“Who Is Jesus for Us Today?”  

This was the title of the sermon on September 9, 2018, by Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen, Senior Pastor, Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. (A photograph of the church with its new addition is below.)

Biblical Texts for the Day

 Psalm 8 (NRSV):

“O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”

“O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

 John 1: 45-51 (NRSV):

“Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you get to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’”

 The Sermon[1]

 “The work of the Church is fundamentally a teaching task: asking questions, seeking answers, exploring possibilities – and then translating all of that into life between Sundays. . . .”

“Christianity is never settled for any of us, no matter our age or the extent of our involvement in church. The world is always changing. If our faith is not similarly dynamic, not living, not rising to the challenges we see all around us, not attuned to the context in which we live, it will slowly wither away. . . .”

“Actually there’s something appealing to the notion that what happens in churches can be hazardous to the status quo. Powerful worship is subversive; it wants to upend the dominant ethos. A church ought to be considered a place the world enters at its own risk. After all, we follow a Savior perceived to be such a serious threat that he was crucified.”

“But the Church is not only what happens inside these walls for a few hours each week. . . . Church mostly happens the rest of the week, out there. We – you and I – are the Church when we leave here and go out into the world. . . . “

“The faith we practice has always felt compelled to move out into the streets and ask, ‘What is God up to in this place and in this time?’ because we want to join that work. Call it public theology, or our witness in the world, or the pursuit of biblical justice – our faith has never wanted to sequester Jesus in the sanctuary, as if he might – we might – be sullied by the messy reality of what’s going on in the world around us.”

“We Come Together not to be sheltered in this sacred space, but, rather, to hear the call of God to go forth and be the Church. To do that, however, means we need to understand whom we follow out into those streets. . . .”

“The decision to follow Jesus, Professor Gail O’Day says, ‘Is inseparable from the decision one makes about Jesus’ identity.’ [New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995) p. 534] . . . .”

“Who we think he is will determine the kind of Christians we become.”

“In the 1930s in Germany, the young pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer found himself growing skeptical about the Jesus being preached in the churches of that land. As political rhetoric became more overtly racist and the culture increasingly supportive of extreme Aryan nationalism, most German Christian churches rolled over and acquiesced to all of that. They gave their Jesus over to the rising ideology of the times. It was expedient for them, convenient for them, to go along with the predominant and popular spirit of the land.”

“Bonhoeffer and his colleagues – Karl Barth, Martin Niemoller, and others – resisted, and some of them eventually paid for it with their lives. They wrote an affirmation of faith rejecting the distorted theology used to underpin racism and nationalism. They started an alternative church, called the Confessing Church, as opposed to the German Christian Church, which supported the ideology of the times.. They founded an underground seminary, as over against the schools of the German Christian Church, which taught theology that supported the direction the nation was moving. They preached and worked against the tide.”

“And behind all that work, according to Bonhoeffer, was a single, driving question: Who is Jesus Christ for us today? . . . .”

“Who is Jesus Christ for us today? That question will inform our worship at Westminster this fall, even as it informs our life as we move from this place out into the world . . . “

 “Eighty years ago in Germany was not the only time when Christians have resisted the prevailing winds. Forty years ago in South Africa, the Dutch Reformed Mission Church wrote and adopted what became known as the Confession of Belhar. The Dutch Reformed Mission Church was the segregated denomination created for “mixed race” persons in the 19th century by the white Dutch Reformed Church, the denomination that eventually – by the mid-20th century – would develop a theological justification for apartheid, a theological basis for apartheid.”

 “The Confession of Belhar is a theological denunciation of the racist political system of South Africa of that time. It rejects the notion that God would accept the dividing of the human family on the basis of race or color. The Confession answers Bonhoeffer’s question, ‘Who is Jesus Christ for us today,’ by portraying Jesus as the one standing with those on the receiving end of the cruelties of history, those excluded from places of privilege and power by virtue of who they are or where they live or what language they speak or whom they love or the circumstances of their lives.” (Emphasis added.)

