The Dangerous Memory of the Gospel & South Africa, Palestine and the Papal Visit to the Holy Land
By Charles Villa-Vicencio*
The church has long had a split personality, consisting of traditional believers who cling to institutionalized ritual and what they regard as doctrinal purity and activists whose faith prioritizes social action. Numerically the former is the larger group for the simple reason that most people are conformists who accept the religious and socio-political status quo of the day. The latter invariably comprises a smaller group of people who affirm that what they believe is a part of the Christian tradition that is suppressed, if not forgotten, by the dominant structures within the institutional church.
This smaller group is customarily side-lined by the church hierarchy and frequently persecuted by political authorities. With some exceptions, however, the two sides of the church tend, with mutual irritation, to coexist. This leads to a situation where activists disturb the conscience of traditional believers, reminding them of what the Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz called the “dangerous memory of the Gospel”.
Jesus of History
Jesus was a native of the dusty, rural town of Nazareth, known for its political resistance to Roman occupation. Historians tell us that, apart from what is written in the Gospels, there are only two indisputable facts that we know about the historical Jesus: the first is that he was a Jew who led a popular movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century CE. The second is that Rome conspired with the Sanhedrin to crucify him, based on claims that he was the “King of the Jews”—a treasonous crime punishable by death.
The lines between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith preached by the church are blurred, with New Testament references to his teaching often contradicting one another. These include teachings that suggest racial exclusion – “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24); benevolent universalism—“Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19); peace and nonviolence— “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9); and the promotion of violence— “Let him who has no sword, go sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36).
The earliest New Testament writings are those attributed to St. Paul, dating back to approximately 48 CE when he wrote the first letter to the Thessalonians. Paul’s primary interest was not, however, the historical Jesus but the proclamation of a Christian message to gentiles in the broader Roman Empire. Mark’s account of Jesus was written after 70 CE, Matthew and Luke wrote between 90 and 100 CE and John somewhere between 100 and 120 CE, with various non-canonical gospels interspersed between these dates. A lot of history and interpretation happened between the time of the ministry of Jesus and the earliest records available that record that ministry. This requires any thoughtful person to put aside preconceived theological casuistry in keeping an open mind on what Jesus may or may not have taught.
After the death of Jesus, James, “the brother of Jesus,” apparently emerged as leader of the embryonic church. In continuity with the teaching of Jesus, he insisted that a follower of Jesus needed to show partiality in favor of the poor. His fierce support for the poor and sharp criticism of the rich, may well explain why Ananus, the self-indulgent high priest at the time, persuaded the Sanhedrin to preside over James’ execution around 62 AD. Chaos reigned in Palestine at the time and the Roman occupiers were driven out of Palestine in 66 CE in a rebellion led by Jewish nationalists and the Sicarii (dagger men or assassins). The Romans reclaimed Jerusalem in 70 CE when they unleashed an orgy of violence against all forms of Jewish nationalism. They desecrated and burned the temple and slaughtered tens of thousands of Jews.
Barnabas and Paul had in the meantime (around 50 CE) met with “pillars of the church,” James, Peter, and John, to confirm the legitimacy of their mission to the gentiles and the freedom of gentile converts to reject the Mosaic Law. In so doing they extended the reach of the early church into the wider Roman Empire. The tension between James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and Paul, the apostle to the gentiles, is seen in the Epistle of James (probably compiled by an editor drawing on the teachings of James). Rejecting Paul’s emphasis on faith alone as a means of salvation, the writer insisted on both faith and works as a vehicle of salvation. As Christian history shows, Paul would win this debate—and fifteen hundred years later Martin Luther would reject the Book of James as an “Epistle of Straw”!
Peter and others would the flee Jerusalem to escape the persecution of Herod Agrippa, only to see Peter later crucified in Rome under the rule of Emperor Nero Augustus Caesar, probably in 66 CE. Early Christians were at the same time eager to survive the onslaught on Jewish nationalists and distanced themselves from the Jews. They gradually transformed themselves from a Jewish sect into a separate religion centred in Rome, where Paul steadily moved the church towards a gospel more acceptable to the Hellenized culture of the Greco-Roman world. Despite this development, Paul would run afoul of the establishment, with tradition telling us that he too was executed after a lengthy period of imprisonment, possibly in the same year as Peter.
