The Belhar Confession

Matthew 7:1-5, Galatians 3:27-29, July 31, 2016


“The Belhar Confession” The Reverend Doctor Thomas C. Willadsen, First Presbyterian Church, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Matthew 7:1-5, Galatians 3:27-29, July 31, 2016

At General Assembly last month Presbyterians voted overwhelmingly to add The Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions.  This is the first addition to the Book of Confessions since Presbyterians adopted A Brief Statement of Faith in 1991.  I preached about that statement two weeks ago.

Adding the Belhar Confession is groundbreaking.  It is the only statement in the Book of Confessions from Africa, and the only one from the Southern Hemisphere.  It was written by Black Reformed Christians in the Republic of South Africa in 1986, during the last years of apartheid. 

Like all the statements in the Book of Confessions, The Belhar Confession is a snapshot, a product of a particular moment in time and a particular situation.  A brief accompanying letter was written at the same time as the confession itself.  Reading it 30 years later one can hear and feel the pain and dislocation through the polite and restrained language.  The authors of Belhar included themselves and all believers as needing repentance and reconciliation.  They are humble, but also forceful.  Each sentence is packed with powerful emotion.  I share just one in the name of brevity.   

We make this confession not as a contribution to a theological debate nor as a new summary of our beliefs, but as a cry from the heart, as something we are obliged to do for the sake of the gospel in view of the times in which we stand.

The writers are Reformed Christians who share a nation with other Reformed Christians  [Presbyterians are also Reformed.] but they cannot live, work or worship together because the laws of the Republic of South Africa forbid people of different races from associating together.  That Christians permit this kind of division is a gross sin of national, societal proportions.  In 1986 Black South African Reformed Christians said that this kind of division was a scandal to the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

I graduated from college in 1986.  During my last two years of college there were protests at my school and many others across the nation.  Students demonstrated against their schools who held investments in the Republic of South Africa, and thus profited from the system known as “apartheid” the legal separation of the races.  The Republic of South Africa acknowledged four racial categories: black, white, mixed and Indian.  Many of my classmates took part in demonstrations urging the university to divest its stock in companies that do business in the Republic of South Africa.  Some were arrested.  Some really wanted to bring back the protests of the ‘60s and early ‘70s—hoping to get back to the garden.  I was passionately concerned about apartheid.  Many of you know I was an Urban Studies major, my second major was History.  I took more than half of those courses in African and African-American studies.  I took two courses on the Republic of South Africa.  Still, I did not take part in the demonstrations.  I bought a shirt that said “Apartheid Kills” on the front and “NU Foots the Bills” on the back.  I’ve probably got a button somewhere.  I just thought it was a little presumptuous for a student who owns no stock to tell the university how to manage its portfolio.  Once a protester yelled at me, “What the word?”  and I yelled back, “I divested.”  But I didn’t, I had nothing to divest. 

My protest took a much, much more personal track.  I grew up in Peoria, Illinois, home of the Caterpillar Tractor Company.  Caterpillar has its world headquarters on a full city block in downtown Peoria.  In front of the building are flag poles where Caterpillar flies the flags of nations where it has facilities.  Sometimes, in 1985, they flew the flag of the Republic of South Africa there on North Adams Street in my hometown.  

I am at least a fourth generation Peorian.  I am proud of my city and can tell you any number of famous people who have roots in Peoria.  Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique for example, and the transgressive and revolutionary comedian, Richard Pryor.  I graduated from the oldest public high school in Illinois—the very institution from which Richard Pryor was expelled in 1954.

To me, seeing the Republic of South Africa flag flying in my hometown was tantamount to seeing the flag of Nazi Germany flying in my hometown.  On June 18, 1985, I put on a clean shirt, parked mom’s VW rabbit on North Main Street, a block away Caterpillar.  I walked to the flag pole, lowered the flag and tried to stuff it into the brown grocery bag I had brought with me.  The bag was too small.  I didn’t reach my get-away car.  A Caterpillar security officer detained me until the Peoria Police arrived.  When he asked for ID I showed him my library card.  [I was trying to look wholesome.]  As I sat in the squad car while the report was written, I pointed out that the out that the security officer’s birthday was just one before Martin Luther King’s.  That was my only attempt at conversation.  When I was released, I watched the security officer hoist the flag again over my hometown. 

In Caterpillar’s defense, they were one of the more progressive companies doing business in and with South Africa, one of the few that would have black workers supervising white workers.  But my objection was to the symbol of legally-sanctioned preferences for one race over another in that nation. 

It has been 31 years, and this is the first time I’ve told that story to more than a handful of people.  I don’t feel courageous or defiant, and I don’t even look at my actions as the foolishness of youth.  I did what I did, because I clearly saw the log in my brother’s eye.  

Let me tell you a little more about my childhood in Peoria, Illinois.  I went to the gifted school in Peoria.  Starting in 4th grade, students who did well on an invitation only exam were invited to attend the gifted school.    It still exists and most years it has the highest standardized scores for middle schools in the state.  I attended that school for five years, during that time I had 70 classmates.  And in a city that was about 25% African-American I had one African-American classmate—and she was never in my home room!

I was offended by a symbol of apartheid from thousands of miles away, but did not recognize the separation that I had taken for granted—without needing the force of law—in my own community! 

In 1986 Christians in the Republic of South Africa wrote a passionate, clear statement that built on this morning’s epistle lesson from Galatians.  Once one is in Christ—all distinctions disappear.  There is no longer male or female, slave or free.  Anything that Christians do to keep apart from other Christians is plainly, clearly sin. 

Even though the United States has made great progress in race relations and understanding, we have a long, long way to go.  Last summer on the mission trip the nation was reeling from the murder of 9 people in a church in Charlotte, SC.  This year on the mission trip we were reeling from more rounds of violence inflicted by and on police officers.  There are no easy responses to the racism in our nation.  There is fear on all sides.  All sides.  We fear people of other races and fearful people do dangerous things.  

In the Republic of South Africa there were Truth and Reconciliation Commissions after apartheid ended.  Victims of racially-motivated violence were able to tell their stories and perpetrators of that violence learned about the pain of their victims.  It was a painful, grueling and still incomplete process. 

One small step that helped end apartheid in South Africa was Christians gathering and stating clearly and faithfully that the church of Jesus Christ must welcome and include every believer.  The Belhar Confession is not only significant because it’s the first statement from the global south.  It is a gift that those who witnessed and fought against apartheid in the church and world have given to us, here in the First World.  I use that language very intentionally, our sisters and brothers in South Africa who took this snapshot more than 30 years ago have given us a gift.  How does it feel to receive a gift from people with so little to give materially?  More importantly, how can we, First World, primarily white Reformed Christians, receive this gift?

How does the Creature say "grace"?  How does the Creature say “thanks?”