Last week when the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ratified an amendment to its church constitution to allow the weddings of gay couples, the church reflected a sea-change in American attitudes. As contentious as the issue of homosexuality has been for Presbyterians in particular and religious practitioners in general, tolerance and acceptance of LGBT people is growing.
Another less controversial – but in many ways more radical – proposal is also quietly making its way to ratification in the PCUSA. The proposal is the inclusion of the Belhar Confession in the Book of Confessions. Written during the apartheid era in South Africa, it calls for unity and reconciliation – but more importantly, for action against the forces that harm the most vulnerable in society.
“We believe that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged,” the Confession says, “and that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream; that the church as a 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.”
In a letter explaining why the Belhar Confession is relevant to Presbyterians in 2015, the denomination’s special committee wrote, “While the Confession of Belhar arose from the struggle of South African Christians to give witness to the Gospel amidst the injustice of apartheid, we are also being called to give witness in the face of injustice here among us in the U.S.A.
“We see that injustice in the faces of thousands of First Nation peoples who still live in dire poverty on reservations; in young African American men who are incarcerated disproportionate to their percentage of the population; in the ‘legal limbo’ status of immigrants, and in both native born Latinos who are subject to question in virtually every quarter of the nation; in public policies such as ‘stop and frisk’ and ‘stand your ground’ that put poor, black and brown young men at risk in the public square.”
What a powerful contradiction of the current conservative and neoliberal narrative which paints the poor as lazy, unworthy people without values who are victims not of institutionalized racism and economic inequality but of their own moral shortcomings.
Last week Franklin Graham posted a finger-wagging chastisement on his Facebook page that echoes that assumption and calls for the victims of oppression – not the oppressors – to change: “Listen up – Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else. Most police shootings can be avoided. It comes down to respect for authority and obedience.”
If only that were true! What world does Graham live in that he missed the Justice Department’s scathing report about the customary use of unnecessary and excessive force in Ferguson? Or the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice on a playground? Or the unprovoked beating of honor student Martese Johnson from the University of Virginia? Or the personal and painful stories of too many people of color who have already heard from their parents the cautionary tale about dealing with authorities and don’t need to hear it from someone who lives in a world far removed from their own?
Evangelical minister Jim Wallis called Graham out for his words.
“Your Facebook post makes you seem, at best, oblivious to the racial inequality in this country’s policing and criminal justice system, which is also still deeply embedded in our American society. At worst, your post reflects your own racial biases – unconscious or conscious. It makes me sad to read such things coming from a leader in your position. So until you are equally willing to ‘listen up,’ please stop making such embarrassing and divisive statements.”
The Belhar Confession calls on people of faith to stop demonizing the poor and to stand with them in unity instead. That’s a radical notion in a political climate that depicts the poor and minorities as “takers rather than makers,” that dismantles programs proven to improve the lives of the unfortunate, which casts those with power and wealth as misunderstood victims.
Belhar challenges the entrenched and often unconscious assumptions about race and class that divide this country now. It’s an opportunity for people of faith to take its prophetic message to heart, leading the way to a world where justice does, indeed, roll down like great waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Kay McSpadden is a high school English teacher in York, S.C. Email: email@example.com.