“Why I confessed my guilt”

Argus, November 17, 1990.

“Why I confessed my guilt”.

DR WILLIE JONKER, professor in systematic theology at Stellenbosch and a leading NG Kerk theologian, explains why he confessed his guilt over apartheid to the National Conference of Churches at Rustenburg which drew wide criticism, also from ex-President PW Botha, Conservative Party leader Dr Andries Treurnicht and Professor Carel Boshoff of the rightwing Afrikaner-Volkswag.

AS a Christian I am convinced that there is only one possible way for us into the future, and that is that the people in this country should reconcile themselves to each other.

If that does not happen, we will remain in opposition against one another in fear and bitterness, which may eventually lead to the kind of strife and violence in which we will not only destroy ourselves spiritually and physically, but also threaten the future of our country as a whole.

As a Christian, I also believe that the Church has a tremendous responsibility in this situation to further the cause of such a rational reconciliation. But that can only happen if the different churches can reconcile themselves to one another.

Up to now, the churches have opposed one another in many respects. Christians distrust one another. They often have distorted pictures of one another. There has grown a negative spirit of suspicion between them.

One of the main obstacles in the way of reconciliation between the churches is their differences about the socio-economic problems in our country. Specifically, the differences regarding the policy of apartheid have rented the churches apart. Traditionally, the three main Afrikaans-speaking churches have supported the policy of apartheid while most of the English-speaking and black churches have condemned it in the strongest possible terms.

AS long as this situation remained static, it was impossible for the churches to find one another and to stand together as a united force of reconciliation in the country.

Fortunately, the situation did not remain static. During the last decade the Dutch Reformed Church (NGK), which is the largest of the three Afrikaans churches, has been constantly wrestling with the problem of its support for apartheid.

In an ongoing dialogue with Black churches within their own family and with the worldwide church, the NGK gradually started changing its position with regard to apartheid.

It realised more and more that it had in the past judged apartheid too superficially and uncritically, not taking into full account the pain, humiliation, suffering and injustices which the system of apartheid had caused in the black community. The process of reorientation of the NGK ended up in the condemnation of apartheid as a sin at the latest general synod of the NGK in Bloemfontein (October 1990).

THAT meant that, despite all the other, differences, there has come a growing convergence between the NGK and most other churches in the country. When the National Conference of Churches met at Rustenburg the ground was prepared for a step in the direction of reconciliation between them. The only thing that was necessary for that to happen, was that suspicion and distrust should be removed, in order to make it possible for them to accept one another and to start afresh on the way to the future.

But for this to happen, it was necessary for the NGK to clear the ground by confessing its guilt for the support of the system of apartheid, and to ask the other churches to forgive them and to accept them. Without that, reconciliation would not have been possible.

When I took the step to confess my own guilt before the conference, I did it because I have for a long time realised that, although I had been critical of apartheid myself, I could not claim that I have had no part in the collective guilt that rests upon all of us in this regard. I felt compelled personally to confess to our black sisters and brothers that I am also guilty of much of the wrongs that they suffer.

But I was, of course, encouraged to do so by the decisions of the general synod of the NGK. I consequently took the liberty to say that although I confessed my guilt in my personal capacity, I also dared vicariously to confess the guilt of the church as a whole, of which I am a member, and of the Afrikaaner (sic) people with which I identify myself.

I was overwhelmed by the spontaneous reaction of the conference and the willingness to forgive and accept. I was also tremendously thankful that the official delegates of the NGK identified themselves with what I had said about the relation of the NGK to apartheid. I am sure that this can be the beginning of a new period in the history of the churches in our country.

As far as I am concerned, this was to me the most natural thing for a Christian to do. I regard it as a spiritual matter, as part of my obedience to Christ and my desire to be a true disciple of Him.

It is of course not yet clear what all the consequences of such a confession will be. But what I do know is that we have embarked on a process of reconciliation that will hopefully be of great importance for the churches themselves and for the country as a whole.