I lift up mine eyes to the NG Kerk; where does my help come from?


I lift up mine eyes to the NG Kerk; where does my help come from?

As the son of a dominee, ALBERTUS VAN WYK was surprised that unification between the white Dutch Reformed Church and the black Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa was not even on the agenda at a recent meeting of the former's general synod.


A SNEERING white libertarian told me a few years ago that all the Afrikaans dominee's children of our generation that he knew had become liberals and lefties.

“I know why that is so," declared this hunter-philosopher. “It's because they are more prone to white guilt, you know. Usually mild-mannered type of people who grew up in comfort, in a world where there was so much talk about the sins of the fathers being visited on the children, punishment and retribution and guilt and forgiveness."

I have often thought back on this “analysis" with a wry smile because I, too, am the product of a pastorie, and yes, in the eyes of people like this guy, I, too, am a limp-wristed pink liberal.

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While the incident surely isn't worth the attention I'm giving it, it always makes me wonder why people see it as a weakness when you examine your own part in the suffering of others. Or even if it is not complicity, then any association with the original act and the guilt that flows from it.

Believe me, I would be the last person to believe a child should be held responsible for the sins of its ancestors. Or that a group of people who have something in common, such as language or skin colour, should be held collectively responsible for a policy of oppression or for any other evil act. Unfair discrimination in our past is, after all, one of the big reasons we are still surrounded by so much hatred and strife (except for the three weeks after a World Cup victory).

I was still young when, between 1986 and 1990, the apartheid government finally started turning away from this hated policy. If I'd had a choice, I would certainly not have wanted to be born during the heyday of apartheid into the tribe that invented and implemented it. Even as a child I often shook my head in disbelief at the infinitesimal chance of being born as a member of a rowdy hybrid Dutch race at the southern tip of Africa who had had committed such an internationally infamous blunder. And then I would console myself by saying: at least we also built Sasol.

But I was not born elsewhere or in another era. Like it or not, I am part of that tribe. In addition, I choose to stay in South Africa and further engage with the deeply divided and economically unequal community that has been affected by more than 40 years of apartheid.

But what about the Good Samaritan?

As a dominee's child, however, there is one aspect to all of this that I have always found incomprehensible. For me, the best story from the Bible, one we would hear repeatedly in church services or at Sunday school, was the parable of the Good Samaritan.

This parable is a story about an unexpected act of caring and was told by Jesus to explain to a scribe who “thy neighbour" was. It tells of a traveller, whom we infer to be a Judean, who is ambushed by highwaymen on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho and left for dead. The only fellow traveller who stops to help him is a Samaritan, the supposed enemy of Jews and someone to be looked down upon. The Samaritan saves the man's life and takes care of him in an inn at his own expense.

The Samaritans were blood relatives of the Judeans and followed a similar faith. If you can believe the Judean version of the story, the Samaritans arose when the elite classes of the Kingdom of Israel were carried away into exile by the Assyrians, around 800 BC. Some of the lower classes who were left behind mixed with so-called pagan local tribes, and thus their blood became “impure" and they were rejected. Today, some 800 people in modern Israel still regard themselves as Samaritans, although they say the distinction is theological rather than ethnic. Go read about them, it's fascinating.

The parable of the Good Samaritan had all the elements a child needed to make a film in his head: it's a road movie set on a dangerous route; there are bad guys in the form of the robbers and secondary spineless baddies in the form of the priest and the Levite who walk past the injured victim with their noses in the air. There is proper violence in the robbery, there is injury and suffering, and finally a happy ending with empathy and reconciliation. Luke mentions nothing about a big party at the inn afterwards, but that would surely have made it into my version if I were a Hollywood director.

What I could never figure out about the parable of the Good Samaritan, however, was that in the midst of the rapidly deteriorating race relations in South Africa in 1984 and 1985, with the townships heading for civil war and sanctions starting to bring the economy to a standstill, I never heard a single dominee, Sunday school teacher or any other NG Kerk official pointing out the obvious parallel between the Judeans' condescending attitude towards the Samaritans and that of the Afrikaners towards black people. Or if you didn't want to go full-on “liberation theology", you could point out the parallel between so many oppressed black people's gentleness, patience and love and the many white people who treated them with contempt and violence.

I later began to understand why this did not happen, when I read that NG theologians in the 1940s not only approved of apartheid but enthusiastically participated in its justification. Any 12th grader with just a cursory knowledge of the New Testament would be able to tell you that statements like “the social separation between peoples is accepted by Jesus Christ" and “a reverence for apartheid has the blessing of God" are nothing less than shameless propaganda which denies Jesus of Nazareth's central message of charity and forgiveness.

And yet that is exactly what it says in a book (Regverdige rasse-apartheid, or Justified Racial Apartheid) published in 1947 by Prof Geoffrey Cronjé in collaboration with Dr William Nicol, then moderator of the NG Kerk, and Prof EP Groenewald, senior professor of theology at the University of Pretoria. (The street in Johannesburg recently renamed Winnie Mandela Drive was formerly William Nicol Drive.)


Why was everyone silent?

What is amazing about this is that so few voices of protest have been heard from the church over the years against what was  nothing short of heresy. The few who did show even “loyal resistance" quickly found themselves preaching their last sermon from an NG pulpit.

