Faith on Public Trial (Reflection on Charlottesville)

Last weekend, as I watched the terrible scenes from Charlottesville, Va., my heart was deeply troubled, often full of anger, and distraught at what I was seeing. Sunday morning our choir performed Brandon Boyd’s arrangement of “Jacob’s Ladder.” We were privileged to have Brandon Boyd, a young, gifted African-American composer, with us accompanying the choir. His version includes a moving solo with the words, “Is there anybody here who loves my Jesus?” I reflected that those words are what many African Americans were asking in Charlottesville—words their ancestors had sung since they arrived in slave ships.

On Monday morning I opened Facebook. There my close friend, Tony Vis, a Reformed Church in America pastor from Iowa who has served with me as a General Synod President, posted this: “The white supremacy/nationalist movement in America today is anti-gospel, which means anti-Christ, and evil at its very core. I renounce it, will stand against it, and invite my friends to do likewise.” I could not have said it better.

Of the many shocking images from Charlottesville, one continues to haunt me. White men, mostly younger, are marching and carrying torches in the night with faces full of grim hate and determined anger. It was malevolently reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan’s torch-lit night rallies, with cross burnings and the evil actions and killings that often followed. Even more, it brought memories of the Nazis marching with their torches, slogans, and violence in the 1930s. The neo-Nazis in Charlottesville chanted some of those same slogans.

At times, Christian faith is put on public trial. Public events and movements present a direct confrontation to the gospel of Jesus Christ, requiring us to make a clear choice. The confession of our faith is at stake. That’s what Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemoller, Karl Barth, and others saw in Germany in the 1930s. They formed the Confessing Church based on the Barmen Declaration, declaring that faithfully following Jesus placed them in uncompromised opposition to the ideology and political movement spawning the ugly forms of bigotry, moral superiority, and pernicious racism in their time.

Many Reformed Christians in South Africa had a similar response to the apartheid regime. Convinced that the truth and public witness of Christian faith was violated by exclusionary racial practices both in society and the church, they drafted the Belhar Confession. With firm biblical grounding, it condemned racism as a sin and affirmed unity, reconciliation, and peace as intrinsic to our confession of faith. The Reformed Church in America adopted the Belhar as its fourth confessional standard of faith, and the Christian Reformed Church adopted the Belhar Confession as a “contemporary testimony.”

Indeed, it is as contemporary as Charlottesville.

Therefore, both the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America have the foundation that compels us to stand forthrightly, publicly, and unequivocally against the ugly expressions of white supremacy, white nationalism, and unvarnished racism on public display in Charlottesville, and moved like shock waves across the country.

But there is more.

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