“This is the Kairos, the moment of grace and opportunity, the favorable time in which God issues a challenge to decisive action” So reads the South Africa Kairos document titled Challenge to the Church. In their courageous statement of 1985, a group of South African pastors, theologians and activists, black and white, inaugurated the modern kairos era. “It is the kairos or moment of truth not only for apartheid,” continues the document, “but for the Church.”
The South African document set the standard for the historic Palestine Kairos document of 2009, entitled A moment of truth: A Word of Faith, Hope and Love from the Heart of Palestinian Suffering. Also known as “Kairos Palestine,” the document, authored by Palestinian clergy, theologians and societal leaders from across the ecumenical spectrum, sets out the situation of a brutal and worsening occupation and articulates a theology that requires nonviolent resistance to the evil of occupation — resistance “with love as its logic.” Naming the Israeli occupation a sin, it calls out to the international community, reserving its final call for the church itself: “What is the international community doing? What are the political leaders in Palestine, in Israel and in the Arab world doing? What is the Church doing?”
Like its South African predecessor, the Palestinian call has been a game-changer. It has created a moment of truth for the church, when, in the words of Robert McAfee Brown, “the issues become so clear, and the stakes so high, that the privilege of amiable disagreement must be superseded by clear cut decisions, and the choice must move from both/and to either/or.” Kairos Palestine has been commended for study by congregations and denominations worldwide and has spawned Kairos movements and documents in Asia, Europe, and the U.S.A. Call to Action: U.S. Response to the Kairos Palestine document, published in June 2012, is the most recent addition to this global response. Because of the central role of the U.S. government in its support for Israel and the size and power of the U.S. church, the appearance of the Kairos USA document is a significant development. Like the South African document that challenged the “church theology” that had supported the unjust actions of its own government, “Call to Action” directly asks the questions: how have U.S. Christians participated in the injustice that is causing so much suffering for Palestinians and is poisoning Israeli society, and what can the church in the U.S. do about creating real change? The document courageously takes on key issues, including the influence of Christian Zionism, the theological meaning of the land, Christian feelings of responsibility for Jewish suffering, and the impact of Jewish institutional opposition to any perceived threat to U.S. support of Israel.
A Church Confession
Declaring the mission of the newly-formed Kairos “to mobilize the churches in the United States to respond faithfully and boldly to the situation in Israel and Palestine,” the preamble to “Call to Action” describes the background and context for its creation:
In June 2011, a group of U.S. clergy, theologians and laypersons, cognizant of our responsibility as Americans in the tragedy unfolding in Israel and Palestine, and mindful of the urgency of the situation, met to inaugurate a new movement for American Christians. We have been inspired by the prophetic church movements of southern Africa, Central and South America, Asia and Europe that have responded to the call of their Christian sisters and brothers in occupied Palestine. This is our statement of witness and confession—and our response as U.S. Christians to the Palestinian call.
“The tragic realities of Israel and Palestine today,” the document continues, “would deeply trouble Jesus and the prophets. The land in which Jesus lived and was crucified by the Roman imperial rulers is again a place of violence, inequality and suffering. Palestinians and Israelis are trapped in a spiral of violence that is destroying their humanity, squandering their resources and killing their children.” The authors of “Call to Action” confess the tragic legacy of Christian persecution of Jews. Having made this confession and acknowledged the right of the Jewish people to “security…free from the scourge of anti-Semitism,” the document shifts its focus to the urgent realities of the present day, stating boldly that “the State of Israel’s present course will not bring it the security it seeks nor grant the Jewish people freedom from fear.” Even though violence visited against Israel has evoked profound feelings of fear and insecurity on the part of Israelis, the document continues, “the cause of the current calamity is not the result of any historic or natural enmity between the two peoples, or the presence of deep-seated hatred directed against the Jewish people. Rather, it is the overwhelming imbalance of power, Israel’s practices of state violence, the ongoing abridgement of the human rights of the Palestinian people and the failure of the international community to hold Israel to principles of international law.”
The authors of “Call to Action” express a keen sense of responsibility as U.S. citizens for our government’s massive and unconditional support for the historic and ongoing injustice toward the Palestinians. But as Christians they are also aware of how closely intertwined our national policies are with a theology, endorsed by so many American Christians, that has been used to justify these policies.
As individuals and as church institutions, we have supported a system of control, inequality and oppression through misreading of 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 difference 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, the poor and the dispossessed.
Noting that the special relationship that has existed between the United States and Israel from the earliest days of the Jewish state “has crossed party lines and transcended political eras,” Kairos USA challenges us to reflect deeply on what this says about our own legacy as a conqueror and an occupier:
Our government’s policy toward Israel has at times reflected our own religiously-tinged identity as a privileged society blessed by God. The notion, for example, that the Jewish people have a special claim on Jerusalem and a superior right to the territory of historic Palestine over the other inhabitants of the land bears a resemblance to our historic American notion of “Manifest Destiny”—our nation as the “shining city on a hill.” As Americans and as Christians, we must carefully examine how our own deeply-rooted sense of privilege may affect our commitment to justice and equality in this and other human rights causes across the globe.