The most famous example is dominee Beyers Naudé, who in 1963 found himself having to choose between his conscience and his status as a pastor. Some old dominees will tell you Oom Bey resigned of his own free will, but if you read enough about him or had conversations with him or his wife, you would understand that the consequences of what was seen as his betrayal were made so clear to him that he could not stay where he was, or even somehow compromise.

Despite Van Wyk Louw's ideas about loyal resistance, the inner circle elite of white Afrikaners never really allowed a diversity of ideas and thinkers to flourish. And if the inner circle is so intransigent, it creates more room for uncontrollable radical forces to flourish.

Johan Heyns, a theologian half a generation after Naudé, was such a loyal resister. In 1982, he had the courage to reject the concept of apartheid as the will of God, to the dismay of the synod. This led to the synod deciding in 1986 to also allow black people to become members of the church, which for many NG dominees and members was such a horrible thought that they seceded and a started a whole new white Afrikaans church, the  Afrikaanse Protestantse Kerk, which still exists.

After Heyns, as moderator of the NG Kerk, declared apartheid a sin in 1990, he was branded by certain elements in his own community as a false priest and traitor. Few people doubt that his assassination, in his home in front of his wife and three grandchildren, was committed by a murderer from these reactionary white Afrikaans ranks, although no one has been convicted of the murder.

The priests said yes

Maybe the hunter-philosopher was right, dominees' children are more prone to remorseful self-examination. Scripture verses such as James 3 verse 1 are burned into our souls: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” Dominees were intimately involved in the establishment of apartheid. The first apartheid prime minister was a dominee, with a doctorate in theology from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands — Dr DF Malan.

There is little doubt in my mind that the apartheid policy would have gained little traction if it had been opposed by the most prominent dominees and theologians. Especially at that time, it would have been an untenable situation for an Afrikaner state to move forward with such a policy without the blessing of its clergy.

When I was younger, I had several heated discussions around these themes with theologians inside and outside my family. One of them gave me great insight into the dilemmas and tensions within the church when I was once again upset about the fate of people who were slightly different from the traditional norms in the church. Such as gay people (renamed with unsurprising flair by the church as people in “same-sex relationships").

In a moment of frustration, the theologian said: “The church is like any club that can decide who can be members and who can't, and if you don't like it you can join another club." This was a revelation for me. Never before had I thought of the church as a club that exists to express its members' grievances and desires. I had always thought of the church as rather a top-down organisation with a deity at the head, a detailed working manual in the form of scripture and a series of earthly representatives in the form of high priests and priests, pastors or dominees.

The church, even the white, Afrikaans Dutch Reformed version, never hesitated to act prescriptively towards its members. We all felt its whip. We all knew very well that varying degrees of damnation awaited you for even debatable sins such as sex before marriage, sex with someone of the same sex (even in your own room), the vain use of God's name, if you desired someone's cow or donkey or if you knit on a Sunday.

Yet this insight revealed the tension in the church about its role. Should the church primarily be a bright light leading us onto a pure moral path, even when this is counter to prevailing habits and values? Or should the church be the warm, gentle light in the inn which comforts and nurtures and cares about the wellbeing of its members?

With the advent of 1994, democracy and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the NG Kerk naturally seized the opportunity with both hands to purge itself of its own political prostitution. The church had failed to convey the central message of love in the New Testament; to love your neighbour as yourself. To hold even your enemies in higher regard than yourself.

When a state declared some of our own brothers and sisters as lesser citizens who had almost no say in their own destiny, who had no right to vote, who had to use the back door at the Post Office, who had to keep their distance and could own no property, the church had failed to see that this was a heinous violation of the love commandment.

A lot of truth, very little reconciliation

The sincerity and humility of the brothers of the NG Kerk who delivered a detailed presentation before the TRC cannot be doubted, but that was almost 30 years ago. It is now more important to reflect on how the church has fared in the meantime, after it had a chance to rebuild its image.

I am no longer a member but I watch the NG Kerk with interest, especially when the synod meets. Is it a blinding light at the end of the road that has the moral gravitas to castigate a government that veers dangerously from its path, or does the church concern itself only with the wellbeing of its mostly prosperous but shrinking congregations?

I am not surprised to read that Prof Christina Landman says church unity was not even on the agenda at the recent synod meeting. Next to the commandment to love thy neighbour, unity in the “body of Christ" stands as one of the highest values in the New Testament. The NG Kerk apparently considers it so important that it appears on its logo, just below the menorah and the dove of peace: “One body, one spirit."

In Colossians 3, the apostle Paul does not mince his words: “With the new man there are no distinctions such as Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian or Scythian, slave or free person, but Christ is all and in all… Furthermore, let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. As members of one body, you are specifically called to that."

Apparently, a new generation of dominees no longer thinks this is important. This has always struck me as incredible. Even Rassie Erasmus and Siya Kolisi have been able to win a World Cup with a united and transformed rugby team but the NG Kerk has not yet moved even one step closer to reconciliation and unification with the organisation that was once called its daughter church, the Verenigde Gereformeerde Kerk (the former NG Sendingkerk and the NG Kerk in Afrika were unified in 1994).

Perhaps the fact that the church is getting smaller and has less prominence in the media these days is a blessing in disguise, because otherwise much sharper lights of judgment would have shone on this pitiful moral failure.

I don't know why I care. Perhaps I would have liked a united NG Kerk to help show the way in a new South Africa, which urgently needs this kind of leadership.

Or maybe it's just because I'm the guilt-ridden, liberal child of a dominee.

♦ VWB ♦

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