SEOUL, South Korea–In an African nation where apartheid existed until a little over a decade ago, reconciliation between different Baptist bodies has been a painful process that requires constant work.
Terry Rae, former general secretary of the predominantly white Baptist Union of South Africa, said some South African Baptists still have not dealt with the nation’s racist past, and others still hold racist attitudes. Yet he reported on the process and progress toward reconciliation.
Both German and English Baptists came to South Africa in the early 1800s, Rae said in a paper to the doctrine and inter-church cooperation commission of the Baptist World Alliance. In 1819, the first Baptist church was started. In 1877, the Baptist Union of South Africa was formed with a goal to reach the country’s indigenous inhabitants.
In 1966, the Baptist Union included “whites,” “Indians,” “blacks,” “coloreds” and “Afrikaans.” In 1976, the Baptist Union reorganized itself to become a convention composed of local churches.
While talks occurred between Baptist Union and the predominately black Baptist Convention of South Africa, formed in 1965, the Baptist Convention decided to become an independent body in 1987.
“White leadership had not worked through the issues of being the ‘favored’ culture in an apartheid South Africa, nor had we begun to understand the effects of the apartheid system on our black brothers and sisters,” Rae told Baptists gathered this week in Seoul, South Korea, for the annual General Council meeting.
Rae said that “while slavery had little direct impact on South Africa,” it had a large impact of the colonial attitudes of Europeans who saw blacks as inferior, contributing to the oppression of the people of Africa.
“The apartheid system … went furthest in oppressing and dehumanizing the people of Africa,” he said. “The whole legal system was based on the assumption that Europeans were superior to Africans, and this belief was bred into the lives and behavior of the people of South Africa.”
Rae argued that the gospel did alter the attitudes and actions of many whites towards blacks, but too few whites understood the harm of apartheid.
Noting that the apartheid laws did not allow black churches to own their own buildings, Rae said the Baptist Union did not transfer property titles to Baptist Convention churches until 1991, when both bodies began meeting to resolve their differences.
Although white and black South African Baptists met between 1991 and 1995 to seek resolution to differences, the two bodies did not experience a breakthrough until 1996, when 10 leaders from each group attended a prayer retreat.
Later that year, the Baptist Union adopted a resolution which acknowledged white Baptists’ “sins of commission and omission.”
Following reconciliation conferences in 1996 and 1997, 180 leaders equally divided between both bodies met in May 1998.
Rae said the delegates were divided into groups of 20 with each group required to write grievances on flipchart paper. At the end of the first day, groups read their lists and the papers were then placed on the wall of a large hall, covering the entire wall.
The next day, the facilitator asked the delegates, who were seated on opposite sides grouped by union/convention, who would begin the process of repentance.
“Twenty minutes of tense silence followed,” Rae said.
A black delegate then crossed the isle to a white delegate, confessing his criticism of the other and asking for forgiveness. Following their embrace, “a floodgate of confession and repentance” began.
“This went on for five hours without stopping,” Rae reported.
At the end of the “exhausting day,” the delegates sat in silence until a Xhosa woman, one of the Baptist Convention delegates, went to the wall and took down a page of grievances. She placed it on the communion table. Other delegates followed her led. Another woman placed the sheets under the table.
“The Baptist Union and Baptist Convention leaders rose and declared that we would not resurrect the issues that were under the table again,” said Rae. “They were covered by the blood of Jesus.”
In 1999, the two groups acknowledged that the Baptist Union emphasized evangelism and mission, while the Baptist Convention emphasized social action and justice. Each agreed that they should learn from the other’s emphasis.
Three other Baptist bodies joined the unity talks. All five bodies formed the South African Baptist Alliance, whose purpose was to facilitate unity, address national issues related to justice and cooperate in ministries.
Acknowledging the role that BWA leaders, Southern Baptist Convention and American Baptist Churches, U.S.A., missionaries and others played in the reconciliation process, Rae cited an African proverb, “When a bird builds its nest it uses the feathers of other birds.”
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics and executive editor of EthicsDaily.com.