Bluntly put, the pendulum of the early church shifted away from its Jewish origins (and from the historic Jesus) to the Christ of faith as articulated by Paul. Paul’s emphasis was primarily on Christology rather than the historical Jesus, insisting that his authority came through “a [direct] revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:12), which seems to allude to his Damascus Road experience (Acts 9:5). In claiming this authority, Paul’s references to Jesus, rather than taking his total ministry into consideration, are reduced to a spiritual reflection on the last supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-26), the crucifixion (I Corinthians 2:2) and the resurrection, without which he states “our preaching is empty and your faith is in vain” (I Corinthians 15:14).
Given the demands of a gentile and Hellenized world to which Paul believed he was called, his ministry placed less emphasis than the gospel writers on the historical context within which Jesus lived. While Paul’s emphasis lessened the direct political impact of the message of Jesus in early Palestine, it was in continuity with the life of Jesus. In proclaiming that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28), Paul’s message transcended race, gender and class. This message is a crucial aspect of a gospel that rejects any sense of superiority by any group, based on race, culture, creed or gender, making it pertinent to apartheid South Africa and segregated Palestine. As such, Paul’s message needs to be embraced as a crucial part of what has been described as the “dangerous memory of the gospel” that undermines the complacency of the rich and powerful in any society.
Differently stated, there is an inter-related double heritage in the church, traceable to the person of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament. One layer of this heritage is traceable to the teachings of Jesus contained in the gospels that capture the partiality of Jesus in support of the poor and oppressed, which led to his crucifixion and the martyrdom of his followers. The other layer concerns the universality of the gospel, emphasized in the teaching of Paul, which amplifies the teaching of Jesus as reflected in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, his encounter with the Syrophoenician women, and elsewhere.
Both heritages are pertinent to a church within a society subjected to ideological distinctions based on race, class and gender.
The Dominant Tradition of Christianity
The dominant message of any movement is invariably the message of those who wield most power at a given time. The dominant history of Christianity is the history told by those who exercised political power from the time of the Roman Empire to the global dominance of the United States of America today, where the story of Jesus is essentially the story told by that country’s “popular” evangelists. Importantly, however, this power has never been left unchallenged. We see this happening in countries across the world where the poor and the marginalized in each successive age rise in resistance, and sometimes in revolution, against those who oppress and exploit them.
This is what happened in South Africa where a measure of sanity eventually prevailed in the apartheid state with the democratic elections that saw the emergence of a black majority government under the remarkable leadership of Nelson Mandela. There is no indication that the unfinished Palestinian intifadawill in the immediate future realize what the South African struggle achieved in 1994. It is clear, however, that Palestinian resistance will not subside before the Palestinian people are afforded the opportunity to create a democratic future. This is a tried and tested reality of all history. The question is what the role of the Palestinian and global church will be as this process unfolds.
I identify in what follows a theological conflict that reaches to the heart of Christian identity, suggesting that unless the global church is prepared to observe the Palestinian conflict from the sidelines, it will be obliged to take sides with marginalized Palestinians against Israeli power.
The dominant tradition in church-state relations as we know it today emerged with the rulers of the Roman Empire imposing its imprint on the church through the 313 CE Edict of Milan, instituted under the authoritarian rule of Constantine the Great. It was an imprint imposed with a level of subtlety and Machiavellian virtu that none of Constantine’s predecessors had been able to achieve through naked force. In the process the church became what was effectively a new imperial cult—transformed from a persecuted and impoverished social minority into a church led by a hierarchy of wealthy and powerful bishops, princes and emperors that assigned the poor to the margins of the church. By the high Middle Ages the dominant church had become the single most despotic political force in Europe.
Since this dramatic imperial feat, Christianity, with some notable exceptions, has grown accustomed to bolstering the powerful and neglecting the poor and vulnerable. Among the exceptions can be counted the confessing church in Nazi Germany, the church of the poor in Latin America that gave birth to liberation theology, the black theology genre that emerged from the civil rights movement in the U.S., the feminist and womanist theology movements in different parts of the world, and the signers of the three Kairos documents in South Africa (1985), Palestine (2009), and the United States (2011).