The U.S. document is a response to the Palestinian call but it bears most resemblance to its South African predecessor. In both cases, the object of the call to action is not the tyrannous system itself, but “moderating” forces that seek to disable the resistance and to preserve the unjust system, often through the appropriation of language and outright co-opting of religious and political leaders. Certainly this was true in the 1980s, with the Pretoria government’s attempted “reforms” in the form of Bantustan vassal states ruled by black political leaders co-opted by the Apartheid regime. The current U.S. commitment to a “two-state solution” to the Israel-Palestine conflict bears disturbing resemblance to this earlier example, with the proposed Palestinian “state” consisting of fragmented enclaves located within territory controlled militarily and economically by Israel. Like the South African document, Kairos USA calls on American Christians, church bodies, and our own government to remember that above all, our actions and our policies must follow the prophetic instruction to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
Call to Action
Kairos USA lays out specific actions for individuals, churches, and organizations:
Visit the land: “Come and see!” say the authors of Kairos Palestine, to “know the facts and the people of this land, Palestinians and Israelis alike.” Congregations and denominationally-organized visits must take care to work with Palestinians and Israelis who will introduce them to the situation on the ground and to those working for peace. When pilgrims are allowed to see the real facts of the situation, they not only “walk where Jesus walked,” they see what Jesus saw. Witnessing the suffering and seeing the injustice, as Jesus did living under Roman occupation and the prophets in their day, Americans are called to speak out and to act.
Learn: Move beyond stereotypes, longstanding prejudices and biased reporting. There is a wealth of study materials and curricula in the form of reading materials, curricula for churches, schools and local organizations in the form of documents, videos, and speakers bureaus. A comprehensive Study Guide for the Kairos USA “Call to Action” is available at kairosusa.org.
Enrich worship and congregational life: Be proactive. Pray and preach justice and peace for Palestine and Israel. Pursue opportunities to learn and study about the situation, explore cultural and economic exchange and challenge our congregations to participate in the blessed calling of peacemaking.
Engage in theological reflection: Examine flawed biblical interpretations and theologies that have allowed injustice to continue unchallenged. Pursue open and active theological inquiry and encourage study and reflection, in order to guide our actions in striving to follow Jesus’ injunction to “interpret the present time” (Luke 12:56).
Participate in nonviolent action: Translate concern into action. Support those in Israel, the Occupied Territories and throughout the world who work for justice through peaceful means. We urge Americans to become educated about the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions and to explore this and other forms of legitimate, nonviolent action and other opportunities to become actively involved.
Engage with your government: Advocate with local and national U.S. government elected representatives and officials, as Christians who are committed to justice, peace and security for both Israelis and Palestinians. Support political candidates who do the same.
The challenge and the hope
As Christian denominations, congregations, peace fellowships, mission networks and faith-based grassroots organizations continue their work for justice, we are witnessing an intensification of the reaction from both Jewish and Christian groups who are opposed to a change in the status quo of unconditional support of Israel. The opposition takes several forms, including: (1) charges that the Palestinian and U.S. Kairos documents are anti-Semitic or partake of the so-called “delegitimization” of Israel, (2) calls for the abandonment of divestment, boycott and sanction campaigns as disruptive to Christian-Jewish relations and the peace process, calling instead for a reliance on “positive investment” in Palestine, negotiations, and “interfaith dialogue,” and (3) overt attempts to drive a wedge between Palestinian Christians and Christians globally but especially North Americans, falsely accusing Palestinian Christians of endorsing violence and bringing back archaic anti-Semitic tropes. We will see an escalation of these attacks in the coming years as the church-led movement to end Apartheid in our time gains momentum. As this battle is fought increasingly on theological grounds, this means that not only is justice for Palestinians being threatened, but that Christianity itself and the faithfulness of the church to the message of the Gospels is under assault.
As the movement grows to respond boldly and faithfully to the Palestinian, these voices of opposition will become louder, more strident, and more accusatory. The walls that have been built on Palestinian land to separate people from people, brother from brother and sister from sister will be built thicker and higher. But no one can build a wall in our hearts. “Hope,” states the Kairos Palestine document, “is the capacity to see God in the midst of trouble, and to be co-workers with the Holy Spirit who is dwelling in us.” Standing before the wall in Jerusalem, we hear the Good News: that we can bring down that wall. That it will fall, that in fact it is already coming down.
Mark Braverman is a Jewish American who writes and lectures internationally on the theological and interfaith issues related to the search for peace in Israel and Palestine. He has been closely involved in the growth of the international church movement to support the cause of Palestinian rights. In 2009 he participated in the launch of the Kairos Palestine document in Bethlehem. Braverman is Program Director for Kairos USA, a movement to unify and mobilize American Christians to take a prophetic stance for a just peace in Israel and Palestine. He is the author of Fatal Embrace: Christians, Jews, and the Search for Peace in the Holy Land, Beaufort Books, 2011, and the forthcoming A Wall in Jerusalem: Hope, Healing, and the Struggle for Peace in Israel and Palestine, Jericho Books, 2013.