Belhar Confession: A Protest Against the Sin of Racism
Galatians 3:27-29 | 22 August 2021 | Dan McCoig
Galatians 3:27-29 | Common English Bible
27 All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 Now if you belong to Christ, then indeed you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise.
Apartheid. Can you remember when you first heard that word. It’s not an English word. It’s an Afrikaans word. Afrikaans is one of the many languages spoken in South Africa, especially by those who descended from the earliest Dutch colonial settlers who arrived in southern Africa in the 17th century.
Apartheid means “apartness”. In 1948, the all white, minority National Party in South Africa gained power and began to enact an apartheid system of legislation that legally formalized segregationist policies against all non-white South Africans.
I believe I first heard the word in a college classroom. But then I heard it again in my first church right out of seminary. Bill Bowdler, former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, was a member of the congregation. The congregation was in eastern Virginia.
When Lisa and I were in eastern Virginia in the 1980s, the area was still highly segregated by race. Everyone who lived on the road parallel to the river was White. Nearly everyone who lived on the road leading through the pine woods back to river was Black. Ambassador Bowdler, he insisted I call him Bill [he had become a gentleman farmer in his retirement], commented to me one day, “We don’t call it apartheid in the United States, but that’s what it is. Here, it’s called the way things are and it’s wrong.”
For six Sundays this summer, we have explored six different Reformed Christian confessions. Reformed Christians, like Presbyterians, believe words matter. We use them to declare what we affirm and what we reject. We use them to say what is in our minds and hearts. We use to the say how we will behave. We use them to describe our dreams and aspirations. More importantly, we use them to describe God’s dreams and aspirations.
The six confessions we have explored were the Apostles’ Creed, the Scots Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Barmen Declaration, and the Confession of 1967. The Apostles’ Creed came out of the church in its infancy and pre-dates the canonization by the church of the Christian New Testament. Christianity, a reform movement within Judaism, was beginning to distinguish itself from Judaism, even though nearly all of the first generation of Christians were Jewish. The Scots, Heidelberg, and Second Helvetic belong to the 16th century Protestant Reformation in Europe, namely Scotland, Germany, and Switzerland. Protestant Christianity was finding its footing and charting its path independent of Roman Catholic Christianity and its hierarchy.
The Barmen Declaration grew out of the German Confessing Church and its abhorrence of the German Christian Movement that was closely allied with Hitler’s National Socialist Party. The Nazi’s feigned compatibility with Christianity for political expediency. The Barmen Declaration called upon the church to listen to and follow one voice, Christ’s, and reject voices, like Hitler’s and idolatrous, race-based political ideologies, that were incompatible with the Christian faith.
We learned the phrase status confessionis, which is Latin for a moment of crises when something must be said, something must be done. Silence or inaction are no longer a possibility for the faithful. The church declares a status confessionis when the truth of the gospel is at stake. Hitler’s Aryan paragraph and the Reich Church Administration assaulted the truth of the gospel. The German Resistance spoke and acted and paid with their lives.
Today, we explore the seventh and final confession in our summer sermon series, This We Believe. The confession is another status confessionis confession. It’s the Belhar Confession, which was first drafted in Afrikaans in 1982 by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa. The Presbyterian Church adopted the Belhar Confession after a four year long process involving two General Assemblies and two rounds of voting by the presbyteries. The Belhar Confession was included in the Presbyterian Church’s Book of Confessions in 2016 on the 30th anniversary of its formal adoption in South Africa in 1986.
The Belhar Confession is a document that emerged in South Africa during the years of apartheid. Apartheid officially ended in the early 1990s.
The confession is named for the Western Cape city in South Africa where it was first adopted. It focuses on three themes: Unity, Reconciliation, and Justice. Each of these were in short supply in South Africa. I would go so far as to say they are in short supply in far too many parts of the world, including our own nation. Though we have our shining moments, we also have our dark moments as well.
Here’s one dimension of apartheid. In South Africa, by law under apartheid, Christians of different races could not worship together. They could not commune together at the Lord’s Table. This was an issue in the earliest church as well. The churches in Galatia to whom Paul was writing were segregated by race and ethnicity, by social status and gender. They were behaving as if Christ and his uniting and reconciling work were not a reality for them. Today’s lesson has Paul saying unequivocally that in Christ all of our divides are erased and that in Christ we are one.
Belhar’s primary theme is the lordship of Christ and the unity of the church. If you haven’t read the confession, I encourage you to do so. It’s linked our on church’s website and is quite brief.
Belhar begins by affirming with the church in every age believers’ experience of God as Trinity — God the Creator, God the Redeemer, and God the Sustainer and Transformer of all life. Belhar concludes with an affirmation of Jesus as Lord.
The confession’s call for unity is a response to Jesus’ prayer for unity in the seventeenth chapter of John’s gospel. Jesus’ prayer is that everyone be united, that all would be one. Our unity is how the world will know that we are reconciled to God and one another in and through Christ. Our disunity is a deep wound to our witness.
In the 2010s, when the Presbyterian Church was deliberating whether to include the Belhar Confession in our Book of Confession as a standard for faith and practice one question that emerged was “Why should 21st century North American Christians care about a confession from another century addressed to a people and a situation seemingly far removed from our own? That’s a fair question.
Listen to how the Special Committee on the Confession of Belhar addressed this question. They wrote:
“The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is again facing a critical time in its history. We are rent apart by division and schism, we have yet to directly confront and confess the racism that has been a significant force in our own history, and we have shown a failure of resolve to make courageous stands for justice. We believe the Confession of Belhar, a profound statement on unity, reconciliation, and justice in the church, comes to us as a word from God for this particular time and place . . .
“We understand confession as both the church’s response to human sin and as a witness to our faith. Confession by the church is necessary because sin is present in social injustice and our conscious or unconscious participation in human suffering. Confession is not a way to cast aspersion or any way denigrate, castigate, or delimit any person or group of persons. We the church are called to confess sin because the Word of God as revealed in and through the life of Jesus Christ and the Holy Scriptures call us to bear witness to a just, love, and compassionate Creator.”
Take away time. The Belhar Confession calls us to unite with and be in communion with all God’s children and not just some of God’s children. It’s easy to see God in faces and lives that look like ours. But what about faces and lives that look nothing like ours — faces and lives that may be destitute or poor or wronged; faces and lives that may be black or brown or red or yellow; faces that may gay or lesbian. Apartheid, that is apartness, is no way to organize society and certainly no way to organize a church. Apartheid, apartness, always leads to enmity and hatred. It’s too easy to misunderstand or fear persons we don’t know and aren’t in relationship with, persons from whom we are apart. Reconciliation, however, makes possible a different way, a new way, a way friendship and love, Christ’s way.
You may have learned more about seven of our Reformed confessions than you ever really wanted to. I hope so. But more importantly, I hope you have come away inspired — inspired to follow Christ more nearly and love Christ more dearly by the saints who have gone before us and whose light in dark times provides us with a beacon for our path in our time.