Necessary Testimony — Flawed Confession?
Published by Calvin Seminary
God does not grade our sins on a curve; before his holy face, big or little, a sin is a sin. However, not all sins bear the same consequences, and few have as destructive an effect as do blood sins such as racism and tribalism. These are the sins that degrade the individual identity, dignity, and worth that every human being possesses as God’s imagebearer and replace it with an abstraction, a group identity classification, in order to gain advantage or do harm. The twentieth century will forever be known as the century of bloodbased violence and genocide, beginning with the Turkish slaughter of Armenians (1915-18; 1.5 million killed) and ending with the horrors of the Yugoslav conflicts and the Rwandan civil war (1 million dead). When we include Stalin’s forced famines in the Ukraine (1932-33; 7-20 million), the rape of Nanking by the Japanese Imperial Army (1937-38; 300,000), the Nazi Holocaust (1938-45; 6 million), Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution (50-70 million), and the killing fields of Cambodia (1975-79; 2 million), it is evident that our world is awash in a century’s worth of blood and needs to hear a gospel word from the church that identifies sins of blood, condemns them, and points a way to healing, reconciliation, and unity.
Born out of the situation of racial conflict in South African apartheid, the Belhar Confession brings with it the promise of a clear gospel answer to our racial, ethnic, and tribal hostilities and bloodshed. And, undoubtedly, many of the Belhar’s positive statements provide such a clear testimony. The Belhar confesses “that true faith in Jesus Christ is the only condition for membership” in the church and that “separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin.” It rejects “any doctrine which absolutizes either natural diversity or the sinful separation of people” or which “sanctions in the name of the gospel or of the will of God the forced separation of people on the grounds of race and color.” This is a powerful and necessary testimony—the essential first step in confronting all blood sins.
The Belhar explicitly makes reconciliation (Art. 3) and unity (Art. 2) its goal. How does the gospel bring about reconciliation and unity? Ephesians 2 spells it out clearly: Christ is our peace; through his blood shed on the cross he has destroyed dividing walls of hostility and created a new humanity. This is the heart of a reconciliation. “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. . . . And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:19). The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that we who have been forgiven, who are reconciled to God, must now be ambassadors of reconciliation. And our message has three key ingredients: repentance, forgiveness, and faith.
While those three ingredients may seem obvious, that second ingredient may still give us pause in this situation. When it comes to racism, to ethnic cleansing and genocide, how can we ask those who have been victimized to forgive? It seems too much; who is capable of this? Thankfully, we have remarkable testimony from individuals as well as compelling examples from the nation of South Africa itself. Among the individual testimonies that have recently moved me deeply is that of Rwandan massacre survivor Immaculée Ilibagiza (Left to Tell: Discovering God amidst the Rwandan Holocaust), who bears witness to the power of God’s presence to her in prayer so that Satan’s evil is defeated by God’s love and forgiveness in Christ—a power that leads her to seek out her family’s killer and forgive him. When Nelson Mandela was released from his lengthy imprisonment to emerge as South Africa’s leader and eventual president in 1994, he showed a resolute determination to bring about reconciliation and avoid the payback of “victor’s justice” that has been so evident in South Africa’s northern neighbor, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. The obvious symbol of Mandela’s reconciling spirit—now captured in the film, Invictus—was his support for the previously all-white South African national rugby team during the 1995 Rugby World Cup that was held in South Africa.
A similar effort to avoid victor’s justice was apparent in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), established in South Africa after the abolition of apartheid and headed by Bishop Desmond Tutu. The TRC was an honest attempt at restorative justice and reconciliation. The Commission included all sides in the truth and reconciliation process; reports of human rights violations perpetrated by the liberation forces, including the African National Congress, were heard alongside those of the forces of South Africa’s apartheid state.
Remarkably, this note of forgiveness in the power of Christ is missing in the Belhar. In fact, the Belhar instead offers an alternative path to reconciliation and unity. It does not begin with the premise that we are all sinners who stand under divine wrath and need the grace of God, and that we find our unity in the blood of Christ that covers our sin and reconciles us to God. The Belhar of course does not deny this premise, and one could even make the effort to imply it from the opening statement confessing faith in the triune God who “gathers, protects and cares for the church through Word and Spirit” and has called her “from the entire human family” and has done so since the beginning of the world and will do so to the end. However, this defense of the Belhar does not explain away the fact that it provides us with an explicit alternative way of conceiving reconciliation and unity that is, I believe, in considerable tension with its earlier declaration “that true faith in Jesus Christ is the only condition for membership” in the church.
The key to this alternative path is the Belhar’s focus on the social, economic, and political arenas as the locus for achieving reconciliation and unity, rather than on our spiritual poverty. One statement captures this focus fully: “We believe that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged.” The Belhar intends this as the hermeneutic key to the scriptural path toward reconciliation and unity because this claim about God is followed by a correlative conviction about the church’s task: “We believe that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others” (Art. 4). In other words, we move toward reconciliation and unity by siding with the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed. As one delegate to the 2009 synod put it: “It is time for those who are on top to come down and those who are down to move up.”
I am mindful of how terribly sensitive discussions of race are in our nation and in our church. All too often we seem unable to have honest political, economic, and doctrinal-theological discussions because we find ourselves in the midst of accusations about racism and privilege. It is therefore imperative that we elevate our discussion about the Belhar to the very highest plane. Church confessions are our declaration of gospel truth to the world; they are not for righting past wrongs, for creating climates of inclusion, or similar therapeutic purposes. My reasons for being unable to subscribe to the Belhar are biblical-theological and confessional. I strongly desire a testimony that exposes the sin of racism and points us forward to reconciliation and unity. I do not believe that the Belhar will or even can accomplish this. Not only does it fail to point to the heart of reconciliation through repentance and forgiveness, its practical consequence is to lock us into the dual categories of oppressor and oppressed, perpetrator and victim, rich and poor, black and white, with no mechanism for rising above them. This is particularly dangerous when, as was the case in South Africa, the powerful white community relinquished its power and moved to the other side of the fence. The Belhar makes no allowance for such a transforming event; in that respect its message is already obsolete in the country of its origin.
While I believe that the Belhar is flawed in these ways, I reiterate my conviction that the world needs to hear a gospel word from the church that identifies sin, condemns it, and points a way to healing, reconciliation, and unity.
By John Bolt
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