“Who Jesus is for us determines what it means for us to pursue his way – to be Christian in our time.”

.“Like the Germans of the Confessing Church, and like many in our land today, the ‘mixed race’ South Africans stood their ground . . .against those who would corrupt Christianity to make it supportive of the politics of exclusion and racial superiority. They declared that one could not be a follower of Jesus and, at the same time, a supporter of apartheid. Think of that in our time: it is not possible to a follower of Jesus and supporter of racism at the same time.” (Emphasis added.)

“Our denomination adopted the Confession of Belhar two years ago. . . .  We chose to adopt it to speak to our own historic and current racism in America, a system that has been in place for so many centuries.”

“Westminster has embarked on a pilgrimage to join the great effort in our nation finally, finally now wanting to come to terms with the original sin of this land, the enslavement – the buying and selling of human beings, the thinking of people as less than human – the enslavement of Africans to build up our nation. The legacy of that terrible time yet endures today. That journey for us, as followers of Jesus, starts with the question: Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” (Emphasis added.)

“Following Jesus is costly. The South Africans found that out. The Confessing Church in Germany discovered that. We will learn that, as well. The challenge to love in the way of Jesus should not be undertaken lightly. It will change each one of us and, hopefully, the world in which we live.”

“That’s why it matters what we do here in worship week after week. That’s why it matters that our children and youth are engaged in nurturing their faith. That’s why it matters who we are as a congregation in this city.”

The Confession of Belhar[2]

After the  sermon, the congregation read in unison the following extracts from the Confession of Belhar:

  • “We believe: that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ; that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world; that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker; that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells;
  • That the credibility of this message is seriously affected and its beneficial work obstructed 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;
  • Therefore, we reject any doctrine which, in such a situation, sanctions in the name of the gospel or the will of God the forced separation of people on the grounds of race and color and thereby in advance obstructs and weakens the ministry and experience of reconciliation in Christ.” (Emphasis added.)

Conclusion

This sermon provided at least a partial answer to the question, ‘Who is Jesus for us today?’ It d did so by referencing the creation of the Confessing Church in Germany and the Confession of Belhar in stating, “Jesus stood “with those on the receiving end of the cruelties of history, those excluded from places of privilege and power by virtue of who they are or where they live or what language they speak or whom they love or the circumstances of their lives.” [3](Emphasis added.) ==================================

[1] Sermon: Who Is Jesus for Us Today? (Sept. 9, 2018).

[2]  See The Confession of Belhar Is Adopted by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), dwkcommentaries.com (July 21, 2016).

[3] The sermon went on to say that further answers to this question will be provided in future sermons and other discussions at Westminster.

 

 

Nelson Mandela’s Connections with Soweto

Nelson Mandela had several connections with Soweto. Before his imprisonment in 1962 he lived there for 16 years and after his release from prison he briefly returned  there. Later he made at least two significant speeches in Soweto. On June 16, 1993—the 17th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising—Nelson Mandela commemorated the event with a statement  at Soweto’s Orlando Stadium. And on November 30, 1997, he spoke at the Regina Mundi Church, the day when as President he marked the date as Regina Mundi Church Day. These connections will now be reviewed before another post about the Minnesota Orchestra’s concert at the Regina Mundi Church on August 17, 2018.

Mandela’s Home in Soweto[1]

From 1945 through 1961, Mandela (age 28 through 44) lived in Soweto, initially with his first wife, Evelyn Ntoko Mase, until their divorce in 1957, and then with his second wife, Nomzamo Winifred (Winnie) Madikizele-Mandela. As a  human rights lawyer and member of the African National Congress (ANC) for many of these years, Mandela  regularly  traveled to and from Soweto to work in Johannesburg’s Central Business District.

Immediately after his release from prison in 1990, he said in his autobiography, “That night I returned with Winnie [his wife] to No. 8115 in Orlando West [in Soweto]. It was only then that I knew in my heart I had left prison. For me No. 8115 was the center point of my world, the place marked with an X in my mental geography.” Yet after 11 days he and Winnie left this home.

