The Impossible Silence of Holiness (Gabriel J. Benjiman)

Photo Credit: Francois de Halleux

Photo Credit: Francois de Halleux

This essay by South African pastor Gabriel Benjiman is part of the Renovating Holiness Project, in which 100+ Nazarene leaders from around the world revision sanctification for the 21st century.  Order your books now and start the conversation with your church.

    Examining our theological tradition and experiences helps us improve how we express God’s love. We must reflect upon our hermeneutic and application of the Word with a strong rationale for being better at incarnational holiness. Holiness is about making the highest choices for the One we claim to love the most! Holiness is about being willing to be a blood witness for Christ if love so demands. Christ’s Love was willing to be dismembered in order to “re-member” the body! Dying for God is not the point here. Living for God in loving ways is the point even if that means becoming a martyr.

Apartheid in Church History
 In 1994, South Africa emerged out of the struggle in which mostly Black South Africans had fought against “apartheid.” This was not only a struggle for human rights but also a fight for the preservation of dignity and justice by the oppressed.
 Beginning in 1910, the Afrikaner government began legitimizing apartheid structures. This ensured separate and unequal development among the various race groups. Indians, Coloreds, and Black Africans were collectively classified as “Non-Whites.” These non-White groups were primarily servants of the White South Africans.
Europeans (Dutch and Huguenot settlers in particular) saw themselves as superior to the non-White "barbarous" tribes. A Calvinistic perspective of predestination combined with a misreading of the judgment of Noah’s sons was used to formulate a theological justification for apartheid: some ethnicities are destined for servitude. Hence, the Dutch Reformed church officially favored apartheid.
    Apartheid as a construct was not so much political as it was theological. The Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) in South Africa built this dehumanizing structure of control, manipulation, and death on small theological corruptions like those noted above. Later, stronger theologies in support of apartheid emerged and were countered by African theology, Black theology, and Liberation theology.
    Some parts of the South African church began to take an anti-apartheid stance by integrating Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s thoughts into black theology. Bonhoeffer famously enumerated “three possible ways in which the church can act towards the state which is violent against the people” - (1) “seeing things from below,” (2) the “Church as a Confessing Body,” (3) “jamming a spoke in the wheel.”

Seeing Things from Below
    Theology done by Africans was not necessarily Black theology. Desmond Tutu limited the definition of African theology so that it meant doing theology as an African who affects African culture. He used theology to highlight our South African heritage instead of the degradation suffered by South Africans under the oppressive regime of the Apartheid Government. Its main concern was “what does it really mean to be Black and Christian in the South African situation, and its theological concerns are with liberation, reconciliation, and one true humanity.”
     Tutu like all the other African and Black theologians was asking the question that Bonhoeffer asked shortly before his execution as a martyr for the faith, “Who then is Christ for us today?” This Christological focus with its multivalency presented Christ in new and hopeful ways to the Black oppressed in the midst of apartheid.
     Being a free Black South African was a by-product of the willingness to be a “blood witness” - a martyr for Christ. Martyrdom for the African pastor/theologian/Christian was about finding ethnic and individual identity when attempting to answer the kind of Bonhoeffer question “What is Christianity really, and who is Christ for us today?” Any other questions that face theologians in Africa will ultimately be determined by what they understand to be the nature of the person and work of Jesus Christ.
     While searching for the answers, Black people took to protesting the dehumanizing harsh new laws. New laws were enforced based on the belief that God had given South Africa to the White Afrikaner as He gave the Promised Land to Israel. Protest marches often ended in death and suffering. The massacre at Cottesloe catalyzed the meeting of the World Council of Churches with its member churches. To many this was reminiscent of the Geneva meetings with Bonhoeffer and the German Evangelical Churches.
     The outcome was not altogether pleasing because the World Council of Churches together with most of the member churches agreed that racial prejudice was unacceptable. However, the majority of the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) rejected the conclusions of the “Cottesloe Consultations,” and they withdrew from the South African Council and World Council of Churches. (Sadly, the Church of the Nazarene also rejected the anti-apartheid voice of the WCC and SACC. By doing so, the Church of the Nazarene in a post-apartheid country has lost its authority to claim that it spoke prophetically against the injustice of this unholy, unbiblical practice of apartheid.)
     The leading DRC theologian, Dr. Beyers Naude, condemned the stiff-necked approach by the leaders of the DRC and its supporters. He suffered for this as a blood witness for the truth. He was excommunicated and arrested by the secret police. His family home was frequently invaded by the police.

