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Why we need Belhar

Why the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) needs to add the Confession of Belhar to our Book of Confessions can be answered with one word: racism.

This word demands the accountability of Christians and reminds us that we must not doom ourselves in falling victim to repeating our tainted history. We need constant reminders that racism is built into the fabric of human nature and driven by our fear of those who are ethnically and culturally different than who we are. Racism is not held as a monopoly of any one cultural grouping, but denies boundaries based on race, geography, and human diversity.

The questioning has begun within our governing bodies of “Why this confession, and why now?”

Some maintain that it does not hold the relevance, the timeliness, or the characteristics of what are considered the “higher standards of a confession” within our constitution. One might well counter by asking if this is so then do the The Westminster Confession of Faith, or even The Confession of 1967, belong anymore. Are we still a “church reformed and always reforming,” or have we forsaken our Reformed heritage?

We will also hear the complaint that The Book of Confessions is already an historical hodge-podge of contradictory theological statements from different times and places, and that there are literally hundreds of other confessions and creedal affirmations not included in our “canon” of select statements of faith. Perhaps this is one of the best arguments of why we need the Confession of Belhar because we have nothing else that quite so boldly exhibits in such clear language the sin of apartheid and the various insidious forms it takes within our world.

Apartheid, some will argue, held more power than the days of Jim Crow segregation in our society — an every moment, every day collapse of human conscience upon the masses of South Africa that was a far greater bondage than our own systems of racial division. I suspect that judgment is best left, however, to those who were on the minority end of the fear and hostility of blatant racism. Being attacked and beaten as part of a legitimate non-violent protest during the civil rights movement in our nation, or the abject sorrow of seeing one’s son lynched and hung in the oak tree in front of one’s home is hard to quantify and compare. Suffering at such levels of despair is beyond the understanding of those of us who have not suffered such atrocities.

But here’s the dilemma for some of us, especially those of us who grew up where the “N” word was common parlance in the deep south of the 1950s and 60s. As hard as we may have tried to scrub away the deep stain of this particular sin we have failed. It is a sin that separates us from our black sisters and brothers and from God. As such a person I “own” my lineage where the “sins of the fathers” were visited upon the generations.

What dark closet of racism still lies within my soul and yours? What messages do we need to hear today in a culture filled with fear-driven anger and outright hatred? Has your community seen demonstrations against the building of a mosque? Several around me are embroiled in this controversy. Have you listened to the raging debates about immigration reform? It is virtually impossible not to hear inflamed diatribes on this topic. Have you read from the blog sites in response to Internet news articles and seen the vitriolic attacks on our president who to some is a Muslim and not even American? Have you listened to your own inner voice about the state of our divided world where over two-thirds of the earth’s inhabitants are in constant hunger, where nation is at war with nation, and tribe is divided against tribe.

I yearn for, but confess, that even with the power of “the Church” united we will not likely overcome our racial, cultural, religious, and tribal divisions, but we need reminders like the Confession of Belhar that we are called to try. Our Book of Order sets this challenge before us in “The Great Ends of the Church” — that we are to be engaged in “ … the promotion of social righteousness; and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.”

If we are to be congruent in our theology and language, then the Confession of Belhar grants us such an opportunity as a companion within our constitutional standards. Among its opening lines are these: “We believe that Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled to God and with one another,” and 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 that threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted.”

I still vividly remember a discussion from more than forty years ago in the church I was called to serve as an “assistant minister” in the old PCUS. It was during a Session meeting and concerned the disposal of the “slave screens” that had been in storage for years. I had never seen one of these devices with the slots through which the slaves could peer at the pastor from their invisible position in the back pews of the church’s balcony. Only one Elder objected to getting rid of them. He was highly respected and had suffered many letters and late night phone calls and threats from the KKK and the White Citizens’ Council. He argued that the church needed to retain at least one of these fixtures and put it on public display in the fellowship hall as a constant reminder of our sin of racism. His voice and that of the pastors did not prevail that night, but his words still ring true. Racism is sin at its worst. The Belhar Confession reminds us of this fault within the human condition for sin is separation from self, from others, and from God.

If we vote to include this confession in our book of confessional standards it will serve us well as a reminder that racism still deforms and divides humanity throughout our world and that such confessions call Christians to unite with a strong, common voice to oppose such sin. We need Belhar for times such as these.

PHIL LEFTWICH retires December 31 as executive presbyter for Middle Tennessee Presbytery in Franklin, Tenn.