Why Does the Church Need the Belhar Confession? – Mark “Ogunwale” Lomax

Editor’s Note: I am grateful to serve on the General Assembly Special Committee on the Confession of Belhar. The Committee was charged with discerning whether to recommend inclusion of the Confession in our Book of Confessions, and to develop resources to educate the church.  This week, I am honored that five members of the Special Committee offer their reflections on the Confession.  We look forward to the part readers will take in this important conversation.

The Context

The Belhar Confession was written in South Africa. It was crafted by members of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa and adopted by that same communion in 1986.

The Belhar Confession was born in a climate of racial hatred, social upheaval, political turmoil, xenophobia, ideological terrorism, economic exploitation and intense violence. Apartheid, the political system adopted by the South African Government in 1948, mandated racial division that resulted in the creation of unjust laws, an exploitative economy, and rapacious violence against people of color.

Neither the system of apartheid nor the racism, classism, and vicious violence that characterized it, were born ex nihilo. In about 1600 the Cape of Africa became a place for ships sailing from Europe to India on behalf of the Dutch East India Company to stop and replenish their supplies and water. In 1652 the Dutch East India Company developed a permanent station on the Cape that would later develop into a full-blown settlement now known as Cape Town. By 1710 there were roughly 2,000 European settlers of Cape Town along with a few thousand enslaved Africans. Modern Afrikaners are descendants of that small community of settlers.

The South African European slave holders, like their North American slave holding counterparts, refused to afford “Christianized” Africans the right to be baptized. Baptized Christians could not be sold as slaves because baptism into the body of Christ meant freedom from the bondage of slavery.

The Cape became a British colony in 1795 though the first influx of British settlers was not until 1820. The British imposed the ideas of the Enlightenment on the Afrikaners who lived in the Cape. Consequently the British loosened the trade and labor regulations that existed between the Afrikaners and indigenous peoples, outlawed slavery in 1835, spoke of Blacks as equals, and gave them access to the courts in suit against white landowners. From the Afrikaner/Boer perspective the Enlightenment was a contagion that seized their properties, annexed their farms, imposed alien laws, and liberated their slaves without just and due compensation all in the name of Reason.

Afrikaners were typically Calvinists. Afrikaner Calvinism was a unique mixture of Reformed theology (especially the doctrine of predestination that says, in part, that God extends grace and salvation to God’s chosen or elect people) and nationalism. Many, perhaps most, Afrikaners saw themselves as a Volk in exodus, a chosen people of God who survived the harsh South African frontier because of God’s special care for them.

Regulations separating whites from peoples of color began to emerge in the Dutch Churches as early as 1829 when some rural congregations began asking for separate facilities and services. By the middle of the 19th century the Dutch Reformed Church permitted racial separation and dubbed it God’s will. By 1948, the racial separation that was permitted at the Lord’s Table and in worship during the middle of the previous century was required by law.

In 1838 Afrikaners in Natal won a bloody victory over a Zulu army called the “Battle of Blood River” that became a part of the mythology of Afrikaner nationalism that envisaged white people as superior and colored people as property or sub-human creatures.  Hence, Christianized Africans were compelled to accept the package of western culture along with Christ.

The Union of South Africa was formed from two former colonies, Cape Colony and Natal in 1910. The lust for gold and diamonds was so profound in this Union that Black souls were routinely sacrificed to extract them from the ground. The 1910 Act of Union confirmed the whites-only franchise of Natal, Transvaal, and Orange Free State and excluded Africans from standing for Parliament. The Natives Land Act of 1913 limited the Black 70% of the population to 7% of the land. And in 1948 the National Party came to power. The National Party was committed to a system of apartheid and separateness. It has been said that the National Party was the Dutch Reformed Church at prayer. Indeed what emerged in South Africa was a form of Civil Religion as Afrikaner politics was slowly but surely theologized.

Not all Afrikaners, not all members of the Dutch Reformed Church, and not all South African whites were supporters of apartheid.  Yet there can be no question that the Dutch Reformed Church laid the moral and spiritual foundation of an apartheid form of government.

