What is a Kairos Document?
What is a Kairos Document?
Presentation at Kairos for Global Justice Encounter
Bethlehem, December 7, 2011
I want to thank the conference organizers: Nora, Rifat and Yasmine, for the honor you have given me in inviting me to present on this topic.
I come before you today as an American, fully aware of my responsibility as an American citizen for the crime that is being committed here in Palestine.
I also stand before you as a Jew, deeply connected to my tradition and to my people, who is horrified and heartbroken over what is being done in my name: for the suffering of my Palestinian sisters and brothers in Palestine and in exile, for the psychological and spiritual peril of my own people who have imprisoned themselves behind the wall they have built. Israel is on a course that is unsustainable, sinful, and suicidal. I stand before you in mourning for the institutional Jewish community throughout the world that is still blind, that will someday be on its knees in contrition for what we have done. I feel like that Palestinian Jew of 2000 years ago felt, who, as Assis Naim reminded us yesterday, wept over a Jerusalem that was on the course of self-destruction, because it had forgotten God. At the same time, I am deeply grateful for the faithful witness of Christians. Like Rifat, I am profoundly hopeful, because of what I have seen in my country — the faithful work of so many, working so hard, so persistently, in the face of opposition and the blindness and false prophecy of much of the church itself. I am inspired and hopeful because of what I learned from my sisters and brothers in South Africa and in the Netherlands earlier this year, and because of what I see here today in this place.
Kairos is hard to define. It is one of those brilliant, hard nuggets of a word that seems to contain a universe, and continues to expand its essence in an unlimited fashion.
Kairos is, like theology itself, a living thing, constantly unfolding and expanding and deepening. Like theology, it is only alive when it is doing its job – helping us understand what God expects of us in relationship to our fellow creatures and the natural environment that has been given to us. Like theology, it is only valid as long as it remains in conversation with history. Kairos is a response to a proper reading of the signs of the times. Kairos time is the time when, in American theologian Robert McAfee Brown’s words, “Opportunity demands a response. God offers us a new set of possibilities and we have to accept or decline.”
Kairos presents what a friend once described to me as a case of “insurmountable opportunity.” Even when – and usually this is the case – the objective is clear but the road uncertain, full of hazards, uncharted, you must go. Even in the face of opposition and persecution, you must go. And here we must revisit, as I will suggest we must do continually, the experience of those who lived the original Kairos, as recounted in the Acts of the Apostles: 4:19-20 “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” 5:29 “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”
This is a moment of truth for the church! The concept of status confessionis speaks to this: in Robert McAfee Brown’s phrasing, “when the issues become so clear, and the stakes so high, that the privilege of amiable disagreement (which Christians have proven themselves to be so good at — the ability to occupy both sides of every controversial question) must be superseded by clear cut decisions, and the choice must move from both/and to either/or.”
In trying to answer the question what is a Kairos document in 30 minutes, I want to focus on three fundamental aspects or qualities: Prophecy, confession, and community.
The mission of the Church is prophetic, to speak the Word of God courageously, honestly and lovingly in the local context and in the midst of daily events.
Kairos Palestine Document, Bethlehem, 2009
We have heard that Kairos involves reading the signs of the times, but even more, it is being struck by something that is inescapably compelling, an experience that is sometimes likened to that first, famous conversion, hence the naming of the 1989 African/Asian/Latin American Kairos, The Road to Damascus. It is when the reality is so strong, and so present that it knocks you down, first blinding you and then leading you to clear sight. It is the fortunate time, it is God’s time.
The first Kairos embodied 3 key elements: (1) an urgent, horrific sociopolitical situation – the tyranny of Rome — that threatened the economic and social fabric of an agrarian society, (2) an ancient, God-given ethical and spiritual tradition, rooted in a people and a land, and a tradition that was under mortal threat by that same tyrannical system, and (3) the appearance of a prophetic witness, teacher and leader, speaking for God, who he called the father, calling his people and their leadership, to nonviolent resistance to that tyranny, a resistance based on faithfulness to the essence of their tradition. Jesus knew that the challenge of the historical circumstance required a return to the essential truths of that tradition, truths that had been betrayed by the political/religious system in power in Jerusalem, working of course for the Roman occupier. And there is where the opposition and the persecution comes from, of course — not only from the tyranny itself but from the conservative forces within the society that seek only to preserve their power and privilege.
This is where we find ourselves today. We are called to the same challenge – and we’ve got the manual, and we’ve got the teacher. Kairos requires us to see, not only the injustice in plain sight, but, as Rifat writes, to see that we are God’s hands, and that we speak as God’s voice.
In this, Kairos is prophecy – prophecy based in the theology grounded in Matthew 25: What you do for those among you who are in need, you do for me. This is the calling of the church. It calls to us, in each of our contexts. Where is Christ to be found? Wherever the poor and the dispossessed are to be found, wherever a people or group are subject to systematic denial of human rights, wherever they are imprisoned, driven out of their homes, exiled, transferred, bombed, or slaughtered at close range. In the refugee camps, in the poor neighborhoods and shanty towns in the center or edges of our cities. The disinherited. Those, in African American theologian Howard Thurman’s words, with their backs against the wall.
