“To Take a Stand for the Sake of the Gospel in our Time”
A Fall Series on Racism in America: What Presbyterians Can Learn from the Confession of Belhar
The Truth Needs Witnesses
When our son was seven years old, he burst through the back door of the house, his faced flushed, hands trembling, looking like he was about to cry. He went to his room and slammed the door. As a father, I was alarmed and made a move to follow, but before I bounded up the stairs in pursuit, his brother burst through the back door with all the excitement of a kid whose team had just scored a goal. “Guess what, dad? Josh just told the big boys! He really told ‘em!”
It didn’t take long for the story to come tumbling out. The kids were playing outside as they usually did on Saturday afternoons. There were always skirmishes to manage, and often cuts and bruises to tend from kickball and lopsided soccer games played across the handful of neighborhood backyards—none of which were fenced in.
The band of kids ranged from first through sixth grade, and this afternoon, they’d turned their attention from kickball to bullying. Seems the big boys had hatched a plan to lead the group down the street to pick on a boy who didn’t hang out with them. He was a loner, disinterested in what interested them—skinny, aloof, and wore thick glasses.
Josh, seven years old, listened to their plan, then told them, “No, that’s mean,” and walked away. With curses and ridicule following him, he walked with as much dignity as he could muster before bolting for our back door.
After a few minutes, my son let me into his bedroom. “Josh,” I told him after putting my arm around him, “that took lots of courage. It must have been very hard. I want you and your brother to remember something about this moment. There’s only one thing as important in this world than the truth, and that’s someone who will stand up for it. And the truth is, no one deserves to be bullied. Ever. I’m very proud of you—both of you for not going along with the big boys.”
It’s not easy to walk a path that confronts injustice. It’s not easy to refuse to participate in prejudice and discrimination. It takes work to awaken ourselves and our society to the inherent dignity of all persons, regardless of race, class, ethnicity, gender or anything else that might differentiate us from others. It takes courage to actively put ourselves on the line for the truth that God has no favorites but that all people have the same right to life, liberty, and happiness.
Despite our allegiance to these truths that are core to Christian faith, Christians have too often participated in prejudice and discrimination. We have failed to stand up for these truths. American Christians have a long history of blind complicity to the evils of racism, stemming from the slave trade that so brutally shaped our nation’s early life.
Confessing the Truth
South Africa is another nation where Christian faith too often promoted rather than dismantled racism . . . until recently. In 1982 the “colored” Dutch Reformed Mission Church of South Africa adopted a draft of a new confession of faith that empowered the church to stand up and say “No!” in no uncertain terms to the political/social system of racial segregation, discrimination, and bloody oppression called “apartheid” that is part of South Africa’s Christian legacy. They took that stand over 125 years after the infamous decision by the Cape Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church (1857) to separate believers at the Communion Table on practical and racial grounds. During the past three decades, the Belhar Confession has found increasing acceptance around the world, not only as a protest against racism wherever it is found, but as a rallying banner for the church as Christians seek to find ways to stand up and embody the gospel of Jesus Christ in the face of racial and ethic discrimination and violence, as well as other emerging global issues like gender relations, the environment, economic injustice, and the HIV/AIDS crisis.
This past year, 172 regional presbyteries of our church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), voted to add the Confession of Belhar to our Book of Confessions—which is one of two volumes that make up the Constitution of our church. The final step will be a vote at the 222nd General Assembly meeting June 18–25, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. For a video introduction to the Confession of Belhar, click here. And if you’re interested in a longer introduction, click here: it’s a video lecture by the acclaimed South African Reformed theologian the Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak.
I joyfully anticipate Belhar’s adoption as a major Confession of our church. This means that it will be placed alongside documents like the Nicene Creed (4th century), the Heidelberg Confession (16th century), and the Barmen Declaration (a 20th century protest against Nazism in Germany). Belhar will help guide our understanding of the Bible and what it means to live the gospel today with respect to racism and other forms of discrimination and abuse of creation.
Our First Steps of Confession
As a way to introduce us to this new Confession and to explore how to live out its important vision at a time of such racial tension in America, I’ll preach the gospel from the Bible and the Confession of Belhar on three consecutive Sundays in October. On October 11 the sermon is entitled, “To Take a Stand”, followed by “For the Sake of the Gospel” on October 18, and “In Our Time” on October 25. These sermons will explore the three main themes of the Confession: unity, reconciliation, and justice. During these three weeks, many in our congregation will participate in small group conversations exploring the meaning of the Confession, its witness to the gospel, and its challenge to our individual lives and the life of our congregation. I hope you’ll consider being part of a group. We will publicize the names of group facilitators and their locations around Davis and elsewhere so that you can join these sixty- to ninety-minute conversations at a time and place that works for you. You don’t have to always attend the same group for the three sessions, but can drop in whichever group fits your schedule. The study guide is the same for all groups. Click here for the website information on these groups.
Davis Community Church (Davis, California) understands itself to be an agent of God’s justice in the world. We know that the gospel calls us to be a people of peace. We’re often willing to stand up for God’s truth in the face of injustice—we offer help to the homeless, we help feed the hungry, we confront climate change with green habits, we advocate for immigration reform, push for wiser forms of gun control, and so on. But the violence of this past year, so often racially motivated, has made us aware of at least two things: 1. we cannot stand idly by, and 2. we do not know what to do. The privilege so many of us enjoy because of our racial and economic status blinds us to the realities so many American face. What’s more, many of us live within an island of economic privilege. The city of Davis, despite its relatively progressive social values, nevertheless remains shaped by the advantages of upper middle-class whiteness. Events this past year have exposed many of us to the truth that we’ve been largely unaware of how easy it is for us to enjoy the advantages of race, ethnicity, education, and access to jobs, while many outside of Davis, and even inside this city struggle.
It’s time for us to realize that we will no longer participate, even blindly, in the bullying of other Americans, or anyone living on this planet. It’s time for us to “take a stand for the sake of the gospel in our time”. What form that stand takes will come clear to us and we worship and study and talk together.
Let us join together in this important season of prayer, listening, self-examination, and action.
For those interested in going deeper, here are a few suggested books:
- The Invention of Wings by bestselling author Sue Monk Kidd. A novel that confronts not only the issues of racism but also the limits often placed on women.
- All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, a New York Times #1 Bestseller and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. This novel explores the effects of Nazi racism on individual human lives and the light of those not only caught up in it but who try to rise above it.
- Between the World and Me. Prize winning author, Ta-Nehisi Coates, writes this trim book for his son, a searing and powerful testimony about what it’s like to be raised black in America today.
- Neither Calendar Nor Clock: Perspectives on the Belhar Confession. For readers who like theological study, this book by South African theologian, Piet Naude, works though the historical context of the Confession, its theological core, and implications not only for the fight against racism, but also the way the Confession addresses numerous other global issues like gender relations, economic injustice, and the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Personal Reflection Questions
And for those who wish to do some personal exploration of racism, here are some key questions to help each of us grow in our awareness of our own experience of racial privilege or prejudice:
- How has the history of America’s predominately white culture and white privilege shaped my life?
- If I identify as essentially a white American, how aware am I of the ways I benefit from that privilege—that is, what have I gained largely because of the color of my skin? Even if I’ve fought my way, overcoming great odds to educate myself and acquire wealth, how might that struggle have been even more difficult if I’d not been white?
- If I don’t identify as white racially, have I nevertheless found a way to benefit from the advantages given to white Americans?
- If I’ve not found a way to benefit from the advantages of the dominant white culture, in what ways have I found myself excluded from some (or many) of those advantages because of the color of my skin and because of my family’s origin?