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The Belhar Confession: Holding Together Jesus and Justice

February 4, 2010

Conversation with pastors at Hope College

Last week, after departing Durham before a big snowstorm, I spoke at Hope College in Michigan about the 1986 Belhar Confession which grew out of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

Belhar is a must-read, a gift to the church in discerning what we easily refuse to see as the sin of America’s deeply-embedded segregated church life (according to a recent TIME magazine article, fewer than 8% of American congregations have a significant racial mix).

It was disappointing that a local paper’s headline said of my presence “Hope Speaker Encourages Inclusion.”  As I’ve written elsewhere I find “inclusion” insufficient next to the far richer biblical language of “new creation,” Koinonia, hospitality, and transformation in community with Christ, neighbors, enemies, and strangers.  “Inclusion” never appears in the Belhar Confession—the first since 1619 to be considered as a new creed by both the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church.

Similar to the 1934 Barmen Declaration in Christian opposition to Nazism, Belhar has a surprising theological depth—few documents better weave a commitment to both Jesus and justice.  It is profoundly Trinitarian, Christ-centered, focused on the witness of the church, and begins and ends with God.

The following convictions and quotes are especially important for Christian discernment about our racial separation:

  • Christian unity is both God’s gift and to be eagerly pursued: “… unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain (Eph. 4:1-16)…”
  • Unity is not a sentimental abstraction but a visible reality: “… this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered…”

  • Core to the American church’s captivity is a passive acceptance of a history of racialization, which we must see as sin: “We reject any doctrine … which denies that a refusal earnestly to pursue this visible unity as a priceless gift is sin…”

  • The ultimate goal is not civil rights, but intimacy, mutuality, and the blessing of a life together which embodies our deep need for one another in order to know God: “… that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another; that we … together come to know the height and the breadth and the depth of the love of Christ; together are built up to the stature of Christ, to the new humanity; together know and bear one another’s burdens, thereby fulfilling the law of Christ that we need one another and upbuild one another, admonishing and comforting one another; that we suffer with one another for the sake of righteousness; pray together; together serve God in this world; and together fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity (Phil. 2:1-5; 1 Cor. 12:4-31; John 13:1-17; 1 Cor. 1:10-13; Eph. 4:1-6; Eph. 3:14-20; 1 Cor. 10:16-17; 1 Cor. 11:17-34; Gal. 6:2; 2 Cor. 1:3-4);

  • We are impoverished by our history of not sharing our variety of gifts with one another: “… that this unity can be established only in freedom and not under constraint; that the variety of spiritual gifts, opportunities, backgrounds, convictions, as well as the various languages and cultures, are by virtue of the reconciliation in Christ, opportunities for mutual service and enrichment within the one visible people of God (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12:1-11; Eph. 4:7-13; Gal. 3:27-28; James 2:1-13)…”

  • Human action alone cannot “solve” disunity: “… that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of sin and death, and therefore also of irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness and enmity, that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit will enable the church to live in a new obedience which can open new possibilities of life for society and the world…”
  • Diversity as an end is insufficient: “We reject any doctrine … which absolutizes either natural diversity or the sinful separation of people in such a way that this absolutization hinders or breaks the visible and active unity of the church, or even leads to the establishment of a separate church formation…”
  • Baptism trumps nationalism, and such prophetic witness is costly: “… 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…”

In a time when a gospel of social activism easily loses the significance of Jesus, and a gospel of individual salvation easily becomes irrelevant to social realities, Belhar is a breath of fresh air in engaging our racial separation.

P.S.  I am aware of Belhar’s controversial relationship to some debates over sexuality.  The Confession itself has a singular focus on race and that is my focus here.

About the Author: Chris Rice is co-director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School.  He is author of Reconciling All Things, Grace Matters, and More Than Equals. He writes regularly at the blog Reconcilers.

Also See:

Last 5 posts on the Reconcilers Blog:

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jack Kooyman permalink
    February 5, 2010 8:05 am

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments on The Belhar Confession. Thanks too for meeting with the pastors at Hope College. As a longtime member of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and one deeply passionate about and committed to racial justice and reconciliation, it is encouraging and gives me hope to see both of these denominations with the same Dutch European heritage consider adopting such an important–and non-Euro–confession. Please remember us in your prayers.

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