As a consequence of the Dutch Reformed Church’s proximity to white nationalism, the ideology of apartheid, and the nationalist party, most Black South Africans were very skeptical of the Christian faith and tended to choose Islam or traditional religion over Christianity.

According to Elizabeth Isichei,

“In 1978, the white Dutch Reformed Church rejected an invitation from its Black, Coloured, and Indian daughter churches to form a single, united denomination. In 1982, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches declared apartheid a heresy, and excluded white, but not Black and Coloured Dutch Reformed Churches in South Africa, electing Allan Boesak leader of the Sendingkerk/DRMC as its president.”[1]

The international and ecumenical community, denominations, congregations, and Christians across South Africa began to collectively question the church’s support of apartheid. In 1985 the Kairos Document, which attacked both state theology and separatist church theology was written and disseminated. The stage was now set for the formation and dissemination of the Belhar Confession.

The Confessors

The Belhar Confession originated in the Dutch Reformed Mission Church as it engaged in protests against the system of apartheid. The Uniting Reformed Church signed on a few years later. The Uniting Reformed Church is a by-product of the reunion of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church and the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa.

Theologians and members of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church wrote the Belhar Confession as they discussed and reflected upon the Theological Declaration of Barmen in light of the unjust and complex realities of South Africa. Two of the five principle authors of the Belhar Confession were Allan Boesak and Dirkie Smit. Both men were teaching at Stellenbosch Univeristy in South Africa when Belhar was written.

The Dutch Reformed Mission Church adopted Belhar in 1986.

The Content

The three critical issues that the Belhar Confession calls the Church of God to address are Unity, Reconciliation and Justice. By 1986 when the Belhar Confession was written and adopted by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church, the Apartheid Government of South Africa was feeling the full weight of the pressure being applied by liberationists within South Africa, sanctions levied by the international community, and countless rallies, boycotts and protest marches by advocates for justice around the world. Simultaneously, denominations of the Reformed Tradition were looking for ways to unify under a common denominational banner and to join the righteous endeavor to break the back of the Apartheid government. Dr. Allan Boesak, a Black South African minister and theologian of the DRMC wrote:

“It is not the perpetrators of injustice, but those who resist it, who are the true representatives of the Reformed Tradition.”[2]

Boesak’s assertion reveals the attitude and commitment of many communicant members of the Reformed family in South Africa at that time. There was a Spirit driven righteous indignation coupled with a soulful weariness that gave rise to an ecclesial call for unity, justice and reconciliation.

Further, Belhar is completely consistent with existing confessional standards. It stands on par with the Theological Declaration of Barmen in its unabashed and repeated pronouncement that Christ is Lord of the Church. It resonates with the Second Helvetic Confession and the Confession of 1967 both in its call for unity in the Church of God and for justice in society. It provides the Presbyterian Church (USA) with an opportunity to consistently consider, and reconsider, its relationship to poor, oppressed and excluded peoples within its own family and beyond.

The Relationship

The reader might ask what all of this has to do with the American context and the Presbyterian Church (USA).  In the General Assembly’s Report of the Task Force to Study Reparations, which was received by the 216th General Assembly in 2004, two statements were made that bear repeating here. The first has to do with Native Americans.

“While it is appropriate to remember and to celebrate our Presbyterian witness in America, it is also appropriate to remember and acknowledge that our witness has not always been honorable. The “New World” was already inhabited when the Puritans from England, some of whom were Presbyterians, arrived on the northeast coast of the North American continent. They, along with other Europeans, participated in the displacement and slaughter of thousands of native peoples. Furthermore, in our efforts to reach native peoples with the gospel of Jesus Christ, we also pursued programs and policies which contributed to the virtual destruction of Native American and Alaskan Native cultures.”

The second statement pertains to African Americans. Both statements lend insight into the ways that the Presbyterian Church, like the DRC, has been quietist about and sometimes participated in, racial injustice.

