As the Rev. Allan Boesak rose to give his powerful testimony of his life under the apartheid regime in South Africa and the genesis of the Belhar Confession there, a hushed reverence fell on Montreat Conference Center’s Convocation Hall.

Boesak’s poignant “cry from the heart” from the heart of his own church — and in many ways from his own — met with a standing ovation. It also gave its name to the Oct. 17 conference here: “A Cry from the Heart for Unity, Reconciliation, and Justice: From Belhar to Ferguson.”

The conference examined not only the roots of the Belhar Confession in South Africa’s apartheid era, but also explored struggles of race, class, and gender in the present U.S. context in both church and society.

The conference was especially timely not only in the light of the persistence and the destructive consequences of racism as evidenced by the events and the continued unrest in Ferguson, Mo., but also as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has begun the process of voting on a proposed constitutional amendment that would add the Belhar Confession to the PC(USA)'s Book of Confessions.

To be added to the denomination's Constitution, it will have to be ratified by 115, or two-thirds, of the denomination's 172 presbyteries — each by a two-thirds vote — within the next year. If the confession receives the approval of the presbyteries, the 221nd General Assembly (2016) would then be called upon to give final approval of its inclusion in the Book of Confessions.

Boesak, in tracing the roots of what he called “the history of a heresy” in his native South Africa, said that the apartheid system came to South Africa through colonization and slavery. It found its first form when the colonial Dutch Reformed Church made its decision to divide the church on the basis of race.

“When we began to realize that apartheid was not just a political system that was oppressive —  not just a racist, exploitative, economic system, not just a system of cultural and political domination and subjugation — but that it could not survive without its moral justification,” he said, referring to the church’s sanction of the practice, “then we began to have some understanding of what the call upon us was to do.”

In the subsequent process of drafting of the Belhar Confession — which was written in 1982 and adopted as a confession of faith by the synod of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa (the black branch of the Dutch Reformed Church) in 1986 — the writers found themselves confronted with the most fundamental questions of the Christian faith. And not only those questions, but also the question of what it means to be black and Reformed, which became a “lifelong occupation” for Boesak.

“Through the crying of apartheid, we saw the faces of the victims of the system, and because we saw the faces of the victims, we could see the face of Jesus,” Boesak said. “And if you look to Jesus through the eyes of the afflicted, the poor, the oppressed, the downtrodden, and those who suffer injustice, then you have to ask the question what does it mean to confess this Jesus Lord? And then you have to ask the question, but is this Jesus the same as the Jesus of the theology of apartheid?”

What, Boesak wondered, did it mean to be embracing a tradition that is called the theater of God’s glory in the midst of so much misery and injustice.

“How do you claim this Jesus,” he asked. “What does it mean when we say Jesus is Lord? Those are the questions. If you read the Confession of Belhar, that’s what you’ll see. That’s what we wrestled with. That was the confession.”

Two men standing together

Allan Boesak (left) with Pete Peery, president of Montreat Conference Center. —Photo by Emily Enders Odom

The challenge and the urgency of Boesak’s presentation was perhaps best crystallized in a question later posed by the Rev. Deborah Mullen, Columbia Theological Seminary’s executive vice-president and dean of faculty as well as associate professor of American Christianity and Black church studies, “Can Belhar help the PC(USA) to confess and repent of our continuing racism and help the church be a prophetic agent for unity, justice, and reconciliation?”

And also in its inevitable anti-racism response: “If not now, when?”

Mullen said that racism “deforms the likeness of God in each of us…leaving behind an empty tomb full of death and fear as lethal as weapons of mass destruction.”

The Rev. Kevin Park, associate dean for Advanced Professional Studies and assistant professor of theology at Columbia Seminary, had earlier opened the conference by saying that Belhar is not just a prophetic calling to the world and society, but to the church.

“It is a call to the church for self-criticism,” said Park, who also served on the Special Committee on the Confession of Belhar that was appointed by the 2012 General Assembly. “Sometimes it’s easier to say a word to the world rather than seriously reflect upon ourselves as the church.”

In addition to hearing presentations by Boesak and Mullen, participants were led in opening and closing worship by the Rev. Mark Lomax, assistant professor of homiletics at the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) and a member of the special committee, and heard provocative and at times deeply personal presentations by the Rev. Erskine Clarke, professor emeritus of American religious history at Columbia Theological Seminary, and the Rev. Ron Peters, formerly associate professor of urban ministry and the first director of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s Metro-Urban Institute.

Clarke, who said he spoke “not only as a son of the South, but as a white son of the South,” gave a comprehensive racial history of the Presbyterian Church and the U.S. in terms of Euro-Americans and African-Americans.

He presented two case studies of white Presbyterians, including the story of his own family’s paternalistic attitudes in issues of race. 

“Much of my scholarly life has been an attempt to gaze across this great difference that separates me from African-American Presbyterians and to give me a glimpse of the realities of that other world,” Clarke said. “I am sometimes horrified and surprised at how easily racist assumptions can break through my conscious thought. Where did that come from? When I see young, black men: where did that come from? It comes, of course, from places that I know only too well. It comes from deep rumblings within, voices of my childhood and youth that I have not silenced.”

In asking how "these voices of racism that rumble deep in white psyches" might be addressed, Clarke commended the liturgical use of the Belhar Confession.

“Liturgy, like music, has the power to seep into our subconscious and challenge those rumblings,” he said. “Perhaps with Belhar in our Book of Confessions we may find a rich liturgical resource to confess that Jesus is Lord, confess the racism that is within us, and confess the power of the gospel to transform us and bring reconciliation and justice to the church.”

In the conference’s final presentation, “PC(USA) Reaffirming Christ over Culture’s Social and Theological Locations,” the Rev. Ron Peters gave a compelling overview — complete with visually arresting statistics and startling images — of the contemporary social, cultural, educational, economic, political, and religious landscape to which the Belhar Confession speaks.

“With centuries of overt and covert theological support, racism continues to bedevil the PC(USA),” Peters said, “yet, as with any cultural addiction, denial of the problem cannot be the basis of cure. As spiritually lethal as the Ebola virus, like any virus, it’s on automatic pilot. It continues its devastating mutations on its own… Belhar offers us a powerful vision. If we took it seriously, it could inspire an outpouring of the Holy Spirit such as happened in Acts 2. There could be a powerful healing in our experience such as was witnessed in Acts 3. Maybe we could even as a modern community in a wider society experience what Paul and Silas experienced.”

The theme of the conference attracted several young adults, including Katelyn Nutter from Detroit, a second-year student at Columbia Theological Seminary. “I think first and foremost what we learned from Dr. Boesak today was a different perspective that I hadn’t heard before,” she said. “The first thing is coming to the table and having an open conversation, and an open perspective is the first step. We can’t reconcile until we start looking inward. That’s what I’ve learned from Belhar.”

As the conference ended, Boesak’s earlier observations about Belhar resonated with deep, contemporary relevance. “Yes, we were a church with a confession, but is it also possible for us to become a confessing church,” he asked. “The difference is significant. Are we a church that can stand up and say a creed that makes us church, or would we take a confession out of the sanctuary into the midst of the struggles for life and death?”

Because the special committee was charged with educating the whole church about the confession, videos of all four presentations from the Oct. 17 conference are now available online as an educational resource for churches and presbyteries as they prepare to vote on Belhar.