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Belhar: A new confessional voice

Anyone who does not enjoy the swords of power and privilege in our country is aware that, regrettably, racism is alive and well in America. The 218th General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to begin the process of adding a new confession to our Book of Confessions to address this problem.

The Belhar Confession was forged out of the struggle of conscience and faith in South Africa and originated in the Dutch Reformed Mission Church, a member of our Reformed Church family. While this creed arose out of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, it speaks to the continuing omnipresent global realities of racism that are so divisive in our world today.

As the Presbyterian Church seeks to become a multiracial, multicultural community of faith, the Belhar Confession will add an important voice to the expressions of our faith because it is a confessional voice that does not come through the historical experience of European or North American church life. While the United States is changing in its racial/ethnic makeup, and despite decades of witness in the church against racism, we remain an overwhelmingly white and middle class church community. We have not been very successful in removing the barriers that keep our church from changing and being fully inclusive.

At the core of almost every militarized conflict in the world today are divisions of race, ethnicity, and religion. Including the Belhar Confession in our Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will make an important witness to the unity of the global church and the global ecumenical movement by honoring God’s gift of diversity in the human family.

Here is the history behind this resolution: The 216th General Assembly in 2004 received and approved the Report of the Task Force to Study Reparations, which addressed racism in our history and commended The Belhar Confession to our denomination. On Native Americans, the task force stated that Puritans, some of whom were Presbyterians, along with other Europeans, participated in the displacement and slaughter of thousands of native peoples. We have affirmed that to reach native peoples with the gospel of Jesus Christ, we contributed to the virtual destruction of Native cultures. On African-Americans, the task force reminded us that the European slave trade lasted for more than 400 years and that by 1818 Presbyterians had made strong condemnatory statements against the sin of slavery, but had invoked no sanction against members of its constituency who owned slaves.

As there was then, there is today, a need to adjust our moral and spiritual compass.

Inspired by the Holy Spirit, The Belhar Confession provides a salutary affirmation of Africans while also affirming people of all races that make up our entire human family:

            “… that 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;

•           that 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, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted …”

In our prayers of confession, we Presbyterians often rehearse our sins of racism, sexism, social and economic injustice, and political collusion with the dominant consciousness of the country. Yet we continue to use language of our “common” Scots-Irish heritage as if no other ethnic heritages were represented at the table. Our Sunday morning worship hour remains segregated. It is time to move forward. The Belhar Confession invites us to actively and intentionally engage in the struggle for moral and spiritual transformation; it offers us a faithful Christian witness that acknowledges, accepts, and confesses our sinful history with regard to race and racial attitudes so that together, we can move forward toward repentance, reconciliation, and unity. 

By confessing this truth, we give voice to the oppressed and in so doing we give the last word to God. Ultimately, we trust that God’s grace will continue to work in, with, and through all humanity in the voices of those with power and those without.

Noushin Darya Framke is chair of the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns (ACREC) and an elder from Short Hills, N.J. The full text of the Belhar Confession is available at: http://www.pcusa.org/theologyandworship/confession/belhar.pdf)

 

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