The Belhar Confession was formed out of parochial necessity, but its appeal is ecumenical and universal, said Allan Boesak, the opening speaker of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary's April 25-28 Festival of Theology and Reunion.
Boesak, a well-known theologian, anti-apartheid activist and political leader in South Africa, spoke about the Belhar Confession's roots, meaning and significance.
Adopted by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa in 1986, the confession was a response to apartheid in that country and particularly focuses on reconciliation, justice and unity.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is considering adding Belhar to its Book of Confessions as the denomination’s response to ongoing racial prejudice in this country. A task force will recommend to the 219th General Assembly, to be held July 3-10 in Minneapolis, that the study process continue.
The Belhar Confession seeks to uphold the gospel while responding to heresy, said Boesak, who was instrumental in drafting the confession.
"We do not announce, we proclaim," he said. "We do not pontificate, we profess."
To really understand Belhar, it's necessary to know the situation in which it was formed. From 1948-1994, South Africa was in the grip of the system of apartheid, which legally separated races, oppressing blacks and lifting whites to power.
Churches, including the dominant Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa, also played a role in maintaining apartheid, not only creating space for oppression but actually helping to shape the policy based on racial prejudice and oppression, Boesak said. Apartheid was presented as an all-embracing, God-given solution to the "race problem."
But the contradictions between Jesus' teachings of love and the oppressive system of apartheid soon became unbearable.
"The bondage of slavery and the bonds of Christian love could not live side by side," Boesak said.
Because the church couldn't deny or ignore such contradictions in its message, it chose to remove the presence of such problems through racial segregation of the church, he said.
"Now Communion could be served without the broken body of Christ being a reminder of the broken bodies of the slaves," Boesak said.
But the Belhar Confession rejects the idea that not all believers are the same. Instead, it "celebrates diversity that affirms humanity ... and accepts it as a gift of God for the church," Boesak said.
Part of the confession speaks of God as one who wants to bring justice and peace to the world. "... God calls the church to follow him in this, for God brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry," the confession reads.
"The church too must learn to stand where God stands," Boesak said.
Belhar gives voice to the voiceless, he said. It wasn't born in the steeples of white power, but with the socially disdained. It's not a product of esoteric academic debate but instead speaks with the eloquence of the faithful.
There is some debate about whether Belhar should be added to the PC(USA)'s Book of Confessions.
In a June 2009 meeting of the committee that will make recommendations to the GA, the Rev. Joseph Small, director of the denomination's office of Theology Worship and Education, outlined some possible barriers to including Belhar.
Belhar espouses inclusivity and unity, and some could argue that it opens the door to gay and lesbian ordination.
The Presbytery of Sacramento has submitted an overture to the GA calling for discontinuing efforts to add Belhar to the Book of Confessions, calling it "a complex and somewhat confusing document, which some parties — theologians as well as the ordained and laity — have attempted to use to press issues other than racial equality."
Boesak said others have questioned the value of Belhar. But he said that the church cannot voice a doctrine that its life doesn't reflect.
The confession never mentions the word "apartheid," Boesak said. It calls for reconciliation, not revenge or hate, and expresses inclusion, unity and the lordship of Jesus.
"The spirit in which Belhar is offered is a spirit of obedience to Christ," he said. "It can never be a spirit of condemnation of a group or a person.
"The inclusiveness of Belhar reflects the inclusiveness of God in the embrace of Jesus Christ," Boesak said.