Their home was a single-story, red-brick house that had been built in 1945. In 1961 because of his anti-government activities he was forced to leave this house and go underground until his arrest and imprisonment in 1962.

The house itself was identical to many others built on very small plots on dirt roads with tin roof, cement floor, narrow kitchen and bucket toilet and without electricity. Mandela said it “was the opposite of grand, but it was my first true home of my own, and I was mightily proud. A man is not a man until he has a house of his own.” (In 1975 while Mandela was in prison Desmond Tutu bought a house not far from Mandela’s and lived there with his family.)

Below are photographs  of the house, which now is the Nelson Mandela National Museum, and of shanties in Soweto.

 

 

 

Mandela’s Speech at the Orlando Stadium[2]

“Once again, freedom-loving South Africans and democratic mankind the world over commemorate June the 16th, the day on which unarmed student protesters were massacred in Soweto, 17 years ago.”

“The rally this morning is one amongst many gatherings organized through the length and breadth of this country to mark this occasion.”

“Looking back at the events of the last 17 years, we can say without fear of being contradicted by history, that June 16, 1976 heralded the beginning of the end of the centuries old white-rule in this country. The response of our people to the massacre of unarmed students was to rally behind their organizations for liberation.”

“Through its brutal response, the apartheid regime hoped to suppress all resistance to its diabolic schemes. However, the events of June 16th and after injected a new life into the struggle against apartheid rule. Hundreds of thousands of our people committed themselves to the struggle. Thousands took the decision to join the ranks of the liberation movement. The ranks of Umkhonto We Sizwe and the underground presence of the ANC were swelled by the best sons and daughters of our motherland.”

“Through our sacrifices and struggle we have advanced to a point where a non-racial democracy is no longer simply a craving of those who have been victims of apartheid, but a demand of all South Africans. In the struggle for the last 17 years, our youth have made a magnificent contribution, be it in our people’s army Umkhonto We Sizwe, in our underground work or in the mass struggles waged under the banner of the UDF, Coast and many other democratic formations.”

“Many of our youth and students laid down their lives on June 16, 1976. Many thousands more of our people have in the last 17 years, paid that supreme sacrifice in pursuance of democracy and the liberation of our motherland. How many more should still lose their lives before it can dawn on the powers that be that enough is enough. How many more should still lose their lives or face a bleak future without education and work before it is realized that we need democratic rule now in this country.”

“Compatriots, As we meet here today, to mark this occasion, the causes of the Soweto uprisings continue to be with us. The education crisis has in the last 17 years continued to deepen. A few irresistible questions must be put to the government.”

“Firstly, what accounts for the fact that seventeen years after a crisis of the magnitude of the 1976 protests, the quality and conditions of black education have further deteriorated? Why seventeen years later the attitude of government authorities to education grievances and demands is still typical of the behavior which plunged this whole country into a crisis? Why has the government adopted an uncaring attitude as education increasingly became a preserve of those families who could afford to pay? And why is the government refusing to move away from separate development in education while at the same time continuing to claim that apartheid is dead and buried? There is indeed little doubt that if left unattended, the recent demands by teachers and students would have effectively led to a total collapse in what remains of apartheid education. It is not an overstatement to say this problem was fast approaching proportions similar to the 1976 crisis if not worse.”

“While the government has met some of the demands raised by students and teachers, there are still several other important problem areas in education that must be addressed. In this regard, the speedy convening of the proposed national education forum is of critical importance. Once more let us hasten to warn the government that this forum can only succeed in its function if it enjoys sovereignty from the incumbent authorities and is unhindered in its duties. If this forum has to make a meaning full contribution to the resolution of the immense problems plaguing the education system in this country, it must necessarily be vested with powers congruent with this job.”

