Todd Billings Looks at Belhar
I’m grateful for Todd Billings’ new book Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church (Baker Academic 2011). Billings is associate professor of Reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary and a highly regarded Calvin scholar. He is also well respected as a theologian on union with Christ.
This is a thought-provoking book, especially Billing’s gentle critiques of “incarnational ministry” (more on that in another blog post) and elements of the Belhar Confession.
The Belhar Confession comes out of South Africa and the struggles against apartheid in the 1980′s. The RCA recently adopted the Belhar Confession as a fourth confessional standard. The Christian Reformed Church will likely do the same.
In its broad strokes, Belhar is a fine statement on unity, justice, and reconciliation. But there are some problems with the document. Billings, while certainly appreciating much of Belhar, zeroes in on the most controversial sentence in the confession which affirms 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.” Billings points out that this line should not be seen as the constitutive definition of God’s people. For article 2 makes clear that “true faith in Jesus Christ is the only condition for membership of this church.” Nevertheless, Billings highlights a few problems with the language of Belhar regarding the poor.
“First, it is simply not clear what it means to speak in terms of divine ownerships when speaking about justice–namely, that God is ‘in a special way the God of’ a certain group of people” (104). Is it because of the special needs of the poor and the wronged that God is in a special way their God? If so, Billings argues, what about the special needs of the tax collectors and those misled by idols of wealth? By talking about God’s ownership of a certain class of people, it’s easy for discussion to slip into identity politics.
“A second problem is that, while biblical language about the poor and the wronged has a dialectical flexibility at times moving toward a metaphorical sense, article 4 tends to speak in a way that suggests a more fixed, modern, sociological sense” (105). The language of ownership naturally implies that God is for the poor and against the powerful. But this makes the biblical categories too rigid, too much like our contemporary sociological language. Moreover, as Miroslav Volf argues (and Billings points out), perpetrators are usually victims too, and victims are usually perpetrators. Dividing the world into “oppressor” and “oppressed” is too simplistic and is ill-suited for bring people together in reconciliation.
“A third problem with article 4 is that many of the biblical references supporting the statements in this article occur in a distinctly covenantal context in which the prophets and psalmists are crying out for Yahweh to be faithful to his covenant promises to Israel” (106). There is no consideration of the Bible’s covenantal context or for the covenantal notion of union with Christ. Apart from these considerations, language about God’s ownership reads like God’s preference for one socioeconomic group over another.
“Finally, on a congregational level, the language of God being the God of the poor easily results in a new set of colonial-type attitudes” (106). In other words, while middle class Christians may have admirable concern for the poor, they almost always think of them as the “other.” Billings tells the story of a person staying at a homeless shelter who, when he heard a prayer for the homeless in the church service, decided “with biting irony” that “I should pray for the housed.”
These are criticisms worth considering, whether you like the Belhar, dislike it, or have never heard of it.
The entire book is worth reading too.