The three confessions of the Christian Reformed Church are our foundational identity documents. They each arise out of the context of specific historical instances of either oppression and persecution by the 16th century Roman Catholic Church or controversy within the 17th century Reformed churches of the Netherlands. They are cries for the acceptance of a theological perspective and for the legitimacy of the community which held to that perspective. Each say in their own way: this is our faith, theological framework, and spirituality; based in Scripture, consistent with the ancient creeds, and resonant with our experience steeped in the suffering of our community. At the time our confessions were written, people were being imprisoned, and in some instances even killed, because they adhered to the positions taken in them. No wonder, then, that the Heidelberg Catechism begins by addressing the issue of the security of the community: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” We cherish our confessions because they say what we believe; they tell our story. We spilled blood for them. They define us.
At a recent gathering I heard a Native American (First Nations) CRC leader say, “When I read the Belhar Confession, I read the story of my people.” African-American and Hispanic leaders in the audience affirmed that this was also their experience. The theology and spirituality of the Belhar resonates deeply with the experience of suffering and liberation of these communities in ways that may be difficult for those of us from European backgrounds to fully understand. I heard these brothers and sisters share how they hear in the Belhar what we from Northern European backgrounds hear in our current confessions. The Belhar tells the story of how God liberated them and their people, granting them legitimacy and security.
For colonialized people who have been robbed of their identity by those who stole their land, their language and their cultures and then sought to justify that theft with racial theories and theological reasoning, the issues of Unity, Justice and Reconciliation take on powerful, life-defining dimensions. By using the violence of apartheid in South Africa as a backdrop, the Belhar enables us to explore the centrality of Scripture’s teaching on Unity, Justice and Reconciliation just as the oppressions and controversies of our ancestors' time enable us to explore our current confessions with their theological distinctives.
The Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dort, and Belhar Confession each invite us to solidarity with the communities whose theological reflection and historical experience brought them into being. Adopting all four of these confessions will enable us to share our histories, our identities, and our faith so that what was yours is now also mine, and what is mine is now also yours. In the end we can all, with added fervency and depth, give our Lord the glory which is His due.
Today the “we” of the CRC is no longer just white, Dutch background people like me. We are determined, with God’s help, to increasingly become a diverse family with all of its richness and complexity. Among other things, this requires us to listen to each other’s stories so that we can become more fully the beloved community together. We are now being invited to learn more about what God is like, what it means to be a Reformed Christian, and what it means to be the church from our brothers and sisters who clearly hear their story told in the Belhar. It is a story of astonishing power and beauty. It is also a story which speaks strongly of sin and pain. In the Belhar, those of us from a Northern European Dutch Reformed background are challenged to recognize that, in the case of the historical background of the Belhar, it was people from our larger Dutch Reformed family who were the oppressors. This factor is one of the most important ways the Belhar differs from our current confessions. In them we Reformed people were the ones being victimized; in the Belhar, some of our larger family of Reformed people were the victimizers. Because of this, the Belhar offers opportunities for the CRC to confess its faith as a diverse family of God, which the other confessions do less intentionally. What happens when those who identify with the oppressed explore the Biblical themes of Unity, Justice and Reconciliation alongside those who are more traditionally identified with their oppressors? Through the agency of the Belhar, the CRC is invited to participate in this powerful work of God. To become a truly diverse family, this exploration is essential. The Belhar enables us to have a conversation that we simply must have.
Is it possible for the various communities that form the CRC to tell each other the truth about the realities of their lives and their faith? Can we get beyond the distortions our violence-filled cultural history has given us? These may seem like odd questions. They arise out of my experience as a missionary in Asia for 18 years. During that time I was impressed by how difficult, and how rare, it was for the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak, to tell each other the truth. Therefore, genuine relationships between them were not really possible. Even in the church — in some ways especially in the church — I saw the old games of power and abuse being played. Moving back to America I find it is not different here and I doubt if it is significantly different in Canada either. We need the Belhar to help us confront how the lies of abusive power, with its presumed superiority for some and imposed sense of inferiority for others, have warped our identities. None of our current confessions can be as clearly helpful to us to confront this evil as can the Belhar.
All confessions address us in our sin and are meant to affect our behavior. None of them are merely abstract theological doctrines that are understood adequately when divorced from their historical contexts. One of the functions of a confession is to highlight the theological issues central to ecclesiastical communities in times and places of crucial significance for that community. They, thereby, address matters of timeless and universal value. This is what I have heard Native American, Hispanic and African American CRC leaders say the Belhar does for them. The Belhar helps them tell us, their white, European background brothers and sisters, the truth about what it means to be Christians and part of our CRC family. It affirms their personal and cultural value in the CRC and in God’s Kingdom. It helps all of us understand first of all our God, and then also ourselves and each other, without the familiar distortions which have brought separation into our family. By focusing on Unity, Justice and Reconciliation, the Belhar can help us in the CRC lay aside our distorted identities and tell the truth to each other. Saying “no thanks” to the invitation to adopt the Belhar would be, in my mind, missing out on a tremendous opportunity to enable us to be the diverse family God has called us to be.
The CRC is being asked to make room for the stories (theology, spirituality, history and identity) of communities whose historical route to the Reformed faith is more immediately resonant with those of peoples oppressed by the European colonialization of Asia, Africa, Latin America and North America than with those oppressed in Northern Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Are we willing to give their story, as exemplified in the Belhar Confession, equal status to ours as one of the foundational identity documents of our denomination? The alternative, it seems to me, is to communicate that all who belong to the CRC family must identify primarily with the Northern European story of the 16th and 17th centuries because, we say, it is only that story which can be truly normative for our family. That would result in a tremendous loss for us all.