The Belhar Speaks Today
Published by ronaldfeenstra
Professor of Systematic Theology
During one of the worst periods of apartheid rule in South Africa, some courageous South African Christians gave birth to the Belhar Confession, a balanced, biblically rich witness to the Christian faith. The authors of the Belhar Confession were suffering deep injustices, including racial segregation that was enshrined in law, enforced by violence, condoned or even supported by some Reformed churches in South Africa, and tolerated by Reformed churches around the world. Yet, instead of encouraging violent upheaval—or even righteous indignation—against injustice, the five main statements of the Belhar Confession strike the grace notes of (1) faith and hope in the triune God who has, and will, care for the church, (2) faith in “one holy, universal Christian church, . . . called from the entire human family,” (3) belief that God has given the church a message of reconciliation in Jesus Christ, to be proclaimed both by word and deed, (4) trust that God works for justice and wants the church to join this cause, and (5) confidence that the church is called to do these things even if “human laws might forbid them and punishment and suffering be the consequence.” In the Belhar Confession, God uses a church in which frustration and anger would have been justified to produce a biblical, balanced, and deeply true confession of the Christian faith. As has happened throughout the church’s history, God worked through harrowing circumstances to guide and enlighten the church.
Given the Belhar’s many strengths, its sponsoring church (the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa) has asked Reformed Christians around the world whether the Belhar also speaks for them and to their situation. Is the Belhar’s message limited to its own place and time (South Africa in 1982), or does it translate equally well to other places and times? More particularly, does the Belhar both speak to and give voice to Reformed Christians in North America? If so, does it hold the prospect of doing so not just today, but in the years ahead? Although complete answers to these and other questions lie beyond the scope of this essay, I contend that the Belhar Confession echoes biblical themes that North American Christians need to hear and embody in their witness to the world, even though some of the specific issues the Belhar addresses arise out of its unique South African situation.
The Belhar’s Biblical Message
Despite having been written over a quarter-century ago in an environment very much unlike that of contemporary North America, the Belhar Confession provides a clear Christian witness that breathes the language and perspective of Scripture and speaks to North American Christians, challenging them to embody the gospel message. For example, in affirming that “Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another,” the Belhar echoes Scripture’s affirmation that Christ has broken down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile, making them together members of God’s household and a dwelling place for God (Eph. 2:11-22). In calling for Christian unity to “become visible so that the world may believe” that Christ has conquered the separation and hatred among people, the Belhar reflects Jesus’ prayer that the unity of believers would proclaim to the world both the Father’s having sent the Son and his love for Christ’s followers (John 17:20- 23). The Belhar’s declaration that “God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ” mirrors Paul’s statement that God “reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:16-21); its statement that the church witnesses to this message “both by word and by deed” reflects Jesus’ demand that his followers bear fruit, doing God’s will rather than just speaking the name of the Lord (Matt. 7:15-27). Finally, the Belhar’s affirmations that God “wishes to bring about justice and true peace” and 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” echo not only the Old Testament’s protections for the poor and its calls for justice (e.g., Exod. 23:6-11; Amos 5:24), but also Jesus’ declaration that he was anointed “to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18-19), his blessings upon followers who were poor, hungry, and reviled, and his warnings to the rich (Luke 6:20-26). These powerful and central biblical themes not only offer a challenge to North American Christians, but also offer a powerful summary of the biblical message as Christians speak and live out their witness to the world.
The Belhar Confession challenges the church to stand where God stands, which means standing “by people in any form of suffering and need” and standing “against injustice and with the wronged.” And as it follows Christ, the church “must witness against and strive against any form of injustice,” including witnessing “against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.” This is a message North American Christians need to hear and to embody. Like the teacher on the playground who takes special care to protect the student being picked on by bullies, God takes special care to protect “the destitute, the poor and the wronged.” So too, the church must stand by those who have been wronged and speak out against and resist injustice. In a culture in which the media and political rhetoric often encourage seeking one’s own interests, or perhaps the interests of one’s nation, the Belhar calls those who belong to Jesus Christ to seek the Kingdom of God.
Is the Belhar’s Message Limited to South Africa?
Although the Belhar’s affirmations speak to and for the whole Christian church, some of its concerns are rooted in its particular, local situation. For instance, the Belhar says that the credibility of the gospel is compromised “when it is proclaimed in a land which professes to be Christian, but in which the enforced separation of people on a racial basis promotes and perpetuates alienation, hatred and enmity,” and that any attempt “to legitimate such forced separation by appeal to the gospel” is “ideology and false doctrine” (italics added). This was an important and courageous declaration in 1982, when South Africa was ruled by a political party with close ties to white Reformed churches and when the government, with church approval, enforced apartheid laws. But does it speak to situations very different than the one from which it arose?
More specifically, is the Belhar’s message limited to South Africa in 1982, or does its message resonate for Christians in North America today? The Belhar refers to “a land which professes to be Christian,” but no country in North America professes to be Christian (despite perceptions and claims to the contrary). Furthermore, legally enforced separation of people, although practiced well into the 1960s in the United States, both North and South, no longer exists in North America, where blacks, whites, and Asians are free to live where they want. The native people of North America are permitted, but no longer required, to live in separate areas or reservations. In mentioning a “Christian” nation that enforces racial separation, does the Belhar limit its effectiveness in speaking to North America? Does this part of the Belhar not apply to North America today?
Or does that let North American Christians off too easily? The United States, in particular, lives not only with the legacy of enforced segregation, but also the lingering effects of forcing millions of people into slavery. And even if separation on a racial basis is no longer legally enforced in North America, it still exists and it still leads to “alienation, hatred and enmity.” Even among Christians and within churches, there is often de facto separation along racial lines. Given that such separation is not legally enforced, Christians have no excuse for perpetuating or accepting it. Although the Belhar focuses on enforced segregation, it should motivate us to overcome the segregation and alienation that exist voluntarily among us, thereby becoming a community of people reconciled to one another and proclaiming the gospel of reconciliation and justice in Jesus Christ.
The Belhar Confession is one of the church’s treasures. Speaking from the pit of oppression and suffering, the Belhar affirms important biblical themes such as the triune God’s care for the church and concern for justice, Christian reconciliation as not only an obligation but also a gift from God and a witness to the world, and the church’s calling to follow God’s will even in the face of opposition and suffering. Important biblical themes resound throughout the Belhar Confession, making it an important statement giving guidance to Christians today, including those in North America. Although some of its specific concerns arise out of realities in South Africa in 1982, nevertheless the Belhar’s message is needed not just in South Africa but in North America and elsewhere. The Belhar Confession provides a clear witness to those both inside and outside the church, articulating the gospel message and its implications for authentic Christian faith and life.
This is an edited version of an article that appeared in Perspectives, May 2008.
By Ronald J. Feenstra
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