As Americans celebrate Martin Luther King Day, marking the life and achievements of the influential African-American pastor who campaigned in the 1960s for an end to racial segregation in the United States, church leaders from North America and the Caribbean were gathering to plan campaigns to overcome racial and economic injustices which persist today.
“Martin Luther King Jr. could see that part of racial oppression had to do with economic oppression based on skin colour”, says Edith Rasell, an economist with the national offices of the United Church of Christ in the United States. “He was active in the Poor People’s Campaign and gave his famous “I have a dream” speech when he participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Rasell is one of the organisers of a colloquium in Stony Point, New York (15-17 January 2010) titled ‘Confessing when Empire Trembles’. The event focused on two declarations endorsed by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) which call on churches to take action against racism and economic inequality.
The statements - known as 'confessions' - are public declarations of belief which can be used to determine the limits to membership in a church or faith-based organisation.
The Belhar Confession was written in South Africa and adopted by WARC in 1982 in response to racial division in that country. The Accra Confession, endorsed by WARC’s General Council at its meeting in Ghana in 2005, recognizes that the global “economic empire” causes extreme poverty and provokes violence.
Colloquium organiser Chris Iosso said that the event was designed to emphasise participant involvement and strategising for “how to move the church ahead on the important emphases of the two confessions”.
Iosso, who is on the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy with the Presbyterian Church (USA), says discussions have been taking into account the processes already underway in WARC member denominations in response to the confessions.
The two declarations have been the focus of worldwide study and action in WARC member churches in recent years and are expected to form the basis for justice programmes for the World Communion of Reformed Churches, a new global network to be formed in June 2010 by the merger of WARC and the Reformed Ecumenical Council at a global assembly in Grand Rapids, United States.
WARC staff member Patricia Sheerattan-Bisnauth notes calls from church economic justice advocates for the Accra Confession to be the basis for communion between churches in both rich and poor countries.
“It needs to be clear that unity without justice is false unity”, says Bisnauth-Sheerattan who is responsible for coordinating WARC’s social justice programmes.
For Canadian churches, the focus at the colloquium was on the implications of the Belhar Confession for the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that has been called to hear stories about abuse of aboriginal children in schools run by churches for the Canadian government. The last of the schools closed in the 1970s.
In recent years, mainline Protestant churches, including WARC member churches, have been taken to court by residential schools survivors to face accusations of physical, sexual and psychological abuse. The churches are now engaged in a process of healing in listening and prayer sessions in aboriginal communities throughout the country.
Peter Noteboom, a representative of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, believes the Belhar Confession has a lot to say to Canadian churches as they prepare for the TRC which is scheduled to begin public hearings in June 2010. But he notes that it has not yet been used as a reference by the churches: “The Belhar Confession is under the radar of the United Church of Canada and the Presbyterian Church in Canada.”
Noteboom’s own denomination is now involved in a study process with the objective of adopting the Belhar Confession as one of the church’s defining documents at its Synod meeting in 2012. If adopted, the confession would be the first added since the church was founded 150 years ago.