The first phase of the “storm over Africa” has reached the Union of South Africa. For a long time it was evident that something serious was bound to happen. Then suddenly one afternoon, while the sun was shining as brightly as ever over the Great Karroo and the Highveld of the Transvaal, sad incidents occurred at Sharpeville near van der Byl Park. (Sharpeville is in the heart of the new industrial areas along the Vaal river.) Seventy Africans were shot by policemen and more than 200 were wounded after a vast crowd of Africans congregated and became menacing. A well-planned country-wide “protest” or near-rebellion, led by the Africanist movement, was immediately launched.
Many of the whites oppose the government’s general policies of enforced apartheid or specific measures, but in a national emergency they prefer law and order to anarchy. Christians in other countries probably do not realize that the leaders of African nationalism are with very few exceptions not Christians but enemies of the Church and the Gospel. We who have great sympathy with the Africans and their aspirations and often feel gravely unhappy about some measures taken against them, and about the political status quo in general, fear that if some of the new “leaders” succeeded in their plans the first and the worst sufferer would be Christianity itself. Such is the dilemma many Christians in South Africa, who have a deep interest in the well-being and future of the African masses, face today. We realize that changes must come, that Africans have legitimate grievances, and that their aspirations cannot be suppressed permanently without violent reactions; but we also realize that too much sentimentalism has taken hold on certain personalities and on certain circles of white “sympathizers” in South Africa and overseas. Much in the emerging African nationalism is legitimate and deserves the sympathy of responsible Christians, but much of it is bad and is rooted in paganism, personal ambitions, and hatred. The Church cannot be too sentimental about these movements and their leaders. She must evaluate them with responsible objectivity.
One of the most disturbing factors that has come to light in South Africa during recent weeks is the number of churches and schools that have been destroyed.
If the destruction amounted only to the churches of a particular denomination, as was the case in the Belgian Congo, it could be explained by political factors. But in South Africa the churches of different denominations were destroyed. Besides the Dutch Reformed churches even Methodist and Anglican churches were set afire, in spite of the fact that Anglican bishops and divines (Reeves, de Blank, and Huddleston) are known to be among the main spokesmen for the Africans!
If we analyze nationalism, we will not be surprised at the situation. The African nationalist, like the nationalist of all ages and all conditions of men, grasps back to his national past and his cultural heritage.
The African past and cultural heritage are a pagan past and a pagan heritage. Christianity itself is part and parcel of that “Western imperialistic burden” of which he must rid his people! I do not imply that there are no Christians among African nationalists, but they are in a small minority.
BIBLE AND RACE
The Bible is not race-conscious; it is not sensitive to race as such. Whether the Bible says anything definite about race at all is doubtful at least in the modern biological sense of the word. The really prominent category in the Old as well as the New Testament is faith. In the Bible the decisive categories are believers and unbelievers, not racial units. Even the injunction to Israel not to intermingle with the surrounding peoples has no racial basis in a biological sense, for all of the surrounding peoples belonged to the same race as the Israelites. They were also Semites, but they served other gods. The injunction was not racial, therefore, but religious.
Through her whole history Israel made proselytes from the ends of the earth. The numbers of other races who accepted the God of Israel in the course of time became true Israelites, and were integrated into Israel. But Israel as the people of the Covenant was forbidden to intermingle with the surrounding pagan people of the same race so that they would not be drawn away from Jehovah to serve other gods. To use Israel as an argument for racial segregation in the modern world makes no sense.
In some quarters much is made of the Tower of Babel and the delusion of tongues whereby the people of the day were divided into different linguistic groups or “nations.” By God’s act, the sinful unity of man was broken, and humanity was divided by the barriers of language. I believe Babel still has significance. It reminds us that humanity, as a result of sin, is a broken humanity. We must, however, guard against the tendency among many Christian people to argue that God at Babel divided humanity into nations and races and that the obligation rests on us to respect these God-given divisions and that even today all race-mixing is against the will of God. The line of argument rests on the misconception that the division was static and not dynamic. Actually the original “nations” which came into being at the division at Babel no longer exist. Out of them has developed through the ages, under God’s guidance, a great diversity of new peoples mostly as a result of racial mixture.
If racial mixture were against God’s will, the development of all modern nations (including my own and that of the United States) must be sinful and against God’s ordinances. All modern nations would then stand under the judgment of God because the original divisions of Babel were not conscientiously adhered to. But such a view does not make sense, and ignores the fact that the diversity is dynamic. There will always be different nations and races; it is part of God’s common grace to control sin and lawlessness. But God takes care of the diversity. New nations or peoples are continually called into being under God’s guidance as the result of the merging of two or more existing national or racial groups.
The Tower of Babel reminds us that God broke a sinful unity through an act in history. But we must not isolate Genesis 11 from the succeeding chapter, the call of Abraham in whom all the generations of the earth would be blessed. Genesis 12 actually points to the real unity of believers in Christ Jesus. Babel was not God’s last word.
BARRIERS DROP AWAY
After Babel many stupendous things happened. God became flesh and dwelt among us. Following his ascent to heaven, there was a day of Pentecost. Later Ephesians 2 was written by the Apostle Paul, and we get deep insight into the meaning of the crucifixion of Christ and of the Church, the people of God, constituted from Jews and heathens. In Christ all barriers fall away. However, in Christ we do not lose differentiation, which is something different from isolation.
