March 24, 2011

Why the Belhar Confession Should Not Be Adopted

The following speech was delivered before Elizabeth Presbytery, Elizabeth, New Jersey, which hosted a March 22 debate about the Belhar Confession. 

Thank you for your kind invitation to speak to this important question. It is an honor to be here alongside scholars such as Dr. McKee and Dr. Mast. I pray that my words, too, may be helpful to you in discerning how God would have us confess this day the faith that we share in Jesus Christ. 

Our Book of Order tells us that confessions are statements in which the whole Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) “declares to its members and to the world who and what it is, what it believes, [and] what it resolves to do” (G-2.0100). “While confessional standards are subordinate to the Scriptures,” G-2 states, “they are, nonetheless, standards. They are not lightly drawn up or subscribed to, nor may they be ignored or dismissed. The church is prepared to counsel with or even to discipline one ordained who seriously rejects the faith expressed in the confessions.” (G-2.0200) 

This is serious business that we are about. The bar is high. A confession has to be more than a good statement of someone’s faith. It has to be more than a useful summary of beliefs already held in common. It has to be a fresh declaration that the whole church feels compelled to make, a bold reaffirmation of the Gospel when that Gospel stands in peril. It has to be our confession—not my confession, not your confession, not someone else’s confession. Our confession for our situation. And what we confess is Christ. 

The PCUSA constitution already contains 11 confessions of Christ. Do we need to raise that number to an apostolic 12? Is Belhar the confession that God is calling the PCUSA to make in 2011-2012, to this society? 

Let me be clear. The Belhar Confession, as adopted by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in 1986, was a good, a brave, a crucial statement amidst a critical situation. It named the unjust system of apartheid as a contradiction to the Gospel of reconciliation in Jesus Christ. It rejected “any doctrine 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….” Belhar, by appealing to the Christian faith of the ruling Afrikaner minority, contributed to the process by which the apartheid system was dismantled peacefully. 

Yet the things that were so clear in the South Africa of the 1980s may carry a different meaning in the U.S. church of 2011. Do the words of Belhar say what we need to say to our society today? 

Ours is not the same situation as 1980s’ South Africa. Yes, the U.S., like South Africa, is a nation where the majority professes a Christian faith and yet where we have struggled with the besetting sin of racism. Thankfully, however, we no longer face a system of legally enforced separation of the races. Our sins of racism lurk further below the surface now, and they are harder to engage. Our challenge in 21st century America is more complicated than bridging a divide between two rigidly defined racial groups. Our challenge is to become a nation of many and overlapping racial groups, where no single group holds the majority. Belhar, as inspiring as it was in 1980s’ South Africa, may not be the confession that best helps the PCUSA address this new challenge. We may need something better suited to our situation today. 

Belhar, unlike other confessions, does not say much about the work of Christ in his life, ministry, death, and resurrection. It starts with a brief reference to “Christ’s work of reconciliation” but then moves quickly to focus on human relationships in church and society. The problem is that the pattern of Reformed theology is to start with God’s work in Jesus Christ and only then move to draw ethical and political implications. The Theological Declaration of Barmen, for example, begins with the words of Jesus: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). Barmen goes on to affirm, “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.” It is only then that Barmen rejects the false political ideology of the pro-Nazi “German Christians.” 

Compare Barmen’s robust Christology with the passing references in Belhar. Why the difference? The authors of Belhar, as I understand, have explained that they took the Christology for granted. Everyone in the South African Dutch Reformed community had a common understanding of Christ’s nature and work. That was their context in the 1980s. But is it our context in the PCUSA of 2011? Do we share a common understanding of Christ’s nature and work? I fear recent debates show that we do not. If the PUCSA is going to make a fresh confession of faith, we cannot afford to take our Christology for granted. Our situation may call for something more robust than Belhar, something closer to Barmen. 

Belhar offers a number of sweeping assertions that made perfect sense in the South Africa of the 1980s, but could easily be misinterpreted in the PCUSA of 2011. In 1986 those assertions were directed—appropriately—against apartheid, the pressing issue of that time and place. But we face a broader range of issues in the 21st century U.S. church. Do the assertions of Belhar apply with equal precision to the issues that we face? 

First, Belhar prioritizes the unity of the church above all else. It insists that “anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted.” It states that “a refusal earnestly to pursue this visible unity as a priceless gift is sin.” In 1980s’ South Africa, the meaning of these phrases was clear and on target. The attempt to divide the church on the basis of race was sinful and needed to be resisted. The visible unity of the church could not be sacrificed to gratify a racist ideology. 

