By Emily Enders Odom, Presbyterian News Service
As the Rev. Allan Boesak rose to give his powerful testimony of his life under the apartheid regime in South Africa and the genesis of the Belhar Confession there, a hushed reverence fell on Montreat Conference Center’s Convocation Hall.
Boesak’s poignant “cry from the heart” from the heart of his own church — and in many ways from his own — met with a standing ovation. It also gave its name to the Oct. 17 conference here: “A Cry from the Heart for Unity, Reconciliation and Justice: From Belhar to Ferguson.”
The conference examined not only the roots of the Belhar Confession in South Africa’s apartheid era, but also explored struggles of race, class, and gender in the present U.S. context in both church and society.
The conference was especially timely not only in the light of the persistence and the destructive consequences of racism as evidenced by the events and the continued unrest in Ferguson, Mo., but also as the Presbyterian Church (USA) has begun the process of voting on a proposed constitutional amendment that would add the Belhar Confession to the PCUSA’s Book of Confessions.
To be added to the denomination’s Constitution, it will have to be ratified by 115, or two-thirds, of the denomination’s 172 presbyteries — each by a two-thirds vote — within the next year. If the confession receives the approval of the presbyteries, the 221nd General Assembly (2016) would then be called upon to give final approval of its inclusion in the Book of Confessions.
Boesak, in tracing the roots of what he called “the history of a heresy” in his native South Africa, said that the apartheid system came to South Africa through colonization and slavery. It found its first form when the colonial Dutch Reformed Church made its decision to divide the church on the basis of race.
“When we began to realize that apartheid was not just a political system that was oppressive — not just a racist, exploitative, economic system, not just a system of cultural and political domination and subjugation — but that it could not survive without its moral justification,” he said, referring to the church’s sanction of the practice, “then we began to have some understanding of what the call upon us was to do.”
Because the special committee was charged with educating the whole church about the confession, videos of all four presentations from the Oct. 17 conference are now available online as an educational resource for churches and presbyteries as they prepare to vote on Belhar.