And so we know that to write a Kairos document is the articulation of a prophetic theology – a theology that is a challenge, a confrontation of the status quo, of the normative social and political order. In the gospel of John, Jesus stands before the Temple in Jerusalem and declares: “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will build it up again!” The apostles, of course did not understand. And so the writer of the gospel explains: “He spoke of the Temple of his body.” Body of Christ: one humanity, united in one communion. This is the Kingdom of God – the alternative to all that the Temple represented. Jesus was making a clear, powerful political statement.
But there is the risk, a risk that a Kairos document is precisely designed to prevent – the lure and power of the false prophetic. Comrade Stiaan spoke eloquently about this last night. Jesus speaks of false prophets – and there is a false prophetic. We can allow ourselves to be fooled. We can miss the boat.
And our energy can thus go for naught, and that is the risk. In Luke chapter 8 Jesus tells us the parable of the sower who sows the seeds that do not always take root. Jesus explains the meaning of the parable: that this is about how to bring about the Kingdom of God, and he actually gives us pointers on how to do it, and how to avoid going about it the wrong way. There are lots of ways to scatter the seed, and there will be many conditions – including the challenge of those who will persecute you. So where is the good soil? Where to you sow?
I heard Marc Ellis speaking at the AAR last week – Marc Ellis, the author of A Jewish Theology of Liberation, a man who exemplifies the prophetic (and is paying for it). Marc talked about the difference between the prophetic voice and the liberal or progressive, what he called a watered down prophetic. We all know what this looks like, tastes like, smells like – it is often called reform — an ethic that stands back from the confrontation with injustice articulated in every Kairos document. Perhaps these are the seeds that are sown on the path — the comfortable, well worn path where so many walk, and where the seeds of the Kingdom will not grow.
We know them when we see them, we feel the lie contained in these strategies when applied in the face of the prophetic: dialogue, reconciliation, balance, dual narratives – you heard about these last night so clearly from Rifat. This last one about narratives is one I am particularly familiar with – we Jews are particularly attached to it. I was in Amsterdam at the Kairos Netherlands conference this year and listened to a local rabbi speaking on a panel about the Kairos Palestine document. I sympathize with the Palestinian cause, said the rabbi, but I cannot endorse this document, because it leaves out the Jewish narrative. He meant that he could not be open to the story of Palestinian suffering or abrogation of rights without a “balancing” narrative about Jewish suffering.
Or it could be the reforms that the Pretoria government was proposing in the 1980s in a desperate effort to hold on to Apartheid: blacks in Parliament, a two-state Bantustan solution with client governments installed. It could be the Israelis who talk about a kindler, gentler Zionism committed to social justice and a fair deal for the Palestinians, as long as they stay contained and strangled in their Bantustans and stay off our roads and out of our sight and do not interfere with our project to establish a hegemonic Jewish state on the territory of historic Palestine.
ut that is the Jewish story – and, as my brother Stiaan pointed out to us last night, we must have compassion for the Israelis trapped behind their wall and praying to their wall – but that is not the story of Kairos. Kairos is the Christian story, it is confessional, and it is about the church. And it is about a church struggle, a confession about how the church has lost its way, has given way to theologies that run directly counter to Matthew 25, theologies that serve to support the Temple of great stones and gold and tax collectors and all that it represents. In Road to Damascus this is called “right wing, state theology, a theology of reconciliation.” In the South African Kairos it is described so well as “church theology.” In our context in the U.S., it is called Christian Zionism. In Holland, I have heard it called Israel theology by a church official defending the Dutch protestant church’s position of theologically-based support for the State of Israel.
How do we avoid the trap of false prophecy, the seduction of reform, of balance, of dialogue, of “can’t we just talk about this?” This is where confession comes in. With prophecy, the seeing clearly, must come confession — the realization of how we have failed, how we have been complicit. This is, after all, what the prophets demand, and they do their work in the marketplace, at the gate of the city, and even, perhaps especially, in the Temple courtyard: look not only at the evil around you, look at yourselves, in your everyday context, in your courts, your houses of worship, your schools, look at how you have allowed the heresy to flourish.
“Do you suppose,” Jesus asks in Luke 12:51, “that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division.” The meaning of the Greek diamerismos is to make a clear demarcation: to know the difference. It is to know 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. It is to know the difference between actions and words that seek at all costs to preserve cherished beliefs, attitudes and relationships, and those that faithfully challenge them in order to bring about a world of love and compassion.
This confession therefore is two pronged: First, it is self critical, it is directed inward: we have failed. Second: it tells the truth about the social and political system of which we are a part.
