Opinion Piece (Part 1 & 2)
Written by Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, General Secretary of the SACC
(Editorial reference: PART ONE)
An uneasy “ceasefire” prevails between Israel and Palestinian Territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Even as this holds out, secondary hostilities between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli support groups are spreading across the world. This may begin a fresh season of street conflicts in countries very far from the Holy Land.
In South Africa too, the waves of protests against the Israeli storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Israeli bombardments of Gaza have been as vibrant as in the various cities of the world. The protests in places like Seapoint Cape Town, with concentrations of Jewish communities and synagogues, have the potential of posing a security threat for Jewish worshippers. The scenes of violence upon worshippers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the relentless bombardment of the tiny land strip of Gaza, have moved many South Africans to react, and they must certainly feel free to exercise their right to do so. However, such protests should avoid the optics of focus on South African citizens of Jewish faith. Such a perception would undermine and threaten decades of South African religious tolerance and interfaith collaboration. Through mutual tolerance and interfaith collaboration on national affairs, much can be achieved – especially today in the COVID-19 combat when we must stand together. We must be very clear, opposition to Israeli government policies must not become opposition to the Jewish faith and its adherents. The Israeli government is not Judaism.
In that spirit, standing together as communities of faith in the national concerns of South Africa does not mean a common position on the Israel-Palestine question. We have all been exposed to varying points of view on the matter, and our understanding of the geography, political history, and religious significance of the area will not be to the same level. This is precisely why there have been public differences of opinion between Chief Rabbi Goldstein and Rev Frank Chikane. They have been exposed to different experiences and realities. It is the level of their maturity as faith leaders, that they have both publicly committed to make a pilgrimage together to the Holy Land, to find a common perspective either way, or agree to disagree. Whatever the outcome of such a visit, there should be a greater commitment of the people of faith in South Africa to engage courageously from the love ethic of our different faiths; and with our global partners work for a just and lasting peace in the Holy Land.
If South African faith communities can model a readiness to stand together on the justice principles of our Constitution, and the best values of their faiths, it might create a platform for South Africa to promote solutions of coexistence, even the difficult prospect of a unitary democratic state in the Holy Land, for all three Abrahamic faiths with justice and security for all. How do Christians contribute to this, when there are such stark differences of thinking and expression about Israel among South African Christian voices?
Last July we had opportunity to hear Rabbi Yishai Fleisher from Israel, representing the Jewish community of Hebron; and also a broadcaster on “The Land of Israel Network”. The Rabbi outlined a strong case for not only the occupation of Palestinian territory, but for the Israeli ownership of the biblical “Land of Israel”. This speaks to the same conceptualisation championed last year by Chief Justice Mogoeng, on the promise of God to Abraham over the biblical land of Israel. There are many Christians who believe that this position is an expression of the Christian duty of faith.
Also last year we heard from Palestinian Christians, from pastors who minister to Christian congregations on a daily basis. They are the same communities of converts to the gospel of Jesus Christ who have been in the Holy Land since the days of the apostles. They had a different story to tell – that they are part of the Palestinian nation that includes both Muslims and Christians, but a nation of just under six million people who have human rights in today’s context of the global universal civil rights regime. These rights did not obtain in the days of Joshua’s conquest, or of King Saul. Today international law regulated through the United Nations binds all countries, and that includes the State of Israel.
One should not blame South African churches for not knowing and appreciating this, and for their confusion over these matters. It’s mostly an honest problem requiring a generous understanding and a loving engagement on our different understandings of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the changes it introduces to the position of the Old Testament on race and human relationships.
Our churches are caught between, on the one hand, the texts of scripture that appear to give today’s State of Israel the execution mandate of the Old Testament texts; and on the other, the Jesus call on his followers to justice and love for all human beings without discrimination. As Jesus says, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)
In attempting to understand what is required of our churches, we offer the 2014 statement of former SACC General Secretary, Archbishop Tutu who said we need a mindset shift:
“It requires a mind-set shift. A mind-set shift that recognises that attempting to perpetuate the current status quo is to damn future generations to violence and insecurity. A mind-set shift that stops regarding legitimate criticism of a state’s policies as an attack on Judaism. A mind-set shift that begins at home and ripples out across communities and nations and regions – to the diaspora scattered across the world we share. The only world we share.”
This mind-set shift rests on our ability to fully understand the broader nuances related to the Israel/Palestine question. In the next article in this series, I will delve deeper into these nuances, with the objective of providing bible-based evidence of the history of the area, and drawing parallels with our own history as a nation.
(EDITORIAL REFERENCE: PART TWO)
Firstly, the Old Testament attitude from Joshua to Ezra/Nehemiah, is about the racial purity of the children of Israel, in order to inherit the promises of God to Israel. However, Paul in the New Testament – a Benjaminite Jew convicted of Christ, writes differently of the inheritance of the Abrahamic promises, and he links them directly to the imperative of Christ that recognises neither race nor social status for privilege:
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29 NRSV)
This relates to the promise fully discussed in Galatians 3 from verse 16 onwards, which transfers the Abrahamic promise to the New Israel – the community of faith in Christ, and this includes gentile Christians – in this case the Palestinian Church. This was a surprising novelty that even some of the apostles struggled with, pandering to the Judaizers, even Peter (Galatians 2:11-14). Jesus illustrates this astounding novelty most graphically in the parable of the Good Samaritan, where, not just an ordinary Jew, but a priest and a Levite failed to be appropriately neighbourly to their injured compatriot, but such neighbourliness came from a despised outsider, the Samaritan – we might say, a Palestinian!
