Last week a group of US clergy, theologians and laypersons unveiled Karios USA, a powerful and important American Christian spiritual call for justice in Israel and Palestine. As a religious Jew, I am inspired by its prophetic courage, its unabashed call for justice and its heartfelt model of compassion. It truly deserves to be shared and studied by all who who seek a genuinely religious call for justice in this land that is so central to so many peoples and spiritual traditions.
Kairos USA is modeled on the religious testimony of Kairos Palestine, a document that was drafted by prominent Palestinian Christian leaders in 2009 (which was itself inspired by the 1985 South African Kairos statement). Despite these important influences, however, Kairos USA stands on its own as a uniquely American Christian call for justice in Israel/Palestine.
Indeed, this unique mission is evoked in the statement’s Preamble at the very outset:
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.
And more specifically, from the Introduction:
As U.S. Christians we bear responsibility for failing to say “Enough!” when our nation’s ally, the State of Israel, violates international law. Our government has financed Israel’s unjust policies and has shielded its government from criticism by the international community. At the outset of the current U.S. administration, our government led Palestinians to believe that at last we would pursue a political solution based on justice. But the “peace process” has continued to be no more than a means for the continuing colonization of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the imprisonment of Gaza and the intensification of the structures of oppression.
I have no doubt at all that like Kairos Palestine, Kairos USA will be excoriated by many self-appointed leaders of the American Jewish establishment. As for myself, now that I’ve read the document carefully, I can say without hesitation that I believe this statement is a truly sacred testimony, offered in good faith and with genuine religious integrity.
I was particularly moved to read how sensitively Kairos USA treads over some of the most complex hot-button issues in the Jewish-Christian relationship. For instance, on the issue of historical church anti-Semitism, the statement includes the following confession:
As Christians addressing the Palestinian cause we must also acknowledge our shameful role in the historic persecution of the Jewish people. We recognize the dehumanizing and destructive power of doctrines and theologies that denigrated Judaism. Our predecessors perpetuated anti-Semitic stereotypes, practiced scapegoating and cloaked prejudice, hostility and murder itself in the robes of our religion. We confess that our churches failed to resist, and sometimes even aided and abetted pogroms, mass dislocations of Jews, and the calamity of the Nazi Holocaust itself. In so doing, they betrayed the teaching and example of the one we claim to follow. We speak for and with our forbears in expressing deep remorse. With a commitment to never forget those failures and to be instructed by them, we pledge ourselves to growth in faithfulness, compassion and justice.
The statement goes on, however, to state that Christians’ honest desire to repent for the church’s historic crimes against Jews must not inhibit them from speaking out against injustices perpetrated by Israel against Palestinians. To my mind, this is a call for real and honest interfaith relations – dialogue that is not defined by guilt or emotional blackmail, but rather by a willingness to venture into and openly discuss the more difficult and painful places:
We acknowledge with sadness and distress that because of the powerful impulse on the part of Christians to atone for their sins against the Jewish people, vigilance against anti-Semitism today has come to trump working for justice in Palestine and Israel. The Christian need to rectify centuries of anti-Jewish doctrine and actions and to avoid even the perception of anti-Jewish feeling has served to silence criticism of Israel’s policies and any questioning of the consequences of U.S. government support for Israel. Differences between anti-Semitism and legitimate opposition to Israeli actions are avoided or explained away. Responsible discourse about Zionism is often denounced as hostility toward Israel and its citizens or branded as anti-Semitism. We believe that in our dialogue with our Jewish friends, family members and colleagues and in our relationships with the Jewish community on institutional levels, we must confront this pattern of avoiding, denying or suppressing discussion of issues that may cause conflict or discomfort. The fact that anti-Semitism still exists makes it all the more important to differentiate between actual anti-Jewish feelings and criticism of the actions of a nation state. Uncomfortable though it may be, we cannot be afraid to address the urgent issue of justice and human rights in Israel and Palestine with our Jewish sisters and brothers here in the United States.