“Comrades, we wish to see the convening of a representative and empowered forum on education which will bring all stake-holders together so that the task of dismantling the present fragmented education authorities can commence in earnest. A forum that will begin to work towards a centralized education body designed to meet the needs of all. This need can no longer await the resolution of all other problems. The truth is that the longer we take to address this problem, the more we drift towards an abyss of despair and the more is the future of our children undermined . in this regard, the challenge we face as a people is more than the simple restoration of a culture of learning in our nation and to a tradition of valuing academic achievement among our youth.”

“As we move closer to a democratic order in this country, education becomes one of the most important occupations for the millions in whose name we have prosecuted this struggle. It is therefore no longer enough to criticize. The value of our youth should be measured by their level of discipline and commitment to their studies.”

“It is with this in mind that we take this opportunity to call upon the students to approach their studies with all seriousness. Education is very crucial for your future as it will enable you to better serve your communities and our country during the difficult period of reconstruction.”

“Compatriots, One other category of youth whose conditions of life continue to be of great concern to us is the millions of youth who are out of school and out of work. Over the last one and a half decade our country has witnessed the emergence of a generation of young people who have filtered through the cracks that began to emerge from the social fabric of our communities. Frustrated by the lack of opportunities under apartheid, without education and jobs, many of them have been enticed by the short-lived adventures of criminal life. A democratic South Africa has a responsibility of not only giving hope to these young people, but also to offer them real prospects in a new society, where all shall have equal opportunities. This is what the ANC is fighting for. We must therefore devise means of reaching out to these young people, either through skills training, jobs, education, sports, and other meaningful occupations.”

“Naturally, as we commemorate this day, what immediately seizes the minds of all persons of conscience is the need to bring an end to this inhuman system. Last year we marked June 16 against the background of a raised tempo of conflict. This scenario was epitomized by the deadlock at Codesa 2, the Boipatong massacre, our subsequent programme of mass action and the Bisho massacre. Twelve months later we mark June 16 within the context of resumed negotiations, wherein the cardinal point of the transitionary process as proposed by the ANC and its patriotic front allies can no longer be denied. Of no less importance is the joining of multi-party negotiations by more political parties including those who initially scoffed them as a waste of time. These developments serve to underscore the fact that despite the numerous hiccups, south Africa has only one route to go, the path of popular non-racial democracy. In this regard the tentative agreement on the elections date is a step in the right direction. And there is no turning back. No one shall be allowed to delay this process and prolong the agony under which our people live.”

“As we commemorate the massacres of 1976, we wish to take this opportunity to address the role played by those young people who are in uniform as members of the government security forces. The thousands of lives lost since 1976 can in no small measure be attributed to the hostile attitude of many of these young people towards our communities. Even as we stand at the threshold of a new era in our country, there are still many elements within the army and the police who continue to conduct themselves and do things in the old way. To those responsible for the killings in Katlehong, Protea, Bisho and everywhere else, to all the youth in the police And the army, especially.”

“The black youth, we say the time is now for you to realize that your careers and professions are not equal to apartheid. Indeed, as with all other professional civil servants, whether as teachers or traffic officers, your professionalism and the looming new order demands a commitment that transcends the trappings of apartheid.”

“Compatriots, as we commemorate the sacrifice of the June 16, 1976 martyrs, let me invoke the legend of the trailblazers of the heroic youth and student movement of our country, in the name of our beloved Oliver Tambo, Anton Lembede, Peter Mda and many others in calling upon our youth at this rally to prepare our people for the accomplishment of one of the hardest task to face our people – the elections for the final decolonization of South Africa. Once more the capacity of our movement to take us forward will be determined by the commissions and omissions of our young people. They are better placed not only to provide the millions of our communities with voter education but above all to ensure that those who are in need feel our love, understanding and compassion. As you go out to mobilize our people for the final battle through the ballot-box they must feel that you are their equals, and not their tutors and masters. As the honorary life president of the ANC Youth League, comrade OR Tambo said, ‘we can be wise in knowledge and humble in approach.'”