A further sense of hope in this regard has emerged in the apostolic exhortation, entitled, The Joy of the Gospel in which Pope Francis upholds the Christian calling to challenge the alliance between political and business leaders in the promotion of “a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.” He reaffirms a message in continuity with the Twenty-First Ecumenical Council and Pope John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra that was opposed by several influential social conservatives in the Catholic Church.
Pope Francis has declared his opposition to what he calls the “deified market” of free-market capitalism. He is however no radical; ready to renounce the social teachings of the Catholic Church. He affirms the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion, insisting that “unborn children” are “the most defenceless and innocent among us,” while contending “it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations.” He fits neither into any preconceived “liberal” nor “conservative” conclusions on moral theology, while calling the church to be in solidarity with the “weak and defenceless who are frequently at the mercy of economic interests or indiscriminate exploitation.”
Given the influence of conservatives in the Catholic Church, the struggle for the soul of the Catholic Church is likely to be an intense one. It is at the same time clear that the election of Pope Francis as the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere will be drawn on by progressive Catholics to challenge conservative interests in the church.
The Pope’s visit to the Holy Land this May will also mark the 50th anniversary of an historic trip to the region by Pope Paul VI, when he met with the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, which resulted in the easing of a 900-year-long Great Schism between the churches of the East and West. This will be only the fourth papal visit to the Holy Land since biblical times. The fact that the Holy Land is the entrenched symbol of the brutal conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and that Jerusalem is a Holy City to three of the world’s great religions will add to the expectations of what the Pope can achieve. The depth of these conflicts suggests, however, that these expectations will need to be constrained.
Given the divide that exists between the dominant church, which is invariably careful not to offend the political powers, and activist Christians who effectively constitute a “church within the church,” Pope Francis’ visit will be carefully watched. Pertinent questions will arise concerning the level of unity among Christians regarding the Palestinian situation and the Pope’s response to the plight of the poor and marginalized people of the Holy Land. The struggle to define the message of the gospel and the response of the church to the needs of the poor can take on a new dimension as the eyes of the world’s media track the Pope’s visit.
In each age, from the Middle Ages, through the Reformation and into the modern period Christians there have been Christians who paid the price of obedience, even at the cost of persecution and death. These range from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany to Oscar Romero in El Salvador, Martin Luther King Jr., the Trappist monks killed in the Algerian civil war and the Nag Hammadi massacre of Coptic Christians. There are, in turn, countless unknown martyrs throughout the Middle East and elsewhere whose lives reflected the tradition of resistance and martyrdom.
The killings, including those of children, in Palestinian occupied territory, in turn, happen on a regular basis. Media reports on the Israeli military operations in Gaza in 2008/09 were widespread and additional reports on the killing of children over the years are extensive. These include the killing by Israel Defense Forces soldiers of Jamil Jibji and several other children and teenagers from the Askar refugee camp, who were allegedly throwing stones at military vehicles. Bushra Bargis was killed by a sniper’s bullet with her school grammar book in her hand, and earlier a Jewish settler was sentenced to a mere six months community service and a $17,000 fine for the beating to death of an 11-year-old Palestinian boy. There are at the same time an estimated 5,000-plus Palestinians being held in Israeli prisons, including Marwan Barghoutiwho was convicted and given a life sentence for murder by an Israeli court. Barghouti has become the “face” of Palestinian political prisoners, as Nelson Mandela became the “face” of the campaign to release all political prisoners in South Africa in the “free Mandela” campaign. There are at the same time Jewish young men and women in the Army of the State of Israel who are refusing to surrender their lives in defence of an unjust state.
Kairos: The Favorable Time
The church is a global church, which requires Christians to be in solidarity with those who suffer in a particular place at a particular time. Churches are largely aware of this, as is manifest in their global ministry programs that increasingly include Palestine in their ministry. Palestinians, in turn, look to other places around the world where struggles for justice are being waged, to learn from the success and failures of these quests.
Kairos South Africa 1985
South Africa is one of those places where Christians have fought the good fight for justice— and have to a significant sense succeeded, although there are obvious limitations inherent to the South African transition that Palestinians and others would do well to ponder. The overview of the South African struggle that follows is offered in the belief that comparative thinking and critique is required for Christians to “stand on the shoulders of others”—not in order to mimic them, but with a view to building on and improving their experiences and witness.
