Making it personal: the Kairos Palestine document

By Michael Marten
15 Feb 2010

In December 2009, the Palestinian churches issued what some regard as the most significant Christian theological statement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in many years: the Kairos Palestine Document. Western churches have so far been at best equivocal, at worst completely silent on this statement: a colleague told me that a number of North American/European Roman Catholic Bishops who were in Jerusalem had discussed it and “received it with some caution.” Why is this?

Yusuf Daher, one of the people involved in the Kairos Palestine Document, spoke at a meeting in Jerusalem recently about the process of writing it. The Document took over 18 months to write and was, he said, written for two groups. Firstly, it was for Palestinian Christians like himself – Daher is a Melkite Catholic. He noted that all Palestinian Christian communities have adopted it without exception (though whether individual members of congregations are aware of it is, of course, another matter). It is being taken forward and there are plans to develop it into a substantial programme of action.

Secondly, the Kairos Palestine Document was written for the international Christian community, as both "a word of gratitude for the solidarity you have shown toward us in word, deed and presence among us", but also as "a call to repentance; to revisit fundamentalist theological positions that support ... unjust political options." It is, the authors say, "a call to stand alongside the oppressed and preserve the word of God as good news for all rather than to turn it into a weapon with which to slay the oppressed" (6.1).

In the next section, the Document explains how to understand the reality of the Palestinians: "Come and see." If only more churches would do this. Walking with Palestinians, experiencing their pain, seeing their loss – human rights organisations can write reports, UN departments can release endless statistics, and lobbying organisations can pick up on individual issues, but going to see the reality and walking even just for a short time with Palestinians is a different issue altogether.

I have recently been working in Jerusalem for a short period. Having lived here some time ago and visited a number of times since then, it is not my first encounter with the issues Kairos Palestine raises. But in walking and seeing, the issues become ever more real. For example, the de facto border that the Apartheid Wall, illegal under international law, has become, along with all the apparatus of a border control in the form of, for example, the Bethlehem checkpoint: a more complex and manipulative crossing than most international borders. Even the Palestinian Christian family I was visiting spoke of ‘the border’ when offering a lift back to the checkpoint – despite laughable denials by Israel that this represents anything permanent, Palestinians appear to be internalising the message Israel is communicating by its actions.

Or the road network: when I lived on the Mount of Olives in occupied East Jerusalem in the early 1990s, it was possible to walk or drive all the way down the hill towards the east and go to villages in the West Bank – as well as to the illegal settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, a dormitory commuter town. Now that two-lane road has been cut in half in the valley and fast multi-lane highways connecting Ma’ale Adumim to Jerusalem (and ultimately to Tel Aviv) scar the landscape; the Apartheid Wall further cuts off the villages. Even villages within the boundaries of what Israel defines as East Jerusalem, such as al-Issawiya just behind the (Israeli Jewish) Hadassah Hospital, are subject to constraints: although they are required to pay taxes, there is little by way of municipal services such as rubbish collection, which is left to pile up on the streets; even the main road to the village is blocked by rubble so that no vehicles can pass.

Or basic housing: the ongoing dispossession of Palestinian homes (dispossession is perhaps a more refined term than robbery, though it amounts to the same thing) is a crucial issue. One of the most recent glaring examples is in the district of Sheikh Jarrah in occupied East Jerusalem, where Israeli Jewish settlers have evicted the Palestinian owners on the basis of a manipulated court judgement; the owners now live in tents on the other side of the street, facing their house which is now draped in huge Israeli flags and crowned with a large steel menorah on the roof. I have been to two recent Friday demonstrations against the settlers. These are attended by a substantial number of Israelis from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and elsewhere, whilst the settlers offer a tiny counter-demonstration or shout at, jeer and mock the demonstrators; last week a group of them ran cheering and singing – at a safe distance – behind the soldiers and police dispersing the demonstrators in the early evening.

In the rural context, things are no better. For example, in the South Hebron Hills, the contrast between Israeli Jewish settler living standards and Palestinian villagers could barely be more crass, and continual settler harassment endangers Palestinian lives for trivial reasons: the owner of a donkey that strayed too close to a neighbouring settlement was shot at by settlers, the military destroys necessities without regard for the villagers, and schoolchildren walking to and from school are regularly attacked by adult settlers.