The question to each person who feels the obligation of the gospel of Jesus Christ is: Does the Promise to Abraham as applied by Paul in Galatians 2 and 3 not convict you in the Holy Spirit? (John 16:8) These texts should inform Christians, from their faith in Christ, to reject Israel’s “New Basic Law of Nation State” that uses the Old Testament concept of “the land of Israel”, which it defines as “the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established”. This New Basic Law that has the status of the constitution in Israel, that cannot be easily changed, says “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people” – a race criterion; thus excluding everyone else on the grounds of race.
South African white Christians in decades of apartheid, similarly failed to recognise the message of the gospel that Paul was preaching, and allowed themselves the exclusive privilege for which they continuously voted in their droves in apartheid “democracy”. The preamble to the 1983 South African Constitution made religious claims, including how God had “gathered” white South Africans from other lands and gave them this as their own. At this, the gospel of Jesus Christ was offended, and the theological statement of the Kairos Document articulated that in 1985, two years into that 1983 apartheid constitution.
Likewise, communities and neighbourhoods in Europe were silent and complicit to the horror of the Holocaust. But there were also those who recognised the evil of the persecution of the Jews and risked their lives to save many, because they recognised that silence when you know what is happening, amounts to complicity. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer of the Confessing Church said, the church must “share in God’s sufferings in the world”, following the example of Jesus, “the man for others.”
Secondly, and this relates to why the gospel was offended, even without the clearly racist positions of the State of Israel, Jesus Christ takes a stand against the oppression of one by another; or turning a blind eye to the suffering of people under any circumstances. This he makes his “manifesto” in his choice of the Isaiah text in Luke:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:18-19 NRSV)
This text, read together with Matthew 25:31-46, leaves us with little doubt of the compassion required of the disciples of Christ towards those who suffer at the hands of others. This call to indiscriminate Christian compassion must take precedence over any consideration of narrow nationalism gleaned from the texts whose pharisaic observance Jesus opposed.
Thirdly, the discipline of biblical interpretation requires Christians to examine scriptures in their original context of time, as we apply them in terms of the present historical realities. In that, we have an interpretation duty, a hermeneutical duty to contrast the Old Testament prescripts with the New Testament injunctions as we have referred to above.
Fourthly, Jesus says in John: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 NRSV)
In this regard, South African Christians have an obligation to, in the first instance, listen to the Christian churches in the Holy Land, on how best to exercise the love to those churches, as obligated by Jesus on us as Christians. Representing local Christians, the Council of Patriarchs and Heads of the Holy Land Churches have called for “a time-delimited and phased Peace Initiative in line with International Law and United Nations resolutions on the matter, in order to guarantee a comprehensive, just, and long-lasting peace in this part of the world that is considered Holy by the three Abrahamic Faiths.”
Finally, above all, we are a constitutional society that has emerged from a racially divided and oppressive period. The best we can give to the world is a sensitivity to the things we have experienced, in an effort to prevent them happening to others in the world. That is why our foreign policy must be a human rights oriented policy.
With the understanding of the New Testament teaching on race, compassion and love; with the background of own history where religion was used to oppress Blacks, and the painful struggle for human rights; and with the commitment of our country to the universal statutes and resolutions of the United Nations, South African Christians should carry their Christ lenses of mutuality into a collaborative effort with Jews and Muslims to advocate for a just and lasting peace for all in the Holy Land.
There was a time, long before 1948, when Jews, Muslims and Christians lived together in what was known as Palestine. As the two-state option fades with the spread of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian Territories, might the Peace of Jerusalem lie in a unitary democratic state advocated by faith leaders? The whole debate is indeed about the peace of Jerusalem and what will achieve it – a mutual settlement between Palestinians and Israelis, or a violent dislocation and dispossession of Palestinians by Israel against all International law and basic human rights principles? Pope Francis, who has described Jerusalem as the “common patrimony of humanity and especially the followers of the three monotheistic religions” (Judaism, Islam and Christianity), has said of the necessity of peace: “There is no reasonable alternative to peace, because every attempt at exploitation or supremacy demeans both its author and its target. It shows a myopic grasp of reality, since it can offer no future to either of the two.”
What then should we be advocating for? The South African Council of Churches would approach the churches in the Holy Land to work together to persuade the world church bodies to co-sponsor with global leaders of the Muslim and Jewish faiths, to exploring the quest for a faith-based solution of peace with justice and security for all. And the words of Prophet Isaiah will have a new meaning:
“For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” (Isaiah 61:11)
SACC Communications Consultant
South African Council of Churches
Tel: 084 074 1285 | Email: email@example.com