In 2006, I left the pastorate to work full-time as an author. The decision to leave was a difficult one, as I believe in the local church and love it dearly. I saw my departure not as an abandonment, but as an attempt to help the church in a different way.
Bringing about change on the local pastoral level can be, in a word, brutal. It was my hope that, with my 24 years in the pastorate as background, I could write books that would help local congregational leaders bring about change. My books, I hoped, could serve as creative interventions in local congregational systems that would stimulate civil dialogue that could lead to change.
My first project on leaving the pastorate was Everything Must Change. In that book, I was asking two simple but far-reaching questions: what are the world’s most serious problems; and, how can they be addressed by Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom or commonwealth of God?
Late in my research I came upon the Accra Confession of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. It had been published at a global gathering of church leaders in the Reformed tradition (Presbyterians, Dutch Reformed, Christian Reformed, etc.) in Accra, the capital of Ghana, in August 2004.
The setting was significant. The delegates visited Elmina and Cape Coast nearby, castle-prisons where African women and men were held before being shipped to the Americas as slaves. They noted that the slave-traders were Dutch — many of them, Dutch Reformed. They saw a verse hanging above a door in a room used for Reformed worship at one of the slave centers: “For the Lord has chosen Zion . . . .” They realized that this sense of chosen-ness that was so elemental to Reformed theology was deeply complicit in the oppression of those deemed not chosen.
All Christians, Reformed and otherwise, would be wise to prayerfully ponder the challenge issued in Accra in 2004.
The didn’t simply conclude that their ancestors had missed the social implications of a gospel they correctly understood. They didn’t diagnose the problem as a matter of bad praxis that failed to live up to good theory. They realized that their ancestors’ involvement in the slave trade was aided and abetted by their version of Reformed theology and their (mis)understanding of the core Christian message.
They responded by writing a kind of open letter to Reformed Christians worldwide. It concluded:
Brothers and sisters, this is a grave and serious invitation. As those who have met on your behalf in Accra, we declare to you that the integrity of our Christian faith is now at stake, just as it was for those worshipping in the Elmina castle. Confessing our faith and giving our lives to the Lordship of Jesus Christ requires our opposition to all that denies the fullness of life to all those in our world so loved by God.
They faced the inevitable question: what is today’s slave trade? They concluded that economic injustice and environmental destruction were today’s corollary, and like slavery among their ancestors, these atrocities were being aided and abetted by many Christian theologies today.
But as they identified economic and environmental evils, they didn’t minimize the spiritual nature of the needed response. In fact, they emphasized the need for a new spirituality to express and embed a deepening theology:
. . . we discovered one more truth in Accra that we want to share. If confessing what we believe as Christians requires our spiritual and practical resistance to economic injustice as well as environmental destruction, then we need new depths of spirituality. This isn’t mere political activism; we’re being called to a spiritual engagement against evil, and for that we need our lives to be deeply rooted in the power of God’s Spirit. To put it simply, we need, as never before, the transformation of our lives promised through Jesus Christ.
In expressing this integration of the political and the spiritual, the social and the personal, the pastoral and the prophetic, they were again affected by the setting of their gathering:
Because we were in Accra, Ghana, we were blessed constantly with the spiritual vitality and power of the local churches that hosted and received us. The drums and songs that saturate the soul of the African church permeated our worship. We marveled at offerings given with such dancing and joy from hearts so full of gratitude. Here we tasted a spirituality that seemed so whole, so worshipful, so connected in community, and so embracing of God’s creation. It draws from the gifts of the culture and sings not only in these enchanting songs, but also in their daily lives, as their witness to the fullness of life in Christ.
Like another powerful Reformed document born in Africa, the Belhar Confession, the framers of this document named systemic injustice on many levels. They heard the cries of the poor and the cries of creation:
We are challenged by the cries of the people who suffer and by the woundedness of creation itself. We see a dramatic convergence between the suffering of the people and the damage done to the rest of creation.
They saw that the engine that was damaging creation were “above all the product of an unjust economic system defended and protected by political and military might.” “Economic systems,” they concluded, “are a matter of life or death”:
The policy of unlimited growth among industrialized countries and the drive for profit of transnational corporations have plundered the earth and severely damaged the environment. In 1989, one species disappeared each day and by 2000 it was one every hour. Climate change, the depletion of fish stocks, deforestation, soil erosion, and threats to fresh water are among the devastating consequences. Communities are disrupted, livelihoods are lost, coastal regions and Pacific islands are threatened with inundation, and storms increase.
They challenged popular economic orthodoxy, which they said is “based on the following beliefs:
– unrestrained competition, consumerism and the unlimited economic growth and accumulation of wealth are the best for the whole world;
– the ownership of private property has no social obligation;
– capital speculation, liberalization and deregulation of the market, privatization of public utilities and national resources, unrestricted access for foreign investments and imports;
– lower taxes and the unrestricted movement of capital will achieve wealth for all;
– social obligations, protection of the poor and the weak, trade unions, and relationships between people, are subordinate to the processes of economic growth and capital accumulation.”
They made bold proclamations about God’s character and dream:
We believe that God has made a covenant with all of creation (Gen 9.8-12). God has brought into being an earth community based on the vision of justice and peace. The covenant is a gift of grace that is not for sale in the market place (Is 55.1). It is an economy of grace for the household of all of creation. Jesus shows that this is an inclusive covenant in which the poor and marginalized are preferential partners and calls us to put justice for the “least of these” (Mt 25.40) at the centre of the community of life. All creation is blessed and included in this covenant (Hos 2.18ff).
We believe that God is a God of justice. In a world of corruption, exploitation and greed, God is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor, the exploited, the wronged and the abused (Ps 146.7-9). God calls for just relationships with all creation.
With the Belhar Confession, they realized that an affirmation of faith implies rejection of contrary economic ideology and theology:
Therefore we reject any ideology or economic regime that puts profits before people, does not care for all creation and privatizes those gifts of God meant for all. We reject any teaching which justifies those who support, or fail to resist, such an ideology in the name of the gospel.
Therefore we reject any theology that claims that God is only with the rich and that poverty is the fault of the poor. We reject any form of injustice which destroys right relations — gender, race, class, disability, or caste. We reject any theology which affirms that human interests dominate nature.
After issuing the call, delegates published follow-up documents that called for changes in praxis to reflect a change in faith, including:
– Rejecting the exploitation of creation and repenting of lifestyles which contribute to its exploitation and degradation.
– Rebuilding our relationship with the creation, which God has entrusted to our care.
– Recognising the beauty and bounty of God’s creation and rejoicing in it, for it is God’s gift to us.
In the ten years since the Accra Confession was written, we have experienced a global economic crisis and we have seen a rising tide of new evidence for global warming. All Christians, Reformed and otherwise, would be wise to prayerfully ponder the challenge issued in Accra in 2004. In this work, every pastor, every writer, every blogger, every Christian can become an outspoken advocate. If not, we can imagine our descendants gathering in yet another setting like Accra, lamenting our failure of faith and resolve.
Image: A pile of trash outside Accra. Via Shutterstock.