We often hear that “apartheid was a heresy”, yet what exactly made this a heresy is at times lost in our church discussions. For those of us in the Dutch Reformed Church this might be partly because nowadays we are looking at a tennis game between a group in the church who find heresy everywhere, and another who cannot work with the concept of heresy at all (I’m rather drawn to the second one, so if this post relate to the current conversations on heresy I’m responding to myself).

Russel Botman share the story of how their class of theological students became convinced that apartheis is indeed a heresy. Jaap Durand was the lecturer in systematic theology, and challenged his students:

“You have been quite explicit about the legal, sociological, psychological, and political science reasons for your judgment on apartheid. I want to challenge you to find the theological essence of the judgment on apartheid.”

The answer he then provides is that “apartheid has as its point of departure the irreconcilability of people of different race groups.” Apartheid assume that people are inherently irreconcilable, while the gospel assume a radical reconciliation which transcend all borders.

We might want to revisit this idea that arguing from a belief of the inherent irreconcilability of people is nothing but a heresy, since this continue to be such a common idea. Is this not what underlies every statement that two groups of people will “never be able to find each other”? If we normalize the divisions in society by saying that “our cultures differ too much”, “there will always be conflict”, are we not assuming that people are inherently irreconcilable?

Socially I think there are two ideas which we are holding to in order to keep this heresy going. The one is the belief in some kind of essential group identity. White people will always be white people, always act like white people, and always want to be part of a group of white people. The other is that conflict between groups of people that are different are inevitable and natural. Yet neither of these are true.

Groups are fluid, change over time, merge with others, die out, have individuals abandon that group, and are joined by individuals who it would be inconceivable in another context. Religions as a social group provide a good example, or nationalities, but cultures, ethnicities and the way the world are constructed as races are not essential and eternal either. Secondly, even where we do belong to different social groups, conflict and strive is not inevitable. Groups of people find amazingly creative ways of living in harmony together.

Yes, group identities are strong and will form us over generations, sometimes over thousands of years. But they are not permanent. Conflict do exist between different groups, but it is not inevitable. Reconciliation is difficult (and true reconciliation should be difficult, if it isn’t difficult we might want to suspect that we are not yet totally honest with each other), but always possible. So let’s start watching the language of “never” and “impossible” when it relates to reconciliation.

This does not imply that we will sort out our divided legacy in this country in one generation, or even in my lifetime. But it does mean that I will reject every movement which support an irreconciled society, or which work with the assumption that we are inherently irreconcilable, and trying is therefore worthless. Let’s agree to end that kind of talk.


From Wednesday till Friday the final year class of Dutch Reformed students at the TUKS theological facutly visited Good Shepherd retreat centre. It’s been an amazing experience, and a real bonding session for our class. It has been an amazing journey we took together for the past 6 years! I do believe that what happened with this group of people was something special.

Our journey pretty much started out as any other group of theological students’ journey would. We realised the differences between us very early on, we had arguments on almost anything. We had our times when certain people didn’t even speak to others. We could, and still can, devide the class into different groups according to theological positioning, we knew what the others were thinking.

But the amazing thing is that we got through the fight, and reach a point of unity. A few months ago we went to camp together, and simply started sharing our stories. Still, I had the experience that we got together as friends, but struggled to get together on a spiritual journey. This past weekend this started happening. As we came together, from vastly diverging theological backgrounds, and I mean it when I say we REALLY differ in our theological opinions, and shared a spiritual journey. Through silence, singing, talking, sharing.

Now, usually theological students always build strong friendships with those they study with, but it seems like always classes are devided into different groups who, although not neccesarily fight, simply choose to not get together. It become a picture that is similar to what you find in the church, especially a church like ours, that has a wide variety of opinions and theological influences running within it. So, the thing which really stands out is that people who would be expected to not group together within certain church conversation, are really supporting each other, and really wishin the best for the other, even when we know that we will differ in the years to come.

So it’s really been an amazing journey (who, I use “amazing” a lot in this post, not something I usually do, I’m starting to sound like some of my charismatic friends:-)), and more and more I realize that not only have I had brilliant lecturers over the years, but I also studied with brilliant fellow students, both in my class and in others, who has influenced me greatly.

The South African reformed church scene is quite a complex one, I can’t think how to explain it to outsiders. But then again, I guess you find the reformed church scene around where you live complex too?

