Belhar Part IV: The Political Domain of the Church

“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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“The Belhar is a political statement!”

This is an argument that I heard often in the debates and discussions leading up to the eventual adoption of the Belhar Confession as a doctrinal standard alongside the Heidelberg Catechism, The Belgic Confession of Faith, and the Canons of the Synod of Dort.

This is correct, the Belhar is a political statement. But it is not a partisan or ideological statement, it is a gospel statement, and this is an important differentiation to make.

At it’s core, the political realm is concerned with public life, with the life of the polis — the city.

In my experience, American Christianity has so individualized faith that it has little bearing on our conduct and life. For a rather extreme example, Fox News Business pundit Stuart Varney made this statement in response to Pope Francis’s criticism of capitalism: “I personally do not want my spiritual life mixed up with my political life. I go to church to save my soul, it’s got nothing to do with my vote.”

Christianity is not solely about orthodoxy, but also orthopraxy. Throughout scriptures, we read of treating strangers as neighbors, of forgiving other people, of feeding the hungry, caring for orphans and widows, cancelling debts, freeing slaves, and deep concern for others. Indeed, what we do is inseparably linked with what we believe.

This is the importance of the Belhar Confession in the modern world: it reminds us that we are not just to believe in a particular way, but to live in a particular way. Following Christ is not just about changing our minds, but rather our lives; it is not simply about believing a right set of doctrines, but also living and behaving in the right way. We are not just to think good things, but to do good things. As the Letter of James reminds us, simply believing in God is not enough, that is good, but even the demons believe. No, it is not enough to simply believe, we must live our belief by doing justice.

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In his book, The Prophets, Abraham Joshua Heschel contrasts God’s justice with the ideal symbolized in Lady Justice. Lady Justice represents the Grecian ideal of justice: blind, exact, fair, impartial. But the prophetic image is quite different.

But let justice roll down like waters,
   and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24, NRSV).

“A mighty stream, expressive of the vehemence of a never-ending, surging , fighting movement–as if obstacles had to be washed away for justice to be done.” (Heschel, 271-272). “For justice…is not an abstraction, a value. Justice exists in relation to a person, and is something done by a person. An act of injustice is condemned, not because the law is broken, but because a person has been hurt” (ibid, 276).

God is neither fair nor impartial, but God is merciful and gracious. Scripture indicates that God takes sides:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are… (1 Cor 1:27-28, NRSV). God sides with the poor and despised, the weak and the vulnerable, and we side with these brothers and sisters not because we need to make them whole, rather, the relationship with these sisters and brothers helps make us whole.

After all, when it comes down to it, we are not called to a gnosis of the finer points of doctrine, we are called into a  loving and mutually life-giving and redemptive relationship with flesh-and-blood people and in this, we live into the already in the midst of the not yet. Indeed, doctrine is only valuable insofar as it drives us into this loving and right and redemptive relationship with others.

Justice is not a nice thing to do, justice is central to Christianity. It is in seeking justice that we live out our faith, that we live out the life to which God has called us, and the life into which Christ is forming us.

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The Belhar, then, is nothing new to the faith, rather, it provides a clearer articulation of what the scriptures have always taught, and into which we try, and fail, to live.

The Belhar Confession is a political statement, but it is not a partisan or ideological statement. It is an expression of the gospel and the difficult and taxing demands of Christianity as a lifestyle rather than simply a belief system.

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, Article 4).

May it be so.

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One thought on “Belhar Part IV: The Political Domain of the Church

  1. This reminds me of a quote I read in a book recently (paraphrase): “Our current society has separated life into two spheres. The secular and the spiritual, and we think that neither one can be present in the other. But the fact is that God has always been in the secular world, and in that respect there is no secular world.”

    The author said this as he wrote about the importance of praying over everything, even his fifth-grade daughter’s science experiment. It seemed stupid and unnecessary to her (and to me), but then I realized that if God truly is everywhere and all powerful, then of course he cares about and is involved in everything. I’m not sure when we did this arbitrary separation between the secular and spiritual, but I’m trying to put both of them together, and become more aware of when I have mistakenly separated them.

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