As the PCUSA takes up ratification of two historic measures — the Belhar Confession (Amendment 14-1) and the recognition of marriage as a commitment between two persons (Amendment 14-F) — there will be talk of unity and reconciliation, two central themes of Belhar. While Belhar was written in the context of the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa, the timing of its consideration within the PCUSA causes us to reflect on unity and reconciliation not only around race and class, but also around sexual orientation and gender identity. Belhar was first sent to presbyteries for ratification in 2010, alongside the proposal to remove G-6.0106b from the Book of Order and allow ordination of LGBTQ+ folks. Now it is taken up alongside an amendment to the Book of Order recognizing marriage between two persons, rather than only between a man and a woman.
Reconciliation is not new to Presbyterians as it is a central theme of the Confession of 1967. What does the work of reconciliation demand? A closer look at both of these confessions provides important insight as we continue to move forward together in the struggle for justice.
Belhar notes that
“unity can be established only in freedom and not under constraint….. we reject any doctrine which professes that this spiritual unity is truly being maintained in the bond of peace while believers of the same confession are in effect alienated from one another for the sake of diversity and in despair of reconciliation.”
This confession holds the mirror up to mainline protestant churches in the US, where more than 50 years after Martin Luther King remarked “it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning,” still only 7.4% of mainline churches are multiracial (with at least 20 percent of members coming from racial groups different from the congregation’s majority race). This is more than double the abysmal 2-3% estimate from the late 1990s, but it is clear that much of our church continues in alienation and despairs of reconciliation.
Those of us who survived the years of “unity in diversity” dialogue in the mid-90s recall how, in the name of unity, many lesbian and gay ordained folks (and a few bi+ and trans* too) came out to tell our stories, only to find, as did the Rev. Martha Juillerat, that we were in fact not free to tell our stories and subsequently had to set aside our ordinations. LGBTQ+ people were frequently rebuked for causing division in the church when we sought to remove the ban on LGBTQ+ ordination. We were told (even and especially by some of our professed allies) that we must wait, in the name of unity. As we move forward, we must not pretend that we have unity just because being out no longer costs us our ordinations. Our church still despairs of reconciliation in the face of continuing homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in our congregations and in our constitution.
According to Belhar,
“the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice…. must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests …. 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.”
The work of reconciliation is not about making nicey nice with the oppressors, even though this is often what privilege expects. Rather to reconcile is to reject hegemonic ideologies and crucially, to reject doctrines that fail to resist injustice. If we consider, for example, neoliberalism as an ideology that legitimates economic injustice on a local and global scale, not only are we called to reject this ideology that exploits the poor to profit the rich, but we also must reject doctrines that do not resist neoliberalism. We are called to get off the fence and stand for justice. As Abbie Hoffman put it, “If you are a bystander, you are not innocent.”
The Confession of 1967, like Belhar, seems fully aware of the work involved in reconciliation:
“The church, guided by the Spirit, humbled by its own complicity and instructed by all attainable knowledge….labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize their fellowmen [sic], however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess.” [emphasis mine]
The Church is complicit in racism. It is one thing to know this, and an entirely different thing that it is acknowledged explicitly in our Book of Confessions. To patronize others is to bring contempt on the faith we profess. This is no hand wavy “yeah yeah we promise not to discriminate” kind of statement. This is a serious reckoning, calling white people and the Church in particular to account. And it continues:
“Enslaving poverty in a world of abundance is an intolerable violation of God’s good creation….. A church that is indifferent to poverty, or evades responsibility in economic affairs, or is open to one social class only, or expects gratitude for its beneficence makes a mockery of reconciliation and offers no acceptable worship to God.”
There is no room for the church of noblesse oblige. Reconciliation demands repentance and reflexivity, a deep awareness of power that actively resists privilege. It is not enough for the relatively rich to give money to the poor, counting wealth as God’s blessing and a cause for self-congratulatory generosity. There can be no sense of superiority in giving, and no expected proper response.
And yet so many of our churches remain stratified by class and race, like our neighborhoods and communities. I once attended a downtown church that invited homeless people to receive a meal after worship on Sundays. However, as a visitor I was prohibited from attending this meal, and was instead shown the pew where a former US President once sat, and taken to the fellowship area where juice and coffee and cookies were provided, but not to the homeless, who were on another floor entirely.
We need desperately to revisit the Confession of 1967. We need to study, adopt, and internalize Belhar. We have much to learn from the experience of churches in the global South, resisting racism in another time and place, and working for unity and reconciliation there, then, and still.
What will reconciliation look like for LGBTQ+ people in the PCUSA? Churches and individuals must do more than tolerate us, more than look the other way while some congregations and presbyteries ordain us. We must do more than allow our ministers to marry same-gender couples while still declaring heterosexual marriages normative. Reconciliation requires we resist heterosexual and cis-gender privilege wherever we may find it. And that is yet a long way off for the PCUSA. But the Belhar Confession reminds us we can be hopeful:
that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of sin and death, and therefore also of irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness and enmity, that God’s lifegiving 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.
Or in the words of the Confession of 1967
“Already God’s reign is present as a ferment in the world, stirring hope in [humankind] and preparing the world to receive its ultimate judgment and redemption.”