You might say the first is an individual experience – a conversion — Saul on the road –and that the second – confession — is collective, rooted in the society, in the institutions, in, as the South African Kairos puts it, a social analysis of the evil. And once you achieve confession, action follows. In fact, action is conditional on confession – confession represents the gap between living with, and even participating in, the evil, and what must be done to bring it to an end. This is how Jesus challenged his own people. Once you confess, you cannot continue to go along with things as they are. Once you see, you no longer have that option. You have stepped outside of the system. And so you must create a new one, here and now.
In my tradition when you do confession it is always in the first person plural, and it is done as a community. This is very wise and it is crucial.
And this is the function of the Kairos document – it is a we statement – a prophetic witness, a communal expression and social analysis, and a prescription for action. Barmen is the prototypical 20th century example of this. It is what the World Alliance of Reformed Churches did in Ottawa in 1982 after being confronted by the South African black and colored pastors who refused to sit at the communion table with their white counterparts because they could not do that at home in South Africa. And the church knew what to do, and in a little over 10 years Apartheid had fallen.
And so we come to Community
So, returning to our parable of the sower, where is the good soil? Right here. In this gathering. Like the early church: outposts of grassroots organizing in the heart of the Empire.
The act of creating a Kairos document brings people together, and in the process you provide a home for people who have been toiling for justice in isolation, for groups within church denominations who have been working, but not in coordination with others from other churches or denominations. Here, in the kairos movement is the church within a church, the Blessed Community. It is not “ecumenical” in the sense that it is often used, sort of a UN of the churches, each in his place with his denominational or theological hat on. Rather, we are a single body, united in a faithful ministry.
This is what is particularly exciting about what is happening in the formation of Kairos USA. In the U.S. there are walls within the church. There is an evangelical-mainline divide, there is a racial divide. The wonderful and important thing that is happening is that in the process of creating Kairos in America, these walls are in the process of being breached. I believe this is what is meant by body of Christ. This is a dynamic that occurred in South Africa during their struggle. Rifat writes about how in the 1988 the Pentecostals in South Africa produced their Pentecostal Witness Kairos. Confessing their self-imposed isolation and nonparticipation in the anti-Apartheid struggle, they asked: “Why then, have we never joined together with the rest of the body as one united witness against Apartheid?” So this is about enlivening the church, this is about renewal, this is about the true church.
Discussing Kairos, Robert MacAfee Brown puts it in the broader context of a fundamental shift in the church – he calls it a “second reformation” – from salvation by faith alone to good news to the poor. In the words of Road to Damascus, “a call to conversion to those who have strayed from the truth of Christian faith and commitment.”
Charles Villa-Vicencio, one of the authors of the 1985 Kairos South Africa, asks the question: can a creative, prophetic drive penetrate the institutional church, a church that is trapped in the dominant structures of oppression, a church conditioned by a history of compromise with, indeed by having joined the structure of oppression? Villa-Vicencio asks: “Can religion truly break the iron cage of history? Can religion produce a qualitatively different kind of society? Is the Kingdom of God a real possibility?”
And the answer is yes — if we discover, or rediscover, or uncover, the true meaning of the Christian faith, as so many of the kairos documents cry for – the moment of truth – the time for the church to make a decision!
We are talking about something very powerful.
In 1963 the Reverend Martin Luther King Junior sat in a cell in Birmingham Alabama, jailed for civil disobedience. He received a letter from a group of ten white pastors asking him to back off from his campaign of direct actions. We love you Martin, they said, and we support your movement, but this is hurting the cause. Let us work through channels. Let us have a peace process. And you know his response. This is not the Christian way, he said, this is not what we are called by Jesus to do in the face of the evil of racism in this country. When the early Christians entered a town, they were persecuted as “outside agitators – but they persisted, knowing that they were a colony of heaven, called to obey God rather than man. And he writes:
“The judgment of God is upon the church as never before… If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”
Contexts change and shift but that which is essential endures. The lesson of Kairos is that we must pay close attention to our own context, to the arena in which the bringing of the Kingdom of God is being enacted. And so I, in the company of my American colleagues, must pay close attention and keep my eyes open.
MacAfee Brown, writing up until his death in 2001, never addressed in writing the story of Palestine – but I believe that if he were alive today his eyes would be opened. Because he understood so well the legacy of the U.S. pursuit of global economic hegemony, how that has motivated our illegal and immoral and murderous policies expressed throughout the world. He would have had to contemplate our government’s financing and diplomatic support of Israeli Apartheid. We have built it, and that wall is our wall — our hegemonic, racist frontier. Look at Palestine, unpack the story of Palestine today, and what emerges is the larger, global picture of Western economic imperialism.
We do very well to keep this in mind – the power of the Palestinian cause is its ability to reveal the broader global context of Empire. We return, again and again, to the original kairos –the confrontation of a visionary, prophetic figure with the evil of empire – the man from tiny Galilee standing up to the greatest power in the world — and so isn’t it right that we gather here, at the very scene of this drama that unfolded 2000 years ago? And here we are. And here we stand.