2011 Lenten V Sermon by Fr Barney Pityana

I am resolved to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt…

–          Exodus 3:17


This week I had the privilege of attending the launch of the Kairos Southern Africa, a movement of theologians and church activists committed to the exploration of the justice imperatives of the gospel. The movement is commemorative of the 1985 Kairos Document: A Challenge to the Church published in the midst of enormous political turmoil in our country addressed to the church and country that seemed to be content with church theology that meant that nothing was to change too soon, and to the apartheid state that had declared itself the successors of the ancient Israelites in being God’s elect and the Afrikaners who had found God’s favour in Africa. The Kairos Document held that the signs of the times demanded a fresh and more radical approach to theology and put forward a prophetic theology for times like these.

 Now 25 years later some of the same theologians and many younger ones are asking themselves much the same questions about our times today: what is our responsibility to a social fabric that is collapsing all around us, the betrayal of the promises of democracy, and a church seemingly unnerved by the urgency of the situation. Today’s Kairos theologians came together to declare that our time today demanded a critical consciousness to hear afresh the voice of the oppressed and the suffering, and the powerless. It calls for a new consciousness about the extent to which the Bible continues to be used today to serve and protect the interests of the powerful to the detriment of the poor. It asks some hard questions about the state of our society today, and demands a re-examination of our faith in the light of the gospel. In other words it speaks to our situation today with the same urgency as it did 25 years ago in the midst of social and political turmoil wherever one turns in our land. And yet, it would seem the powers that be in both church and society, are oblivious of the precarious social fabric and the challenge to faith that many have to contend with daily.

 Equally significant is that as part of the conference, the Kairos Palestine Group launched their own document modeled on the South African Kairos Document of 25 years ago at the conference. Kairos Palestine: A Moment  of Truth is, as it says, “a word of faith, hope and love from the heart of the Palestinian suffering”. Signed by the leaders of the main denominations in the Holy Land, by pastors and theologians, Kairos Palestine is an ecumenical call to church and the world, to hear the cry of the suffering people of the Holy Land. It calls upon the churches of the world not to “offer a theological cover up for the injustice we suffer, for the sin of occupation imposed upon us.” The tendency especially by Europeans and Americans to theologise their guilt about the Holocaust at the expense of the humanity of the Palestinians must stop. To do so is tantamount to giving divine sanction to oppression, dispossession and an illegal and criminal occupation.

 In lectures by two of the most incisive theologians of the Palestine Kairos Group, one Anglican and the other Lutheran, the Revd Canon Dr Naim Ateek is the Director of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre, and the Revd Dr Mitri Raheb heads the Diyar Consortium in Bethlehem. Both challenged us profoundly about the reading and interpretation of the Bible, drawing our attention to the complicity of church and Western theologians to the theological distortions perpetuating heresies about the “Promised Land, “the Chosen People” and the extent to which God has thereby been appropriated for oppressive and unjust causes. They pointed out cogently that many conservative evangelical groups in Africa and the West, and far too many within mainline churches could be considered to be no more than Christian Zionists in their theology. Biblical interpretation has accordingly become a central platform for the new liberation theology, to move away from a tribal view of God to a universal God of justice for all. Tribal because God has become privatized into a tribal potentate, disinterested in the wholeness of Creation but imprisoned in an exclusive tribal mindset.

 A fierce debate ensued as to whether the Biblical Canon as we have it was credible any longer.  Of course, the canon, made up of the authorized Books of the Bible considered to be authoritative as Holy Scripture, developed first during the first century of the Christian era adopting largely the Hebrew Bible. By the 4th century a Christian canon had formed after much dispute and controversy.  For example Marcion in the second century CE insisted on excising the entire Hebrew Bible as well as sections of the New Testament that he regarded as offering no salvation according to the manner of Christ. It was Athanasius Bishop of Alexandria (367 CE) who stated that the 27 books of the New Testament were “springs of salvation … in which the doctrine of piety was proclaimed.” That became orthodoxy up to today!

