What Has Trayvon Martin to Do With Faith, Grace and Freedom?

Unknown-1The Trayvon Martin case, hotly debated several months ago and now off the front page, offers a unique opportunity for Americans in general. It offers an even more important opportunity for Christians in particular. Can we deeply ponder where we are in terms of race and racism in our nation? I do not know but I am resolved to be a peacemaker and to try harder than ever.

As I have stated in a number of other contexts I am a minister in the Reformed Church in America. Just two years ago my church adopted a fourth confessional standard, along with the three historic standards of unity created by the Reformed side of the Protestant Reformation (i.e., the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession and the Canons of the Synod of Dort). This forth statement originated among Reformed Christians in South Africa. Our church body, in adopting this new standard known as the Belhar Confession,  became the first American church to formally adopt it.

The Belhar Confession has its roots in the struggle against apartheid in Southern Africa. This “outcry of faith” and “call for faithfulness and repentance” was first drafted in 1982 by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (DRMC) under the leadership of Allan Boesak. The DRMC took the lead in declaring that apartheid constituted a status confessionis in which the truth of the gospel was at stake. It is this claim that troubles some conservative Christians. How can race become a matter of rightly confessing the gospel? I must ask my friends who say such things, “How can it not be a confessing Christ issue if you read your New Testament and follow Jesus?”

The Dutch Reformed Mission Church formally adopted the Belhar Confession in 1986. It is now one of the “standards of unity” of the new Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa (URCSA). Belhar’s theological confrontation of the sin of racism has made possible the reconciliation of previously divided Reformed churches in Southern Africa. It has even aided the process of reconciliation within the wider nation of South Africa.

The Belhar Confession’s relevance is not confined to Southern Africa. It addresses three key issues that should be of deep concern to all churches: the unity of the church and unity among all people, reconciliation within both church and society, and God’s justice. As one member of the URCSA has put it, “We carry this confession on behalf of all the Reformed churches. We do not think of it as ours alone.” The Belhar Confession was adopted by the RCA’s 2009 General Synod. It was then ratified by two-thirds of the RCA’s classes and incorporated into the Book of Church Order as a doctrinal standard at the 2010 General Synod.

The Belhar Confession should be read in whole, not in part. You can read it here.

I quote a single sentence near the end of Belhar which says, “Therefore, we reject any ideology which would legitimate forms of injustice and any doctrine which is unwilling to resist such an ideology in the name of the gospel.” This confessional statement prompted the General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America, whom I quoted yesterday, to send a letter to all our ministers and churches after the verdict of the Trayvon Martin verdict. In this letter to the churches Rev. Tom De Vries wrote:

I mourn with parents of color as, following the acquittal in this case, they are forced to again face difficult questions:

How do we make sure our children are safe?

How do we protect our children, knowing they can be shot and the shooter can go free?

In a nation where freedoms of expression and movement are prized, why must fear of being racially profiled by police and others govern what our children should wear or not wear and where our children should go or not go?

What must parents of color, and all who support them, manage emotionally, intellectually, and physically to both contribute to and maintain in a society where racism, racial privilege, and racial profiling are historically, culturally, and institutionally sanctioned?

And how do I, as a white parent, understand and stand with parents of color with such critical questions? How do any of us–as adults, young adults, children, seniors, in the U.S. or in Canada–stand with people of another race? For many white people, there is little in our personal experiences to lead us to fear for our children or ourselves because of race. That this is so could be proof that white privilege is alive and effective.

These irreconcilable differences pose challenges for the kind of society we have and want to have, yes. For the church–the body of Christ on earth–these differences point to damaging blind spots. To help correct these blind spots we must:

  1. Guide faith formation and discipleship in ways that help eliminate the sins of racism, white privilege, and racial profiling.
  2. Give support to and side with parents who must shoulder these everyday life concerns.
  3. Promote the bonds of peace and love.
  4. Fight to eliminate racism, racial privilege, and racial profiling.

We call our members and congregations, our assemblies and institutions, to join us in that stand. We call all persons and organizations to work actively toward a society that is freed from racism, from white privilege, and from racial profiling.

A statement, no matter how strong, does not make a witness and is not equal to the “striving against” that the Belhar calls us to. As the RCA’s general secretary, this week I will call together a team that will help the RCA identify specific, practical, God-honoring, society-shaping activities and strategies that we will implement within our denomination. These activities and strategies will flesh out some of the aspects of this commitment. Within four weeks, I will publish a second statement announcing those strategies and activities.

Please pray for our parents and children, that they all will know and feel that they are accompanied by the Holy Spirit always, including in this time of suffering and searching for the kind of society God would have us to be.

I have rarely read such clear words, written with such great care, about the sin of racism and what we can and should do about it. I hope you will ponder them and also help me promote the significance of The Belhar Confession to every Christian who reads it and acts upon it in genuine faith.

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