In 1963 Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream that racial segregation in the United States would be abolished and that black people and white people would sit around the table of brotherhood together. King’s dream has been partly fulfilled, a fact symbolized in the United States by the election of a black president.
In 1986 there was still segregation—or apartheid—in South Africa. The Belhar Confession was a prophetic statement against that unjust situation. This confessional statement by some Reformed churches led to the collapse of apartheid and the election of a black president in South Africa.
The Belhar rightly condemns a “forced separation on the grounds of race and color.” But the Belhar also rejects “the establishment of a separate church formation” based on race or ethnicity; it also claims “that separation . . . between peoples and groups is sin.”
The Belhar’s statements are fully understandable in the context of the South African struggle for racial justice and equality. Apartheid was an evil system that needed to be abolished. The concerns of the Belhar are similar to those of Martin Luther King’s in 1963. Both statements were prophetic.
But in the 21st century, the dynamics have changed. Today ethnic groups often choose to meet or worship together to celebrate the beauty of their own culture and to support one another. Newer immigrants find security within their own ethnic group. Is this separation sin?
Is it sinful for Hispanics to worship with their own people? Are black AME churches by definition racist? Is it wrong for our Korean brothers and sisters to have their own classis and churches? Are the Tiv people in Nigeria sinful when they worship God in their own language? Were some people in Toronto wrong when they established a school just for black students?
It is beautiful when Christians from different ethnic groups worship together. We experience this in Nigeria frequently. But we should not hastily conclude that all ethnic separation is sinful.
It is risky to import a confession from a different political and cultural context. It would be better to make confessions relevant for our own North American setting.