 More precisely the question is whether the Hebrew Bible should not be dislodged from its privileged position in Christian scriptures, to take its place among all other ancient literatures that, in a variety of ways, are a revelation of God. If one has in mind that the historical nature of the evolving scriptures was that it grew out of the Hebrew social, religious and intellectual environment, at the same time literary traditions were emerging in other societies as in Asia and Africa well beyond the ken of the compilers of ancient scripture. Is there justification any longer, therefore, to say that the Canon was closed on the basis of the power games of the early Church Fathers and their view of orthodox faith? Is it sufficient any longer to sustain this ambivalence on the basis that the Hebrew Bible reveals the early influences on our Lord Jesus Christ? That question remains open, and meanwhile modern Christians must wrestle with some of the themes that were a product of efforts at nation-building in ancient Israel after many years of conquest and exile.

 The passage from Exodus prescribed for today is among those in the Torah that require closer and critical examination. What I want to do in this address is to avoid the usual temptation of Christian apologists, to gloss over the difficulties of the Bible to modern consciousness, and take refuge in the gospels and even the Pauline texts. Rather I intend to confront the text with all its difficulties.

 Karen Armstrong in her book The Bible: A Biography, reminds us that the Biblical text as we have it did not drop from heaven, nor was it received in writing wholesale. It arose from distant memory and oral traditions that were brought into service for a specific purpose during the post-exilic period. The erstwhile exiles called to service some epic stories, songs of heroes of the past, and they narrated their turbulent relationship with Yahweh. They remembered that although they had become many nations they were once one people, even though they had separated into two kingdoms Judea and Israel, they had one ancestor. They sought answers for their unfortunate circumstances, and one tradition, the Yahwist tradition emerged with the idea of the exclusive and jealous God, who demanded absolute loyalty – a God perceived in royal, almost imperious human terms.  Of course, in South Africa we are very familiar with this phenomenon. Watch how the historical revisionism applies, selective memory, partial honouring of heroes, and what role the meta-narrative of struggle plays in an effort to create a national consciousness informed by a particular viewpoint.

 Another was the Elohist Tradition for whom God was invisible, untouchable, a transcendent God. J became associated with the southern kingdom of Judea, and E with the northern kingdom, then going by the name of Israel. (The Palestinians were very emphatic in opening our eyes to a common error we make to assume that the ancient Israel is the same as the current Jewish and Zionist state of Israel)! There is doubt, for example, about the historicity of some of the J accounts, about the allegations of oppression and mistreatment in Egypt, there is archaeological evidence of mass migration. With each cataclysmic, apocalyptic experience in their history, e.g. the twice destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, their exile, and colonial domination, an intense period of scriptural activity ensued. The people of God sought wholeness and healing and harmony from the body of scripture that had been handed down to them. They were like engineers and artificers who twisted, tempered, and turned scripture to fit purpose.

 Nonetheless, in this passage the J source reveals to us God as a man of war, “ I have come down to rescue them from the power of Egypt; a God who visits retribution, and dispenses favour. Most significantly, this God is revealed as the God of the ancestors, the Divine I AM, the one who is, God of the Present Tense. The one previously unknown is now being revealed in his name, “This is my name for ever…” I am Yahweh, the God of their forefathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Incidentally these are historical personalities associated in legend with the southern kingdom. Second, we are told that about the Promise… to settle you in the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perrizites, Hivites, and Jebusites, literally an area of land from the Nile River, embracing present-day Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, to the Euphrates in present-day Iraq. Nothing is being said about what is to become of those whose land is occupied, what arrangements of legal possession were to take place.

 A more aggressive rendition of the intentions of the Yahwist God is evident in Numbers:

When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their cast images, and demolish all their high places. You shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given it to you to possess… But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes, and thorns in your sides…”

… evidently a licence to ethnic cleansing. Elsewhere in Deuteronomy there is even a demand that the settlers and occupiers must exterminate the native population and never seek to share or coexist, “you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate…” (Deut 20:17). You will notice that coexistence, accommodation, integration is frowned upon.  Even in our reading today there is a command to “plunder Egypt”, despoliation was now being mainstreamed.

