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Christianity in Crisis: South Africa’s Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng and #Palestine_Cry4Hope

We cannot serve God and the oppression of the Palestinians” proclaim hundreds of Christian leaders. Yet in my country the Chief Justice says his Bible tells him to be loyal, above all else, to the State of Israel.

Which of these two options uphold Christian values: the views expressed by South Africa’s Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng in the live webinar with the Jerusalem Post on Tuesday 23 June, or the views in the global call and signature campaign, #Palestine_Cry4Hope that was launched on 1 July?

‘Mogoeng should apologise for Israel statements’ – CASAC
Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng. Picture: Gallo Images

Issued jointly by Kairos Palestine and Global Kairos for Justice (the global movement of concerned internationals in response to Kairos Palestine) the authors of #Palestine_Cry4Hope in at least 11 languages ask Christians for decisive action to work for the freedom and human rights of Palestinians.

The authors call upon Christians to reflect critically on how the Bible is used from the pulpit, in Sunday school classes, in policies and in interfaith relations to deprive the humanity of Palestinians. The matter demands a concerted effort, since

The very being of the church, the integrity of the Christian faith, and the credibility of the Gospel is at stake. We declare that support for the oppression of the Palestinian people, whether passive or active, through silence, word or deed, is a sin. We assert that Christian support for Zionism as a theology and an ideology that legitimize the right of one people to deny the human rights of another is incompatible with the Christian faith and a grave misuse of the Bible.

Israel’s Zionist ideology uses political and military might, racist discrimination and sacred texts to dispossess, transfer, massacre and exploit Palestinians. Numerous resolutions by the United Nations and reports by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other reputable bodies condemn Israel’s unlawful conduct. Hundreds of religious leaders, civil society and advocacy organizations from all over the world have already endorsed #Palestine_Cry4Hope. Yet the Chief Justice made glaring errors when he expressed his views in the webinar. According to Mogoeng, his Bible tells him to “pray for Jerusalem” and therefore he must “pray for Israel”. He added that those who “curse Israel” will themselves “be cursed”. These two points contain fundamental errors:

  • His assumption that all of Jerusalem is part of the Israeli state revealed his inadequate knowledge of history, geography and international borders.
  • His confusion between the biblical Israel and the modern State of Israel is one made by many Christians who are not aware of research in theology, political science, sociology, history and law. I too used to conflate the biblical Israel with the modern state.
  • His loyalty to the oppressor (Israel) at the cost of the oppressed (the Palestinians) implies that Israel is exempt from international laws on occupation, land theft, exploitation, ethnic cleansing and apartheid.
  • Given his stature and role, his public opposition in an international forum to his democratic government’s official position on Palestine and Israel is shocking.  
  • His apparent ignorance of the existence of Palestinian Christians and their suffering under the Israeli regime underscores his fallacious and misguided position.
  • His logic, that people who embrace values of equality, justice and compassion in supporting the Palestinian justice struggle will be cursed by God, crucifies Christ’s message of inclusive compassion and human dignity.

Many may argue that Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng’s views put him in the company of other leaders of our time who do not care about human lives, international law, the contributions of science and the importance of honesty and integrity. The devastating impact of narcissistic, power-hungry, uninformed leadership has become all the more clear in 2020. When Bishop Purity Malinga, the Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (the church of the late President Mandela) endorsed #Palestine_Cry4Hope on behalf of her church, she connected the matter both with the corrupting influence of the U.S.A. and with the heart of the Christian faith. She wrote as follows:

In the situation of the oppression of Palestinians by the Israeli Government which is intensifying every day due to the support from the United States Government, Christians’ silence and inaction give support to injustice and contribute to the dehumanization and death of the Palestinians. It is for freedom and full life of all – including the Palestinians that Jesus came to the world, died and resurrected! Faith in Christ therefore demands that Christians everywhere preach, work and demand full and free life for all. I cannot then be a follower of Christ and support the oppression of Palestinians or of any other people. All human beings are created in God’s image and deserve to be treated with dignity. It is for that reason that I endorse the call to decisive action![i]

Unlike Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, the authors and the endorsers of #Palestine_Cry4Hope do not ignore documented facts, democratic values, international law, common decency and the universal value of compassion for all. In noting the intersectional nature of the matter, Bishop Luke Pato, the Anglican Bishop of Namibia who represents the Anglican Church of Southern Africa (ACSA) calls forth the disturbing image of the #BlackLivesMatter campaign when he writes,

Palestinians have been held neckdown for decades. We cannot allow them to suffocate any further. Silence is complicit with suffocation.

Bishop Thami Ngcana from the Council of African Independent Churches (CAIC) makes the connection with international law and the definition of apartheid in the Rome Statute. Their aim is

to honour and defend the rights of the Palestinian people to dignity, self-determination, and the fundamental human rights guaranteed under international law, including the right of return for Palestinian refugees. We, CAIC, reaffirm that it is time for the international community to recognize Israel as an apartheid state in terms of international law.