“Comrades, as we enter the last mile to our promised land let us always remember that without discipline there can be no organization, and without organization there will be no struggle. Our ability to function as a cohesive force and combative movement depends on the discipline we are all able to master as individuals and as an organization in our daily work. Today the African National Congress is eighty-one years old – eighty one years of struggle and sacrifice. Many noble sons and daughters of our land have laid down their lives for the goal of freedom and today history has chosen us to be the midwife of their dreams. As for me, nothing will give me fulfilment than the knowledge that as a people we have sacrificed our all to put our youth in the position where they can decide the future of our country on the basis of equal opportunities.”

“Long live the spirit of June 16.”

Mandela’s Speech at Regina Mundi Church[3]

The “reopening a week ago of the Anglican Church of Christ the King in Sophiatown, as well as the recent testimony of religious leaders at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC]. . . .  serve to remind us of the role the religious community played in either opposing or supporting our oppression. Regina Mundi served the greater Soweto community in times of need. It opened its doors to anti-apartheid activities when all other avenues were closed to the majority of the oppressed.”

“Testimony at the TRC pointed to collaboration by some religious institutions with injustice – whether by commission or omission. Today we celebrate the role of one of the religious bodies which made the difficult but correct choice on the side of truth and justice; a church that refused to allow God’s name to be used to justify discrimination and repression.”

“It was this stance that earned Regina Mundi a reputation as one of [the province of] Gauteng’s greatest protest centers, a literal battlefield between forces of democracy and those who did not hesitate to violate a place of religion with tear-gas, dogs and guns. Regina Mundi became a world-wide symbol of the determination of our people to free themselves.”

“Today’s event and the opening of the Church of Christ the King in Sophiatown which was forcibly closed in 1963, represent small but significant achievements in the battle to rebuild our country and to acknowledge a history that was relegated to the periphery. They symbolize the role of religion in nation-building and development.”

“Today we pride ourselves as a nation, in the outstanding leaders in politics, in the economy, in government and in many other sectors, who cut their teeth right here. Graduates of Regina Mundi are making important contributions to the reconstruction and development of our country. Such was the role of this church in the lives of many of us; such was the esteem with which it was held, that it popularly became known as the people’s cathedral.”

“This role took its toll on the church building. It was ravaged and devastated. But today it is undergoing a proud rebirth.”

“We are honored to have this unique opportunity to acknowledge and thank those who have contributed to this noble undertaking. In particular we thank the children who dedicated their time over the last two years, raising funds for this purpose. We also appreciate the contributions of business and diplomatic missions in the project to restore Regina Mundi.”

“The freedom which we won with the active participation of the religious community, indeed the majority of South Africans, has given us a constitution which guarantees to all South Africans their religious freedom. With this and other fundamental rights secured, the churches and other religious organizations, like society at large, are faced with what is in reality, an even greater challenge: to bring about social transformation through the reconstruction and development of our country.”

“We need religious institutions to continue to be the conscience of society, a moral custodian and a fearless champion of the interests of the weak and down-trodden. We need religious organizations to be part of a civil society mobilized to campaign for justice and the protection of basic human rights.”[4]

“Religious institutions have a critical role to play in uniting and reconciling our people, as we journey together away from the heresy that was apartheid.”

That “journey from our inhuman past, difficult as it may be, is one that we can and must make. Most South Africans have set out on it, from every sector of our society, and many have travelled a long way.”

“Many Afrikaners, who once acted with great cruelty and insensitivity towards the majority in our country, to an extent you have to go to jail to understand, have changed completely and become loyal South Africans in whom one can trust.”

“Such changes, in different ways, we must all make if we are to truly heal our nation by working together to address the legacy of our past, especially the poverty that afflicts so many.”

“We also count on our spiritual leaders to make a special contribution in the rebuilding of the morality of our nation undermined by the perversions of apartheid. Success in our battle against crime, poverty, disease and ignorance depends on your active involvement.”