In this spirit of inquiry it is worth asking why it is that the South African struggle caught the imagination of the world. It was and is a struggle that is anything but romantic or painless. It cost those involved in the process dearly and there are lessons to be learned from its complicated history.
Early resistance to apartheid was essentially limited to peaceful protests. It was only after the African National Congress (ANC) and Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) were banned in 1960 in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre and all channels for political opposition were eliminated that these groups resorted to armed resistance as a declared strategy to complement other non-violent strategies. There were at the same time, and continue to be, ideological differences and policy variations within the liberation movements, which militated against unified opposition to apartheid, much in the same way that Palestinian movements are marred by both inter- and intra-group conflict. Ideological and political differences in South Africa led to the establishment of the Black Consciousness Movement under the leadership of Steve Biko in the late 1960s as well as other divisions and factions. The broader objective of resistance to white rule nevertheless grew and the global community was mobilized in support of this development, the internal struggle intensified and the resistance to apartheid within faith communities grew:
The work of the ANC as well as the PAC, once they established themselves in exile with offices in London, Lusaka and countries around the world, was a crucial factor in the South African struggle. These organizations worked through the United Nations (UN), the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), and anti-apartheid organizations across the world, which resulted in a level of global opposition that led to the declaration of apartheid as a crime against humanity by the General Assembly of the UN. This came into force in 1976 and led to a process that included an international arms boycott, trade sanctions, cultural boycotts and student protests against the apartheid regime.
The Internal Struggle
Co-operation between ideologically estranged groups at home grew as a result of student movements, trade union affiliations and the establishment of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983 and the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) in 1988. This mobilized black South Africans in a campaign to render the country ungovernable.
It was a costly process: 40,000 people were detained in the 1980s. There were dramatic increases of deaths in detention and in the flight of people into exile to join the armed struggle. Significantly though, as violent clashes between the government and the liberation movements escalated, clandestine meetings were being held between government leaders and the ANC. Structured meetings followed, top government officials met with Nelson Mandela and in December 1988 Mandela was moved from Pollsmoor Prison to Victor Verster Prison, with open telephone lines to consult with ANC colleagues in exile and in South Africa. In March 1989 Mandela wrote to President PW Botha, proposing that they meet to discuss the possibility of a negotiated settlement. Faced with global and internal pressure, the government released Mandela and others from prison. Political movements were unbanned and democratic elections were held in 1994.
The struggle against apartheid was always political, reaching to every sphere of existence. As such it included the participation of faith communities. The World Council of Churches (WCC) and Program to Combat Racism within the WCC played a major international role in exposing the iniquities of apartheid. They mobilized churches across the world against apartheid and exposed the atrocities committed by the South African military in the frontline states of (then) South West Africa (Namibia), Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Mozambique, and deeper into Africa.
In South Africa religious communities were similarly mobilized to resist apartheid. The South African Council of Churches (SACC) and the South African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) played a significant role in this regard, even though these organizations failed to secure the unqualified support of their member churches in so doing. Indeed, the divisions within member churches resulted in religious rivalry and the formation of splinter groups breaking away from the established churches, with the apartheid government taking advantage of this by pumping huge amounts of money into pro-apartheid groups in the churches.
Interfaith cooperation, both in opposing apartheid and in preparing the nation for democracy, was also a significant feature of the South African transition. In 1991, a year after the release of Mandela from prison, South African Muslims convened a National Muslim Conference in Cape Town. This was a gathering of 750 Muslims representing every shade of Muslim opinion who came together to debate Muslim Personal Law and related matters of concern to Muslims in anticipation of a new South African dispensation. The conference committed itself to support a multi-faith culture under a secular constitution. A subsequent National Interfaith Conference involving Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus and people of other religious beliefs, in turn, committed itself to support a political settlement, democratic elections and a secular constitution.
It is important, however, to remember is that the religious resistance to apartheid and interfaith cooperation only came about in the wake of a long and hard-fought battle within which religious identities were used to bolster political conflicts. There were, however, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, members of other faiths, atheists, agnostics and secularists who found a deep common cause in their opposition to apartheid. They were frequently beaten by the police, imprisoned, driven into exile and in some cases killed, which deepened the solidarity among South Africans opposed to apartheid.