If the words of these Christian leaders and the hundreds of other endorsers do not stir the conscience of the Chief Justice, I ask myself how he will respond to the following words of the South African Jews for a Free Palestine:  

We endorse this call because in the same way that we, as Jewish South Africans committed to universal ethical values, condemn Hitler’s Germany for having implemented the segregation of Jews and Gypsies via racist laws and the implementation of similar racist and murderous codes and structures by Apartheid South Africa vis-à-vis Black people, we condemn the  racism and segregation applied by Jewish Israelis with respect to Palestinian Arabs. We need to condemn what happened to the Palestinian people during 1948 when they were threatened, killed and thrown out of their homes. We need to condemn what happens to them on a daily basis under military rule and in the ‘open air’ prisons that are the West Bank and Gaza. We need to condemn the ongoing theft of land and the administrative detention of Palestinian activists as well as the arrest and incarceration of children. We need to condemn human atrocities, and any justification for atrocities of one person or one nation of another, wherever and whenever they occur.

This is a particularly poignant time, during the SARS Covid 2 pandemic, when the Israeli Government threatens to annex 30% of the West Bank thereby creating a permanent jail for those on the West Bank with even less freedom than the little enjoyed by the residents of Gaza. We call on all those with any moral fibre to act against this looming annexation and join with activists of every culture, ethnicity and religious persuasion to stop it from happening.

Decisive action is necessary. Indeed, #Palestine_Cry4Hope lists seven actions, including theological discernment and pressure on governments and world bodies employ political, diplomatic and economic means to stop Israel’s violations of human rights and international law. Last week the South African Council of Churches erected a huge billboard on a highway in Johannesburg:   

The SACC billboard near the OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg

On 25 June 2020 the office of the South African Council of Churches’ General Secretary, Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana called “on the international community to consider comprehensive sanctions against Israel should they continue with the illegal annexation of Palestinian land.” The SACC statement objects in the strongest terms to Israel’s intended breach of international law and the way Israel considers itself

as an exception in terms of international law. The international community must be required to treat Israel like all other members of the international community and compel it to respect international law and the rights of all of humanity.  A Christian leader in Ramallah has cried out: “Now everyone is bleeding; we Palestinians are bleeding physically. Israel is bleeding morally.” A careful reading of Jesus as Lord of history leaves no doubt that He would be the first to say an emphatic NO to the atrocities of the State of Israel.

The issue of the Palestinians and Israel deserves the attention of every person on this planet. Our choice is not one between Jews and Arabs or between Israel and Palestine. The choice we have is between justice and injustice, between equality or inequality, between the spread of false information or integrity, and between the use or abuse of sacred texts. The call opposes also anti-Semitism and any “theology of Empire” which manifests as “a global order of domination manifesting in racial, economic, cultural, and ecological oppression that threatens humanity and all of creation”. From this intersectional perspective #Palestine_Cry4Hope is concerned with the future of both peoples and it

… is rooted in the logic of love that seeks to liberate both the oppressor and oppressed in order to create a new society for all the people of the land. We continue to hold firm to the hope articulated in the Kairos document that Palestinians and Israelis have a common future — that “we can organize our political life, with all its complexity, according to the logic of love and its power, after ending the occupation and establishing justice.” As followers of Jesus, our response to ideologies of exclusivity and apartheid is to uphold a vision of inclusivity and equality for all peoples of the land and to persistently struggle to bring this about.

To read and sign the call, click on #Palestine_Cry4Hope.


[i] Other South African clergy who have endorsed the call include Allan Boesak (Professor of Black Liberation Theology and Ethics, University of Pretoria);  Frank Chikane (Moderator of the World Council of Churches’ Commission of the Churches on International Affairs), John de Gruchy (Emeritus Professor of Christian Studies, University of Cape Town and Extraordinary Professor of Theology, Stellenbosch University); Thulani Ndlazi (South African Synod Secretary of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa); Moss Nthla (General Secretary of The Evangelical Alliance of South Africa, TEASA); Mautji Pataki (Chairman of the Ethical Foundation for Leadership Excellence and Former Secretary General of the South African Council of Churches); Edwin Arrison (General Secretary of Kairos South Africa) and Farid Esack (Professor of Religion Studies, University of Johannesburg and a Muslim liberation theologian). The full list with hundreds of endorsers is available on #Palestine_Cry4Hope.

#WallWillFall: Breaking down the Walls of a Conflict or a Rape?

What do we ask for when praying for Palestine Israel? Do we ask God to end the conflict? Do we ask for reconciliation and strive for a balanced approach? The answer is a definite ‘NO’ to all of these.

