Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Being a dominee in SA today – A letter to my Dutch Reformed ancestors

By Nadia Marais

Dear ancestors,

I write to you because I hope you might help us following the uproar last week after the Dutch Reformed Church’s General Synod decided to recognise same-sex relationships.

On the one hand it is strange that there is such an uproar at all, not only because one of the core values of our constitution is human dignity, but also because the church has committed herself to what is called “The Season of Human Dignity”, characterised by love, listening, embrace, and respect. Moreover since 2007 the Dutch Reformed Church made it possible for gay members to hold office in the church. In other words, this decision — allowing gay members to hold office in the church — is eight years old and therefore nothing new.

The only difference between the 2007 and 2015 decision is the recognition that ministers may also be in same-sex relationships and may now conduct civil unions, whereas before last week’s decision gay ministers had to be celibate and only marriages between men and women could be conducted by dominees of the church.

It would appear as if we are in serious trouble, theologically. We (whereby I mean many of you, ancestors!) used to teach people, both inside and outside of the church, that there is an order in created things and that, because of this, we could rank people according to their race, gender and sexual orientation. This is how we justified apartheid, and this is why people are upset with the theologians who spoke against discrimination based on sexual orientation and who spoke up for the equality and dignity of all human beings during the debate on same-sex relationships.

Many people are really, really angry with the NG Kerk’s leadership and theologians because they think that we have stepped away from the Bible and what the Bible ostensibly says about homosexuality. They accuse us of straying from our deepest convictions as a Reformed church, and “giving in” to the pressures of modern society.

What they don’t understand – or perhaps they don’t want to understand it – is that we have since 1986 when the NG Kerk decided that apartheid was unjustifiable, become a church that is not an institution that calls the shots regarding public morality anymore. And for the better, obviously. One example illustrates this well. In the 1940s the Dutch Reformed Church pleaded with the government to make marriages between people of different races illegal. In 1949 this law was passed, not long after the National Party won election in 1948. And so it happened that the Dutch Reformed Church was the direct reason why so-called mixed marriages were prohibited. Seventy years ago it was this very church that tried to dictate, based on the idea that we could rank people — like you would rank rugby teams today — who you may and may not be in a relationship with.

When the NG Kerk decided not to repeat this historical mistake – this time based on gender, not race – she chose not only for including more kinds of relationships into her fold. She also decided to embrace diversity, and to affirm the equality of all people (regardless of how they look or who they love), and to commit herself to becoming a church that will try to discern the triune God at work in the world – also in post-apartheid South Africa.

There are many of you, ancestors, who worked towards this very ideal and were vilified and demonised by your brothers and sisters in the church for opposing apartheid and all kinds of injustices and discrimination. One of you, Willie Jonker, apologised for apartheid in 1990 – on behalf of the Dutch Reformed Church and all Afrikaner people. People hated him for doing that. He even received death threats following this well-known confession. Another one of you, Johan Heyns, was assassinated in 1994 for his role in publicly opposing apartheid. And we all know the story of how Beyers Naudé was shunned for his role in opposing apartheid and for his commitment to reconciliation, already since the 1960s. Nelson Mandela himself would describe Oom Bey, following his death in 2004, as “a true humanitarian and a true son of Africa”.

So here is why I think you might be able to help us, ancestors. There were many of you who risked everything for your convictions that all human beings have dignity, that all human beings must be treated as equals, and that justice and reconciliation belong together. You have helped me to understand that the calling of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa is to work towards this, not only because of our dark past, and specifically our involvement in apartheid, but also because the Bible and the Reformed tradition that shapes our identity does not allow us to discriminate against people who are different from us.

But when I look at your lives and at how you were treated by the very people you loved so much, you simply could not remain silent, it scares me. The reconciliation you worked for, fought for, perhaps even died for, is not cheap, easy, superficial reconciliation. It costs everything because it is true and deep and extremely painful. Perhaps it is you – the Willie Jonkers and the Johan Heynses and the Beyers Naudés – that will help us with reconciliation, not only among ourselves in this church but also in broader society. If only we will have the courage to learn from you and listen to you speaking to us from our past.

I write to you because I, as a young person in South Africa and in the Dutch Reformed Church today, am deeply saddened by the many ways in which we still want to discriminate against people who are different. The backlash to the church’s decision on same-sex relationships reveals this dark side in surprising and unexpected ways. But I hope we will continue to remember that there were always those among you, ancestors, who did not agree with the crowd and who could not remain silent regarding injustices and without whom we would still be the apartheid NG Kerk.

Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika.

Your daughter,

Nadia

Nadia Marais is ordained in the Dutch Reformed Church and teaches systematic theology at Stellenbosch University, where she completed her masters in theology as a Mandela Rhodes Scholar in 2011.

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