by Allan Boesak
It seems to me that the word that was spoken at the 2004 General Council in Accra, Ghana, has been validated over and over again in the past ten years, and that is a tragedy. Our situation today confirms in more ways than we would have liked to see what the Accra Confession has described as a “scandalous world.”
The so-called “recovery from the financial crisis in 2008” has meant that 94% of the financial benefits of that recovery have gone to the 1%. The poor have remained poor and have become even poorer. And here we are not talking about poverty; we are talking about a perpetual process of impoverishment. Fifty million-plus dollars per year go into surplus food that is being dumped, while a billion people go hungry every night. It’s a scandalous world. Accra was right.
There is a United Nations (UN) report that now describes violence against women as a global pandemic. South Africa is now called the “rape capital of the world.” A woman is raped in my country every 6.2 minutes, in the United States (US) every 36 minutes. There is a European Union (EU) report that came out in February 2014 that speaks of violence against women that has reached unprecedented heights. It’s a scandalous world. Accra was right.
This year living in the US I saw many things and this is one of them: In February of 2014, Congress passed a law that cut 8.7 billion dollars from the budget that would have been directed at making sure that there are food stamps available for poor families. This cut affected 14 million people. The reason was that they thought the deficit was too high, and the United States should be more careful in how it spends its money. That was in February 2014, and in October 2014 that same Congress all of a sudden found the money for the war in the Middle East, an estimated 18 to 22 billion dollars per year. It is a scandalous world. Accra was right.
In 1974, German theologian Helmut Gollwitzer wrote something that I will never forget:
Whether Rome won or Wittenberg or Geneva; whether it was to be justification through good works or by faith; whether the Decrees of Dordt or the Statements of the Remonstrants were to become the official church doctrine; whether Cromwell or Charles I would be the victor—for the red, yellow, and black people of the world this was all irrelevant. This had no bearing whatsoever on their situation… Nothing of all this would stop the capitalistic revolution as the revolution of the white, Christian, Protestant peoples that would spread all over the world to open the era of slavery which even today is not yet ended.
I think it is true, and to paraphrase Gollwitzer, whether Washington or London or Beijing wins; whether it was to be liberal democracy, democratic despotism or any ethnic nationalism; whether Romney or Obama or Putin would be victorious; for the poor and the oppressed and the downtrodden of the Global South, and for the excluded people of the Global North this would be irrelevant. Nothing would stop the new liberal capitalistic revolution as a revolution of the powerful privileged elites in the North, still struggling all over the world to ensure that the era of slavery and destruction is not yet ended. It is a scandalous world. Accra was right.
Accra has taught us that the reason why we can write in the language that we did was because we were not simply reading the signs of the times, but we were reading the signs of the times and discerning them through the eyes of the poor, the oppressed and the wounded of the world. In my view the cries of the poor and the oppressed are the cries of God. That means that not only God hears those cries or that God has implanted those cries in the hearts of those who cannot bear injustice, but that God becomes the poor and the oppressed and the downtrodden. So when we respond to the cries of the poor and oppressed in the world, we are responding to the agony of God, to the outrage of God; we are responding to the wounding of God. John Calvin says, “Every act of injustice, every bit of damage that is done to any of God’s children, any hurt inflicted on any of God’s children is a wound on God’s self. So doing injustice is wounding God. Undoing injustice is healing the wounds of God.”1
But what does that mean for those of us who stand before the Accra Confession as a confession? It means that we will have to learn what it means to walk humbly with God. It is rather an act of learning to read the heart of God as we read the signs of the times, to hear the voice of God in the cries of the victims of our own voracious greed, and in so doing to understand what is to be asked. And that cannot be done but in utter humility before God and before the world that we have hurt and damaged due to our arrogance and greed and in our love of violence.
Walking with God means just what it says, walking with God through Egypt. Seeing through the oppressive and heartless Pharaoh to the pain of the suffering of God’s people. Walking with God’s people is standing in the midst of slaves counting the blows, bending under the weight, feeling the pain. It is understanding the power of the Pharaoh and the mercilessness of the slave drivers. Walking with God is to come down to rescue, to liberate and to end the violence and the suffering. Walking humbly with God is walking from the brickmaking yards to the palace gates, to the throne telling Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” It is breaking down the wall of resistance between the will of Pharaoh and the longing of the people. Walking with God means being humbled by what you see, by what we are doing for others, by our capacity for harm and destruction in what we are doing to God’s creation.
So where does this walking humbly with God take us, if we follow the Accra Confession? I have yet to see a church that is willing to make its hands dirty. We talk too much about the bleeding hands of Christ, and we don’t want to even make our hands dirty with ordinary mud, never mind the blood of those who are the victims of our violence.
Accra used prophetic language. It’s time now that we ask what it means when the church uses such prophetic language, speaking about “empire” and the “scandalous world” we live in. You go to Pakistan and ask any family who has lost a member to a drone strike and then talk again about “empire.” The day when two families came to the United States to testify about drone strikes in their area—one family had lost a grandmother, the other family had lost a baby—only five members of Congress showed up to hear what they had to say. We can vote billions of dollars to buy weapons that destroy the lives of other people, but we cannot bring up the courage to look them in the eye. Five people only came to hear the consequences of their decisions, the consequences of their imperial power.
This is what Accra means for us: That we shall not take this lying down, that we shall not be silent when this happens. Those families in Pakistan have a right to count on our solidarity and action because we use prophetic language. If you are not ready to do that, scrap the word “scandalous world” from our Accra Confession.
Faithfulness to the Accra Confession, today, means that we have to ask again the question M.M. Thomas asked in 1961, “Where, in all these people’s revolutions around the world, is God at work? And where does the church participate in these movements to discern God’s work towards the creation of a new humanity?”
Let me end with the parable Jesus told in the Gospel of Luke, the parable of the Good Samaritan:
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25–37)
Helmut Gollwitzer, way back in 1974 France, raised the question about this parable in which he asked, What would happen if the Samaritan came down the road while the robber was still on the scene? Now that question takes the parable out of the “let’s do some mercy works,” “let’s do some charity works.”
We have always waited until the robbers were gone, so the dangers no longer existed. And then we would do some quick mercy work before the next batch of robbers came along.
Well, the question is, what do we do if the robber is still on the road? What if we are called not to do charity but to stop the attack? What if we are called to stop the violence? What if we are called to put our bodies on the line so that nobody can get hurt anymore? What if we took our Accra Confession seriously? What if we took justice seriously? What if we simply realized that we have to put our bodies between the powers of empire and their victims? What if we actually believed Jesus is alive and watching us?
Gollwitzer, Helmut. Die kapitalistische Revolution, Kaiser (1974).
Wolterstorff, Nicholas. “The Wounds of God: Calvin on Social Injustice,” The Reformed Journal, June 1987.
1 Nicholas Wolterstorff, “The Wounds of God: Calvin on Social Injustice,” The Reformed Journal, June 1987, 14-22.