By Jeff Brumley
Allan Boesak is a native South African and Reformed Church pastor and theologian who worked shoulder to shoulder with Nelson Mandela and others to defeat apartheid. He is a passionate advocate of the reconciliation and ecumenical movements and is a top expert on liberation theology.
And Boesak is also this: a big fan of Baptists. So much so that in the 1990s he was baptized — while a member of a Presbyterian church — in an African-American Baptist congregation in Oakland, Calif., as a show of solidarity for the tradition. His whole family went along.
“We were baptized into that church not as a political tactic, but … to build a relationship and to understand what ‘ecumenical’ means.”
Even today — as the Desmond Tutu Chair of Peace, Global Justice and Reconciliation Studies at Butler University and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis — Boesak’s connection to Baptists remains strong.
“I am on the road three weekends a month and I preach in all sorts of places all over the country,” said Boesak, 69. “Many of them are black churches, mostly Baptist.”
Boesak will continue that streak this month as the keynote speaker for the New Baptist Covenant luncheon at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s General Assembly in Atlanta. The luncheon is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. on June 26.
“My spiritual bond with the Baptist church has grown,” said Boesak, who still worships in a Presbyterian church.
Baptists were leaders in the American civil rights movement and some continue today to nurture what is left of an emaciated global ecumenical movement. In fact, they are among some of the strongest signs of that movement’s eventual resurgence, he said.
“I think the New Baptist Covenant is that kind of movement, and I think it will continue to grow around issues that really matter,” he said.
Boesak’s perspective is one steeped in advocacy for social, economic and political justice and the importance of reconciliation in humanitarian causes. He became one of South Africa’s leading anti-apartheid leaders, working alongside Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the late Nelson Mandela.
At 36, Boesak was exposed to the world’s ecumenical stage when he was elected president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, which boasts more than 70 million members from 100 nations.
But Boesak describes Jesus Christ as his main mentor in these causes — especially in ecumenism.
The global ecumenical movement is just as needed today as ever, but has fallen on hard times as political isolationism has taken root around the world — especially in developed nations, Boesak said.
He said the movement has waned since its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s and for a short time in the 1980s.
One reason: peace and justice have become unpopular in the northern hemisphere, where some churches have subsequently withdrawn their support.
“As political isolationism grows, so the churches in those countries fall into the trap of thinking our strength lies in our isolation,” he said. “It becomes easier to just let something wither and die.”
But Boesak said he is optimistic about the global ecumenical movement because it is, he insists, God’s will.
“One of the last things Jesus told his disciples was to go beyond Jerusalem and beyond Judea and make disciples,” he said. “It means … exude and live and be inspired by a oneness and a unity no matter where we are, not matter which culture we live in and no matter what language we speak.”
Boesak compared the movement to Pentecost, when people from many nations gathered together and were united by the Holy Spirit. “That is saying to us that every household of God needs to be connected in every way we can be.”
Evidence God is moving again in that field can be seen on small scales around the globe. Relatively small, scattered groups are beginning to cooperate within nations and internationally on causes of social justice and peace.
The Covenant is just one of one of the many “prophetic networks of action in the world, who are speaking about reconciliation and justice in very authentic ways.”
‘Rejoiced too quickly’
Just as important and related to the ecumenical movement is liberation theology, Boesak said.
That surprises some, given the accomplishments of high-profile movements such as civil rights and anti-apartheid. But oppression through discrimination continues despite those victories, Boesak said.
A good example is South Africa, he said, where the constitution now guarantees the human dignity of each person.
“But the realities that we were fighting — poverty, exclusion — all of those realities still remain and it is upon those realities that liberation theology still works.”
Despite the legislative and social victories of the civil rights movement in the United States, he added, women minorities continue to struggle for basic economic justice.
“It seems to me that liberation theology has more of a reason to exist today than it had when we were fighting blatant apartheid and blatant Jim Crow,” Boesak said. “It seems to me we may have rejoiced too quickly.”
Mandela ‘turned minds upside-down’
Yet many lessons learned in those movements continue to inspire despite ongoing struggles. A good deal of that is because of Nelson Mandela.
What moved Boesak most about Mandela, he said, was that the politician and activist had so much to teach pastors about Christ and theology.
“He came out of prison and did not show even one hint of an impulse of bitterness or anger,” Boesak said, adding that he knew many in the church and wider society who thirsted for retribution once apartheid had fallen.
“But to come out of prison and immediately say that we have only one future together as a nation, and that we must speak about reconciliation and forgiveness — that was astounding,” he said.
Mandela was criticized by some and labeled an “accommodationist” for not seeking retribution against whites after 350 years of slavery and apartheid, much of which had been rationalized and supported through Christian theology. These were voices that wanted a revolutionary leader.
“But he turned people’s minds upside-down,” Boesak said.
Mandela was already known as a great political thinker and tactician. Suddenly, South Africans also saw his spiritual depth.
“We had no idea of the actual greatness that was in Nelson Mandela, and it almost exploded on us.”