Facing an apartheid state that claimed to rule in obedience to God, it was Christians opposed to apartheid who felt a special responsibility to resist the state. The history of Christianity in South Africa tells of both confrontation and cooperation between church and state from the time of the arrival of the first white settlers in the country. It is from the time of colonial expansionism and the discovery of minerals in the nineteenth century that the institutional church was essentially supportive of white interests and privilege.
The turning point in Christian opposition to apartheid only came in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. The WCC convened a meeting in Cottesloe, Johannesburg, shortly after the massacre, to consult with South African churches concerning their stance on apartheid. The conference decisively voted against apartheid. Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of statutory apartheid and prime minister at the time, rebuked the delegates to the conference from the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK), the largest of the white Afrikaner Dutch Reformed Churches, by accusing them of forgetting their responsibility regarding the “high purpose of apartheid.” Many recanted, while Beyers Naudé, the moderator of the Southern Transvaal synod of the NGK, rejected Verwoerd’s reprimand and was later expelled from his church. As the divisions within the church deepened, a space opened up within which leaders from various churches, such as Beyers Naudé, Desmond Tutu and others, became household names in the fight against apartheid.
The theological breakthrough in the church struggle took a significant step forward with the publication of two important books. One was Allan Boesak’s doctoral thesis, Farewell to Innocence, in 1975. This was effectively the first black theology publication to capture public attention in South Africa. The other breakthrough came with the publication of Albert Nolan’s Jesus before Christianity in 1976.
Two earlier developments prepared the way for this breakthrough in different ways. The so-called English-speaking churches (the majority of whose members were black as result of nineteenth-century mission work) were instrumental in the writing of the Message to the People of South Africa in 1968, which rejected apartheid as a “pseudo-gospel.” The NGK, in turn, adopted a declaration in 1974 with the pretentious title of Human Relations and the South African Scene in the Light of Scripture, providing a biblical justification for apartheid. This led, largely at the instigation of Allan Boesak, to the decision of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), to adopt a resolution declaring the theological justification of apartheid to be a heresy. Boesak was also elected president of the WARC at their 1982 General Council, which afforded him a global platform to further mobilize the world-wide church against apartheid.
Among themost significant and prophetic events in the history of the theological struggle against apartheid in the turbulent 1980s by the church in resistance to apartheid were the controversial Call for the End to Unjust Rule, which emerged at a deeply divided South African Council of Churches conference in 1984 and the South Africa Kairos Document (published in 1985).[i] Both identified the rupture between the established institutional church and Christians in rebellion against apartheid. The Call for the End to Unjust Rule asked Christians to pray “that God will replace the present structures of oppression with ones that are just, and remove from power those who persist in defying his laws, installing in their place leaders who will govern with justice and mercy.”
The message of the 1985 South African Kairos Document was, in turn, clear that the witness of the prophetic church needs to be grounded in “an understanding of politics and political strategy” designed to change an unjust situation. It rejected a notion of reconciliation before the affirmation of justice and the blanket condemnation of “all that is called violence”, distinguishing between the violence associated with resistance to apartheid on the one hand and oppressive forms of institutional and police violence on the other. The Kairos Document reminded the church that tough calls need to be made in tough times. It rejected “state theology” in which the apartheid state drew on a distorted interpretation of chapter 13 in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and other passages of scripture to claim its authority is derived from God. It also rejected “church theology,” describing it as having drawn on “a few stock ideas derived from the Christian tradition,” without taking sides with oppressed people in their fight against apartheid. In so doing it affirmed a “prophetic theology” which rejected the state as having “no moral legitimacy” and being “an enemy of the common good”, while rejecting the ethical restraint of the institutional church.