“We are encouraged to see churches that benefited from apartheid returning land to communities which were removed by force. This is an important gesture and a practical contribution to healing the past, a past that will continue to haunt us if we do not co-operate in exorcising it.”

“As long as we see the problems and challenges that face us as our own, and not those for someone else – as long as we work together to make South Africa the land of our dreams – so long shall we be guaranteed of success.”

“God bless you.”

======================================

[1]  Mandela House, Wikipedia; Mandela House; Monnakgotia, Celebrating Mandela  Where It All Began; Soweto, (July 9, 2018) Forbes Africa; Scott, Soweto, Mandela House, Apartheid Museum: Johannesburg’s most infamous urban township, Traveler (Mar. 11, 2016); Tutu House, Wikipedia.

[2] Nelson Mandela Foundation, Statement of the President of the African National Congress, Nelson R. Mandela, on the 17th Anniversary of the 1976 student uprising (June 18, 1993).

[3] Nelson Mandela Foundation, Speech by President Nelson Mandela on the occasion of Regina Mundi Day (Nov. 30, 1997).

[4] This blogger notes that in 1986 South Africa’s Dutch Reformed Mission Church–the church for colored or mixed-race people that had been established by the Dutch-Reformed Church for white people–adopted the Confession of Belhar. That Confession rejected any doctrine or ideology which “absolutizes  natural diversity or the sinful separation of people; explicitly or implicitly maintains that descent or any other human or social factor should be a consideration in determining membership of the church; sanctions in the name of the gospel or of the will of God the forced separation of people on the grounds of race or color; and would legitimate forms of injustice and any doctrine which is unwilling to resist such an ideology in the name of the gospel.” Thirty years later, in 2016, the Confession of  Belhar was adopted by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)  as an addition to its Book of Confessions that “declare to the church’s members and the world who and what [the church] is, what it believes and what it resolves to do.”  (The Confession of Belhar Is Adopted by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), dwkcommentaries.com (July 21, 2016).)

 

 

The Confession of Belhar Is Adopted by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

PCUSA

On June 23, 2016, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) overwhelmingly voted (540 to 33) to include in its Book of Confessions the 1986 Confession of Belhar from South Africa.

Let us examine that Confession, its adoption by the PC(USA)’s General Assembly, the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions and the recent use of the Belhar Confession at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, a member of the PC(USA).

 The Confession of Belhar[1]

The Belhar Confession emerged from the era of apartheid in South Africa, 1948-1994. That doctrine and practice of racial segregation was embraced by the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa (DRC) for whites and imposed upon its racially segregated offshoots: the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (DRMC) for colored or mixed-race people, the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa for blacks and the Reformed Church in Africa for people of Indian descent.

After the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, the 1964 convictions and imprisonments of anti-apartheid activists Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, the 1976 Soweto Uprising and the 1976 condemnation of South Africa and apartheid by the United Nations, the Synod of the DRMC in 1978 concluded that apartheid was anti-evangelical and a structural and institutional sin.

Eight years later, in 1986, another Synod of the DRMC met in Belhar, a colored suburb of Capetown, South Africa, and adopted the Confession of Belhar. It has the following primary confessional statements:

  1. “We believe in the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who gathers, protects and cares for the church through Word and Spirit. This, God has done since the beginning of the world and will do to the end.”
  2. “We believe in one holy, universal Christian church, the communion of saints called from the entire human family.”
  3. “We believe that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ; that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker, that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells.”
  4. “We believe that God has revealed himself as the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people.”
  5. “We believe that, in obedience to Jesus Christ, its only head, the church is called to confess and to do all these things, even though the authorities and human laws might forbid them and punishment and suffering be the consequence.”

Three of these statements also set forth additional detailed belief statements and rejections of any doctrine and ideology which:

  • “absolutizes  natural diversity or the sinful separation of people;”
  • “explicitly or implicitly maintains that descent or any other human or social factor should be a consideration in determining membership of the church;”
  • “sanctions in the name of the gospel or of the will of God the forced separation of people on the grounds of race or color;”
  • “would legitimate forms of injustice and any doctrine which is unwilling to resist such an ideology in the name of the gospel.”

