Apartheid in Southern Africa — Is It Any of Our Business?
A Statement of The American Lutheran Church, 1981
Commended by the ALC Church Council, 25 June 1981, as background information for study in the church. CC 81.6.127.
There are several commonly asked questions concerning South Africa's apartheid system, its rule of the territory called Namibia, the special involvement of The American Lutheran Church with the region, the matter of armed resistance to oppression, and the reasons for giving special focus to a part of the world which is so distant from the United States.
This background paper seeks to address such major questions . . . and to show why apartheid in South Africa and Namibia (here referred to as "southern Africa") is a part of the business of Christians elsewhere, particularly Lutheran Christians in the U.S. It accompanies a statement of "Goals for Combating Apartheid Through The American Lutheran Church and Its Members," adopted by the ALC Church Council, June 1981.
1. Apartheid and Biblical Faith
"Apartheid" is the term for apartness or separateness in the Afrikaans language of South Africa. It is the name given by the Afrikaner National Party to a detailed set of policies that govern relations between the country's 4,500,000 Whites and its 23,500,000 Black, Coloured (mixed blood), and Asian inhabitants.* Its objective is the complete domination of South African society by the White (European-descended) population.
* 1979 estimates (including Black "homelands" not recognized as separate nations by international community): 4.5 million Whites, 20 million Blacks, 2.7 million Coloureds, 0.75 million Asians; Namibia's one million are roughly 10% White, 90% Black and Coloured. In each country, approximately 500,000 (mostly Black and Coloured) are members of Lutheran churches.
It has been the official policy of national government in South Africa since the Afrikaner National Party took power in 1948. Practices and customs dating from the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 have been extended, tightened, and increasingly translated into law during the decades since 1948. In economics, a vast range of occupations is reserved exclusively for White workers. In politics, only White citizens have access to power. In social behavior, the freedoms of Blacks, Coloureds, and Asians are greatly limited, as is their legal right to advocate change in the system. Marriage between Whites and Non-Whites is forbidden. The framework of legal segregation touches all aspects of life, including the mission and ministry of the churches.
Apartheid has been condemned by many of the churches in South Africa, and the South African Council of Churches (including churches of all racial groups) has led in maintaining a vigorous witness against the apartheid system and for human inclusiveness in both church and society. Theological support for apartheid has come, however, from the (White) Dutch Reformed Church, which is closely identified with the political ruling party.
Lutheran churches in South Africa have joined other Christians in decrying apartheid on biblical grounds: that apartheid illegitimately destroys the unity of human beings on a basis of race or skin color, that apartheid unjustly subordinates certain groups and gives a position of privilege to others, that apartheid is against the will of Cod for human unity and opportunity.
The entire weight of biblical witness, regarding the unity of human creation, of equal opportunity for development of gifts divinely given, of justice for all peoples, is cited in support of opposition to apartheid. Specifically, biblical summary statements such as these are appropriate:
- "From one single stock [God] . . . created the whole human race" (Acts 17:26a, Jerusalem Bible)
- "For Christ himself has brought us peace by making Jews and Gentiles one people.. . with his own body he broke down the wall that separated them, . . . in order to create out of the two races one new people in union with himself" (Eph. 2:14-15 TEV).
- "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28 RSV).
2. "Status Confessionis"
The American Lutheran Church has declared its opposition to the apartheid system in the strongest of terms. Its 1980 General Convention voted unanimously to "express its unequivocal rejection of apartheid and all other forms of racial discrimination in our own society as well as in other nations, and [to] declare apartheid to be a matter of `status confessionis.'"
The term means "a state of confession." It was applied to the situation of Lutheran churches in southern Africa, White and Black, by the Sixth Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation, meeting in Tanzania in June 1977. That gathering of the worldwide Lutheran family was determined to say that the apartheid system is so oppressive and so contrary to the Lutheran understanding of the unity of believers in Christ and the equality of the entire human family that it must be rejected as a matter of the faith itself:
"On the basis of faith and in order to manifest the unity of the church," said the Sixth Assembly, "churches [should] publicly and unequivocally reject the existing apartheid system."
Apartheid is not simply a typical political question, about which Christians may hold differing opinions. It must be viewed from much the same theological perspective that the Confessing Church in Germany adopted in opposing the Hitler regime 40 some years ago. Apartheid is to be rejected because it violates a central belief of the church as expressed in the Augsburg Confession. The immediate context for the LWF Sixth Assembly action was the separation of Black and White Lutherans in South Africa. As long as that cultural pattern (reinforced by South African law) was followed by the churches, an unbiblical criterion for unity-racial identity-was being used. And since that criterion goes beyond Augsburg's requirement (unity exists when there is agreement on the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments), the racial test of unity is not valid and must be rejected.
Apartheid, therefore, presents the church with a "state of confession" because it attacks, in its impact on both church and society, the very heart of the church's confession of faith. By its 1980 convention action, the ALC is affirming the same position. It means that, for the ALC corporately, there can be no argument over whether apartheid is acceptable or reformable. It means that apartheid is viewed by us as simply and starkly in conflict with the biblical faith we hold. It is not a political ideology with which believers may compromise, but must be opposed by whatever means are at hand.
