The reasons why I think we “dropped the Kairos ball” in South Africa

The reasons why I think we “dropped the Kairos ball” in South Africa

  1. It seems to me as if it was actually easy to drop it, given the circumstances of the early 90s. It was the easy way to what we thought would be broader acceptance of prophetic theology without the State and Church theologians having to pay much of a price. Without judging anyone, it was the dishonest way. Something (in this case Kairos theology) was done outside of the institutional church and this brought the institutional church kicking and screaming back to the Gospel. Mr de Klerk’s political acceptance that things could not go on in the old way caught the institutional church and Kairos theologians off-guard and we did not know how or did not have a strategy how best to respond to it. Most importantly, we then allowed the church (mainly the English-speaking mainline churches but also the NGK, after some of their leaders said sorry) to broadly “adopt” our position (as if it was always strongly anti-apartheid), without really having to repent of its lukewarm “church theology” stance. It was like cheap grace: we gave a rich theological heritage away cheaply. It was a way of redemption for the whole church, without the whole church having to reflect on why it took the positions it took, and without having to really repent of it. It would have been similar to the church in Germany to have said – after the Second world war -something like: “We always supported Bonnhoefer’s position” – while in fact they did not.
  2. The Church’s explanation to the TRC about her role during apartheid became the final chapter of this exercise, and it was closed. Again, without blaming anybody, the ICT presentation to the TRC was a major missed opportunity as it did not explain the rationale and definition behind church theology sufficiently and how this contributed to the institutional church’s position vis a vis apartheid, and how that same way of theologizing was brought into the new South Africa. (This resulted in double redemption for the institutional church) Some of us protested at this cheap way of using the word “reconciliation”, but we could not articulate our concerns properly (we were probably viewed as being negative and did not want to be viewed that way – note how ICT was labeled “the Institute of Critical theologians”, a term that would have been positive during the anti-apartheid struggle but now seen as negative) and thereby the ball was dropped. The TRC exercise then became a masterful exercise in the justification of church theology in particular, and the institutional church got away with it. The concept of reconciliation became “constantinianised” and publicly blessed. The role of the DRC during apartheid also to some extent became the decoy by which the English mainline churches got away, since it pointed to the DRC and said: “But we were not like that” (triple redemption!), while in fact it was worse in some ways by for example blessing the Apartheid military by appointing chaplains to it but labeling stone-throwing of the oppressed as violence. In this moral morass we fell, and we could not lift ourselves out of it, and allowed others, and those to the right of them– with their questionable social morality –  to dictate the theological agenda for the first years of the South African democracy. This (2010) must be the year when we say “No more” and reclaim our prophetic heritage, and of course pick up the Kairos ball again.
  3. The fact is that because we arrived at a point where we did not stand for anything or could not articulate what we stood for, we fell for almost everything, and this has had dire consequences for the theological landscape in South Africa ever since. Theological students now tell us that in all their years of theological study (in the 90s) they were not even required to read or discuss the Kairos document, while in fact this was happening in theological faculties in other parts of the world. Imagine this: the most ecumenical and the richest theological statement in South Africa during apartheid gets ignored by the church in the new “post-apartheid” rainbow fervour. It was almost as if we (the South African Church) were ashamed of our most important theological statement. We (the prophetic theologians and others) need to acknowledge that we allowed this to happen and repent of this and need to recommit ourselves to the Spirit that gave rise to Kairos theology. Only this will liberate us.
  4. The good news is that while the church ignores its most important document, much of civil society still remembers it as the church statement against apartheid which helped to mobilise the energy of many Christians into the struggle against apartheid in the 1980s.
  5. Unlike a document such as the Belhar confession, the Kairos document did not have an institutional home, except in the ICT and to some extent in the SACC. The Congregational church (UCCSA) adopted much of the document but the follow-through was probably not sufficient or effective enough. With the demise of ICT and the weakening of SACC the Kairos document lost whatever “home” it had.
  6. But those of us who are committed to Kairos theology are not “entitled” to anything, except what we ourselves are willing to do. We have a responsibility to explain this situation to ourselves and then to the people we dropped in the process, those most marginalized in our new dispensation. We need to repent of this before asking others to do so.
  7. The Kairos document of course was not perfect and had a strong political justice component to it, but almost no economic justice content. And perhaps this is the right time to correct that, and if necessary become involved in the struggle for economic and ecological justice and out of that, do a new Kairos statement with a strong economic and ecological justice emphasis.
  8. The Palestinian Kairos document (thanks be to God) have challenged us in many ways, and besides being in Solidarity with our Palestinian sisters and brothers (which we must be) we must also use this moment to reclaim our kairos theology heritage. We must be careful that even this is not done in an elitist way, but that as many people as possible take ownership of this.

Written by Rev Edwin Arrison  September 2010 (updated May 2011)


2 responses to this post.

  1. Useful article, you really prepare the most practical articles and The reasons why I think we dropped the Kairos ball in South Africa Kairos Southern Africa is
    no exception to this rule.



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