I’m in the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa. Studying with me is a number of students from the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa. Basically the same church, but they split up about 150 years ago, and ever since been apart. Then there is a Reformed Churches of South Africa, again supposed to be basically the same church, split up because of some theological debates in the Netherlands just under 150 years ago which was brought over here by the ministers studying there. Then the “Afrikaanse Protestantse Kerk”, I’ll do them the honour of not writing there name in English. They split up from us in 1986 because the Dutch Reformed Church said Apartheid was wrong, and a number of other things. Then you’ll find three other churches within the Dutch Reformed (our Dutch Reformed) family. The Uniting Reformed Church (the old coloured church and a part of the next church which would be mentioned), another Dutch Reformed Church in Africa (traditionally the black church), and then another one whose name I can’t remember, but this was always the Indian church. And this is just the beginning.

This is the legacy of Apartheid, and the legacy of Afrikaners. My flatmate was working with a laywer for a few months who does settling between companies and employers or something like that. They said that you can find settlement between anyone, except between an Afrikaner and a Zulu, because these two groups are so hard-headed.

So the long intro to a few thoughts after yesterday’s debate about whether the Afrikaans churches do enough to combat racism within themselves, hosted by the center for Public Theology at TUKS. We had Mr Neels Jackson, a brilliant journalist from Beeld who does the religious journalism. Must be one of the best journalists on religious matter I’ve ever read. Then Prof Piet Meiring, formerly from the department of Missiology at TUKS, and part of the Truth and Reconciliation committee. Prof Theuns Dreyer from the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa (Nederduits Hervormde Kerk), and Dr Johan Pienaar, moderator of the Northern synod of our church.

At first I thought about giving a summary of the whole debate, but that won’t be possible. So, some high and low points.

A definite low point for me was Prof Dreyer’s speech. Although I don’t disagree with what he said, I got the idea that he was using very beautiful language to defend the fact that you won’t find a lot of black people in the church he is from, and that there is no chance that a large part of there church will ever be non-white. He talked about racism being part of a bigger problem of stereotyping, and how we should actually battle things like forced integration and affirmative action, since this is making Afrikaners negative and thus more racist.

A definite high point was Prof Meiring suggesting that we need to take the problem of racism much more seriously, and that we should consider putting an interdisciplinary course together on the subject which is compulsory for all theological students. This I think must have been the best and most concrete suggestion of the whole morning. Another interesting thing he mentioned was a study on radio sermons a number of years ago, and the finding that almost all radio sermons was about our relationship with God, and almost nothing was said about the ethical dimension of faith, about our public role as Christians.

Neels Jackson made some very good remarks from the observations that he made after attending a number of synod meetings last year. His answer is that we are not yet doing enough about racism. I wholeheartedly agree with him.

Meiring told the story of Nelson Mandela visiting the General Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1994, and telling them that the telling sign of whether they could put Apartheid behind them would be whether they can unite with the other churches within the family. If Madiba was right, then we have failed miserably. My question to the panel was this: Do you think Nelson Mandela was right when he said that this would be the telling sign of whether we could put Apartheid behind us, whether we have put racism behind us, and if not, what would be?

Meiring obviously agreed with Madiba. So did Jackson, saying that we need to end racism to unify the churches, but the churches would need to be unified in order to end racism. Dreyer differed from him. Saying something in the line that forcing unification would not ensure the end of racism (which I’m sure no one in that room said), and then saying something which boiled down to the fact that different people should have different churches, not only because of race, he basically also said that it can’t be helped that the Afrikaans churches cannot unite into one. Although Pienaar didn’t respond to the question, by gutt feel is that he would also say that we don’t need to unite to show that we have put Apartheid and racism to and end.

My thoughts? Well, it seems like 9:00 AM on a Sunday morning is the most segregated time in South Africa. That can’t be right, can it? We can say nice things as much as we like, and talk about “spiritual unity” and other beautiful words, but before I’m not standing next to my black brother on a Sunday morning, I can’t say that I’ve overcome Apartheid. Would we ever do that? I think so yes, but sadly, I think it will take other factors to really put pressure on the existence of the churches in South Africa to bring us together on a large scale. In the meantime, our congregation will be joining the local Uniting Reformed Church in a course on parenting over the next few weeks…

You might wanna look at this post (Multi-Cultural Church), and this blog (Sorry for Apartheid). South Africans touching on similar topics.