My visit to South Africa, part 2: A Moment of Truth for the U.S. Church

My visit to South Africa, part 2: A Moment of Truth for the U.S. Church June 18, 2011

Part 2:  A Moment of Truth for the U.S. Church

The first task of a prophetic theology for our times would be an attempt at social analysis or what Jesus would call “reading the signs of the times” (Mt 16:3) or “interpreting this Kairos” (Lk 12:56). Kairos is actually a moment of truth, of discernment, of discovery. It is a revelation of the reality we live in, of what is at stake and our responsibility in that moment.

Allan Boesak, “Kairos Consciousness,” 2011

A moment of truth

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent appearance before a joint session of the U.S. Congress and the shameful behavior of the members of Congress in rising to their feet 29 times to applaud his radical, intransigent positions should shatter any remaining illusions that peace will come through negotiations under current conditions. Politics has failed to bring about a just peace in Israel-Palestine. In fact, the political/diplomatic process, based on false assumptions (Israel will accept a contiguous, sovereign Palestinian state on its borders; the U.S. is an honest broker to the negotiation process) is itself actively advancing the building of Israeli Apartheid.  There is an urgent need to continue to build the international grassroots movement to delegitimize Israeli Apartheid and to exert economic, social and diplomatic pressure on Israel and on the countries supporting its policies, especially the U.S. Historically, the churches have played a significant role in creating political and social change through movements of nonviolent resistance. Examples of this in recent history are the U.S. Civil Rights movement, organized opposition to the Vietnam War, and the movement to end Apartheid in South Africa.

Our situation today is strikingly similar to that faced by a group of South African pastors and theologians confronting the intransigence of the South African government in ending Apartheid. In 1985, they sat down to compose a historic, prophetic document. It had been a long journey to reach that point — the result of a struggle of the churches in South Africa to come to terms with their silence and their sometimes active complicity with the system that had poisoned and brutalized their society. By 1985 the church had finally arrived at a place from which there was no escape, no compromise, and no way back.  The authors of the South Africa Kairos document articulate this in their preamble (passages from the document appear in italics):

We as a group of theologians have been trying to understand the theological significance of this moment in our history. It is serious, very serious. For very many Christians in South Africa this is the KAIROS, the moment of grace and opportunity, the favorable time in which God issues a challenge to decisive action… A crisis is a judgment that brings out the best in some people and the worst in others. A crisis is a moment of truth that shows us up for what we really are. There will be no place to hide and no way of pretending to be what we are not in fact. At this moment in South Africa the Church is about to be shown up for what it really is and no cover-up will be possible… It is the KAIROS or moment of truth not only for apartheid but also for the Church.

Like South Africa in the 1980s, suffering under four decades under the Apartheid regime, the situation in the Palestinian territories after over 40 years under military occupation is serious, very serious. For Israel and the entire civilized world, entering the seventh decade of refugee status for the now five million descendants of the Palestinians displaced by the establishment of the State of Israel, there is no longer any place to hide.

The American context

The situation in Palestine has created this moment of truth for the church on a global level, but churches in different geographical regions face differing contexts, necessitating different Kairos agendas. The context for the Palestine Kairos document is military occupation and the implementation of an apartheid system of dispossession, discrimination and control over all aspects of Palestinian civil society. The context for the Southern Africa Kairos is (1) solidarity with Palestinians living under this apartheid system and (2) the need to unify and energize the church in South Africa by taking on the Palestinian cause. The U.S. context is multifaceted and compelling.  It includes: (1) U.S. responsibility for financing the building of Israeli Apartheid and for shielding Israel from accountability in the international arena, (2) the American church’s acquiescence with our government’s support of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, (3) theological support (along a spectrum of conservative, mainstream and progressive theologies) for a superior Jewish claim to the land and the right to expel and/or exert political dominance over non-Jewish inhabitants, and (4) the American church’s renewal movement — its quest to return to the fundamental principles of Christianity.

“The favorable time” is now. The Palestinian Spring has arrived in the form of the Nakba Day protests, the Fatah-Hamas unity deal in Cairo and the upcoming United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood. These events unfold against the backdrop of the 2005 Palestinian call for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions, the Palestine Kairos document of 2009, the 2011 Kairos Southern Africa endorsement of Kairos Palestine, the recent popular uprisings throughout the Arab world, and the growing awareness throughout the U.S. churches of the need for education and direct action to bring about a peace based on justice. The Palestinian and South African Kairos documents provide examples for the American church of what it means to take a clear stance on the theological unacceptability of any ideology, theology, or legal system that that grants the members of one group dominance over another. The parallel to our situation is the sham of the U.S.-sponsored “peace process” and the myths that support it, such as the picture of an Israel that makes “generous” offers – offers that serve only to further its colonialist aims. The implications of this are as clear and inescapable for the U.S. church as they are for Palestinians living under occupation today and as they were for the South Africans three decades ago. Any theology and course of action (or inaction) that supports the oppression of an illegitimate regime has to be replaced with an alternative theology and course of action.