The PC(USA)’s Adoption of the Belhar Confession [2]

As previously noted, on June 23, 2016 (30 years after the DRMC adoption of the Confession of Belhar), the General Assembly of the PC(USA) voted to add that Confession to the U.S. church’s Book of Confessions.

Rev. Godfrey Betha
Rev. Godfrey Betha

Immediately after the vote, the General Assembly was addressed by Rev. Godfrey Betha, the Vice Moderator of the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa, which was formed by the DRMC and the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa for blacks. Betha told the General Assembly, “It is important to seek solidarity with South Africa. We’ve come a long way with the PC(USA). We are grateful to have you as partners in service to the Lord. Today we offer gratitude, we salute you as the PC(USA) for your historic decision to adopt the Belhar Confession as a standard of faith for your church. I bow in humility to God and thankfulness to you … I’ll never forget this date.”

Betha added: “Your decision affirms that, like those other historic standards of faith, the Belhar Confession transcends its historic circumstances as a standard for faith in all places and times. Your decision affirms that Belhar does speak against ideological and theological attempts to justify specific historical forms of injustice. Your decision affirms to your church, [and] to all, when you come looking for the demon of racism, don’t come to us.”

Rev. Allan Boesak
Rev. Allan Boesak

Also present at the General Assembly was Rev. Allan Boesak, a co-author of the Confession of Belhar and the moderator of the DRMC when it was adopted in 1986. He said, “I thank God for what happened here tonight. I thank God for your faithfulness. I thank God for your acknowledgement of our common humanity in doing this … I thank God, and I thank you, and because of Jesus and because of God’s faithfulness, we shall overcome.”

Rev. Denise Anderson
Rev. T. Denise Anderson

At that point the commissioners linked hands throughout the plenary hall and spontaneously broke into “We Shall Overcome,” the famous song of the U.S. African-American civil rights movement, led by the General Assembly’s Co- Moderator, Rev. T. Denise Anderson, Pastor, Unity Presbyterian Church, Temple Hills, MD.

Earlier that same day, and before the General Assembly action, Boesak had addressed a breakfast meeting at the General Assembly. He said the Belhar Confession “stirs us, humbles us, and inspires us … It’s a unifying document. We cannot yet foresee the consequences of the Confession. No other Confession has been so clear in its intentions: not only unity, but its foundationality; not just reconciliation, but its inescapability; not only justice, but its indivisibility.”

“Today is a defining moment for the PC(USA), as it was for the Dutch Reformed Mission Church 30 years ago as we finally adopted the Belhar Confession,” Boesak continued. “But the defining moment  was  not  just  the  adoption  of  the confession, as stunning as it was. In the years between 1982 and 1986, my friend and colleague and co-author Jaap Durand offered crucial prophetic insights that inspired and haunted the church in ways we couldn’t imagine in 1982, saying, ‘A  confession does not and cannot engage in mere trivialities. It can only be an extension of the ancient confession that Christ is Lord… I’m convinced that the Confession of Belhar will outlive apartheid and the heresy that formed it.’”

Recalling the struggles of black South Africans to remain faithful and pursue unity in light of terrible oppression, mass detention and cruel policies, Bosack said: “The church became directly involved in the efforts of freedom and justice in South Africa. The Jesus we worship and confess as Lord in the sanctuary is the Jesus we take into the street. Our people were slaughtered. Everyone was touched in one way or another.”

“By 1986 we saw no sense in, and had no desire for, unity with the white church, or with white people in general,” he said of the general despair that afflicted the DRMC. “But we had Belhar, [which] . . . understood [John] Calvin as he spoke of Holy Communion. ‘Christ has only one body of which he makes us all partakers.’”

