Confessional and Confessing

Peter Vander Meulen

Belonging to a confessional church that uses written confessions to remember and define itself is a little like belonging to a group that replays, move by move, the epic struggles of championship chess games. The activity is very instructive, even intriguing, but there is nothing really at stake, nothing like the sweat and struggle of the real thing.

A confessional church testifies to things it has found, in time and history, to be true as it submitted itself to the bloody, messy, painful, joyful process of reconciling revelation with life. It has always been a process that involved very tough conversations and often painful encounters within the family of Christ.

The Belhar Confession is a recent example of such a process. For me, the Belhar Confession is immensely instructive, intriguing, and recent enough to smell of sweat and blood. But what will it do for the Reformed/Presbyterian lineage in North America in our time? Will it help us have our own tough conversations? Does it offer guidance? Does it light a fire under us and in so doing illuminate our path?

The letters to the editor in the newspaper where I live are full of anger, lament, and venom. Why? Because the white candidate was selected over the black candidate to be our new police chief. Race matters in my town.

Apartheid–rules and regulations (written or unwritten), that keep people apart and in their place–is a fact in our churches, our communities, and our countries.

A few months ago I took a phone call from a deacon who asked what the church could do about the arrest and imminent deportation of a long time member of their congregation who had never been able to regularize his immigration status, leaving behind a wife and three children. My answer: “Nothing, except act to reform our immigration laws.”

A farmer from the western United States sends me email attachments documenting roundups of undocumented workers in the dairy industry. A few weeks ago he sat in my office choking with emotion as he described how US immigration agents had forced a fellow dairyman to gather all his hired hands in a farm building under some pretext or other. The building was surrounded as if it were full of terrorists. The farm owner watched while the majority of his workers, many long-term, trusted employees whose families he knew well, were asked for their papers, arrested, shackled, and taken away. It was left to the farmer to notify the wives and families of what had happened.

A year ago, pleading with one of our Congressional representatives to champion comprehensive immigration reform, I asked him to imagine what would happen in his district if those without proper documents were to be rounded up and deported en masse. “There would be black government SUVs coming into our neighborhoods in the dead of night, children left without fathers, whole families being rounded up and put into trucks and taken away. It would be like Nazi Germany!” My persuasive speech ended with the sure winner: “Your constituency won’t stand for it!” This highly experienced legislator looked at me, thought for a minute and said, “Yes, they will.”

In my denomination we have a committee that will spend over two years studying and reporting on issues of human migration. It was named by the Christian Reformed Church General Synod of 2007 as the result of a query from a CRC congregation asking whether they should allow those who were illegal aliens to partake of communion with them.

I belong to a covenantal church. My lineage is Dutch and Reformed. Living and traveling in Africa during the late 1980s and early 90s meant that I was repeatedly asked to explain how I could affirm a theology that could be so easily distorted as to bless and sanction the status quo in South Africa. That was always difficult to answer.

But I am also part of a confessional church, a church that in South Africa forced some tough conversations about apartheid, that struggled (and still struggles) to confess its failures and renew its commitment to acting truthfully and faithfully.

Now, the real question, the exciting question is this: Can we change the adjective (confessional) to an active participle? Am I, are we, here and now, part of a confessing church? Can we take the Belhar Confession as a gift to us from our lineage, the product of wrestling with the havoc we wreaked in a particular time and place and use it to help us go through a similar process here, now, in the US and Canada?

The negotiated, non-violent way in which apartheid ended in South Africa is the single biggest global surprise of my generation. No one I knew who knew anything at all about the situation in South Africa predicted the stunning scenario we have watched unfold since the early 1990s. The peaceful trajectory of the liberation of South Africa and key role played by church leaders, know and unknown, of deep courage and faith, helps me, a church bureaucrat, get up in the morning.

I hope to be part of a confessing church: a church that is willing to listen to criticism, willing and able to ask the tough questions, willing to walk the path that might very well lead to lament and repentance–to redemption–for us and our society.

Peter Vander Meulen is the coordinator for the Office of Social Justice and Hunger Action for the Christian Reformed Church.