Ideas Go Places

Image old church

Where the idea of the Confession of Belhar came from
By Leo za1 (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

According to one of my professors, meaning comes from juxtaposition. I was willing to go along with him on that then, and over the years I have come to believe it more and more strongly.

The announcement that Paul Beatty had won the 2016 Man Booker Prize  for The Sellout came out on Tuesday, but I didn’t get the news until the day after.

I don’t actually read novels, really, but I want to read this one now, after reading the review in the New York Times,  and finding out that I have something in common with the narrator: our favorite color “is the soft light-blue of a pool lit up at night.” He might have that in common with any number of others, I suppose. I want to read it because of that, though, and also because of the idea “The real question is not where do ideas come from but where do they go.”

Anyway, I got the news about Beatty’s novel, reportedly a satire on race in the United States, the same day I needed to read the Confession of Belhar all the way through for the first time. I needed to do this because of studying for the upcoming test, and because I hadn’t read it properly during the whole time it was being considered and voted on by my church, and because it is now newly adopted by the PC(USA), and because I am convinced it will show up on the test. So, while I should undoubtedly already have read it long ago, the day I finally did read it was the day I also read about the question of where ideas go.

The Confession of Belhar was adopted in 1986 by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa. That was in the bad old days of apartheid – that’s where the idea of the Belhar Confession “came from.” To the extent, that is, that it didn’t come from Ephesians (“One Lord, one faith, one baptism …”). Or to the extent that Belhar wasn’t one of the places the idea of Ephesians had gone.

At the time, in its immediate cultural and political context, Belhar was a statement about the need to bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ as a gospel of reconciliation: of humanity to God, and so also of person to person, through the visible unity of the church. The spiritual reality of “One Lord, one faith, one baptism …” ought to show up in the physical reality of one building, one congregation. It shouldn’t be comfortable with buildings and congregations kept separate by force of law, both ecclesiastical and national.

Those bad old days are over in South Africa, at least officially. As we become increasingly aware, here in the US, of how much ground has to be covered between the official end of the bad old days and the social and practical overcoming of all the large and small ways they remain with us, it makes me wonder.

There was substantial opposition to including Belhar in the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions. One reason, if not the only one, was that people thought it was a stalking horse for LGBT issues. If Belhar got in, the next thing you know, the denomination would be allowing gay ordination and marriage equality. As it turned out, the denomination got gay ordination and marriage equality, and the next thing you know, Belhar was in.

So I read Belhar, on the day I read that “the real question isn’t where ideas come from but where do they go.” It says, among other things,

… that God’s life-giving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of sin and death, and therefore also of irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness and enmity, that God’s life-giving Word and Spirit will enable the church to live in a new obedience which can open new possibilities of life for society and the world; …

… and I thought, “maybe we could read this at the service for healing and reconciliation we are thinking about having the day after the election …”

Meaning comes from juxtaposition. And that idea of reconciliation still has a ways to go.

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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