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BREATHE!

How the Belhar’s beautiful teaching can help the church fight racism today.

Not long ago the Canadian Lung Association ran an ad campaign with the slogan, “when you can’t breathe nothing else matters.” That ad invoked empathy and requested support for people who had lung disease or some condition that made breathing difficult. 

Those billboards always caught my attention. I used to try and hold my breath for as long as possible just to experience what not breathing was like. I never lasted very long. But I also found my mind wandering into theological territory as I reflected on the truth that, without the spirit of life in us, nothing else matters; without the animating breath of God in us, Ruah, life is just existence. According to the creation account in Genesis, we are merely dust until God breathes into us the breath of life and only then do we become a living Soul. And in Ezekiel’s remarkable vision the reassembled bones remain lifeless until Ezekiel summons breath from the four winds and then they become alive. Truly, those billboards seemed to me like an ad for Pentecost.

The politics of fear and the economics of greed and the centripetal force of self-centeredness converge like a knee on the throat of people of colour, of gender minorities, of those living with the legacies of colonialism.

This past year has brought memories of the lung campaign slogan roaring back to life. Across the globe people suffering with COVID are finding it hard to breathe as their lung capacity collapses. Ventilators are in sharp demand as people need help to breathe. Most particularly, this slogan came to mind last May when police officers snuffed the life from George Floyd by kneeling on his throat, forcefully blocking his air passages. With his dying breath he cried, “I can’t breathe.” Eight minutes forty-six seconds. When you can’t breathe nothing else matters. George Floyd’s death unleashed a firestorm of protest across America and around the world as, once again, we were confronted with the violence of racism, injustice and inequality. Once again, the world – the white world – was put on notice that the status quo cannot be sustained, and failure to change and redress wrongs that are both historic and deeply entrenched will only result in choking the life of our society. 

The particulars of George Floyd’s killing are disturbing but they are not new; they are but one variety of a larger species. All around the world including here in Canada, here in Edmonton, men and women have the life choked out of them, not literally perhaps, with a uniformed knee to the throat, but still left breathless by the realities of poverty, homelessness, discrimination, abuse and neglect. The politics of fear and the economics of greed and the centripetal force of self-centeredness converge like a knee on the throat of people of colour, of gender minorities, of those living with the legacies of colonialism. We live in a world where millions upon millions are deprived of food, shelter, health care, education and safe citizenship. 

So many people cannot breathe . . . and when you can‘t breathe, nothing else matters. To the extent that the church is complicit in perpetuating injustice and maintaining an unjust status quo, we must confess, repent and be open to the transforming renewal that can be ours when we “practice resurrection” (to use Wendell Berry’s memorable phrase), when we live out the dying to self and the rising in Christ that is signified in our baptism, when we live into the new identity that is ours in Christ.

A way forward in the Belhar

Less than 10 years ago, the Christian Reformed Church debated the worthiness of the Belhar Confession to be adopted by the denomination. The events of the past year make clear to me that the Belhar is absolutely essential for the future of the church if it wishes to be meaningfully engaged in the work of reconciliation. In this article, I want to remind us of the beautiful teaching contained in it.

The Belhar confession is so named because it was first adopted by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church of South Africa in 1986 at its meeting in Belhar, a small suburb of Capetown. A little history: As far back as the early decades of the 19th century, white South Afrikaners were embroiled in a controversy about how to treat their black and coloured neighbours within the church. The controversy arose concerning who could share communion with whom, but beneath that the deeper issue was a deep racism that was heretical because of its appeal to scripture for justification. In this case white folks just didn’t want to have communion with non-whites, and this exclusionary practice deepened to the point where blacks and coloured would meet at different times to celebrate communion (allowed as long as they didn’t sit in the white folks’ pews and didn’t use their cups and plates). Eventually separate buildings were erected for blacks and coloured, and at one point it was even suggested that they should join other churches.  Non-White Africans, brought to Christian faith through the evangelistic efforts of white Christians, were not welcomed into the same church, not welcome to break bread with the very ones who had introduced them to the gospel! – so eventually three separate churches were formed – one for the whites, one for coloured, one for blacks. A century later the National Party of South Africa framed a policy of Apartheid and it did so with theological justifications and blessings of the white Dutch Reformed church. In a 1948 issue of the church’s publication the following is proudly stated: “As a church, we have always worked purposefully for the separation of the races. In this regard apartheid can rightfully be called a Church policy.” 

Now try to imagine yourself in that context. Being part of a church where ethnicity and social class and skin colour determined which church you get to sit in and whose cup you get to share. A church which is knowingly complicit in denying rights to others, if not on the basis of colour or ethnicity, perhaps on the basis of gender or sexual orientation; living in the tension of the summons to neighbour love and the pressure of political realities and social expectations that threaten to overwhelm you. 

