolerance,'' he notes. ``I think they are the two hardest virtues for any human to acquire.''

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