“Indeed, Portugal began to transport enslaved Africans to Europe as early as 1492.[3] The European slave trade lasted for more than 400 years. During that time Africa lost nearly forty million people. Approximately twenty million of those women and men were brought to the “New World.” Millions more died during capture, at sea, or soon after arrival.[4] Families were torn asunder, cultures were destroyed, whole nations were decimated, women, children, and men were forced to spend their lives as chattel in the homes and fields of good Christians all over Europe and the Americas, yet our Presbyterian fore-parents made no definitive statements about such sordid and inhumane activities until 1818.[5] Even then, Presbyterians made strong condemnatory statements against the sin of slavery, but invoked no sanction against members of its constituency who owned slaves.”[6]

Though the preceding quotations reflect a much earlier period in American and Presbyterian history, it is by no means irrelevant to the current social, political, and economic context of the present time. African Americans, Native Americans and Latino Americans in particular still reside, in disproportionate numbers, at or near the bottom of the socio-economic wells of American society. Even in the 21st century these ethnicities lead the nation in poverty, deaths due to chronic illnesses, high school drop out rates, imprisonment for non-violent and petty crimes, unemployment, and homicide, suicide, and drug addiction. While there are no longer any laws mandating second and third class status to racial and ethnic minorities in America, systematic and structural racism abounds, even in the church of God. While it is true that the Presbyterian Church (USA) has acted benevolently and graciously toward aggrieved groups of peoples within and outside of the church, and often in very practical ways, it is also true that such actions rarely served to repair and restore relationships with those groups or to build unity, attain justice and reconciliation in any meaningful and lasting way.

We Presbyterians sing songs written in Native American languages, Spanish, and Korean; we have included Negro Spirituals in our primary hymnbook; and in our prayers of confession we often rehearse our sins of racism, sexism, social and economic injustice, and political collusion with the ugly domineering consciousness that smears our national ethos. Yet statements about our “common” Scotch-Irish heritage are repeatedly made in governing bodies, conferences, workshops, committee and commission meetings throughout the church as if no other ethnic heritages were represented at the table; our congregations remain racially divided due in no small part to the yawning cultural divide that continues to separate “whites” from “coloureds” and whites and peoples of color from the poor; we choose to live not in racially mixed, but in racially segregated communities and neighborhoods; and in our meetings we typically fail or refuse to truly struggle with the real life political, economic, social and military policies that negatively impact people of color and the poor. Is it possible that we have grown all too comfortable with a paternalistic way of being in relationship with aggrieved groups of people – a relationship based on a “doing for” rather than a “doing with” mentality? There is evidently a sense in which the Presbyterian Church (USA), like the DRC of yesteryear, needs to adjust its moral and spiritual compass.  The Belhar Confession as an instrument God is providing to help guide the Church back onto the path of true justice and righteousness where unity and reconciliation can be found.

The Conclusion

The sort of unity and reconciliation called for in the Belhar Confession require the confessor(s) to actively engage the struggle for moral and spiritual transformation; to get into the personal and communal fight against deeply embedded racial attitudes and behaviors; to at least acknowledge, accept and confess, our sinful history in regard to race and racial attitudes as together we push forward to unity, justice and reconciliation.

[1] Isichei, Elizabeth, A History of Christianity in Africa: From Antiquity to the Present (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), pp. 307.

[2] Boesak, Allan.  Black and Reformed: Apartheid, Liberation and the Calvinist Tradition (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1986), pp. 94.

[3] Bennett, Lerone, Jr. Before the Mayflower: A History of the Negro in America, 1619-1946. (Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, Inc., 1964), p. 34.

[4] Ibid., p. 30.

[5] Wilmore, Gayraud S., Black and Presbyterian: The Heritage and the Hope (Louisville: Witherspoon, 1998), p 30.

[6] Ibid.

The Rev. Dr. Mark Lomax is pastor of First Afrikan Presbyterian Church in Lithonia, Georgia and Associate Professor of Homiletics at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. He has served the wider church in many capacities, including on the Task Force to Study Reparations and on both the first and the current Special Committees on the Confession of Belhar.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.