Kairos Palestine: 2009
Palestinians have fought hard for their freedom, with two burdens that are more difficult to carry than those faced by South Africans. These concern the limitations of global solidarity with Palestinians and the hesitation of the global church to support the Palestinian cause to the same extent that it supported the South Africa struggle. This suggests the urgent need for levels of Palestinian unity, the global co-ordination of its work, domestic solidarity across ideological differences, the redefining of viable strategies for change and the need for the level of leadership that South Africans have produced not only in Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Steve Biko and Desmond Tutu, but also leaders at other levels of society. Despite the remarkable theological work undertaken by Palestinian scholars and activists, such as Elias Chacour, Archbishop of the Melkite Church, and the Rev. Naim Ateek, founder of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, the WCC and WARC have not embraced the Palestinian cause with the same enthusiasm with which they embraced the anti-apartheid cause. Geopolitical factors supportive of Israel bear as heavily on the church as they do on other dimensions of the Palestinian situation.
Nevertheless, in 2009, an impressive number of Palestinian Christian institutions and leaders, including the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, signed the Kairos Palestine document [for the complete list, see http://www.kairospalestine.ps According to its authors, Israel’s military occupation is “a sin against God and humanity,” and all peoples, political leaders, and decision-makers must “put pressure on Israel and take legal measures in order to oblige its government to put an end to its oppression and disregard for international law.” And explicitly, the document affirms that nonviolent reaction to this injustice “is a right and duty for all Palestinians, including Christians.”
Kairos USA: 2011
On June 18, 2011, Christianleaders from around the United States issued an official response to the Kairos Palestine document.
Called Kairos USA, it begins with a confession of sin for the failure to say “Enough” to Israel’s confiscation of Palestinian lands, as well as the equal failure to say “Enough” both to the billions of dollars the U.S. government gives Israel each year to subsidize its expanding settlements and to the veto-wielding votes it casts in the U.N. to shield Israel from international censure.
The document ends by inviting Christians across the U.S. to join the nonviolent effort to support those in Israel, the occupied territories, and throughout the world who work to end the illegal occupation and redress other legitimate Palestinian grievances through peaceful means. The Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) is directed at Israeli policy, not the state of Israel itself or its citizens, and certainly not against the Jewish people. [For the list of signatories and other specific actions that can be taken, go to Kairos USA’s impressive website: http://www.kairosusa.org.
The honesty embedded in this document is a sobering challenge to Christians in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world:
As individuals and as church members, we have supported a system of control, inequality and oppression through misreading our Holy Scriptures, flawed theology and distortions of history. We have allowed to go unchallenged theological and political ideas that have made us complicit in the oppression of the Palestinian people. Instead of speaking and acting boldly, we have chosen to offer careful statements designed to avoid controversy and leave cherished relationships undisturbed. We have forgotten the differences between a theology that supports the policies and institutional structures of oppression and a theology that, in response to history and human affairs, stands boldly with the widow, the orphan and the dispossessed.
The cautious response of the West to human rights abuses of Palestinians evokes the need for a prophetic theology which addresses the political challenges associated with the geopolitical forces of the West as currently being played out in the Middle East. This essentially involves the question whether the church is prepared to confront the sense of Constantinian captivity to the state that is challenged by the memory of Jesus of Nazareth, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith— and, from the perspective of African spirituality, the primary ancestor of the Christian community.
The dominant church in the West needs to be held accountable to this gospel, which an increasing number of Christians are beginning to realize. Consider, for example, Bishop Richard Pates who, as chairman of the Committee of International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, sent a letter, dated January 28, 2014, to Secretary of State John Kerry stating that the United States should urge the government of Israel to cease and desist in efforts to unnecessarily confiscate Palestinian lands.
This is Kairos, the favorable time, when God issues a challenge to decisive action. We are called on to ask whether, by default, if not by design, the church is sustaining an alliance between the church and a state that perpetuates the suffering of the poor and oppressed, or whether it is providing a voice for those who seek redemption from economic, political and ultimately spiritual destitution (Luke 4:18). It cannot serve both ends.
The Palestinian – South African Interface Today
The similarities between apartheid South Africa and Israeli discrimination against Palestinians is widely debated and need not be dealt with here.[ii] Suffice it to say, the connections are difficult to ignore. John Dugard, in 2001, as Special Rapporteur to the UN Human Rights Commission, provided what is probably the most comprehensive study on the situation concerning the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Later, in his report to the Russell Tribunal on Palestine in 2011, he charged that there are human rights abuses in Palestine threatening international peace which many in the West would like to see swept under the carpet.[iii]
Palestinians have fought hard for their freedom, with two burdens that are more difficult to carry than those faced by South Africans. This makes the building of global solidarity and international church cohesion in support of Palestine a priority for the ecumenical church, with the South African struggle in the 1980s providing an example of the kind of solidarity and theological commitment that is both needed and possible in maximizing opposition to unjust rule.