What hope in such circumstances, what hope for change? The Kairos Palestine Document appears to offer no hope from human sources alone:

Despite the lack of even a glimmer of positive expectation, our hope remains strong. The present situation does not promise any quick solution or the end of the occupation that is imposed on us... The clear Israeli response, refusing any solution, leaves no room for positive expectation. Despite this, our hope remains strong, because it is from God. God alone is good, almighty and loving and His goodness will one day be victorious over the evil in which we find ourselves. As Saint Paul said: “If God is for us, who is against us? (…) Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long” (…) For I am convinced that (nothing) in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God” (Rom. 8:31, 35, 36, 39). (3.1)

How is this to happen? Kairos Palestine points to two key aspects: a recognition that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory is not just wrong, illegal or immoral, but more than that: it is "a sin against God and humanity because it deprives the Palestinians of their basic human rights, bestowed by God. It distorts the image of God in the Israeli who has become an occupier just as it distorts this image in the Palestinian living under occupation." (2.5) No legitimate theology can be premised on such an understanding. Instead, the Kairos Palestine authors call for love and resistance in love: "Love is the commandment of Christ our Lord to us and it includes both friends and enemies... Love is seeing the face of God in every human being... However, seeing the face of God in everyone does not mean accepting evil or aggression on their part. Rather, this love seeks to correct the evil and stop the aggression." (4.2-4.2.1)

How can the international churches respond? Here, the Kairos Palestine Document is clear, clearer than most international churches seem to want it to be. Heeding the call of most Palestinian civil society organisations, the Kairos Palestine authors call on churches to follow the call to boycott, divestment and sanctions, targeting "everything produced by the occupation." This "integrate[s] the logic of peaceful resistance. These advocacy campaigns must be carried out with courage, openly {and} sincerely proclaiming that their object is not revenge but rather to put an end to the existing evil, liberating both the perpetrators and the victims of injustice" (4.2.6). Boycotts and divestments are seen "as tools of non violence for justice, peace and security for all" (6.3); they are "not revenge but rather a serious action in order to reach a just and definitive peace." (7)

(Of course, it shames me that my own Church continues to be implicated in purchasing goods from stolen Palestinian and Syrian lands, with no definitive indication as yet when this might change – clearly, some churches have much further to go on this journey than others.)

The Kairos Palestine Document has been criticised by some for the call to boycott, divestment and sanctions. But this is not the main focus of the document. A simple word count reveals the priorities of the authors: ‘love’ and ‘resist’ (and related words) occur 45 and 26 times respectively (whereas all the Document’s references to boycott, sanctions and divestment are mentioned in the paragraph above). It is to this that international churches should be paying heed – boycotts, divestment and sanctions are simply a non-violent expression of this love and resistance. Walking with Palestinians means learning from them about their situation – "come and see" – and also learning from them about what it is that can be done to help them. They are the ones suffering, and they know what is needed to help themselves.

There have been many statements from the churches in Palestine over the years, most attempting to prompt the international community into action. This one, long though it is, calls more overtly for specific action than many such statements have done in the past and is therefore perhaps more significant for that reason alone. The international churches can choose to listen and act and walk with their Palestinian sisters and brothers, or they can choose to turn away and ignore them – these are both active choices, and prevaricating or sitting on the fence is not an option. Our God calls us to repent of our sin, and if the occupation is a sin, we must repent of it and resist it, in love, as the Kairos Palestine authors have called on us to do.

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(c) Michael Marten is Lecturer in Postcolonial Studies with Religion at Stirling University’s School of Languages, Cultures and Religions. His research centres on religion, history and politics in an international context, with a particular focus on the involvement of Europeans overseas and especially in the Middle East. He has taught Middle East history and politics in the Department of Politics and International Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, London, and is a guest lecturer at the Institute for Advanced Study, University of Pavia, Italy. He has contributed to the Eerdmans Encyclopedia of Christianity and to Christianity and Jerusalem: Theology and Politics in the Holy Land, ed. Anthony O'Mahony (Gracewing, 2007). Michael is an Ekklesia associate.

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