The Church as a Confessing Church
     Naude and some colleagues established the Christian Institute of South Africa (CISA). In this organization, serious thought was given to the call for a Confessing Church in South Africa as modeled by Bonhoeffer. They called on the church to confess that apartheid was a heresy, that apartheid was a sin!
    Koopman proposes that Calvinism was so strong in influence for apartheid that it even influenced other denominations. The National Party government that upheld the doctrine of apartheid stated, “Churches and societies which undermine the policy of apartheid and propagate doctrines foreign to the nation will be checked.” Were some Wesleyan influenced denominations afraid to stand up because of such threats?
    Others of “non-holiness” persuasions like Naude called for the Church to be in a place of “Statu Confessionis,” and it worked. The Belhar Confession lead to repentance and ultimately toward a change in the politically hardened landscape, by affirming that, “in no way cultural differences, differences in language or background may be the measure of other people and their commitment to Jesus Christ ... Apartheid in all its different forms was an attack on Christianity because it entrenched being not reconciled as the point of departure of the church.”
     Through this confession and other similar efforts, the church in South Africa was beginning to take on the willingness to be martyrs for the cause. Finally, the Church in South Africa renounced apartheid through open confession.

The “Spoke in the Wheel”
    Here the Church decided that it was necessary to shove a “stick in the spokes” to curb the momentum of poor state theology. The state theology at that time believed that it was necessary for the State Church to enforce the rule of God to maintain Law and order according to the Calvinistic claims that God had given the White Afrikaner the land as promised. The Kairos Document was a powerful critique of the “neutral” church theology also, functioning as pawns of the state. The SACC and Naude’s CISA were the catalysts of the Kairos Document. They rejected the cruel prejudiced warped Calvinism of the State Church and opposed the “passive/non-struggle” approach of the “neutral” Churches. They called for the active struggle against the machinery of oppression.
    This took the form of strikes, rolling mass actions, consumer boycotts, and “stay aways.” “In other words, the present crisis challenges the whole church to move beyond a mere ‘ambulance ministry’ to a ministry of involvement in participation.”
    This is what Bonhoeffer meant when he spoke about “seeing things from below,” “thrusting a spoke in the wheel,” and maintaining a “Status Confessionis.” This is what it means to be a blood witness - a witness willing to lay down one’s life for the cause of holy, wholehearted love for God and His righteousness.

The Church of the Nazarene in the Struggle against Apartheid
I have constantly asked the question about the doctrine of Holiness and what that heart of Christian perfection and holy love would do for the hurting members of the Body. What do Holiness and Entire Sanctification come down to when called upon to bear “witness” for the one it claims it loves? I am forced to ask, “Why was the Church of the Nazarene ’neutral’ in this war against injustice?”
     The Church of the Nazarene decided to stay out of the politics of the culture within which it ministered. Why did the leaders not release the national clergy to participate actively within the SACC? Why did we willingly oppose the SACC? In popular media culture, one website under the official domain of Nelson Mandela lists the Church of the Nazarene first among the most important evangelical churches who remained “neutral.”
     Why were we not those who “see things from below”? Why were we not filled with courage as our hearts were filled with love to “put a spoke in the wheel”? Where was our identity as the “Confessing Church”? Bonhoeffer did it. African leaders from other doctrinal persuasions and denominations did it. If we chose to remain passive in injustice and blatant prejudice and in the death of the “innocents,” can we still be righteous? Are we not complicit by our neutrality and silence?
    I personally remain under the weight of this very same barrage of questions when I do nothing about prejudices that prevail today. I remain deeply concerned for the claims I make about being “entirely sanctified” when I am not willing to become a true and willing blood witness without counting the cost even if it is measured in the currency of my own blood. Sexism, abortion, ethnocentricity, xenophobia, racism, and the list persists. These blind spots require us as the Church of the Nazarene to measure our “holiness of heart” claims against our life’s actions.

Gabriel J. Benjiman serves as Lead Elder at Morningside Community Church, a multiethnic and multiracial church in Durban, South Africa. He serves as a mentor to several pastors and has his heart set on Christ’s transforming mission in community. He has been involved in theological and leadership training for over 18 years, and he studied at Ambrose University, NTC South Africa, and Northwest Nazarene University. He is joyfully married to Maryann, and they enjoy the blessings that come from raising their two daughters.