When I ask myself, “Where has God been at work in my life,” I tend to think about individual experiences in our lives, and prayerfully reflect on how God used our circumstances for God’s will.
While this exercise is essential to Christian spirituality, it is easy to forget that Christians have also traditionally identified God’s handiwork uniquely and authoritatively in communal discernment. In particular, through our history we have placed a high level of confidence in divine intervention on church confessions. These public declarations of what we believe have often been crafted in times of urgency, precisely when we feel our fundamental beliefs questioned by forces in the world.
To that end, any faithful Presbyterian reflecting where God was at work in 2016 cannot ignore that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), after years of study, argument and prayerful discernment, moved to adopt a confession from the global south declaring that fighting racial injustice and standing with the oppressed of all types are essential to church doctrine.
Moreover, this body adapted this confession at a time in this country when racial tension has become especially prominent in our collective conversation, and when a reality TV star caught on tape bragging about sexual assault rode a wave of racially-charged remarks about Mexican immigrants and Muslims all the way to the White House, empowering hate groups and extremists to vandalize properties with swastikas in Washington, D.C.
Now, the fact that the PC(USA) adopted this confession doesn’t by itself imply automatic divine blessing and justification. We have to acknowledge there was pushback from both the left and the right on the need for adopting this confession, whether it was because it would be taken too broadly, or that it didn’t come from within the body but from another context, or other reasons.
The fact is, however, the General Assembly adopted it. It is part of the Book of Confessions, and the Belhar Confession is now in the same constitution as the Nicene Creed and the Heidelberg Confession, as long as this denominational body exists.
This means we have to figure out what it means that these sentences have been adopted as essential to being Presbyterian:
“We believe … 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.”
“We believe … that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged”
“We believe … that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.”
If we actually believe what we said we believed at General Assembly is true, then we believe God was at work in a uniquely authoritative way, by nature of our communal decision-making and the seriousness of adding a confession to our tradition.
So, no matter how we respond, God was at work.
But our response to God’s work could illuminate for us in retrospect what exactly God was trying to accomplish.
Either we can pat ourselves on the back, say we were really aware and even globally conscious, and then rest on our laurels. Then we could look back and note God’s providence in the well-meaning white-progressive act of the PC(USA), potentially before its demise, as an act of grace, but lost in the fights over property and grasping a bygone era of status and power.
Or, we can take the words of Belhar seriously – which, if you start to tease out its implications, don’t just call for good talk or even just political action within the realm of our secular, mainstream imagination, but potentially the radical upheaval of a mostly white denomination historically rooted in the racial sins of our country.
We could meaningfully meditate on our tradition’s complicitness in the sinful forces in the world we are trying to vanquish, and pursue meaningful repentance and reconciliation. We could be a distinct voice, one that adds both moral authority and humility to the collective pursuit of justice and truth.
We could even have the hard discussions within our own communities, acknowledging the pains that our country’s long-held divisions have caused to those who have been long dismissed. We could choose to address the problem holistically – the systems that divide, our individual attitudes that perpetuate hate, our church communities that sanction white Jesus as divine.
I am actually very hopeful that we can respond in faithfulness and truth. I’ve seen it in our churches, with our leaders and with the people trying hard to rely on God’s grace to push through these difficult issues. Most importantly, I am hopeful because God is faithful and because Jesus Christ came with mercy for all people, especially the forgotten and oppressed. And I believe, confess even, that the church, in all our weakness and foolishness, is gathered not simply out of our own will, but by the Holy Spirit.
God started a good work in 2016, and I have faith God will prove it not to be in vain.