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Bruce, Belhar, and the Bible

Mitchell Kinsinger

During my college years, I listened to Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn virtually nonstop. His Christianity seemed unconventional to me and his lyrics and music ministered to my soul. I had not thought about Cockburn for a while until I began preparation for teaching a Sunday School class on the Belhar Confession. In particular, I was reminded of his song, “Justice,” which includes the refrain,

loves to see
justice done
on somebody else
That line always troubled me because, at the time, I tended to look at the ways I had been wronged or mistreated, and insisted to Cockburn that I wanted to see justice done on me, for me. However, I now think he is singing about justice more along the lines of a vengeful “eye for an eye” sort. The “justice” in Cockburn’s song is the desire to see others receive the scourge of justice we think they deserve, not the promotion or maintenance of a more kingdom oriented justice which may entail some kind of self-sacrifice. Whether or not Cockburn was consciously thinking about South Africa when he penned this song in the early 1980s, I cannot say for sure, but his lyrical lament, “what’s been done in the name of race,” certainly applies to apartheid. Given his heart for social justice in a variety of world contexts, Cockburn’s plea for a more comprehensive justice resonates deeply with the Belhar Confession, now under consideration for adoption as a doctrinal standard by the Reformed Church in America.

The fact that the RCA is considering adopting a new standard is surprising in two ways. On the one hand, since it has been almost 390 years since the church last adopted a confession, why would we entertain a new creed now? On the other hand, this creedal dormancy is somewhat ironic for a church committed to the principle of ecclesia reformata et semper reformanda, “the church reformed and ever reforming” or perhaps better, “reformed and always in need of being reformed.” The sixteenth-century reformers had the good sense to know that their reforms would not finally and ultimately settle all matters of faith and doctrine forever. Their corrections were preliminary, there would be more. The church as a human institution was and forevermore will be in need of correction. To take that principle seriously, we need to be diligently and self-critically looking for ways to bring ourselves in line with the purposes of God in establishing the kingdom. By affirming the Belhar Confession, the church has the opportunity to do this, and by so doing, we can make amends for past sins, affirm our commitment to sola scriptura in the present, and continue to usher in the kingdom of God in the future.

The discrimination, oppression, and injustice of South African apartheid was formulated and supported by a particular application of Reformed theology. This is but one example of the church, broadly understood, in need of reform. To affirm Belhar would be to stand with brothers and sisters in South Africa against injustice and oppression, looking back with humility and repentance. By extension, the church would affirm and stand with other oppressed people who are engaged in the struggle against unjust powers and principalities around the world.

To adopt Belhar is to continue to affirm our sola scriptura commitment to the biblical narrative. Scripture is a narrative that portrays a God who is committed to and who works for justice. We read different estimates and counts, but certainly there are hundreds and likely thousands of references to social justice in the form of the injunctions to care for the powerless, the oppressed, and the marginalized, or in the biblical language, the “widow, the orphan, the poor, and the alien.” The prophets (e.g. Amos and Micah), Jesus (e.g., Luke 4), and the book of James (where “pure religion” is the care of the widow and orphan) repeatedly advocate justice for the marginalized and disenfranchised. It is, therefore, not a leap to suggest that a commitment to the authority of Scripture demands the affirmation of, at the very least, the commitments to social justice articulated in the Belhar.

The importance of this biblical commitment is highlighted when one looks at the other three confessions which have formed the doctrinal basis of the RCA. The Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt speak of justice almost entirely with regards to God’s character. The three standards use the word “justice” a total of sixteen times–fourteen occurrences clearly refer to, and typically employ the phrase, “divine justice.” The expressed concern is the metaphysical problem of how to reconcile human sinfulness with God’s righteousness. One occurrence of the word in the Heidelberg Catechism refers to the “hallowing of God’s name” in the Lord’s prayer as implying “justice,” although the context does not make clear whether the reference is to divine or earthly justice. The only place where a clear reference to earthly justice appears is in the Belgic Confession: a denunciation of “Anabaptists, the anarchists, and, in general, all those who want to reject the authorities and civil officers and to subvert justice by introducing common ownership of goods, and corrupting the moral order that God has established among human beings” (Article 36, italics added).

To be fair, all of Article 36, “On Civil Government,” is concerned with maintaining the peace by affirming the government’s role, not only in maintaining the social order against the likes of Anabaptists and anarchists, but also in promoting the “sacred ministry” of the church. “For that purpose God has placed the sword in the hands of the government,” declares the confession, “to punish evil people and protect the good.” This, of course, places great faith in the rightness and moral rectitude of the government with no openness to the possibility that the government itself may, in fact, protect those doing evil, and punish the good, the weak, or the innocent. One could argue that where governments who have institutionalized oppression and discrimination, the spirit of “the sacred ministry” of the church–promoting unity, reconciliation, peacemaking, and justice–should supersede the letter of unjust discriminatory laws. Belhar helps the church do just that.

Thirdly, an affirmation of Belhar’s principles will help orient the church toward a future where the divine justice of God is mirrored and manifested in the exercise of justice within the human community. “On earth as in heaven,” we pray in church most Sundays. Do we mean it? If we who live in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world cannot speak and act for justice of all kinds, what does that say for us?

The Belhar Confession reflects the biblical urgency and importance of seeking justice in the human community. It is not an optional commitment. It is the commitment of God to help the last, the least, and the lost. Cockburn shares that commitment when he closes his song with the difficult but courageous commitment to

…search the silence of the soul’s wild places,
For a voice that can cross the spaces [which] these definitions that we love create–
these names for heaven, hero, tribe, and state

If the Reformed Church in America searches the silence of her collective “soul’s wild places,” I think we will find a redemptive voice–which will help us “cross the spaces” of division and injustice–in the Belhar Confession.

Mitchell Kinsinger is an associate professor in the Religion Department at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.