I also deeply admire the statement’s willingness to directly address the charged issue of so-called Christian “replacement” or “supersessionist” theology (a view that promotes Christianity – and not Judaism – as the genuine fulfillment of Biblical tradition):
We are aware that in denying a theology of entitlement that gives the Jewish people exclusive rights to the Holy Land, we risk the charge of reviving the Christian doctrine known as replacement theology (sometimes known as supersessionism). In this view, the Church takes the place of Israel in God’s purposes, denigrating Judaism itself and condemning the Jews to suffering for rejecting the Gospel. Christians have rightly wished to distance themselves from this destructive and divisive doctrine. We repudiate the anti-Semitic legacy of the church’s past and the theology that undergirds it.
As a Jew who rejects a sense of Jewish entitlement just as strongly as I reject any religious viewpoint that makes an exclusive claim to the land, I particularly appreciate Kairos USA’s religious approach on this point:
Our core Christian belief is that God’s promise in the Gospel is a promise to all nations. This means that God’s kingdom work in Christ is a promise to everyone regardless of race. We believe that the Church has found in Christ a fulfillment of all that God promised in Abraham, and that both Jews and Gentiles have been invited equally into this promise of a world renewed in love and compassion. The Church does not replace Israel. Jews continue to have a place in God’s plan for the world. In Christ, all nations can be blessed (Genesis 18:18, 22:18; Galatians 3:8). In these times of growing international conflict and cultural mistrust, this is a significant promise. Theologies that privilege one nation with political entitlements to the exclusion of others miss a central tenet of the Gospel and inspire increased conflict.
I believe the above statement provides a crucial challenge to both American Jews and Christians. From a theological point of view, I believe it is time to reframe the issue. The real debate is not about which religious tradition or people has a more compelling religious “right” to the land of Israel, rather, it is between those who make exclusivist theological claims and those whose theology makes room for all peoples who live on or feel a connection to this land.
I also have no doubt that many in the American Jewish establishment will reject out of hand Kairos USA’s positive advocacy of BDS (“Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions”). But here again, I find that the statement deals with a hot-button issue with sensitivity and integrity:
Participation in the BDS movement by U.S. churches, notably in the form of initiatives to divest church funds from companies profiting from the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza, has generated critically-important discussions at local, denominational and ecumenical levels about the responsibility of the church to act. It has also generated intense controversy. Opposition, from Jewish organizations as well as from voices within the churches, has often been fierce, claiming that such actions will inflict grievous damage on hard-won positive relationships with the Jewish community. Many express fear that these actions may encourage anti-Semitism. We note with distress that many have confused these actions with anti-Jewish discrimination and persecution in the Christian past. But BDS is directed at Israeli policy, not the state itself or its citizens, and certainly not against the Jewish people. Divestment and other forms of socially responsible investing (SRI) are not directed against groups, nor are they intended to hurt individuals, corporations or states. They are, rather, directed at unjust, oppressive policies and are about promoting our own values and stated commitments by noncooperation with evil. Furthermore, methods to exert economic pressure on governments and companies, in addition to being a legal, ethical and time-tested way of influencing the political process and corporate behavior, serve to increase awareness, promote open discussion and create the grassroots support required to urge governments to take effective action and to change unjust policies. We urge congregations, clergy and church leaders to become educated about the BDS movement and to consider the many forms that it can take on personal, local and national levels.
As I American Jew who is deeply distressed by the American Jewish establishment’s abject vilification of BDS, I don’t think I could possibly put it any better.
I urge all people – whether religious and secular, Christian, Jewish or Muslim – to read, share, discuss and respectfully debate this important new American statement of faith. My deepest gratitude to those (including my good friends Mark Braverman and Father Cotton Fite) who helped spearhead and draft Kairos USA. May it inspire us all to reframe a new religious response to the sorrows of Israel/Palestine – and lead the way to a better future to all who call this land home.