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Beyond Belhar

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Faith Matters

The first time I encountered the Belhar Confession was on one of those stray Sundays pastors sometimes have when we try to sit anonymously in the pews of another congregation. This was a Reformed Church in America (RCA) church, and the people were clearly familiar with the condensed version of the Belhar that they recited in unison. I was impressed by the content of the confession. While I had no knowledge of where those words had come from, I knew and trusted the pastors, and I knew the reputation of the congregation well.

Whether we decide to call it a testimony or a confession, the Belhar calls the church back to our best work.

For years, this congregation had taken risks to engage the heart of their community. As their ministry led them into deeper conversations about the life and needs of their community, they began to see challenges and ministry possibilities they had not seen before. They found themselves advocating for women and children in need, they saw the challenges faced by sexual minorities, and they began promoting nonviolence.

Like many congregations, they had suffered an exodus of long-standing members. Many of these fled quietly to large churches in the suburbs with diverse staffing and programming. There they could disappear into the crowds and listen to sermons they deemed to be more practical and relevant and that addressed their personal salvation. Others exited and accused the congregation of becoming liberal or practicing a “social gospel.”

Those who remained—as well as those who would come later—did not take offense. Instead, they claimed their identity as a community working for justice, reconciliation, and unity. To this day the congregation endeavors to live out a “pioneering Reformed faith.”

As I reflect on the discussion now swirling in the Christian Reformed Church around the Belhar, I find myself disenchanted with the conversation. Much of it focuses on whether the Belhar is going to be designated a confession or a testimony. Yet I wonder how many of our congregations are engaging the ministry themes of the Belhar: justice, reconciliation, and unity.

If we reduce our discussion of the Belhar to merely “Is it a confession or a testimony?” we domesticate it in a way that empties it of its power. We might as well say that the Belgic Confession is merely a nice, neat, orderly summary of Reformation teachings. This characterization may be true, in part, but it fails miserably to faithfully reflect the character, voice, and circumstances from which the confession emerged.

The Belhar and our confessions are the poetic articulation of the church in times of conflict and oppression. As such, they are neither complete nor infallible, but they bear the residue of particular circumstances and the blood of martyrs. These faithful Christians paid high costs in the face of regimes and empires that lack the ability to listen to an opposing side, to heed uncomfortable truths, and to practice self-criticism.

When the church and its officebearers affirm these documents, we can too easily forget their cost. We are also prone to forget that these documents are not divinely inspired, not factually accurate in all details of scholarship, and not the complete articulation of the church’s witness. Whether in the form of confessions or testimonies, the church needs to keep articulating and expressing the gospel in its new circumstances, in its own voice, relevant to its time and place.

Confessions have always been written in a contested context.The Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism were written in light of (and against) the abuses of power of the state and the Roman Church. They stress doctrine and formation, and they carry the energyof Reformation. In this setting, the issues they addressed demanded great courage even though they did not focus explicitly on the ministry and taskof the church. Our confessions do not speak in our context with the same power they brought to the struggles of the 16th and 17th centuries.

We—North Americans at least—find ourselves in a decidedly different context. The issue of our time is not the oppression of a powerful and centralized church. We live in a context in which we actually have significant power. Particularly in the United States, we have a profound influence in the world through our entertainment, our technology, our military, and, most significant, through the influence of our economy and wealth. If confessions ought to be written in times of stress, oppression, and disproportionate power, is it any wonder that the Belhar makes some of us uneasy? It may be addressing us!

If we North Americans take the Belhar literally, we might too easily dismiss it as irrelevant—after all, apartheid is not institutionalized on our continent. If, however, we hear the Belhar poetically and prophetically, it has the power to address the less obvious injustices in which we too play a part. Hearing the Belhar in this way may help us to see afresh our own participation in the systemic and economic injustices of our own countries, as well as in our world. When we reduce our conversation about confessions and testimonies to one of classification, aren’t we really trying to avoid the crisis out of which these statements were born?

I respect that RCA congregation whose worshipers recited the Belhar. I respect them not because they had come to any final conclusion about whether the Belhar was a testimony or a confession but because they had discovered in it a way of giving voice to what they were living out in their practice. For them, the Belhar was a living text that reminded them to keep asking themselves hard and relevant questions. For them, the Belhar voiced some of the ministry risks with whose costs they were all too familiar.

There are few places today where the church will risk sticking out its neck. Our tradition has wanted to do things right and in the right way, in an orderly, systematized fashion. We steer clear of conflict, controversy, and risk, presumably to preserve our safety and unity. Our discussions about the Belhar remind us that our best expressions of faith are birthed in times of deep risk and bitter conflict.

If our confessions and testimonies are not lived out in the real world with the risk and edginess of faith, we empty them of their power. It is time for us as the CRC to either draft new ones or rediscover the freight of what we have sometimes oversimplified. It is unlikely that Belhar will ever have the power for formation that our current confessions have. But the Belhar carries the energy for reformation and transformation that our confessions carried centuries ago.

Whether we decide to call it a testimony or a confession, the Belhar calls the church back to our best work. We are a people called to unity: to bring together the separated in ways that find common ground. We are a people called to practice reconciliation: to bring together those who hurt with those who have done damage.We are a people who practice justice: who empower those who have no voice. Irrespective of how strongly we may feel about how to classify the Belhar, all of us should be asking ourselves, “How can we put the Belhar into practice?”

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