In the New Testament all isolation between peoples is in principle broken down forever. Now the basic division in the midst of all diversity is the division between those who are for Christ and those who are against him. Diversity may never erroneously be substituted for division or apartheid, as is too often done in most unexpected circles. The two concepts are widely different. Has the Church any mandate to keep races intact or “pure”? I doubt it. The Church has the clear responsibility to seek and to demonstrate the unity of God’s people in spite of racial or cultural diversity.
The Church as the body of Christ, the communion of the saints, the people of God, is based not on racial or ethnic factors but on faith. Standing in the midst of a world of rich human diversity, she may not neglect or ignore this God-given diversity. On the other hand, the Church, as the break-through of the Kingdom into this present sinful dispensation, must be true to her character and high calling in uniting believers from all nations and races, and in her own life overcome the artificial barriers that divide believer from unbeliever.
Where practical considerations of language and cultural background make it desirable to have separate churches for different groups of believers, the churches may not be exclusive. The moment a Christian church becomes exclusive, and certain groups are refused admission or fellowship in worship on account of race or color, it is sinful.
Any policy of exclusiveness clashes with the very character of the Church of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, in any discussion of the problem, we immediately have to face the fact that we live in a world broken by sin, and every man and every church is part of some concrete situation in this broken world where the human family is divided into nations and races. Although we believe that the diversity has come about under God’s guidance, and that nations and the Bindungen (bonds) they create serve God’s purpose in limiting sins and lawlessness among men, we also realize that nationhood is tainted by sin, and infested by the seeds of disorder, death, and rebellion against God. Christian citizens are often confronted therefore by a clash of loyalties between God (or Church) and nation.
GOD AND NATIONALISM
Frequently Christians are called upon to give their supreme loyalty to the state or nation and not to God. Christian believers of our own century have time and again been called upon to come to a personal decision about the question, “Will my Christian beliefs be determined by my nationalism or will my nationalism be fashioned by my Christian beliefs)” In some countries the issue is as real today as it was for Germany two decades ago. Believers in almost every century in the history of the world have had to face situations where they were denied the right to give their supreme loyalty to God alone.
Any policy of separation based on cultural, linguistic, or color lines calls for utmost vigilance and searching of conscience. Evil motives may easily slip in and take command, so that the formation and continuance of separate churches may spring not from a sense of Christian responsibility and love but from a desire to get rid of the less developed brother on grounds of race and color. Such an atitude can only be a blatant denial of the reality of the Christian Koinonia. Any church placed in a critical racial situation will continually have to guard against evil exclusivist tendencies and educate her members, in the light of our deep and fundamental unity in Christ, to respect and love every one of her household irrespective of race or color. On the other hand, separate churches for different racial groups need not under all circumstances be condemned, as they can have beneficial and positive results. I therefore believe that separate churches can exist only on condition that real Christian brotherhood is not denied in theory or in practice.
Some people have made much of the concept of eiesoortigheid (sui generis)—that the different races show different aptitudes and characteristics, and that this diversity is valuable enough to be retained intact.
The point of view constitutes the basic approach of those who look with disfavor on the tendency to leveling and equalization noticeable all over the world and which threatens to destroy the distinctive and unique character of specific peoples and races.
Here there is deep distrust on the part of non-white races of the intentions of the white race, and one of the consequences of the distrust is that any attempt to retain distinctive racial character in education or in any other sphere, and to do so by constraint, is branded as imperialism. The handling of this concept calls for the greatest circumspection. “As far as the Christian Church is concerned this eiesoortigheid, this fact of a group being sui generis, is important and may not be ignored.” No sane person even in South Africa would dream of refusing any German or English-speaking person normal or regular admittance to an Afrikaans church, but an Afrikaans-speaking colored person would be refused regular attendance in almost any white Afrikaans church and even occasional attendance in at least most Free State and Transvaal churches. In how many English churches would the same thing happen? Within the Church, as the communion of God’s people, the stress on the differences between the ethnae can be only a relative stress. If the Church fails to realize the fact, and white Christians follow practices of exclusion, the Church has no future in the Africa of tomorrow.
While we thus affirm that the Church transcends every nation, we do not thereby deny that nation and race can have real significance in the practical organization of the visible church. By virtue of her character, the Church is called continually to bear witness to the coming Kingdom, and in her own life to be a manifestation of the Kingdom that is to come as a break-through of the new world into the old. Continually and progressively, therefore, the Church must work towards the elimination of “walls of partition” between believer and believer. It is part of her calling in obedience to Christ her Lord and Master.
Our garbage man comes twice a week—
(City law forbids the reek)
In summer, every day.
But, Oh, I ask: does He forgive
That somewhere little ones could live
On what we throw away?
MILDRED R. BENSMILLER
Jacob J. Vellenga served on the National Board of Administration of the United Presbyterian Church from 1948–54. Since 1958 he has served the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. as Associate Executive. He holds the A.B. degree from Monmouth College, the B.D. from Pittsburgh-Xenia Seminary, Th.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and D.D. from Monmouth College, Illinois.
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