Faculty help Belhar Confession gain traction in the U.S.

06-15-2010 by

Geoff Ashmun

Last week, the Reformed Church of America (RCA) became the first mainline Protestant denomination in the United States to adopt the Belhar Confession, and with its 219th General Assembly approaching, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is likewise poised to adopt this statement of Christian unity, justice, and reconciliation.

Two members of McCormick’s faculty, the Reverend Dr. Jeff Japinga  (D.Min., Class of 2005), Associate Dean of the Doctor of Ministry Program and a longtime member and former administrative staff of the RCA, and the Reverend Dr. Jennifer Ayres, Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics and an ordained Presbyterian, have helped shepherd their respective denominations through this multi-year appropriation process.

Named after a township in South Africa, the Belhar Confession was conceived in 1982 and adopted in 1986 by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (DRMC), the “coloured” division of the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa (DRCSA). The confession was the church’s most public stand against the decades-old system of apartheid at a time when political violence in the area was escalating dramatically. Belhar unequivocally rejected individual, racial and social segregation as sin and called the Church to stand in solidarity with the poor and marginalized.

Ultimately, the confession became instrumental in the formation of the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa in 1994, which comprised the DRMC and the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa (DRCA), which is the DRCSA’s division for “black people.” The formerly “whites-only” DRCSA has embraced the Belhar Confession at a synodial level, but has not elevated it to the status of formal confession.

“Even though this document doesn’t talk about race in explicit terms, it does get at the theological underpinnings of what it means to be a multiracial society and what it means to be a cross-cultural church.”

While rooted in a particular context of injustice, the Belhar Confession has in the last several years captured the interest of many churches and governing bodies around the world. If adopted by the PCUSA, it will be the denomination’s first confession originating in the Global South.

“Framed correctly, I think it’s really important for us to receive this document from another context,” said Ayres, one of 15 members of the PCUSA’s special committee assigned in 2008 to study Belhar for possible inclusion in the PCUSA’s Book of Confessions. “One of the members of our committee, Jane Dempsey Douglas, observed how compelling it is that the people who originally wrote this document in the ‘80s, the people who were making this plea for unity and reconciliation, bore in their bodies the scars of apartheid. It was not coming from the White church in South Africa, which had, in a way, encouraged the ‘colored churches’ to continue bearing their suffering. It was coming from the victims themselves.”

In the PCUSA’s study guide to the Belhar Confession, Ayres notes, there is the sobering recognition of racism and segregation as not only a social problem, but also a theological problem that began in the Church.

“Even though this document doesn’t talk about race in explicit terms, it does get at the theological underpinnings of what it means to be a multiracial society and what it means to be a cross-cultural church. I’m not naïve about what a confession like this is able to do, but I’m hopeful that we will find at GA an opportunity to study Belhar and have some meaningful discussion about race as a denomination.”

While the PCUSA is relatively knew to the Belhar Confession, the RCA, because of its ethnic ties to the DRCSA, has been living with this document since the 1980s. But according to Dr. Jeff Japinga, a member of the RCA’s Standing Committee on Christian Unity that introduced the Belhar Confession to the General Synod, it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that the denomination began seriously talking about conferring confessional status.

He said that there were questions about whether the RCA wanted a confession that was fundamentally a call to action, rather than a theological reflection, and how much import a document written in South Africa would have in the United States 30 years later.

“I think it’s telling that the word, ‘apartheid,’ doesn’t appear anywhere in the Belhar Confession even though that was its historical context,” Japinga said. “It is really about injustice, poverty, and the separation of people wherever and whenever God’s people encounter it.

“So Belhar has everything to do with us here and now in the United States in the same ways that a confession written in 16th century Germany has to do with us: It goes to core questions of the Gospel, what we believe, and how we act accordingly as Christians.”

Both the RCA and the PCUSA, assuming the latter’s adoption of the Belhar Confession, bear the responsibility of integrating the confession into congregational life. “One of the challenges coming out of this is, ‘Now what? How do we bring Belhar to life for churches?” Japinga said. “One response is to develop a Belhar implementation team. We will be very intentional about creating resources and materials that will help congregations take Belhar seriously, discover what’s in it, and use it to challenge themselves toward a more faithful Christian witness.”
The Belhar Confession and related study materials are available on both the PCUSA Web site and the RCA Web site.