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The Belhar Confession for North America

By May 16, 2008 No Comments

Ronald Feenstra

Reformed Christians in particular, and all Christians more generally, owe a debt of gratitude to those courageous Christians in South Africa who, during one of the worst periods of apartheid rule in that country, gave birth to one of the finest, sturdiest witnesses to the Christian faith in recent decades. The Belhar Confession was brought forth by Reformed Christians who were suffering deep injustices, including violently enforced racial segregation that was 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

  • faith and hope in the triune God who has, and will, care for the church,
  • faith in “one holy, universal Christian church…called from the entire human family,”
  • belief that God has given the church a message of reconciliation in Jesus Christ, to be proclaimed both by word and deed
  • trust that God works for justice and wants the church to join this cause,
  • confidence that the church is called to do these things even if “human laws might forbid them and punishment and suffering be the consequence.”

God graciously saw fit to work through a church in which oppression, anger, and frustration must have been over whelming, to produce a biblical, balanced, and deeply true confession of the Christian faith. As has happened throughout the church’s history, God worked through even the most difficult circumstances to guide and enlighten the church.

Given Belhar’s many strengths, its sponsoring church (the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa) has asked Reformed Christians around the world whether Belhar also speaks for them and to their situation. Is Belhar appropriate mainly for its own place and time, South Africa in 1982, or does it translate equally well to other places and times? More particularly, does 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? I hope to show 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 Belhar addresses arise out of its unique South African situation.

Despite having been written over a quarter century ago in an environment very much unlike that of contemporary North America, the Belhar Confession 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,” 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 (Ephesians 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, Belhar ref lects 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). Belhar’s declaration that “God has entrusted to his church 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 Corinthians 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 (Matthew 7:15-27). Finally, Belhar’s affirmations that God “wishes to bring about justice and true peace” and that “in a world full of injustice and enmity God 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., Exodus 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 speak to North American Christians, but also speak for them in their witness to the world.

More generally, Belhar holds that the church must stand where God stands, standing “against injustice and with the wronged,” and “must witness 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 promote. Like the teacher on the playground who takes special care to protect the student being picked on by bullies, the church must defend those who suffer injustice and speak out against those who promote 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, Belhar calls those who belong to Jesus Christ to seek the kingdom of God.

Although, in much of what it affirms, Belhar speaks to and for the whole Christian church, some of its concerns focus on its particular, local situation. For instance, 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 that from which it arose? By speaking not just of separation, but enforced separation, does Belhar limit its effectiveness in speaking to North America? Does this part of 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 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, Belhar resounds with important biblical themes that give guidance to Christians today. Although it arose out of South Africa in 1982, nevertheless Belhar’s message is needed 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.

Ronald Feenstra is professor of systematic and philosophical theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.