It’s one thing to obey God. It’s another thing to obey God. Or to put it in the words of H. Russel Botman, “In retrospect we learned to decipher a difference between ‘simple obedience’ and ‘complex obedience.'”
Botman was speaking, along with colleague Dirk Smit, at the Sprunt Lectures at Union/PSCE in Richmond, outlining how the theological work of forming and adopting the Belhar Confession had helped his country find its way out of the practice of apartheid. South Africa will never be the same, thanks to these two men and their colleagues who shared the task of writing Belhar–and thanks to the courage of their people who pursued a path of “complex obedience.”
What’s that? As in most other situations, the text carries with it a subtext. The text here is the Confession of Belhar, a potent application of Christian theology and ethics to the church’s life in secular society. The subtext is another document, the Kairos Document, which emerged in the days that intervened between Belhar’s composition and adoption.
True to their denomination’s policies, Belhar was proposed at a general synod meeting (1982), but it needed to be studied for four years before it could be adopted by the next synod meeting. Three years into that process, the Kairos Document was published as “an attempt to develop … an alternative biblical and theological model that will in turn lead to forms of activity that will make a real difference to the future of our country.” Kairos was an uncompromising, prophetic call to action.
Kairos lamented that, “the Church is divided. … Even within the same denomination there are in fact two Churches. In the life and death conflict between different social forces that has come to a head in South Africa today, there are Christians (or at least people who profess to be Christians) on both sides of the conflict–and some who are trying to sit on the fence!” Specifically, the document outlines three competing kinds of theology in the church: “‘State Theology,’ ‘Church Theology,’ and ‘Prophetic Theology.'”
State theology justifies the status quo with rationalizations of apartheid.
Church theology, the writers claimed, utilizes “a few stock ideas derived from Christian tradition and then uncritically and repeatedly applies them to our situation … .”
Prophetic theology, on the other hand, declares, “that the apartheid minority regime is irreformable,” and therefore must be deposed by force.
Such clear, powerful and pure words of judgment were motivating for believers. The words echoed the voices of the great prophets. God’s solidarity with the poor and oppressed compelled a response. 156 church leaders from 20 denominations signed the Kairos Document; many others committed to pursue it.
Botman elaborated that the clear, strong word of Kairos offered a simple obedience to one word–justice, justice of God. However, a more complex form of obedience was required of us, he said. This obedience, scorned as “church theology” in Kairos, pursued the three goals of justice, unity, and reconciliation.
This complex obedience, as outlined in the Belhar Confession, required the believers to work for justice for all people, naming the lies that had subverted the pursuit of justice. It required oppressed believers to build relationships with oppressing believers. It required victims to reconcile with victimizers so that both could be freed from the bitterness and the shame that their history imposed on each one.
Complex obedience fulfills the prophetic call to justice, the priestly call to reconciliation, the pastoral call to forgiveness, and, ultimately, the Savior’s call to love one another.
The Kairos approach sounded courageous and bold. The more complex Belhar approach proved to be all the more courageous and all the more bold. In 1986, the general synod, having heard the voice of Kairos chose instead to follow the path of Belhar. And one of the most truly righteous events in world history ensued. Apartheid is no more.
Simple obedience or complex obedience. What path ought we to choose?