South Africa is attracting much critical attention nowadays because of the racial tensions which exist within her territories. Having spent no less than twenty-two years in that country, I am not unfamiliar with the problems with which its leaders are faced—problems which are probably more complicated and perplexing than those demanding solution in any other part of the world. Indeed, the racial puzzle is such that, contrary to the facile assumptions and presumptions of some who offer advice or criticism from an uninvolved distance, it cannot be unravelled overnight.
It has become a popular pastime with long-distance mud-slingers to besmirch the name of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa. This seems to me a particularly reprehensible occupation, especially when Christians engage in it. Almost invariably it reveals ignorance and prejudice. The strong and virile Calvinism of the Dutch Reformed Church seems to arouse the passions of some to whom it is uncongenial, and the odium theologicum seizes the opportainty to rear its ugly head. There are, beyond doubt, elements in the Dutch Reformed Church at which an accusing finger may be pointed. But that is true without exception of every Church in Christendom; and if the whole is to be condemned because of the deficiencies of a part, who then shall be able to stand?
A considerable and understanding article on “The Dilemma of the Dutch Reformed Churches in South Africa” by the Rev. Leonard Heap appears in the April issue of The Congregational Quarterly. (There are, in fact, three Dutch Reformed denominations in South Africa, hence the plural in his title—though, as he points out, it is customary and convenient to speak of the Dutch Reformed Church.) It is certainly worthy of note that a South African Congregationalist minister, who pretends to no particular predilection for the Calvinistic theology, should write of the Dutch Reformed Church, which he is able to observe at close quarters, that “there is probably no Church in the world which demands a higher level of academic training for its ministry”, that “of all the major denominations in South Africa there is none which is more passionately enthusiastic in its evangelical witness”, and that it shows “great enthusiasm for missionary enterprise”. He goes on to speak of “the abundant flow of young men from the churches and from the Afrikaans universities offering themselves as missionaries and of the many laymen who “give themselves unstintingly to part-time mission work amongst both white and black”.
Father Trevor Huddlestone, who since his return to England from South Africa has become something of a national figure as a champion of the South African native and whose recent book Nought For Your Comfort immediately became a best-seller, has given so onesided a picture of the South African scene and is so obsessed with denunciation, that he can hardly fail to defeat his own well-intentioned purposes by helping to produce a situation of exasperation rather than of balanced reasonableness. It would seem that he has eyes only for what is bad in South Africa and not for what is good—and there are good things being done, even for the native in South Africa. Of Father Huddlestone Mr. Heap writes that he “failed to enter into and understand sympathetically the whole picture of spiritual conditioning, temptation, dilemma and struggle which is taking place in our country.” Criticism is, as he observes, “necessary and desirable, but criticism which is devoid of human understanding is worse than futile, it is even unChristian”.
In his significant book Die Kleur-Krisis en die Weste (of which, I believe, an English translation is available) Dr. Ben Marais of Pretoria University expresses the opinion that color-prejudice, a comparatively late phenomenon in European history, is to be explained as a fruit of slavery. He emphasizes that racial separateness (apartheid) cannot be demonstrated as a scriptural principle but only separateness from sin, the separateness of believers from unbelievers. The oneness of all believers in Christ cuts across and transcends (although it does not necessarily abolish) racial and social distinctions. “I can think”, he says, “of few things more greatly in conflict with the spirit of the New Testament than an absolute apartheid which would, on whatever ground, sunder groups of fellow-believers into two different worlds without any real communication or vital fellowship in love and faith. This was never the historical policy of our Church, and I hope and believe that it never will be our policy. Where separation is desirable and necessary … we must constantly seek in one way or another to give open expression to our oneness in Christ. One Lord has died for us, one Leader goes before us, and we are bound to each other by one love and one faith. We may not be shut off from each other in two entirely separate worlds!” (p. 298)
If anyone thinks that the leaders of the Dutch Reformed Church are incapable of self-criticism, let him read the little book Whither—South Africa? by Dr. B. B. Keet of Stellenbosch University (who, like Dr. Ben Marais, is a theological professor and a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church). A more candid, courageous and relevant essay in self-criticism will not be found anywhere. Indeed, self-criticism is, according to Dr. Keet, “a necessary condition in establishing good human relations; if that is lacking, there can be no improvement” (p. 89). He calls for recognition of the fact “that color, after all, is not of fundamental importance in human relations; that the war we have to wage is not between white and black, but between civilization and barbarism, or, if you will, between Christianity and heathenism”; and that accordingly the only antithesis which makes sense is “that between good and evil, justice and injustice, one which concerns both black and white, and in which they can fight shoulder to shoulder” (pp. 14 f.). Again, he wisely writes: “The fear motive cannot, of course, be unconditionally condemned. The danger that so-called white civilization may be at the mercy of a barbarian or semi-barbarian majority is not an imaginary one. But barbarism must not be identified with color, or the loss of our white skin be represented as the greatest evil that we have to guard against” (pp. 47 f.). It is his concluding judgment that “white leadership in South Africa has a wonderful opportunity, unique of its kind, to point out a way along which the world can move towards sound Christian human relations” (p. 96).
It has long been my conviction that, from the religious point of view at least, the shape of things to come in South Africa rests with the Dutch Reformed Church more than with any other group. If I am right, then this great Church needs encouragement and constructive understanding from without, as well as challenge. The way forward for them and for all of us must be that of true and manifest brotherhood with fellow-believers “of all nations and peoples and tongues” who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.