“The ritual of disaster is unfolding with flawless efficiency — the breaking news alerts, the cable coverage, the anchors’ move into the country, and now the magazine covers. As rituals go, it is not a bad one, for there is a commensurate outpouring of money and support. We know our parts well.” (Jan. 28, ’10, p. 4)
Meacham then looked ahead, “The enormity of loss envelops us early on, but interest fades. This time will be different, we tell ourselves in the drama of the moment. This time we will stay the course; we won’t give up; we won’t let our minds stray. But this time probably won’t be different, and history suggests that we won’t stay the course.”
He clinches his comments with, “Perhaps unfortunately, humanitarianism is not a foreign policy.”
What if we Christians made humanitarianism our confessional policy?
It already is, if we treat the Golden Rule as a policy. But we generally do to others as we’d have them do to us only when we feel moved to do so. Oh, we confess our faith via the Apostles Creed. But we leave out the behavioral obligations – loving God and neighbor – that Jesus said summarize the law.
What if we were to desterilize our confessional faith by professing the obligation to practice it?
Most all of us welcome the opportunity to give to folks in crisis. We volunteer in homeless shelters. We swing our hammers on Habitat House builds. We give away our extra clothing. We contribute to disaster relief. We are a charitable people. But are we willing to turn the spontaneous generosity of our hearts into a policy of positive obligation?
The 2008 General Assembly commissioned a cluster of Presbyterians to study the possibility of doing that very thing. They asked them, “Should we consider adding to our own Book of Confessions the Belhar Confession that guided the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa?”
Belhar was written to declare the church’s position that, because we believe in our Trinitarian God, we strive for church unity; we oppose racism; we repudiate injustice; and we put obedience to Jesus Christ above obedience to governments.
Belhar commits its confessors to live the faith they believe.
The task force studied it and voted an enthusiastic, “Yes.” (see p. 20)
But to adopt such a confession carries risks. Some may try to leverage it for policy change on ordination standards – as has Allan Boesak – a huge leap away from its explicit language. Some may use it to resurrect liberation theology – although its commitments align less with the writings of Gustavo Gutiérrez than with those of the Westminster Divines (see the Larger Catechism’s exposition of the positive behavioral obligations required by each of the Ten Commandments).
The greatest risk in adopting this statement is that it might strip us of our proud identity as benefactors – the folks who proudly share their surplus goods with the suffering masses when so moved.
One good reason to adopt it: in a supposedly Christian nation whose history is shot through with race hatred, social injustice and church splintering, it wouldn’t hurt for this church to declare as status confessionis that it believes in equality, justice, and unity – because it believes that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Then again, this upcoming General Assembly will do well not to recommend that the presbyteries adopt Belhar. Not yet. Few Presbyterians have even read it. Better to send it out for a two-year study, asking denominational staff to prepare resources for reflection, and urging our presbyteries, seminaries, and colleges to organize educational events to elevate awareness and prompt analysis broadly and widely. At the same time, we all could be practicing its prescribed behaviors by staying the course of loving our Haitian neighbors and one another. To promote the adoption of any confession to a church unawares would be a poor idea altogether, even if the end in view is to commit ourselves
to humanitarianism as our confessional policy.