Activity within the American church in support of the Palestinian cause is not new. It has been going on for decades, at local and denominational levels, through educational programs, peace pilgrimages, connections with Palestinian and Israeli civil society organizations, and most recently through boycott and divestment initiatives. However, apart from the work of local taskforces and denominationally-based groups devoted to the cause of Middle East peace, a coordinated, ecumenical effort by the American church as a whole has been lacking. Churches for Middle East Peace is an ecumenical organization dedicated exclusively to this issue, but there is a growing awareness that CMEP’s cautious agenda, limited to legislative advocacy, falls short of the activism needed to meet this Kairos moment. It is time for the U.S. church to takes its place alongside the Palestinian, Southern African, and nascent European and Asian Kairos movements.

Lessons from 1985:  A primer in “Church theology”

Although both the Palestinian and South African documents need to be studied by American Christians, the 1985 South African document, with its focus on church complicity, provides a particularly useful set of guideposts for the U.S. church. To be sure, there are differences in the historical situation and in the particular configuration of the challenges – indeed, South African colleagues tell me that what we are facing now makes their past struggle look like child’s play. But the core issues of complicity and responsibility, and the perfect storm of theology, ideology and civil religion that support the continuation of an oppressive system are startlingly similar.

The heart of  the South African document is its analysis of what it calls “Church Theology:” that is, a theology and set of attitudes, opinions and assumptions that are employed by the church to maintain the status quo and to directly and indirectly support immoral government policies. Church theology tries to create the appearance of opposing injustice and oppression. In reality, however, it is devoted to shoring up the very system that perpetrates the evil:

‘Church Theology’ tends to make use of absolute principles like reconciliation and non-violence and applies them indiscriminately and uncritically to all situations. Very little attempt is made to analyze what is actually happening it our society and why it is happening…Closely linked to this is the lack of an adequate understanding of politics and political strategy.

The document identifies three such “church opinions” or assumptions: reconciliation, justice, and non-violence.


‘Church Theology’ often describes the Christian stance in the following way: “We must be fair. We must listen to both sides of the story. If the two sides can only meet to talk and negotiate they will sort out their differences and misunderstandings, and the conflict will be resolved.

The fallacy here is that ‘Reconciliation’ has been made into an absolute principle. But there are conflicts where one side is a fully armed and violent oppressor while the other side is defenseless and oppressed. To speak of reconciling these two is not only a mistaken application of the Christian idea of reconciliation, it is a total betrayal of all that Christian faith has ever meant.

In our situation in South Africa today it would be totally unchristian to plead for reconciliation and peace before the present injustices have been removed…No reconciliation is possible in South Africa without justice …

This analysis goes to the heart of the problem when applied to the Israel/Palestine conflict. One of the most striking features of the discourse about Israel/Palestine in the United States is the preoccupation with the need for a “balanced” perspective. Here is how this typically plays out:  you may not talk about house demolitions, humiliation at checkpoints, restrictions on movement, the death of innocent civilians, targeted assassinations, or any other examples of Palestinian suffering, without presenting what is usually termed the “other side.” The “other side” is the recognition of the suffering of the Israelis, who have endured five wars, terrorist attacks, and the sense that they are surrounded by implacable enemies. (The fact of Israelis’ fear of annihilation is not in dispute. The question of the reality of the threat, however, is relevant.  Ira Chernus takes up this issue in his recent piece in The Nation, “The myth of Israeli vulnerability”). You may not talk about the dispossession of the Palestinians to make way for the Jewish state without noting historic Jewish suffering or the displacement of Jews from Arab countries. On its face, this seems fair. But in the current discourse, the demand for “balance” is not about being fair. Rather, it is used to blunt scrutiny of those actions of Israel that are the root cause of the conflict. As the South African document so effectively sets out, appeals here to principles of “reconciliation,” “dialogue” and “balance” serve not to advance but to obscure the issue of justice. The example of South Africa clearly demonstrates that it is only when the structures of inequality and discrimination have been removed that activities devoted to reconciliation between the parties can be undertaken.


The very serious theological question is: What kind of justice? An examination of Church statements and pronouncements gives the distinct impression that the justice that is envisaged is the justice of reform, that is to say, a justice that is determined by the oppressor, by the white minority and that is offered to the people as a kind of concession. It does not appear to be the more radical justice that comes from below and is determined by the people of South Africa.

There have been reforms and, no doubt, there will be further reforms in the near future. And it may well be that the Church’s appeal to the consciences of whites has contributed marginally to the introduction of some of these reforms. But can such reforms ever be regarded as real change, as the introduction of a true and lasting justice.

True justice, God’s justice, demands a radical change of structures.

Reform was a major issue for the anti-Apartheid struggle. The offers of reform by the Pretoria government, coming too little and too late, mirrored for the authors of Kairos South Africa the attempts of some of the churches to enact superficial changes that did not address the underlying racial inequalities built into church practice and by which the churches continued to support racist government policies. In similar fashion, “progressive” thinkers among Jews disturbed by Israel’s behavior attempt to find ways to remove or remediate the most egregious and blatant aspects of Israeli policy. These efforts, however, do not address the root cause of the abuses, which arise inevitably from the attempt of Israel to maintain a Jewish majority and to continue Jewish rule over a diverse population. In similar fashion, church bodies attempt to find ways to “balance” or soften the prophetic witness to Palestinian suffering in order to deflect or avoid opposition by Jewish groups and groups within the churches who brand any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism.


