Grace Presbyterian Church
August 12, 2018, Pentecost 12B
Confession of Belhar – Against Unjust Authority
A woman of tremendous historical and theological significance in the life of the Presbyterian church died this past week. Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon became in 1974 the first African-American woman to be ordained in the United Presbyterian Church (USA), the merged branch that issued the Confession of 1967 that we spoke of last week and one of the branches that subsequently merged to form our PC(USA). Besides that historical moment, Cannon, who taught at my alma mater Union Presbyterian Seminary, was a pioneer in the field of womanist theology and ethics. (Regrettably, I never had a class with her.)
Womanist theology is a field that brings the truly unheard forward, hearing the voices of women of color in theological study. For centuries theology was a field dominated, frankly, by old white men (I mean older than me, even). In the 1950s and 60s both women and African-Americans became more prominent, pointing towards the ways that traditional theology had been anything from indifferent to downright abusive to both (the use of theology to justify slavery being one glaring example). But black theology and feminist theology, as they came to be called, shared the same blind spot: women of color. It was this blind spot that Dr. Cannon, in her characteristic gentle but firm way, called out, challenging both of those theologies that noted the neglect of their own to realize that, in some way, they could also be neglectful of others.
Dr. Cannon was – in a far more gentle and encouraging way – a counterpart to the prophet Amos, whose words are heard in our Old Testament reading today. Unlike most of the prophets whose words or deeds are recorded in scripture, Amos came from nowhere. In fact, he was a practitioner of one of the lowest possible jobs of all in Israelite society: he was a shepherd. From this much-scored role Amos was called forth by God to deliver some of the most blistering prophetic utterance Israel had ever heard. Seriously, look at verse 21 again: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…” That is strong language, to say the least. But notice how that call ends: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Anything that impedes that free-flowing justice, no matter how benign or explicit, and especially what impedes that justice flowing to the ones any society deems least important or most disposable: any such thing must be called out and opposed by the people of God, whether in Amos’s flaming rhetoric or Dr. Cannon’s gentler but still firm teaching or any way of saying “no” to the injustices of the world.
This is, in many ways, why the Confession of Belhar might be, after all, the most important of the statements in the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions.
The history that led to the creation of the Belhar Confession is an overwhelming one, inextricable from the dark and bloody history of apartheid in South Africa. Enacted after elections in 1948 installed an Afrikaaner-dominated National Party in power, apartheid was a system of laws designed to keep that Dutch-descended white minority (by a substantial margin) in power over a large nonwhite majority.
Perhaps more disturbing was the enthusiastic embrace of apartheid in many of the churches of South Africa. It should not be a surprise, given the prior historical examples of the German Christians’ acquiescence to Nazi power in Germany in the 1930s and even the splits over slavery that occurred in US denominations in the mid-19thcentury (including Presbyterianism). The degree to which South African churches participated in apartheid is striking, nonetheless.
Take the Dutch Reformed Church, for example. Clearly under apartheid blacks could not be allowed; hence the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa was formed as a segregated denomination. But apartheid was also strict enough that blacks were not to share with “coloreds,” or mixed-race persons; hence the Dutch Reformed Mission Church was formed as well. Finally, due to an influx of immigration from India, the Reformed Church in Africa was created to keep that population separate as well.
The international community, and churches around the world as well, were only goaded to react after violence against blacks at a protest in Sharpsville in 1960, and again at Soweto township in 1976. Even then, the impetus came not from the outside, but from within the nonwhite South African churches, particularly the Dutch Reformed Mission Church, which challenged world Reformed bodies to call apartheid, a system that denied the possibility of reconciliation between peoples, for what it was: heresy. The argument was simple: the good news of the gospel cannot be separated from the divine drive to reconcile all peoples unto Christ. Confronted with this argument from the DRMC, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches had to agree, and as a result it was the white DRC that was excluded from that communion in 1982.
In response to this international affirmation of their plight, the DRMC at its synod later that year drafted the Confession of Belhar, a response to the practice of apartheid and an affirmation of the hope of reconciliation in Christ. The DRMC submitted it to its member churches for four years of consideration, and it was formally approved in 1986.
The Confession of Belhar is deliberately and consciously modeled on the Barmen Declaration; a citation of scripture, an affirmation of the faith, and a rejection of false doctrine for each portion of the confession. It is divided into three parts, significantly ordered Unity, Reconciliation, and Justice. That order is indeed significant. The church desires unity in Christ, but unity cannot happen without reconciliation. The church desires reconciliation in Christ, but reconciliation cannot happen without justice – “justice rolling down like waters,” to echo Amos’s words. And the confession concludes with the unswerving resolve that the church must pursue these things, no matter how much state or even church authority persecutes them; a simple affirmation that “Jesus is Lord,” with its equal implied affirmation that no one else is; and finally a Trinitarian benediction. And the word “apartheid” appears not at all in the confession, though it is thoroughly repudiated throughout.
Hear these affirmations on justice from the third section of Belhar:
- that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream;
- 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.
One could argue, and some did during the PC(USA)’s debate on adoption of Belhar, that the themes articulated in Belhar are similar enough to themes in the Confession of 1967that the later confession was somehow unnecessary or redundant. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Belhar speaks without reservation. There is no accommodating, trying to please differing parties. It is unequivocal in its denunciation of racial separation, particularly when practiced or enforced as somehow “holy” or sanctified by God. And it speaks these words not from a committee of white onlookers, but directly from those whose faces had met the boot heel of state enforcement of apartheid far too many times.
And this is why Belhar may be the most important confession in our book. The Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds were created and sanctioned by emperors. The Reformation-era confessions also enjoyed the patronage of kings and princes. The Confession of 1967 was a product of a denomination with national reach and a rather high general level of affluence among its membership. And while the Barmen Declaration spoke out against wrongful church submission to state power in a way that Belhar’s framers deliberately echoed, none of its creators were in danger of the gas chambers or concentration camps.
For the first time, churches in the Reformed tradition listened to the persecuted, took their words to heart, and recognized them as inspired and meaningful for the whole church. Those churches also took a dramatic step towards recognizing the truly global scope of the church – rejecting a model that only listened to European and North American voices and hearing from a church from the global South, rather than dictating theological terms to it.
This confession matters, a lot. Clearly the world, not to mention this country, has not successfully negotiated the true enactment of justice for all, reconciliation in Christ, and unity with God and one another that the confession calls for. We have a lot of work to do, to be sure. But Amos still thunders at us, reminding us that short of insistently pursuing that justice, all else we do is in vain.
“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream…”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #300, We Are One in the Spirit; #806, I’ll Praise My Maker (Psalm 146); #757, Today We All Are Called to Be Disciples; #379, We Shall Overcome
Note: featured image is of an old Dutch Reformed Mission Church building in the Western Cape Province of South Africa