I raise these points as we are preparing for the annual World Week for Peace in Palestine Israel (20 – 26 September 2015)

To talk about ‘balance’ or a ‘conflict’ in the context of Palestine Israel presupposes equal sides. Nothing can be further from the truth. David Wildman (Global Ministries, The United Methodist Church) writes as follows:

Too many churches rushed to embrace interpersonal reconciliation projects without any examination of the inequalities in power between the Israeli state and Palestinians. Churches stressed the need for balance when there was nothing balanced about the situation. This is a key value of “church theology” that must be challenged. […] Israel has had a state since 1948 while Palestinians were largely refugees and civilian populations living under military occupation and unending dispossession from their land.

(Click here for Wildman’s full paper: BDS_and_Churches_now_ David Wildman.)

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In this year’s World Week for Peace in Palestine Israel the World Council of Churches asks us to pray, to educate and to advocate around the theme of “God has broken down the dividing walls” (Ephesians 2.14).

My experience in South Africa is that many people do not know what these dividing walls are. They only know of the suffering of Israelis. They do not realise that the analogy is closer to a ‘rape’ than to a ‘conflict’.

Gaza-9

Israel – a military superpower funded by the USA – denies Palestinians basic human rights, they injure and kill Palestinians and their resources in a grand sweep of land theft, displacement and mass destruction. Israel denies six million refugees to return to their homes and have more than 50 laws that discriminate against Arab Palestinian Israeli citizens. The Palestinians scream for help, throw stones and fire some rockets in response to these large scale systemic injustices by Israel. But the rapist wants the sympathy of the world and it gets it! Can we blame a rape victim who scratches her rapist?

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How do we know what to pray for and what to do?

Do we say it has nothing to do with us or is too complex to grasp? Do we question the focus on Israel?

Once more, the answer is NO. More and more people are starting to see the links between global empire systems of greed, power and militarism that are crystallised in Israel’s relations with the Palestinians. Likewise people are starting to realise how we are led by the nose by what Dr Mitri Raheb calls the “software” – the stuff that enables us to think that Israel is untouchable and above international law.

No, we don’t give up. It is wrong to think it has nothing to do with us.

A world system that allows the USA to consistently veto all UN decisions to enforce international law on Israel is a sick society. Does it not warrant our attention? Is it not in our own interest to educate ourselves? When we benefit from Israeli produce and services (think Dead Sea cosmetics, G4S, retailers like Woolworths that claim ethical business but do not apply it to Israel, etc.) then our money support the oppression of the Palestinians. If we ignore the public plea of the Palestinian civil society for non-violent resistance through Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) we are complicit in entrenching the Palestinians’ suffering.

If we lie to ourselves about it or blame others, we fool ourselves. We cannot deny it – we are involved in this matter. Yes, there are many other issues in the world, but you are reading this post and therefore right now this matter is knocking on your door.

The segregation wall

Have courage

To embark on a road in the pursuit of love and a just peace is most fulfilling and deeply enriching. The important thing is to START by taking the FIRST STEP.

If you have not yet done so, start by reading the urgent, deeply inspiring appeal (‘A Moment of Truth’) of the Palestinian Christians. It is available in 22 languages (also available in Afrikaans). You’ll find it by clicking here. It addresses not only Christians. It also asks for several practical actions. For facts and figures, go to the United Nations website by clicking here http://www.ochaopt.org

Let us pray for a world where international law, human dignity and equality apply to all. Let us pray for a shift in consciousness and a spirituality that fosters human and all other forms of life on this planet. Let us practice our belief in equality and pray for both the oppressed and the oppressor. Let us educate ourselves and our circles. Let us work with those Jews, Muslims, Christians and the people of other faiths or none who share our values to create a better world.

God,

You ask for our courage to protect the powerless
but we prefer to remain safe, preserving ourselves for future challenges.

You ask us to speak out for justice
but we whisper, in case we are heard.
You ask us to stand up for what is right,
but we would rather blend in to the crowd
You ask us to have faith,
when doubting seems so much easier.

Lord forgive our calculated efforts to follow you,
only when it is convenient to do so,
only in those places where it is safe to do so,
only with those who make it easy to do so.

Together we pray
God forgive us and renew us;
Inspire us and challenge us
So that we might risk the journey, to your kingdom with you,

Amen
(Prayer of Confession as read in 2003 at a service at Cheltenham Races, GreenBelt, UK)

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More about the World Week for Peace in Palestine Israel 2015:

Why a theme on walls? In the figurative sense it is of course about walls that separate classes, ethnic groups, religions and the transcendence thereof. But it is also about the ongoing construction of the illegal, Apartheid Israeli Wall that grabs more and more fertile Palestinian land. Click here to watch a short, shocking video on Israel’s theft of land from the Catholic Church in the West Bank, and here for yet another story of land confiscation – one of thousands of similar tales.

The Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum (PIEF) of the World Council of Churches invites churches, faith-based communities, and civil society organizations to join in support of an end to the illegal occupation of Palestine and a just peace for all in Palestine and Israel. For full details go to their website. You can also write to Ranjan Solomon, Consultant for the Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum at ranjan.solomon@wcc-cor.org.