The problem for the Church here is the way the word violence is being used in the propaganda of the State. The State and the media have chosen to call violence what some people do in the townships as they struggle for their liberation i.e. throwing stones, burning cars and buildings and sometimes killing collaborators. But this excludes the structural, institutional and unrepentant violence of the State and especially the oppressive and naked violence of the police and the army. These things are not counted as violence… Thus the phrase ‘Violence in the townships’ comes to mean what the young people are doing and not what the police are doing or what apartheid in general is doing to people.

In practice what one calls ‘violence’ and what one calls ‘self-defense’ seems to depend upon which side one is on. To call all physical force ‘violence’ is to try to be neutral and to refuse to make a judgment about who is right and who is wrong. The attempt to remain neutral in this kind of conflict is futile. Neutrality enables the status quo of oppression (and therefore violence) to continue. It is a way of giving tacit support to the oppressor.

The parallels are obvious. Israeli state terrorism is contextualized as self-defense.  Palestinian resistance is framed as terrorism.  Again, Ira Chernus’ recent piece in The Nation is instructive.

The challenge to the American church

The South African document arose from a context of a church – black and white, theologians, pastors and lay leaders – acknowledging its complicity with a tyrannical regime. The document points out that the Bible is very clear about regimes that violate fundamental principles of justice and equality. “A tyrannical regime,” it states, “has no moral legitimacy. It may be the de facto government and it may even be recognized by other governments and therefore be the de jure or legal government. But if it is a tyrannical regime, it is, from a moral and theological point of view, illegitimate.” Thus the church saw no alternative but to oppose the regime itself as unreformable, and to challenge the “church theology” that supported the illegitimate system.

This is where the U.S. church finds itself as it witnesses Israel’s ongoing dispossession and oppression of the Palestinians. It has become increasingly clear that Israel’s goal is not a sovereign and independent Palestine, but the continued colonization of Palestinian lands, the subjugation of its people, and the blocking of any prospect of return for refugees. Like the South Africans in 1985, we are looking today at an Israeli government that has shown itself to be illegitimate according to fundamental religious and humanitarian principles as well as standards of international law. It is the policies themselves, and the government that implements them, that must become the focus of church activity. In the South African case, an appeal to the governments of the world to employ sanctions against the South African government became an increasingly important component of the anti-Apartheid movement. In our U.S. case, it is particularly clear that besides holding Israel itself accountable, we must confront directly our own government’s key role as a supporter of Israel’s illegal, self-destructive and dangerous policies. As was true in the South Africa case, the stakes are very high. The moral imperative for Christians and for all people committed to peace and to social justice is powerful and increasingly urgent:

A tyrannical regime cannot continue to rule for very long without becoming more and more violent. As the majority of the people begin to demand their rights and to put pressure on the tyrant, so will the tyrant resort more and more to desperate, cruel, gross and ruthless forms of tyranny and repression. The reign of a tyrant always ends up as a reign of terror.

The South Africa Kairos document was the product of decades of a church struggle to claim its prophetic heart. The U.S. church is now engaged in a process to remain faithful to its core principles. The time has come to name the struggle and to take sides. It is the choice between conservative theologies that hew to exceptionalist doctrines that pervert the words of scripture into supporting oppression, land taking, and even genocide, and a movement of renewal and return to core values of universalism, social justice, and human dignity — the building of the Kingdom of God here on earth. It is the choice between following denominational hierarchies and cautious clergy more concerned with maintaining church structures, protecting funding sources and preserving relationships with the American Jewish establishment, and following the example of the early church in taking a prophetic stance against injustice. The challenge to the U.S. church is as clear as that faced by the South African church three decades ago. Contemporary theologians, historians and social critics have observed that the religious exceptionalism that is the legacy of our Puritan past is being enacted in our support of Israel. They point to how the current dominant American metanarrative driving the “war on terror” interlocks with the metanarrative of a democratic Israel defending itself (and us) from the implacable hatred of an enemy who embraces a false religion committed to hatred and destruction. They point out the parallels to the first century, when a visionary and iconoclastic Palestinian Jew challenged the oppressive political order of his time (represented by the Temple in Jerusalem), calling instead for a Kingdom based on compassion and social justice.

The argument is made that the situation is complex, the relationships multifaceted and fraught with history, and that the conflicts between equally justifiable “claims” or “rights” create ambiguities and conflicting courses of action. Kairos —a moment of truth, of discernment, of discovery” — cuts through these intellectual confusions and moral snares. Status confessionis, as American theologian Robert McAfee Brown has written — a confessional situation — is a time when “the issues are so clear, and the stakes are so high, that the privilege of amiable disagreement must be superseded by clear-cut decisions, and the choice must move from ‘both/and’ to ‘either or.’” The Palestinian document is a cry of pain and a call to action. The South African document holds up a mirror to our complicity and to our responsibility to core principles of faith and humanity.  The church is called – along with those from other faith traditions and the peace community who join it in this struggle.

Here we stand.

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