"We believe that God wishes to teach the church to do what is good and to seek the right; that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream; 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."--Belhar Confession, Art. 4.7-9
Our university held a rally today in support of the international students, spouses and families at our campus affected by Executive Order 13769. I was there, standing next to my friends from Iran who are unable to leave the country because they will not be allowed back in, whose families are unable to enter the country to even celebrate the birth of child, and who fear what the future holds in regard to their ability to remain and flourish in our country.
In the midst of such a tumultuous time as we now find ourselves, many are asking how to parse between the rhetoric and the facts, the truth and the lies, and how the church (and individual Christians) should respond. Though not the only one, I believe the Belhar Confession can serve as a powerful, practical tool in these days for discipling members of the local church, and in ministering to our neighbors from around the world with the living and acting hope of the gospel.
A (Discipleship) Challenge to the Church
The Belhar was originally written as an "outcry of faith" and "a call for faithfulness and repentance" by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (DRMC) in response to the insidious impact of apartheid on the witness of the church in South Africa. They recognized the disunity and injustice evident both in the church and out in the wider culture. Furthermore, they recognized the way in which the church's faithfulness to its calling--to proclaim the good news of Christ and the Kingdom in both word and deed--was being hindered. As a result, the Belhar was a challenge to the church in South Africa to reflect on Christ's reconciling work, its manifestation in the church, the radical call to unity (in the church and the nation), a summons to public action, and the imperative of proclaiming this message of reconciliation to others.
What a resource for the church! What a wonderful tool for training members in what it looks like to "act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. (Mic. 6:8)". In this document, we have a resource for discipling those in our churches towards loving, serving, and being with one another in ways that reflect the unifying work of the Spirit among a diverse people from every tribe, tongue, and nation, from various educational levels, political perspectives, and all walks of life. I think of Article 2.4, which articulates a plethora of scripturally-derived statements on what this unity looks like:
We believe that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another; that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another; that we share one faith, having one calling, are of one soul and one mind; have one God and Father, are filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, eat of one bread and drink of one cup, and share one hope; together come to know the height and the breadth and the depth of the love of Christ; together know and bear one another's burdens, thereby fulfilling the law of Christ that we need one another and upbuild one another, admonishing and comforting one another; that we suffer with one another for the sake of righteousness; pray together; together serve God in this world; and together fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity.
One could surely spend many Sunday school sessions, one-on-one conversations, or even sermons laying out the implications of each of these with the goal that as the church is so shaped by them, the world sees "that God's lifegiving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of sin and death, and therefore also of irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness and enmity (Belhar 3.2)." This is a refreshing, positive charge to the church in the face of internal divisiveness driven by nationalism, fear-mongering, and political affiliation, and serves as a powerful testimony for those from abroad of the power of the gospel at work in the Church.
Furthermore, the Belhar serves as a tool for helping church members to process through the issue of nationalism, which is nothing more than idolatry of the nation (similar to statism, which makes an idol of the governing authorities), and the call to submit their national citizenship to that of their Kingdom citizenship under the lordship of Christ.
A (Ministry) Challenge to the CHurcH
This leads to the second challenge presented to the church in the Belhar Confession; namely, the challenge to be proactive in proclaiming this good news of Christ and the Kingdom by not only our words, but also our actions, to those in desperate need of such news: the prideful and the foolish, the rich and the poor, the privileged and oppressed, the triumphant and the fearful, the neighbor and the other (foreigner, refugee, exile). In a sense, we have the opportunity today, just as the church in South Africa did thirty-five years ago, to confront the world with an alternative Kingdom and worldview that breaks through both nationalism and statism, as well as a flabby, over-spiritualized form of Christianity that retreats from engagement with the world.
The challenge before us is to minister to others with tremendous grace and a willingness to suffer, holding firmly to the truth that we, as those united to Christ, belong to His Kingdom. We are, as the Belhar confesses, called "to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker, [and] that the church is witness by both word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells (Belhar 3:1)." This manifests itself, among other ways, in the church doing what is good and right, in "standing by people in any form of suffering and need (Belhar 4.8)", standing with the Lord against injustice and with the wronged (Belhar 4.8-9), and witnessing against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others (Belhar 4.9). This may not ingratiate us to those in power, and we may be seen as foolish by those looking to take advantage of our hospitality and compassion, but it nonetheless shows our commitment to Christ and the cruciform life.
Such efforts work to create an alternative culture--a gospel culture--that reflects the Kingdom of God. By His grace, such a culture will, like a mustard seed that grows into a bush or a bit of leaven that fills the dough, spread and increase for the good of all people and the glory of God. In addition, our actions provide a powerful platform for the message of the gospel as that which brings justice and true peace, freedom and reconciliation, restoration and wholeness (Belhar 4).
So may we take advantage of the resources afforded to us by history, and by our brothers and sisters in Christ from other cultures and contexts, so as to promote the glorious gospel and advance the cause of the Kingdom in our broken world. Amen.