 We now know what damage such a view of God has done in the Palestinian territories in relations between the Jews and the Palestinians, between Judaism and Islam – somehow part of the family is rejected and cast aside, a kind of infanticide. We know all too well what the effects of such upbringing could be on the siblings. It should not be surprising that this theology has spawned Islamicist Jihad, and interminable land wars; it has caused Pastor Jones in Texas to “try” the Koran, find it guilty, and then preside over a grisly execution. It has meant that some Christian workers in Afghanistan have their heads chopped of for no other reason that they are Christians.

 These liberationist texts, precisely the ones that spawned liberation theologies in our modern age, must somehow be thought and interpreted afresh. The starting point has to be to develop a canon within a canon, to allow a developmental revelation of God, as Albert Nolan reckons, to moderate the religiously articulated hatred of our time, to tone down aggressive and blood-curdling texts, and imperialism of the politics and theology rather than the religion of the post-exilic period; to recognize it when Biblical texts are merely used to advance a political purpose; and to interpret the Biblical text with charity, allowing the divine nature to show forth in love and care and justice in a universalist idiom.

 The principle of charity is about compassion for the other, to be open in your reading of scripture to the possibility that one might have missed something, and to be aware that one’s own circumstances do not always make for the best reading of scripture. Evoking the Johannine story of the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well, we drink from one another’s wells, Kairos Southern Africa calls all people of faith to share their respective revelations of the divine, and examine authentic faith against the Golden Rule. For faith judges us just even when we are most faithful.

 As we approach Good Friday we do well to be wary of those prayers in the Good Friday Reproaches that propound hatred against the Jews, and on whom the entire blame for the Crucifixion is based. In this regard the Rubric to the Holy Week Services in the Church of England (Common Worship: Times and Seasons) remind us that the reproaches are directed at our own hardness of heart and failure of discipleship, and should never be an occasion for venting thinly-veiled anti-Semitism.

 Then, as people of faith we need to be skeptical of politicians who appropriate the name of God especially as it might result in polarization and religious jingoism in a society already very susceptible to rampant violence. We must be very careful of establishing religious parties by the back door. Surely we have had enough of the erstwhile National Party’s religious claims that led to immense oppression and racial injustice and religious intolerance for some 50 years. On 27 April 1994 we were supposed to have turned a new leaf. We must never go down that road again.

 The lesson about an evolving revelation of God is captured beautifully by Gracie Allen who said, “Never put a period where God has placed a comma…” The United Church of Christ USA responding to this theological insight, embarked on a major mission campaign under the heading. “God is still speaking…” This means that God’s word is never once for all, it is continually being stated and restated; it is being heard in many contexts and cultures never imaginable at the time Scripture was committed to a written text; the wisdom of the ages grows with each generation discovering it afresh for its times. God is speaking still.

 The canon is open and available to inform and transform creatively and fills us with “grace upon grace” (John 1:16). As Karen Armstrong puts it, the Bible derives its holiness from the faithful discovering God afresh in its pages, and having the freedom to interpret it to cast new life on their life situations today.

Revelation was an ongoing process; it had not been confined to a distant theophany on Mount Sinai; exegetes continued to make the Word of God audible to each generation.

 To end the Conference Kairos Southern Africa had this to say in the Final Statement of the conference, “Drinking from one another’s Wells”:

For Southern African Christians… solidarity was (is) a gospel imperative for justice. It is a moral duty for people to understand, to share with, to journey together with the people of Palestine… Above all, we recognize that the uncritical and emotional support for the State of Israel is very evident in South Africa, and (it is) embedded in the psyche of too many of our Jewish and Christian compatriots.

 N Barney Pityana GCOB

Rector: College of the Transfiguration Grahamstown

Lent V 2011, Cathedral Church of St Michael and St George


10 April 2011.

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