ATLANTA – Saying the fight against injustice must be “real, radical and revolutionary,” Allan Boesak of South Africa delivered a blazing challenge to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) – saying the church must use its privilege to stand on the side of the poor and oppressed.
“The signs of the church are the dove and the lion and the lamb and the fish, but never the chameleon,” Boesak told close to 600 people at the NEXT Church national gathering, meeting at First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta on Feb. 22.
And: “Racism is an evil we must fight. We can’t just wish it away.”
Boesak, a former president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches who now serves on the faculty of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, chose as his theme remarks that Pope Francis made on a trip to Bolivia in 2015: “Let us not be afraid to say it.”
Speaking on the night before his 70th birthday, there was much that Boesak was not afraid to say.
- He ran through a litany of the names of black Americans killed at the hands of police officers, then moved to the children damaged by lead poisoning in the Flint, Michigan, water crisis. In those tragedies, where is the church calling for justice?
- He spoke of a world “shaken by deadly convulsions” of injustice and the legacy of colonialist, imperialist dehumanization – when, he said, it’s clear that “God’s preferential option is for the poor, the destitute and the wronged.”
- He described racism and oppression as systemic, with the combined wealth of the top 1 percent equaling the wealth of the remaining 99 percent, with more than a billion people living on less than $1.25 per day. “The wrongs we see are not just random happenings … and they are happening to the vast majority of God’s children who are walking this earth,” Boesak said. “They are deeply systemic, and we must not be afraid to say it.”
Boesak took these Presbyterians to school on the importance and the difficulty of reconciliation – as the PC(USA) approaches the vote expected at the 2016 General Assembly in June to add the Belhar Confession from South Africa to the PC(USA) Book of Confessions, which would make it the first confession the PC(USA) has adopted to come from the global South.
He described reconciliation and a commitment to work for justice as “a calling, the very essence of discipleship” – difficult, continuing work that people can only accomplish with the help of God. Justice is costly, is only possible between equals and requires restitution, Boesak said. Only through the grace of God does the inexcusable become forgivable.
“The more I say justice, I have to say Jesus,” he said. “The more I say Jesus, I will have to say justice.”
During a question-and-answer session, Boesak admitted that at times he has had a hard time holding on to his faith. “I just couldn’t believe a God of justice could exist,” and still allow such injustice to persist in the world. “I had to rely on the faith of others,” including Presbyterians who promised they would always pray for him. “You were those friends who broke through that roof and lowered me down so Jesus could touch me and heal me and reassure me,” Boesak said, thanking the PC(USA).
Boesak described this as a “kairos moment” for racial reconciliation, both in the U.S. and South Africa – a moment that will slip away and be lost if churches don’t respond. “I don’t know if you can claim the label of being a Christian church” if not standing for the oppressed against injustice, he said.
As the church in Germany learned when it kept silent in the face of Adolf Hitler’s execution of the Jews, “it was not so much the survival of the church that was at stake,” Boesak said. “At stake was the integrity of the church and its prophetic witness. At stake was the very gospel itself.”
In the end, Boesak said, God will judge if the church has done enough. If God asks where are your wounds and you have none, the question will be: was there nothing worth fighting for?
“I pray to God that we will have something to show.”