The ALC action of 1980 goes on to say that there are many legitimate strategies for opposing apartheid. One of them, withdrawing the church's investments from business corporations that are active in South Africa, received particular attention prior to and during the 1980 convention. The language adopted by delegates said two things about the strategy of disinvesting:
a. Withdrawing investments is "not a necessary consequence of a declaration of `status confessionis." In other words, people who agree that apartheid is a central matter of the faith and must be opposed may disagree on the strategy of disinvestment (or divestiture).
b. However, the ALC makes the judgment that, "at this moment in history in South Africa, divestiture is the most legitimate strategy in opposing apartheid and the most effective consequence of a declaration of `status confessionis.'"
The 1980 convention action also supported a "call for withdrawal of investment by United States corporations from South Africa if in the judgment of the Board of Trustees that investment on balance strengthens the apartheid system."
The strategies in "Goals for Combating Apartheid" do not concentrate on corporate investment policy, either ALC withdrawal of holdings in companies or the withdrawal from South Africa of companies which are U.S.-based. Investment policy is, however, a part of the broader concern with economic factors, dealt with in Goal Six, and continues to be a part of the ALC's total strategy for dealing with apartheid.*
* See "South Africa-Divestment," the May 1981 action by the ALC Board of Trustees in response to the 1980 ALC convention, page 20.
3. History of ALC Involvement
The American Lutheran Church and its European predecessors have been involved with southern Africa for nearly 140 years, from the arrival in Natal (1844) of the first Norwegian Lutheran missionary. Our concern for justice and freedom among all the population has been a part of our total activity in mission with people in southern Africa from the beginning.
The focus on political oppression and the evils of apartheid has emerged prominently in the past few decades, as the movements for change in southern Africa have gained momentum. Lutheran churches in both South Africa and Namibia have appealed to their sisters and brothers in the global Christian family for support, prayer, and advocacy with institutions of political and economic power that have influence over their lives in southern Africa. Namibia, the territory formerly known as South-West Africa, has been of particular concern since the United Nations voted in 1966 to end the South African administration of the territory under UN trusteeship and to move toward independence for the Namibian people. South Africa continues to resist the decisions of the United Nations and the International Court of Justice and occupies Namibia illegally.
Justice for all peoples in South Africa and Namibia has become a regular agenda item for The American Lutheran Church during the past decade- in its congregations, at district conventions, and at meetings of the national Church Council and the General Convention. At the 1980 convention, delegates took two sets of actions. One, "Human Rights of the People of Namibia," reaffirmed long-standing ALC opposition to South Africa's unlawful continuing occupation of that land. It urged South Africa to cooperate in internationally supervised elections, urged the United States government to bring pressure on South Africa toward compliance (including application of "economic or other sanctions"), and urged congregations "to sponsor and organize an intensive lobbying campaign" with members of Congress on the Namibian independence issue.
The second ALC convention action in 1980 was titled "Opposition to Apartheid" and dealt with the system of legal oppression that is practiced in South Africa and also characterizes the South African administration of Namibia. Delegates voted to condemn the system, to work for elimination of the "abhorrent evils" perpetuated by that system, and "to support those who suffer under such oppression through unremitting prayer and deliberate action." The convention also voted to:
a. reject "all other forms of racial discrimination in our own society as well as in other nations"
b. declare apartheid to be a matter of "status confessionis (see discussion above)
c. request the ALC Board of Trustees (on a 447-331 vote) "to totally divest from all corporations doing business in South Africa . . . in a prudent manner that is consistent with legal requirements and does not place undue risk upon the ALC investment portfolio"
d. "urge the government of the United States to implement economic sanctions against the Republic of South Africa" as part of the church's total anti-apartheid campaign
e. ask the Office of Church in Society to "develop a strategy for the ALC which will more effectively support the [Black, Coloured, and Asian] population in its struggle for justice and representation, and which will lead to the reconciliation of all people in southern Africa"
The Office of Church in Society prepared goals and recommendations for such a strategy, and the Church Council adopted them in June 1981. This paper provides background for that strategy.
4. Why Southern Africa?
Why should the churches, and the ALC in particular, become so exercised about oppression in South Africa and Namibia? There are certainly nations other than South Africa and Namibia in which people are systematically and because of ethnic identity denied political participation, economic opportunity, and social freedoms.
But there are no other nations in which those conditions are supported by a system of law, in which an interpretation of the biblical faith is used to justify that system.
And there are no other nations with oppressing systems in which the United States has such influence and presence, through governmental relationships and economic relationships ($3.5 billion in trade annually, $2-plus billion in investment), and from which U.S. citizens and consumers draw such benefits.
And there are no other nations with oppressing systems in which there are Lutheran churches of such numerical strength and in which the ALC has such close and long-standing ties with vital Christian communities, which have repeatedly called on their partner churches around the world for support and actions with those churches' own governments and economic institutions.
Such statements indicate the major reasons why the Western nations and the United States in general, and the ALC in particular, have cause to give special attention to supporting movements of change toward greater justice, freedom, and reconciliation.