This said, the international church, as well as the church in Palestine and South Africa, needs explicitly to heed the failure of post apartheid South Africa to give sufficient attention to matters of major ethical and theological importance. Two critiques are pertinent in this regard: the failure of post-apartheid South Africa state to embrace the kind of economic transformation that is required to enable the victims of apartheid to liberate themselves from poverty; and its failure to give sufficient attention to the gender discrimination that was prevalent in both apartheid South Africa and, with some notable exceptions, in the liberation movements.
South Africa today, twenty years after the first democratic elections, faces a Gini coefficient above 63 which makes it one of the most unequal places on earth, with an income gap between the rich and the poor bigger than in Brazil or India. Ten percent of the country earns more than 50 percent of household income and the poorest 20 percent less than 1.5 percent of household income. This, together with corruption, government non-delivery and nationwide protests, is at the root of the country’s deepest crisis since its democratic transition in 1994.
There is at the same time documented evidence that women continue to be among the most exploited and impoverished of all South Africans. President Mandela was quick to recognise the need to address the structural and cultural obstacles to realising gender equality in South Africa. In a speech on Women’s Day in 1996 he observed:
The legacy of oppression weighs heavily on women. As long as women are bound by poverty and as long as they are looked down upon, human rights will lack substance. As long as outmoded ways of thinking prevent women from making a meaningful contribution to society, progress will be slow. As long as the nation refuses to acknowledge the equal role of more than half of itself, it is doomed to failure.
Despite the commitment of South Africa to gender equality, progress has been slow in addressing the profound inequalities in South African society
Towards a Prophetic Theology
The influence of Israel on the West’s global and Middle East policy is vast. The fact that the global church is at best restrained in confronting Western governments who choose to support the status quo in Israel, however, raises deep theological questions which the institutional church in the West is obliged to address. This essentially involves the question whether the church is prepared to confront the sense of Constantinian captivity to the state that is challenged by the memory of Jesus of Nazareth, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith – and, from a perspective African spirituality, the primary ancestor of the Christian community.
The 1985 Kairos Document has over the years raised several questions concerning aspects of the South African armed struggle, the legitimacy of violence, the relationship between justice and reconciliation, and the link between prophetic and pastoral theology – issues that are likely to debated for a long time to come. It is at the same time important to note that the 2012 message addressed to the ANC by the Kairos Southern Africa movement, entitled Theological and Ethical Reflections on the 2012 Centenary Celebrations of the African National Congress offers a very different theology of church-state relations to that of the 1985 Document. Although written in a decidedly different context to that which prevailed in the struggle against apartheid, the 2012 document is nevertheless too cautious and restrained in relation to the challenges that prevail in the country today. As such it should not be left unchallenged by those who seek to be obedient to a gospel first proclaimed in first century Palestine.
The defining challenge of Kairos theology is to enquire whether by default, if not design, the church is sustaining an alliance between the church and a state that perpetuates the suffering of the poor and oppressed or whether it is providing a voice for those who seek redemption from economic, political and ultimately spiritual destitution. It cannot serve both ends.
An Interfaith Excursus
A long neglected dimension of prophetic theology is the need for interfaith dialogue and recent developments in the Middle East stress the need for people of different religions and factions within religions to find ways of mutual coexistence. The deep divisions within Islam, the presence of Egyptian-based Copts as well as small Jewish communities in Iran, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere, all contribute to the religious heterogeneity of the region. Many of the existing national borders were ‘artificially imposed’ over a number of centuries, dividing ancient tribal, cultural and religious groups. The controversial Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 gave Britain and France control over the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire outside the Arabian Peninsula. The first and second Balfour Declarations of 1917 and 1926 saw an escalation in the number of Zionist immigrants into Palestine and the state of Israel was established in 1948. This resulted in an increase of displaced people both within and beyond the borders of Palestine. Each of these developments has contributed to the emergence of religious-based ideologies and nationalisms that impact the region.
