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Sabbath Day: Perspectives on Belhar

March 1, 2012

A cold, rainy day in Westchester.

Completed Piet Naude’s richly developed Neither Calendar nor Clock: Perspectives on the Belhar Confession (Eerdmans, 2010).

The phrase is from Karl Barth: “Confession is bound neither to calendar nor clock. When its hour comes, it may and must occur.”

Naude is professor of ethics and Director of the Business School at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. I have encountered his writings in several publications of Reformed theology, and have always benefited from his writing.

In the first chapter, the author traces the development of the theology which undergirded apartheid. Yes, the theology, which is characterized as a neo-Calvinist development of a tradition descending from of Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper and the German missiologist Gustav Warenk. (The development would have distressed both men). When combined with a (primarily) Scottish pietism that stressed personal holiness, shunned the historical-critical study of scripture, and sought to be politically ‘neutral’, one has set a stage for cultural prejudices to develop into theologically sanctioned racism and oppression.

In 1857 the Cape Synod (South Africa) gave in to pressure and established separate communion tables for “whites, Indians, colored, and Negro.”  This was justified as a concession to the tender consciences of the “weaker members,” whites who believed themselves superior to blacks, and justified by St. Paul’s words about respecting the weaker members. Thus the visible unity of the church was broken and covered over with scripture. This paved the way for separate churches, established in 1881, separate homelands in 1903, and Grand Apartheid in 1948. 

By sad coincidence, 1857 was also the year that 29 Presbyteries in the Presbyterian Church in the United States seceeded over their “right” to hold slaves. Slavery had been condemned by four previous Presbyterian General Assemblies, most recently in 1850. Those who rejected the discipline of the church were rebuked in 1857, which led to the immediate secession of the Presbyteries.

Both actions of 1857, the division of the South African tables and the division among U.S. Presbyterians, paved the way for divisions in the broader society: apartheid in South Africa and Civil War in the U.S.

The old southern and northern Presbyterian churches in the United States did not reunite until 1983, when they formed the Presbyterian Church (USA). The first act of reunion was to call for a new confession of faith. The Brief Statement of Faith was adopted in 1991.

Meanwhile, in 1982, the Dutch Reformed Mission Church  in South Africa adopted the Belhar Confession. Adoption of Belhar declared the practice of apartheid to be a sin, and the defence of apartheid to be a heresy. It made possible, and necessary, the actual confession of this sin, public prayers for the fall of the government, sanctions, peaceful demonstrations, mass meetings, and liturgies of resistance.  In Ottawa that same year, the meeting of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches would not share the table with the delegates from the Dutch Reformed Church (White) – a powerful reversal of 1857 and a strong demonstration of Reformed discipline. The dismantling of the theological justifications for “separate development” and the dismissal of the DRC from membership in WARC helped pave the way for the end of apartheid.

The adoption of Belhar also paved the way for a series of reunions among the three “black” denominations. They still await reunion with the “white” Dutch Reformed Church.

The Belhar Confession arose in South Africa, but is a confession that speaks powerfully to the whole  church today. The need to hold together visible unity, God’s justice, and the minsitry of reconciliation is, sadly, still confronting us.

Yep. This is how Presbyterians relax!  Happy Sabbath. 🙂

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Grandma Leslie permalink
    March 2, 2012 8:22 am

    At some point in my faith journey I recognized that being raised by and joyfully participating in the Presbyterian church had helped me embrace, if not develop, my preferred Martha mode in all endeavors. This posting reminded me and will help me keep seeking the better part. Thanks.

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