Making Shalom: The Belhar Confession
Published by Calvin Seminary
For years the CRCNA has made efforts to become a multi-ethnic church and to promote racial justice. The adoption of the Belhar Confession will help the CRC move closer to this goal, and will enrich the confessional character of our church by putting in a central place biblical teachings that are at the heart of the gospel. In addition, adopting the Belhar will help us in our ministry in the world, for the Belhar speaks in a powerful way to the sinful racist realities that are far from being eradicated from our hearts and societies. The Belhar comes to us with a concrete historical model on how to make shalom in the midst of the forces of evil and death.
The Belhar has made three basic doctrines of the gospel a matter of confession:
- The unity of the church. In this respect, the Belhar goes beyond a formal and abstract oral confession; its meaning and concrete expression are vividly expressed through the context of one of the worst contemporary cases of crimes against humanity. Unity was at the heart of the eternal plan of God for the church (Eph. 1:9-10; John 17) and was fulfilled by Jesus, the artisan of shalom: Jesus’ death on the cross (Col. 1:20-22) made a new reconciled humanity (Eph. 2:15), clothed with justice and truth (Eph. 4:24) and equipped to overcome the forces of evil (Eph. 6:14).
- Reconciliation. In its full expression, reconciliation is both with God and with each other (Rom. 5:1; Eph. 2:14-18). This is one of the ways in which the Gospel describes the meaning of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension (Matt., Rom., 1 and 2 Cor., Eph., Col.).
- A call to live God’s justice in practical terms. “Faith without works is dead.” The Belhar shows how one of the main commandments of the Law, “love your neighbor as yourself,” is expressed in concrete acts of justice to those who have been sinned against by those who abuse their power (Isa. 1:10-22; 3:16-24; 5:8; Hos. 8:14; 12:8; Amos 3:15; 5:11, 21-24; 8:5-6; 2:6-8; Mic. 2:1-2; 3:9-12; 7:3; Jer. 22:13; Matt. 25:31-46; Rom. 12; James 2:1-13; 5:1-6; 1 John 3:11-20).
Contemporary and Educational Significance
In the Belhar, confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation are not only practiced in liturgical actions; they are described as day-to-day practices by which a new society is being woven out of many broken pieces. A society brutalized, humiliated, violated, and raped at many different levels is being rebuilt with tears in the eyes and pain in the heart. This is a case of genuine costly grace, one of the few contemporary models of shalom-making that continues to inspire and challenge us. The Belhar expresses the firm determination of producing a society in which there is a place for everyone—a society in which every human being is valued, treated with dignity, justice, and respect regardless of her or his race, and has equal opportunities to flourish in shalom.
We make this confession not as a contribution to a theological debate nor as a new summary of our beliefs, but as a cry from the heart, as something we are obliged to do for the sake of the gospel in view of the times in which we stand. (Prologue)
The Belhar Confession is a brave and painful expression of faith, a “cry from the heart” that we will never understand unless we hear it with our hearts. It is a cry that comes out of the depths of human suffering—suffering that was legitimated and justified theologically by Reformed Christians. This was not a rare case or the only one in contemporary history. That is why the Belhar not only confesses the key biblical doctrines we believe in, but also repeatedly “rejects any doctrine and ideology” that goes in practice against them. This is a practical way to maintain healthy churches and to avoid in everyday life the things we declare to oppose.
As members of a materially rich denomination, sheltered from and alien to the unbearable sufferings of sisters and brothers in the majority of the world, we are welcomed to commune with them and begin to understand what it means to be a suffering, martyr church. If we miss this cry from the heart, this lament, we will have used our comfort and prosperity against ourselves. We will have lost a part of our humanity. We will have failed to honor God.
“In view of the times in which we stand,” the regular confession of the Belhar will educate us to “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before [our] God” (Mic. 6:8) as we face our own challenges, temptations, and sins. The Belhar will train us to hear the many cries from the heart that today are being expressed in our cities, neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and churches.
We are aware that the only authority for such a confession and the only grounds on which it may be made are the Holy Scriptures as the Word of God…. This confession must be seen as a call to a continuous process of soulsearching together, a joint-wrestling with the issues, and a readiness to repent…. Our prayer is that this act of confession … will be reconciling and uniting. (Prologue)
The Belhar Confession can help the CRCNA by challenging us to avoid a common mistake made by our churches in North America: to repeat constantly and even cherish a rhetoric of multi-ethnicity and racial justice without taking it to its concrete and practical implications. Charles Villa-Vicencio, a South African scholar, says the Belhar Confession
challenges the uncritical affirmation of a “few stock ideas derived from Christian tradition” which are repeatedly affirmed within [our] church statements: reconciliation, justice and nonviolence. In so doing it shows how even the most orthodox and pious Christian critique of oppression can be no more than a . . . conscience-saving exercise, while allowing oppression to persist.
We must ask ourselves in the CRCNA how our explicit commitment to a multiethnic church and racial justice shows in our political administrative structures, our budgets, our programs, our Christian schools and churches, our missionary efforts, our educational tasks, and our partnerships. The Bible makes the way a nation (or God’s people) responds to the “quartet of the vulnerable” (Wolterstorff) a central criterion of its health and greatness; we have a lot to think about and do in our honest search to be a multiethnic and anti-racist faith community.
The Belhar is pertinent because concrete manifestations of evil are with us and continue to show their horrible faces throughout the world: apartheid as real walls of hostility that separate peoples (Eph. 2:14); criminalization of hunger; groups targeting and using violence against racial minorities; ethnic cleansings; and economic exploitation, to mention just a few. As Stephen Lewis says, “The real immorality is . . . for the most wealthy and privileged countries in the world to fail to respond adequately to the life-anddeath struggles of hundreds of millions of impoverished people.”
As a “call to a continuous process of soul-searching together, a joint-wrestling with the issues, and a readiness to repent,” the Belhar can help us in the CRCNA identify and repent not for only our individual and personal sins but also for those in which we participate socially and globally. The Belhar may help us to recover the practical implications of a cardinal belief of Reformed faith: total depravity. It is quite common to think of sin(s) just in terms of our own sinful nature; we rarely go beyond its personal and individual expressions. Sometimes, when we do look at the structural, social, and global realities of sin, we in North America immediately move to our default mode: evil is found in other places, peoples, and races. From the position of our ideological silos we assign human sinfulness to those who are on the other side of a political party, of our geographical borders, of the racial walls, or of our fenced neighborhoods.
The Belhar can lead us to a deep and transforming confession of sins and repentance. And out of that confession we may be able to do another type of confession, this time of our faith. The Belhar teaches us to confess our faith in teachings that are at the heart of the gospel: unity, forgiveness, and reconciliation, over against the powers of death and evil in their concrete historical manifestations. And we urgently need to express our faith in terms that respond to all these realities that plague our world—even here in North America.
To stand in our CRC churches and confess through the Belhar our unity and solidarity with our sisters and brothers in South Africa, and in the suffering majority world, is a unique privilege we do not deserve and yet are graciously invited to do. To be able to hear the confession of faith emerging from the “cauldron of black Christian suffering and reflection” and to be willing to join it with a sincere and committed “Amen” is a miracle of God’s grace.
“Our prayer is that this act of confession . . . will be reconciling and uniting.”
By Mariano Avila
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