I was a delegate to my denomination’s Synod (sort of like a church Parliament or Congress) in June 2012. On June 12, 2012 we debated whether to ratify Synod 2009’s decision to adopt the Belhar Confession as a fourth confession for the Christian Reformed Church in North America. The Belhar Confession was written by Reformed churches in South Africa during the height of Apartheid in the 1980s as a theological cry from the heart against the prevailing Afrikaner Reformed theology that was the spiritual pillar holding up the ideological and political apparatus of apartheid.
During the deliberations that night, I stood up and gave an impassioned speech (as reported here in my denomination’s magazine, The Banner) in support of adopting the Belhar and against the advisory committee’s motion to classify it as an Ecumenical Faith Declaration (a new category that has no authority on the denomination). Although it was for naught, I seemed to have made quite an impression. Unknown to me at the time, people were moved to tears by my words. Somehow, my metaphor of “blind spots” really struck a nerve. Many delegates and audience members came up to me and voiced their appreciations. One delegate said that “I hit it on the nail.” My twitter friends tweeted me. People who watched the webcast (live or archived) later told me the same. What was most heartening to me was when one delegate came up to me the next morning, and told me that though he was against the Belhar, he was truly touched by my speech and really didn’t know what to vote for after that! A delegate friend confided that he believed four delegates at his table changed their minds after my speech. Some have pleaded me to write or blog about it.
Hence, I feel a responsibility to write this even as I struggled as to how. My speech was not pre-composed or written. I had quoted a published article, but other than that, they were thoughts from my head and from my heart. These were partly thoughts that emerged from the experiences of the days at Synod, and partly from the long deep thinking that I have done on the Belhar and the denomination’s struggles with it over the last three years. For what it’s worth, here’s my stab at capturing what I said.
Thank you, Mr. President (of Synod). This is Shiao Chong from Classis Toronto. I am going to speak against the motion. The reason for this is … we heard this morning from the fraternal delegate of the Uniting Reformed Church of South Africa, the original body that drafted the Belhar and sent it to us as a gift. And we heard him say that the Belhar is a confession and to treat it as anything else is disrespectful to it. I just want to remind this to the body (Synod) so that we are all very clear on what we are doing here.
Let me say this … last night, when we interviewed Professor (Mike) Goheen for the position of Professor of Missiology (at Calvin Theological Seminary), whom we all resoundingly affirmed and embraced – and he is a wonderful t candidate – he said something in the interview that caught my ear. He said that even the best Christian traditions have their blind spots. Do you remember that? Dr. Goheen sat there and said that. Even the best traditions, including the Christian Reformed theological tradition, have their blind spots. And he talked about how, perhaps, we (the Christian Reformed Church) are lacking in our piety and we should probably pray more. We should probably pray like our Korean Christian brothers and sisters do, like, as our Home Missions Director Moses Chung like to say, pray like our lives depend on it.
We have our blind spots. And he suggested that the way to correct those blind spots in our theology is that we need to dialogue and listen to the voices of other cultures, of Christians from other parts of the world. Because our blind spots are created by our cultural myopia or cultural short sightedness. And we need someone else to look and tell us what our blind spots are. And what Dr. Goheen said really struck me and I went to google it to find out more about it. And I found that he did write more about it in an article in Christian Courier. I’ll just read a little bit from that:
All contextual theologies must engage in dialogue with other theologies in other cultural situations. This dialogue must be ‘open to the witness of churches in all other places, and thus saved from absorption into the culture of [any one] place’ (1989:152). There is a danger that any one local contextual theology will be absorbed into the culture of that place. There is a need, therefore, for a dialogue that is both mutually corrective and mutually enriching: mutually enriching since each cultural contextualization opens up new insights into Scripture and mutually correcting because each cultural theology has blind spots that arise from cultural idolatry. [Now this is serious, theological blind spots are not simply oversights. According to Goheen, these blind spots are likely caused by idols in our culture!] Newbigin writes: ‘The reference to mutual correction is the crucial one. All reading of the Bible and all our Christian discipleship are necessarily shaped by the cultures which have formed us. . . . the only way in which the gospel can challenge our culturally conditioned interpretation of it is through the witness of those who read the Bible with minds shaped by other cultures. We have to listen to others. The mutual correction is sometimes unwelcome, but it is necessary and it is fruitful’ (1989:196). (Goheen, Michael W. Theology in Context: Lesslie Newbigin’s Contribution, Christian Courier, 2668 (9 July, 2001): 16-17.)
This mutual correction of our blind spots are sometimes unwelcome but it is necessary and it is fruitful. Can I suggest humbly, and with trembling here: Can we examine ourselves? Are we reacting to the Belhar the way we are because it is scratching our blind spots? It’s unwelcome because it rubs us the wrong way? But spiritually speaking, if our blind spots in our theology caused by our western cultural captivity are caused by idols, we need to hear that voice resoundingly to us. We maybe need to let it rub us the wrong way so that we see our blind spots, so that we will bear fruit as God’s people.
Last Friday, when we have the joint session with the Young Adults summit, Pastor Mark Hilbelink said: When we make decisions out of fear, those are the worst decisions to make. If I’m correct, that’s what he said. The worst decisions to make are when we make them out of fear. Are we making this decision out of our fears? Out of a fear of liberation theology? Out of a fear of a so-called homosexual agenda? Because that’s what some people have tried to used the Belhar to support. Are we basing this decision out of our fears or are we making this out of truly trying to follow God?
I know it’s scary. Our Executive Director Joel Boot said in his state of the church address, the times are scary, it is critical condition, (It feels like the ground) is shaking. Can I humbly suggest that the shaking is the Holy Spirit, as our Executive Director suggests? Maybe this is the Holy Spirit rubbing us the wrong way so we can see our blind spots? Thank you.