The white Dutch Reformed Church, the religious organization of President Pieter W. Botha and 95% of his Cabinet, has declared apartheid “a sin” and again confessed its guilt for having helped establish, maintain and justify racial segregation for nearly four decades.
The action was considered a small advance for the 1.5-million member church. In 1986, it had acknowledged that apartheid is a mistake, that the church’s attempts to justify it biblically were wrong and that racism is a sin.
The statement Friday signaled a renewed commitment among the white Calvinist church, to which 60% of the country’s ruling Afrikaner people belong, to keeping its black, mixed-race Colored and Indian sister churches under the umbrella of the Dutch Reformed churches.
Those sister churches, led by such notable anti-apartheid campaigners as the Rev. Allan Boesak, among others, had threatened to break their ties with the white church if it failed to take stronger stands against apartheid.
But in a statement Friday, they said they forgave the white church for its historical role in supporting apartheid and, “well aware of our own weakness and sin, we do not intend to hold the past against them.”
Among the most contentious issues raised during a biennial meeting of the churches’ leaders in Vereeniging last week was the role the churches should play in dismantling apartheid.
Conservative members of the white church believe the church should stay out of politics. More liberal members of the other churches, including Boesak and the Rev. Beyers Naude, a white minister in the black sister church, believe in active resistance to apartheid.
The black and mixed-race leaders said they had been heartened by the white church’s “call for fundamental and comprehensive changes” in apartheid, but that whites must also “embark on acts of liberation.”
Differ on Civil Disobedience
“One cannot be a Christian and not resist apartheid,” the black and mixed-race leaders said. The white church refused to endorse a document issued by the sister churches that expressed support for civil disobedience.
But the white church, in its statement, said it “clearly and unequivocally regards apartheid in all its forms (as) a sin and irreconcilable with the Gospel.” It pledged itself to making the church family “one united, non-racial reformed church.” Although the church body has been formally non-racial for several years, language differences and tradition have kept it divided into four racially separate churches.
Apartheid “cannot be accepted on Christian ethical grounds, because it contravenes the very essence of reconciliation, neighborly love and righteousness,” the white church said after the meeting, echoing the policy statement it issued in 1986.
The Dutch Reformed Churches have 3.2 million members, of whom 1.5 million are white, 1 million are black, 680,000 are mixed-race and 2,000 are Indian. The white flagship church’s congregation includes nearly 40% of all white South Africans and an even larger share of the ruling National Party, which makes it an especially powerful force in a country where the black majority is denied a vote in national affairs.
(Although President Botha is a member, the new leader of the National Party and Botha’s apparent successor, Frederik W. de Klerk, belongs to a small Protestant denomination.)
In many ways, the Dutch Reformed Church was the impetus for apartheid. In 1936, the church asked the government to prevent mixed marriages, and the government refused, saying that wasn’t the job of the state.
But 11 years later, the National Party came to power, ushering in apartheid and dozens of laws aimed at segregating the country, including legislation prohibiting racially mixed marriages, mixed neighborhoods, mixed schools, mixed meeting rooms and mixed hospitals.
“We not only supported the concept of separateness, but we tried to give it a biblical, ethical justification,” Johan Heyns, a theology professor and moderator of the white Dutch Reformed Church, told foreign journalists recently.
Then, in 1986, the church rejected apartheid and decided to distance itself from politics, angering many of its members. About 30,000 far-right members and ministers broke away and formed a new church exclusively for white Afrikaners.
“The task of the church is not to make specific suggestions to the government but to proclaim the demands of the kingdom of God and stress that the withholding of political rights is a serious affront to human dignity,” Heyns said recently.