Mark Braverman, a devout Jewish American, who believes that working for justice in Palestine is the most import Jewish thing he can do, has contributed significantly to transcending the Jewish-Christian divide in the Palestinian conflict, as portrayed in his recent book, A Wall in Jerusalem.[iv] Together with organisations such as the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council and other Jews in America and elsewhere in the world, he draws on the Jewish theological tradition to support the Palestinian struggle for justice. He powerfully identifies the ‘Jewishness of Jesus’, and in so doing the authentic genius of Judaism. Reminding us that the early church was born in a struggle to define the authenticity of God’s will in the broken world of first century Palestine, Braverman insists that the Christian church is required to discern the will of God in Palestine, “guided by a vision of an alternative society in building God’s kingdom”. This, he argues, needs to be accomplished in response to what he defines as the tyranny of Israeli-American politics in the Middle East.
Of equal importance to Christian-Jewish relations are, of course, Christian-Muslim and Christian-Jewish-Muslim relations in Israel-Palestine and the Middle East, which clearly need to ensure that inter-faith debate reaches beyond doctrinal differences and similarities to deal with the political conflicts that are underpinned by religious ideologies.
These are dialogues that are, of course, portrayed nowhere more powerfully than in the city of Jerusalem. For Jews, Jerusalem is the city of King David and the location of the Jewish Temple, containing the Ark of the Covenant. For Christians, it is where Christ died, was buried and rose again, as well as being the birthplace of the Church. For Muslims, it is holy because they believe Muhammad ascended to heaven from the Jerusalem’s Temple Mount during his Night Journey.
It is too much to expect that Pope Francis’ visit to the Holy City will result in historic reconciliation between Muslims and Christians or bridge the vicious gap between Israelis and Palestinians. His visit will however create the opportunity to highlight the plight of Palestinians as well as the plight of oppressed Christians in some Arab states. It is the obligation of Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land as well as in Syria, Iraq, Egypt and other parts of the Middle East, to ensure that the Pope is exposed to the suffering of the victims of abuse in their respective areas. Handled with integrity and sensitivity by all religious groups (Christians, Muslims and Jews in all their different sectarian forms) as well as Israeli and Palestinian political groups (in their different ideological guises), the papal visit can contribute to a new phase in the struggle to resolve the entrenched problem facing Israelis and Palestinians. During this visit the media will track every footstep the pope takes.
I had a theology professor who liked to tell his students that there are three areas of conflict in the world to which there was no human solution: South Africa, Northern Ireland and Israel-Palestine. Looking back, I would like to say to my honourable professor, “Well Sir, two down, one to go.” The question is how the Israeli-Palestine conflict will be resolved and whether the Palestinian people will be released from a captivity that prevents them from creating a future anticipated in the message of Jesus to the Palestinian people under Roman occupation at the time. The role of the church in this regard waits to be resolved as the struggle continues between a church in captivity to the dominant powers of our time and an alternative church that seeks to be obedient to one who resisted the occupation of first century Palestine, by choosing to be on the side of the poor and the oppressed.
& An edited edition of this essay appeared in The Link Magazine, Vol.42, No.2, April /May 2014.
* Emeritus Professor of Religion and Society at the University of Cape Town, Visiting Professor in the Conflict Resolution Program at Georgetown University in Washington DC in the Fall Semester, Senior Research Fellow in the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town.
[i] The publication of fourteen declarations by the churches in South Africa concerning apartheid and related matters are accessible in Charles Villa-Vicencio, Between Christ an Caesar: Classic and Contemporary Texts on Church and State (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.)
[ii] See, inter alia, Ben White, Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide, (New York: Pluto Press, 2009); Heribert Adam and Kogila Moodley. Seeking Mandela: Peacemaking Between Israelis and Palestinians, (Philadelphia: Templeton University Press, 2009).
[iii]Russell Tribunal on Palestine. Cape Town Session. 7 November 2011. Available at http://www.russelltribunalonpalestine.com/en/sessions/south-africa/south-africa-session.
[iv]Braverman, Mark. A Wall in Jerusalem: Hope, Healing and the Struggle for Justice in Israel and Palestine. New York: Jericho Books, 2013.