Calling the unity of the church both a gift and command, Boesak said it was difficult in those years to find points of unity or reconciliation with those who were actively opposing the rights of black South Africans. The Belhar Confession, however, understood from Isaiah that God is not only a God of justice, but that God is a God of indivisible justice,” he said. “So against our self-absorbed instinct for self-absorbed victimhood, the black church confessed God as a God who wants to bring forth peace and justice in the world, and that God calls the church to follow in this, that the church must stand next to people in any form of need or injustice.”

This teaching of Belfar also challenged the DRMC when it faced the issue of the rights of LGBTQI and eventually affirmed those rights. Boesak said his denomination had “to face the consequences, not only with the white Dutch Reformed Church, but within itself.”

“In following Christ, the church must fight against those who use their privilege to oppress and put down any people,” he said. In asking the PC(USA) to “witness against any form of injustice,” Boesak turned his attention to Palestine, asking the denomination to support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement – similar to those used to end apartheid – to place economic pressure on Israel to end the occupation and expansion of territories. “Kairos Palestine is a cry from the heart of suffering,” he said. “Unless it rolls down for Palestinians, it will not roll down for others. Indivisible. Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.”

In conclusion, Boesak said of Belhar and its broader implications: “It is a confession that stirs us, humbles us, and inspires us … It’s a unifying document.”

The PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions

The Book of Confessions is a collection of confessions and creeds that declare to the church’s “members and to the world who and what [the church] is, what it believes and what it resolves to do.” Prior to the addition of the Belhar Confession, the Book contained 11 confessions and creeds starting with the Nicene Creed of 325 and ending with A Brief Statement of Faith– Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) of 1983.[3]

According to the church’s Book of Order, These creeds and confessions are “subordinate standards . . . subject to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as the Scriptures bear witness to him” that “identify the church as a community of people known by its convictions as well as by its actions,” that “guide the church in its study and interpretation of the Scriptures,” that “summarize the essence of Christian tradition,” that “direct the church in maintaining sound doctrines” and that “equip the church for its work of proclamation.” They also give “witness to the faith of the church catholic” while identifying “with the affirmations of the Protestant Reformation:” “grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone.”[4]

Westminster’s Recent Use of the Belhar Confession

One of Belhar Confession’s central themes was adapted for use by Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church as its July 17, 2016, Call to Worship (in call and response mode):[5]

  • One: This we believe.
  • All: God longs to bring justice and peace among all people.
  • One: This we believe.
  • All: God teaches the church to do what is good and to seek the right.
  • One: This we believe.
  • All: God sees a day when all people – black, white, red, yellow, and brown – will live together in harmony.
  • One: This we believe.
  • All: God calls the church to follow Jesus, to lift up the poor, to heal those who hurt, to feed those who hunger, and to comfort those who grieve.”

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[1] PCUSA, Confession of Belhar (English translation); PCUSA, The Belhar Confession (paper about the history of the Confession); PCUSA, 30 Days with the Belhar Confession: Reflections on Unity, Reconciliation and Justice (this book weaves together Scripture passages and the Confession’s timely themes of unity, reconciliation and justice; it is written by a diverse collection of scholars, theologians and church leaders and is a great resource for individuals, study groups or entire congregations wanting to familiarize themselves with the Confession through prayer and reflection; the Confession itself is included).

[2] PCUSA, Allan Boesak commends Belhar Confession (June 23, 2016); PCUSA, Belhar added to PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions (June 23, 2016); Duffield, Adopting Belhar, the 222nd General Assembly Makes History, Presbyterian Outlook (June 23, 2016). The Confession previously had been adopted by Namibia’s Evangelical Reformed Church in Africa, Belgium’s United Protestant Church, the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church of North America. The Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, however, has not adopted the Confession in a manner acceptable to the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa and, therefore, has not merged into the latter.

[3] PCUSA, Book of Confessions.

[4] PCUSA, Book of Order, Ch. II (1983-85 edition).

[5] Westminster, Worship Bulletin (July 17, 2016).