But do those categorical assertions make the same sense in the PCUSA of 2011? Do we agree that anything which threatens unity must have no place in the church? In our context, the PCUSA has not prioritized visible unity above all else. Our church officers pledge themselves not only to the unity of the church, but also to its peace and its purity. There can be a tension between those three qualities, and unity is not always the trump card. Sometimes we need to challenge a visible unity that is based on something other than Jesus Christ. That was the message of Barmen. That was the conviction of the Reformers. The context of 1980s’ South Africa was different. But in our context Belhar’s words about unity may not serve us well. We may need to find more suitable words. 

Second, Belhar declares that “true faith in Jesus Christ is the only condition for membership of this church.” In 1980s’ South Africa, that statement was clear and on target. It was saying that you couldn’t bar people from church membership based on their race or ethnic background. But does this categorical assertion make the same sense in the PCUSA of 2011? In our postmodern culture, “true faith” could mean that you just have to have some sort of attachment to some sort of image of Jesus that appeals to you personally. 

But doesn’t “true faith” have some necessary content? Doesn’t it make a difference which Christ we confess—the one to whom the Scriptures bear witness, or some other Christ of our imagination? That is why we in the PCUSA ask our members to profess their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. 

And isn’t “true faith” also expressed in actions that show Christ as Lord and Savior? That is why we ask our members to vow to be regular in worship, prayer, and study of the Scriptures, and to give fitting proportions of their time and resources to the ministry and mission of the church. These points were probably obvious in the theologically more traditional context of 1980s’ South Africa. But dare we leave them unclear in the face of our society’s exaltation of individual autonomy? In our context Belhar’s words about true faith being the only condition of membership may not serve us well. We may need to find more suitable words. 

Third, Belhar repudiates any view which “maintains that descent or any other human or social factor should be a consideration in determining membership of the church.” In 1980s’ South Africa, that statement was clear and on target. It was saying that one’s ancestry was not a qualification or disqualification for church membership. Membership was open to persons of all backgrounds. 

But does this categorical assertion make the same sense in the PCUSA of 2011? Are we sure that every “human or social factor” is irrelevant? Wouldn’t it be possible that a person might belong to a movement—neo-Nazism, for example—that was contrary to Christian teaching? Might not a person be a practitioner of a behavior—for instance, sex trafficking—that was incompatible with Christian faith? Wouldn’t the church be in a position to say to such a person that he or she was not ready to take the vows of membership?

Again, these were probably not live questions in the South Africa of the 1980s. But in our subjectivist society, there are people who think all you need to do to become a church member is to say the words of the vows, attaching to them whatever meaning you choose. Belhar’s words discounting all “human or social factor[s]” may not serve us well.  We may need to find more suitable words. 

Fourth, Belhar rejects “any doctrine which absolutizes natural diversity … in such a way that this absolutization hinders or breaks the visible and active unity of the church.” In 1980s’ South Africa, that statement was clear and on target. It was saying that the unity of the church was more important than any considerations of race or ethnicity. 

But does this categorical assertion make the same sense in the PCUSA of 2011? Is every kind of natural diversity simply a barrier that must be smashed? Aren’t some kinds of natural diversity good and healthy—part of God’s created order—and isn’t it proper to recognize them? In the PCUSA we recognize that some individuals are mature enough, and others not mature enough, to take the vows of church membership. Would this practice be a forbidden “absolutization” of the natural diversity of ages and maturity levels? Likewise, the church teaches that marriage is the “spiritual and physical union [of] one man and one woman” (Westminster Confession, 6.131). Is this teaching a prohibited “absolutization” of the natural diversity of the two sexes? 

These are complicated questions on which PCUSA members disagree—questions that likely were not contemplated in the South Africa of the 1980s. Should we try to settle these more recent questions with words from Belhar that were principally directed toward matters of race? In our context Belhar’s injunction against “absolutizing natural diversity” may not serve us well. We may need to find more suitable words. 

Fifth, Belhar borrows language from the liberation theology that was popular in the 1980s. It portrays God as “in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged.” It urges the church to “stand where the Lord stands”: “with the wronged” and “against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.” This binary view of society made some sense in the South Africa of the 1980s. It really was divided starkly between a white minority and a non-white majority. 

But does this dualistic language of class conflict accurately describe our U.S. society in 2011? Is our society neatly divided between the oppressed and their oppressors? Is it such a simple thing to take sides with the oppressed? Do the political forces that claim to represent the oppressed always in fact serve their best interests? Just because a movement attacks “the powerful and privileged” does not mean that it really helps the poor. 

It’s even more complicated in America today. If you took a poll, I suspect that most respondents would identify themselves as members of some oppressed group. Some of my fellow conservative Christians see themselves as a persecuted minority, and I think they look a bit ridiculous all decked out in their martyrs’ robes. And they are far from the only ones who cultivate their self-image as a victim group. Everybody wants to be counted as oppressed, and nobody admits to being an oppressor. 

