Belhar Pt I: Prologue and Article 1

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“Belhar’s relevance is not confined to Southern Africa. It addresses three key issues of concern to all churches: unity of the church and unity among all people, reconciliation within church and society, and God’s justice.” ~ From The Belhar Confession’s Prologue

Over the next couple of weeks we’ll be talking about The Belhar Confession.

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1992. That is the year that I learned that I am white. Before that I had never once thought about the color of my skin, only the color of those who had different skin. The other. African-Americans. Latin-Americans. Asian-Americans.

“In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate,” wrote  Pulitzer Prize recipient,  Toni Morrison in the January 29, 1992 edition of The Guardian. A year later she would also receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.

“I wish I could say that this Nation had traveled far along the road to social justice and that liberty and equality were just around the bend. I wish I could say that America has come to appreciate diversity and to see and accept similarity. But as I look around, I see not a Nation of unity but of division – Afro and White, indigenous and immigrant, rich and poor, educated and illiterate. Even many educated whites and successful Negroes have given up on integration and lost hope on equality. They see nothing in common except the need to flee as fast they can from our inner cities.” ~ The late Thurgood Marshall at his 1992 acceptance speech of the Liberty Medal on July 4, 1992.

In between Morrison’s January article and Marshall’s July acceptance speech were the 1992 LA Riots.

But in 1992 I didn’t know the names of Toni Morrison or Thurgood Marshall. And I didn’t watch the nightly news. I got my news from Ice Cube.

I had seen clips on TV of the March 2, 1991 beating of Rodney King. I had heard my parents talk about the trial of  Rodney King officers Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno. Let’s just be honest, in many white neighborhoods and households it was more like King’s trial. I still hear people reference the fact that he struggled with drug addiction until the end of his life and had PCP show up in the toxicology report of his autopsy to disparage his character and sometimes even to expunge the culpability of the officers.

A little over a year after the arrest, officers Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno were acquitted of assault charges. It was April 29, 1992. That day the LA Riots began in protest to the verdict. For six days the city burned. There were 53 casualties of the riots and thousands of injuries.

In November of that year Ice Cube released The Predator. It was a brilliant, violent and frightening summery of the American Zeitgeist. The album references, King the trial and the riots repeatedly. Somewhere in the course of that year between the video and the verdict, I had begun listening to Hip Hop, in particular the omnipresent gangster rap of the early 90’s. I am sure that teenage rebellion, allegorical identification with the angst young urban youth, MTV and the 15 inch subwoofers in the car of my childhood best friend all had an impact on my burgeoning taste in music.

But none of that can sufficiently account for what happened when I heard Ice Cube’s “Predator” album. It was the first hip hop album – the first album in any genre really – that I thoroughly devoured. I listened to it day and night. On my headphones into the wee hours of the night it was playing. I fell asleep listening to it.

I have often said that I discovered God under the lilac tree just outside our bedroom window listening to Ice Cube. While there is a lot more to my story than that. The statement is only partially hyperbolic.

I am not kidding whatsoever when I say that listening to this album fostered the birth of my awareness and my concern for, racism, economic disparity, abuse of power and injustice. It is at least part of the reason I ended up in seminary. It is definitely directly related to why I found myself taking electives in the Hebrew Prophets when I could in undergrad and seminary.

Like the prophet Isaiah, Ice cube was part of a larger collective, a tradition of voices that pronounced judgment and yes provided comfort for people suffering from many afflictions. Both men wrote to warn and also empower a people who had been dragged away from their homeland enslaved and impoverished. There are of course ways in which the historical context and message are dissimilar. But both Ice Cube and Isaiah surveyed their land and saw “a sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly!” And certainly Ice Cube, like the prophet Isaiah, was a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips, whose eyes had seen the disparity between the Holy and the way we live. As Ice Cube was fond of saying and would later put into a song on a subsequent album, “They wont call me Nigger when I get to Heaven.”

It has been 22 years since that time of such tremendous racial tension in the US. On the other hand, it has only been 22 years.

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One of many reasons that am proud to be a part of the Reformed Church in America is our community’s recent adoption of the Belhar Confession, calling upon us to bind ourselves to each other in Christian unity. Indeed, while it “has its roots in the struggle against apartheid in Southern Africa” written in 1982, Belhar’s relevance is not confined to South Africa. My denomination needs the Belhar. Our country, indeed our world needs it’s message! Its threefold message of unity among all people, reconciliation within church and society, and God’s justice is grounded in the fact that we believe in the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We believe that God gathers, protects and cares for the church through Word and Spirit. We serve a God who is Community as much as God is Love.

To get all doctrinal for a second, in order for God to be rich in Love from before the beginning, God was necessarily relational. God creates, sustains and redeems out of an abundance of that communal love. The God of solitary might and power is the God of philosophy, the God who is “the first mover” just because…

But the God of scripture and tradition is the God rich in relational love, who creates because God feels moved to do so. And this relational God is also sovereign, God has an eschatological or ultimate vision for a world torn apart by racism, classism, ageism, sexism, religious bigotry and persecution and a seemingly endless list of other injustices. God’s vision is for a day when badges and batons will cease to be wielded as weapons. A day when, by God’s grace, we will all do better than all just getting along. Isaiah provides nothing short of God’s vision for Heaven on earth:

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more (Isaiah 2:2-4).

Come Lord Jesus! Come new in our hearts this day. And break the many lingering vestiges of this nation’s racist heritage. Amen.

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7 thoughts on “Belhar Pt I: Prologue and Article 1

  1. Love the post! I think if Christian White America was able to read between the lines of some hip-hop they would be able to see the prophetic voice. I feel that most only see an angry black man/woman speaking vulgarly over a beat that hurts their ears. Of course not all hip hop is created equal, there is as with all genres a certain chunk of artists that just make noise. But there are quite a few that have something prophetic to say about our culture. I’d like to one day lead a bible study that would incorporate some of those voices. Thanks for this word today.

  2. As I was reading this, I thought, “Even in hip-hop, truth can be found.” Not that this is any surprise to me, but I think many, as Jason said, would discount the words of wisdom because of the wrapping paper they come in.

    And at the end of your post, all I could think was, “Amen. Come Lord Jesus.”

  3. I remember crying as I watched LA burn on TV, and wondering what on earth the jurors were thinking when they acquitted those 4 police officers. It was a complete miscarriage of justice. I STILL wonder to this day, why people disparaged Rodney King! “Why can’t we just get along?” was prophetic and brilliant in its simplicity. Looking at what happened after Trayvon Martin was murdered, I sadly realize we haven’t moved forward at all, as a nation. I can only pray that the Belhar opens some eyes. We are all one – we all belong to the human race.

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