If this is true, if this IS the word of the Lord, then everything must change.

Imagine sitting on your couch, watching the news about George Floyd, and in that context hearing the words of Jesus in John 17. “Father, I pray that they may be one as you and I are one so that the world may know that you have sent me.” 

And the words of Paul in Galatians 3:28 “there is no longer Jew or Greek, or slave or free, there is no longer male or female, all are ONE in Christ.” 

These words are like oxygen! In them we hear the collapse of walls of hostility and division.  And with those words ringing in our ears, we look out at the political and social reality of our day and say, if this is true, if this IS the word of the Lord, then everything must change. 

And, of course, that is exactly what happened in South Africa. White and Coloured and Black Christians who HEARD the WORD embarked on a long and painful but eventually successful struggle to end the policy of Apartheid in their Beloved Country and to dismantle the distorted theology that gave rise to it in the first place. 

The Belhar Confession was born out of the South African’s church’s struggle to reclaim the principles of Unity and Reconciliation and Transformative Justice that had gone missing in the church. These ideas are not peripheral to the gospel but are central to it. In Colossians 1 we read that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself; in 2 Corinthians 5 we are told that we no longer see anyone from a merely human point of view – as white or black, as rich or poor, as master or slave, as in or out of the circle of belonging, but we see all things IN Christ. In Christ we see a new reality. In Ephesians Paul speaks of that new reality as the new humanity. 

Everyone who draws breath

This is what happens when you take Jesus seriously when he says loving God is not enough, you need to love your neighbour too, as much as you love yourself. Jesus did not invent this, of course; he’s reaching back to the very beginning of covenant history recalling God’s promise to Abraham – “I am calling you to be my people so that all other people will be blessed by you” – and that covenantal vision of renewal is itself anchored in a teaching even more primal and more fundamental, which is that every human being that ever lived, every human being that ever drew breath, is made in the image of God. And because we share that fundamental reality, because that is the most basic and non-negotiable, irrevocable identity we share with all human beings, we are in fact united in God, one humanity, one tribe, one people in all our diversity of language and culture and colour and giftedness and history and circumstance – one people. 

Jesus was not introducing unity; he was restoring it. 

I cannot be without you.

And that unity is a reflection of God’s own being and nature. The doctrine of the Trinity, which our timeless creeds articulate, is a tough idea to wrap your head around. Three distinct persons yet one God – it’s a tough mathematical problem.  Except it’s not about math – it is about relationships within the Godhead. The church fathers spoke of the unity of the three beings as if it were a dance. Father, Son and Spirit are a whirling dance trio, they said, choreographed in love and beauty and purpose, and as they spin faster and faster and faster, oneness is all that we can see. Inside the circle-dance the partners see their unique diversity and difference but the dance makes them as one. This is sometimes spoken of as perichoresis – a mutual indwelling and inter-connectedness of the three persons in One God. It teaches that the core of the divine is relationship, mutuality, interdependence; we are made in the image of that divine relationality.

We who are made in the image of that whirling, dancing, perichoretic God share that capacity and need for union with fellow human being image bearers. I cannot be without you. My need is for relationship, my desire is for relationship – I am created to embrace, not to exclude, intended for community, not for isolation. And we know that is true – the more people we meet and love, the deeper and richer our lives become. We know this is true especially during this COVID time when we are forced unnaturally into isolation and distance. It goes against everything we were created for.

The Belhar celebrates unity that is anchored in image bearing and restored in Christ. Belhar calls this both a gift and an obligation – a gift because we receive it from the Triune God both in creation and in redemption, and it is an obligation because it must be embodied; it must be made visible in real actions of justice and reconciliation, of forgiveness and sharing. It is a God given reality, it is our identity, but it is our obligation to live out that reality, to grow up into unity. Belhar rejects any idea that unity is merely spiritual – that if we are one with others in our minds and attitudes that is enough – Belhar says it must be made visible and given expression in the life of the church. 

To a world that cannot breathe, these words are like a ventilator. They make possible our resuscitation. The gospel of Genesis declaring that we are all made in the image of God, the gospel of Jesus that neighbour love fulfills the law and the prophets, the gospel announcement that all dividing walls of hostility have been dismantled. Breathe it in, this gospel news. 

Let this grace restore your hope. 

Let this hope become your calling. 

Let this calling define our community.

  • Roy is the recently retired director of the Micah Centre at The King’s University and a theological advisor for World Renew.

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2 Comments

  1. Amen, and praise God, for the Belhar Confession. It is, just in its process of being created, a testimony to what the Spirit accomplishes when we dance with Him. I pray that our churches will live up to our calling and I know that we will do what we “confess”(the desires of our hearts). Let everything that breathes Praise the Lord -Psalm 150.

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