Granted that God has a particular concern for the poor—liberation theology was right on that point—does it help the poor to turn God into a partisan for their social faction? Aren’t rich and poor alike in the grips of sinful inclinations and sinful systems? Don’t we call both to repentance and redemption in Christ? Aren’t we seeking social systems that restore both rich and poor to their proper humanity? 

I recognize that Belhar does not go to the extremes of militant liberation theology. But its binary language pitting “the wronged” against “the powerful and privileged” is still not helpful in our PCUSA context of 2011. Seeking justice in most cases involves a lot more than deciding who are “the wronged” and lining up on their side. It requires political prudence to balance various legitimate claims of parties that have all suffered wrongs and all committed wrongs. Belhar’s liberation theology rhetoric is not our best guide through these complexities. We may need to find more suitable words. 

Sixth, Belhar maintains that “the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice.” In 1980s South Africa, that statement was clear and on target. The overarching injustice was the apartheid system, and it inflicted a million small injustices. The church needed to strive against all those injustices. 

But does this categorical assertion make the same sense in the PCUSA of 2011? Clearly, there are some injustices that go directly against our Christian faith, and the church must resist those. But what about all the other issues where justice does not seem to be so clearly on one side? 

Belhar’s language seems to be a prescription for endless political crusades against every form of perceived injustice. Already, the Commission on Christian Action in the Reformed Church in America—which has adopted Belhar—has indicated that it will use the confession to address issues such as agricultural subsidies, refugee resettlement, opposing the Iraq War, liberalizing immigration laws, raising the minimum wage, and ending U.S. sanctions against Cuba. Whatever you may feel about those particular issues, the question must be raised: Does the list have any end?  Does Belhar give us any help in discerning the difference between clear issues where the church is called to take a strong corporate stand and cloudier issues that it ought to leave to the political judgment of its members? 

The PCUSA in 2011 is already overextended politically, trying to take positions on a host of issues where we struggle to make a biblical and practical case that will persuade our own members. In this context, Belhar’s words about striving against any form of injustice may not serve us well. We may need to find more suitable words. 

Amidst all these reasons to doubt whether Belhar is indeed our confession, the reasons cited on the opposite side of the ledger—the reasons why we might need Belhar—are not sufficiently convincing, in my view. 

Proponents of Belhar contend that we need to add a non-western confession to our constitution, to reflect the shifting center of the global church. They forget that Nicaea is not located in Europe. The principal shapers of that creed were Asians and Africans. And if the PCUSA desires to have a modern non-western confession, there are surely other candidates besides Belhar. 

Proponents of Belhar say that we need this confession to address continuing concerns about racism. That issue has already been addressed directly, in a U.S. context, by the Confession of 1967. “God has created the people of the earth to be one universal family,” C-67 teaches, and “breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference.” The church, it insists, must “labor for the abolition of all racial discrimination and minister to those injured by it.” Any “who exclude, dominate, or patronize their fellow men, however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess.” (9.44) This language is stronger and more eloquent than Belhar’s.

Proponents argue that we need Belhar to address concerns about economic injustice. These also have been covered, particularly in the catechisms’ expositions of the commandment against stealing. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches that “God also labels as theft all wicked tricks and schemes by which we seek to get for ourselves our neighbor’s goods, whether by force or under pretext of right ….” It calls Christians to “work for the good of my neighbor wherever I can and may, deal with him as I would have others deal with me, and do my work well so that I may be able to help the poor in their need.” (4.110-111) C-67 declares that “enslaving poverty in a world of abundance is an intolerable violation of God’s good creation” (9.46). Again, this language is better than Belhar. 

So is Belhar our confession? A Presbyterian Panel survey from August 2009 showed that only 17 percent of PCUSA pastors were familiar with the proposed confession. Only one percent of members and two percent of elders were familiar with Belhar. I’m sure that those numbers are somewhat higher today, after debates such as the one we’re having here. But can we really say that this is a declaration that the whole church feels compelled to claim as its own?

Does Belhar express authoritatively who and what we are as the PCUSA, what we believe, and what we resolve to do in our situation? Is it a standard that we would hold up for the guidance of our church officers? Would we even be prepared to discipline a minister, elder, or deacon who rejected the faith proclaimed in Belhar? 

The bar for a new confession of faith is high. Belhar was a good statement for its time and place, but does it pass the higher bar that we set for a confession to enter the PCUSA constitution? That is the judgment that you, sisters and brothers, will have to make this evening. 

Thank you for your kind attention. May God bless this honorable presbytery and all the members thereof!

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