Apart we pray? The struggle of South Africa's Reformed churches to unite a divided nation
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This dissertation analyzes the prolonged transition of South Africa’s Reformed churches from bastions of apartheid towards protagonists of racial reconciliation. At the center is the unification process of the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) and the Uniting Reformed Church of Southern Africa. The two institutions are rooted in the same tradition, with broadly similar doctrines, yet they worship separately in the old racial categories of apartheid. This is not for lack of effort. After 1994, the DRC shifted from proclaiming divine divisions between races, nations and ethnicities to urging inclusivity in the name of Jesus Christ. The limited success so far to integrate the long divided churches reveals an intricate story of religious actors trying to reframe identities and adjust normative frameworks. The story mirrors South Africa’s greater struggle to transcend its past. Part I of this dissertation considers the nationalist civil religion with which the churches bolstered segregation, and its legacy in contemporary South Africa. By drawing comparisons with other religious-nationalist movements, the study shows the impact of religion in sustaining ethnic conflicts with its everyday structures of separation. Through a qualitative study of South Africa’s Reformed churches, Part II investigates what happens with such structures after a conflict dissipates. To what extent have the churches been able to untangle their attachments to particular ethnic and racial identities? An assessment of their unity discourse and its implementation among five communities in the Free State and Western Cape displays a complex role of religious ideas and practices in deepening and mitigating social divisions. At stake here are recently adopted beliefs in inclusivity along with the pressure to adapt to a rapidly pluralizing religious landscape in which the churches’ authority is no longer a given. They have to cooperate across the color line if they wish to retain relevance in society. This study thus highlights dynamics of principles and pragmatism, and of reconciliation and justice. Where historically white congregations are gradually coming to terms with the need to partner with their black neighbors, the latter now prioritize economic equality over reconciliation. This has not made the churches’ search for unity any easier.
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