Our national citizenship calls us to do so, because our opportunities as U.S. citizens have special power in international relations.
Our fellowship in the faith with suffering Christians calls us to do so, because our unity in Christ transcends national and ethnic boundaries.
And, supremely, our understanding of the biblical witness calls us to do so, because not to do so would be a denial of the faith God has given us.
5. Violence and Non-Violence
Part of the debate over changes in southern Africa revolves around attitudes toward the role of violence in maintaining a status quo or in precipitating change. The churches in southern Africa have continually called for change through non-violent means. We join them in that call and that hope. We also believe these additional observations are in order:
a. The present choice for those who suffer oppression in southern Africa is not between violence and non-violence. Their daily existence-and that of the oppressors as well-is marked by violence of a structured and systematic nature. The present situation deals violently with the victims, year after year, generation after generation. The oppressors in return reap a measure of violence also. It is understandable that many among the oppressed would willingly substitute the violence of armed resistance to bring about change for the existing violence of no change and despair.
b. In our own ethical tradition as Lutherans, there is no necessary rejection of armed resistance as a last resort in a just cause. We are not, as a church, part of the pacifist ethical tradition (though some of our members are). We have historically viewed the use of violence always to be an evil, a participation in sin, but one which is sometimes justified because not to use violence would be to perpetuate a greater evil, a more damaging sinfulness. Since we have consistently justified the use of armed force in seeking the freedom and defense of our own nation, it is hardly appropriate for us to condemn others who turn to it in desperation, after generations of seeking their own freedom through nonviolent means.
c. Nevertheless, we continue to pray and hope and work for non-violent solutions in southern Africa. Our proposals for action are all in the non-violent category. The existence of violence in southern Africa today and the threat of escalating violence in the days to come make it urgent that we do what can be done, by us and our institutions, without delay and with deep commitment. To paraphrase President John Kennedy: Those who do not work to end injustice by non-violent means are insuring that change will come by violent means.
6. Communist Influence
The South African government regularly labels any challenge to the apartheid system "Communist-inspired." On the other hand, the White supremacy government of South Africa is sometimes referred to as "a bastion of the Free World at the tip of Africa."
The latter designation strikes the non-Whites of South Africa and Namibia as particularly inappropriate. About the "Communist-inspired" label, several points can be made:
a. African liberation movements have accepted military weapons and aid from any sources that would give help in their struggle, without accepting control by the Soviets, the Chinese, or the West.
b. What the oppressed Black majorities of South Africa and Namibia want is freedom and self-determination, not the replacement of one form of tyranny by another.
c. The Eastern bloc countries can exploit the southern Africa situation only when the Western nations give them opportunity by appearing to side with the White-supremacy system.
d. Some of the liberation leaders are attracted to various forms of socialism; often it is associated with a vibrant Christian faith. Many of the leaders of the South-West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) in Namibia, for instance, are sons and daughters of the Lutheran Church, and they do not necessarily see socialism and Christianity as incompatible. But they are also fiercely determined to stay free of outside domination, whether by South Africa, the Soviet Union, or the United States.
7. The Connection with U.S. Racism
The 1980 ALC Convention resolution expresses the ALC's "unequivocal rejection of apartheid and all other forms of racial discrimination in our own society as well as other nations."
In our legitimate desire to combat apartheid in southern Africa, there is a temptation to both think and act as though the problem of racial oppression is located solely or even primarily in one region of one continent. American Christians need always to recall the parallels in the histories of racial injustice in South Africa and the United States. In both countries:
- European invaders battled indigenous (non-White) peoples for possession of the land.
- Harsh systems of control established a pattern of economic oppression by European immigrants over darker-skinned peoples.
- Racial segregation, in law and custom, continued for decades as the vehicle for maintaining White supremacy.
(See White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History by George M. Fredrickson, Oxford, 1981.)
While there are clear differences between the two societies (proportions of Black and White, recent changes in the legal structure for U.S. segregation) there remain impressive similarities. The ALC needs to continue giving as much energy to combating racism in our own churches and communities and nation as it gives to combating the apartheid form of racism in southern Africa. Indeed, we need to see always that our histories and our current forms of racism are part of a single world-wide phenomenon-the systematic and deliberate effort to make race or color a qualification for acceptance into a social, political, and economic order.
Such an ideology of racism is evil, a sin under God, in whatever form it appears and in whatever society it determines relationships. It requires the church and all Christians to be "in a state of confession" over against it. . . in the United States, in southern Africa, in any part of the planetary family where it gains acceptance.
8. The ALC's Commitment Concerning Apartheid
With particular reference to southern Africa, the ALC is committed to doing what it can to end the apartheid system. We are specifically committed to a political arrangement in the Republic of South Africa through which all people may share fully in governance and in economic and social opportunity, with justice and reconciliation for all parts of the population. We are specifically committed to independence for Namibia, brought about through internationally supervised and free elections.
We believe that to stand in solidarity with fellow Christians who are suffering, to oppose an evil system with all non-violent means available to us, and to give witness by words and works to God-ordained human oneness is to be faithful disciples in our time. It is to be in a state of confession.
We make it our business to be about these tasks because we believe it is part of God's business.