CHURCH AND SOCIETY 1990 – a testimony of the Dutch Reformed Church

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    Nico10

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    CHURCH AND SOCIETY 1990 – a testimony of the Dutch Reformed Church

    Post by Nico10 on Mon 05 Dec 2011, 5:30 pm

    This article should be read in conjunction with my article on the document “Human Relations and the South African Scene in the Light of Scripture – Report of the Dutch Reformed Church”. It is important to take note of that document since it was the document that preceded “Church and Society...”

    The document “Church and Society 1990 – a testimony of the Dutch Reformed Church as accepted by the general synod of the Dutch Reformed Church October 1990” was prelude to the culmination of the changes that was taking place in the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) at the time of its publication. It was a mere two months after the revised 1990 publication of “Church and Society...” that Afrikaner theologian prof. Willie Jonker famously asked the ecumenical movement and the whole world for forgiveness for the “sin” of apartheid at the Rustenburg conference. This was done, according to Jonker, on behalf of all Afrikaners. It was a remarkable event, and Jonker became one of the first (if not the very first) well-known Afrikaner leader to ask for forgiveness for apartheid. And because of having said that this event was a culmination of the changes within the DRC, it is perhaps important to take note of a few other little happenings at the time.

    The original “Church and Society” was adopted 4 years prior to the 1990 edition by the very same Synod in Cape Town. It was October 1986, and South Africa was in an enormous crisis. Political violence had become an everyday sight. The National Party (NP) has split into two with the formation of the Conservative Party (CP) under dr. Andries Treurnicht. Famously, the Afrikaner leader of the opposition Progressive Federal Party dr. Frederik van Zyl Slabbert stepped down as MP and quit party politics. It was to be NP vs. CP in the upcoming elections of 1987. While the NP tended to be more progressive in reforming the policies of apartheid, the CP was reactionary, preferring to even bring back many apartheid legislation that was dropped. And then, what does the DRC go and do?

    The DRC, after two decades of advocating that the separation of races is the will of God, recalls their Biblical justification of the policy of apartheid. To put it very bluntly, the DRC had decided earlier for themselves what God wanted, and then later changed the will of God.

    The damage that has been done in this whole process is almost unfixable. Not only has the church provided the Afrikaners with a false god, but it had also left deep scars in the lives of those it inspired to chase the “dreams” of being an independent white nation on the African continent, and who sacrificed their whole lives to try and make the system work in the humble belief that they are doing the work of God. The levels of resentment and bitterness that thus followed as a result of the DRC’s rejection of their earlier Biblical justification of apartheid is, I suspect, not yet fully understood by many inside the broader church today. Many Afrikaners still suffer today. They are suspicious of religion because of these developments. They rightly ask the question, is the things that the dominee say about the Bible not too often sucked from his own thumb?

    But the damage goes even deeper and wider than this. The DRC today is a church that cannot really do what it is supposed to do in society – and this is the tragic heritage of its apartheid legacy – and what is more is it stretches beyond the compounds of the DRC. Today, you will find many members of the DRC being very critical of the church’s role in politics. They feel the church is there to serve and not to mix and mingle with politics. And what is more, they cannot be criticised for their stance. “Just look at the history of the DRC”, they will tell you, “look what happened when the church dirtied its hands with politics”. And so, in many ways, the DRC has become a voiceless institution, largely turning a blind eye when politicians like president Jacob Zuma declares the African Nation Party to be God’s party and that a vote for the opposition is a vote for Satan.

    This is the biggest tragedy of a document like “Church and Society”. Despite its aims, and regardless of what it really said, despite withdrawing the DRC’s Biblical justification of the ideology of apartheid, the damage to the church was already done.

    But despite all this, one should not underestimate the power and influence of this little document. “Church and Society” set the DRC and South Africa on a whole new course. It challenged many people in the way they perceived God. After its publication, the theological rug was pulled out from under the feet of those still clinging to apartheid as a workable solution to South Africa’s political challenges. Sadly, the church, in the process, lost most of its influence and credibility. The DRC also did split – a divide that will possibly never heal.

    “Church and Society” is a fascinating document. It is not every day one see a group of people accepting defeat as did the Afrikaners. It is not every day that people, on such a scale, change all they know for the better good of society as a whole. “Church and Society” thus is not just an interesting theological document, it is an important political milestone in South Africa. It is ironic (and nothing but a tragedy) that despite having this highly politicised document at their disposal as part of their heritage, members and leaders of the DRC tend to have silent voices, refraining from making moral judgements and criticizing government. Perhaps the church needs more than this. Perhaps it needs the Belhar confession. It should also take a serious look at how the great Desmond Tutu practises his faith in God, having been a staunch critic of apartheid, still today often making very serious criticisms about government in post-apartheid South African, and even angering many politicians in the process.

    Thís is the kind of leadership one expects from a church, and this is the kind of leadership possibilities that was, in many ways, destroyed by the DRC’s apartheid past. Let’s hope the church never goes down that path ever again.

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