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Frank Chikane’s three-minute sermon about Palestine was a prophetic warning, not a declaration of war

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Moss Ntlha is General Secretary of the Evangelical Alliance of South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.

When injustice and oppression are enabled, as happens with the people of Palestine who are kept in misery by Israel, it raises serious questions about our humanity. This is because the people of the world can halt this ever-worsening tragedy.

We can say to the perpetrators of this crime against humanity: Enough! 

The fact that we are not doing so must be one of the gravest moral crises of our time.

In this age of political spin and fake news, it is perhaps only fair to allow for the fact that there are many who may not know the facts on the ground in Palestine and Gaza. Many may not know that, scattered in countries in the Middle East, there are refugee camps where Palestinians who were forced to leave their homes in Palestine decades ago by Israel, live as stateless people. Many still hold the keys to their ancestral homes, but are denied the right of return by Israel. 

Israel literally hijacked their homes. 

The pain and humiliation perpetrated against Palestinians by Israel is well documented and need not be elaborated on here. A glimpse into that struggle is provided by The People’s Patriarch, a documentary launched on 6 February 2021 in honour of Michel Sabbah, an Arab, Palestinian and Christian cleric. 

The film sheds light on crucial moments in his life, his thought and his constant obsession with the consolidation of love, justice and peace in the Holy Land. It poses a moral challenge to the world community, forcing us to reassess what it means to be human. That it is not possible to be human at the expense of others. That none of us is truly free unless those around us enjoy the same freedom. It reminds us of the African value of ubuntu: “I am, because you are.”

It is therefore lamentable that something of an international storm among pro-Israel lobby groups and personalities erupted following the Reverend Frank Chikane’s remarks at the online launch of the film in South Africa two weeks ago. His statement, lasting all of three minutes, included that Palestinian people are “dealing with the same demons we dealt with in South Africa, except that in their case the demons have invited many other demons to make their struggle much more difficult”. 

As a Christian theologian and preacher, he used language first used by Jesus, and familiar in the Christian tradition. Maybe he should have remembered not to mention Jesus in his polemic and rebuke of Israeli repressive practices. He was describing the systemic evil of Israeli policies based on race and inequality. Indeed, as South Africans, it is not difficult for us to see the striking similarities between apartheid policies from our recent past and their Israeli post-1948 version. 

Striking too is the similarity of the spin used by the architects of those policies, who swear that they are not meant to harm those who suffer their impact, but to protect the chosen race that benefits from them. 

In his brief comments, Chikane makes the point: “We need to begin to say to those who support Israel to brutalise Palestinians that the blood of the people of Palestine will be sought from them because they collaborate by allowing this system to continue.” 

It is these comments that are responsible for some turbulence among the apologists for Israeli apartheid. They charge, in a pro-Israel newsletter, the Algemeiner, that Chikane has mounted an anti-Semitic assault on the right of Israel to exist, as if the annihilation of Palestinians is a necessary condition for the existence of Israel. His words are read as a declaration of war on Israel and her supporters, a good majority of whom are evangelical Christians. An unsustainable claim for anyone except those most invested in not seeing the systemic evil referenced in Chikane’s comments.  

In evaluating the controversy that erupted, it is well to realise that it is in the nature of politically dubious projects to use religion and invoke God as the chief sponsor of their regimes. Israel does not disappoint in this regard. Nor did South Africa’s apartheid regime. The name of God was writ large in the preamble of the apartheid constitution. It is commonly known that politicians can be unscrupulous in the quest for power and hegemony, so using religion poses no qualms. What is disturbing is the extent to which many otherwise well-meaning Christians fall for the trick and fail to see the duplicity of those who wield political power in self-serving ways.

It is for this reason that a call should be made, as indeed Chikane does, to those who enable the suffering of innocent people when it is in their hands to stop it. Those familiar with biblical texts about the blood of the innocent being required from such enablers will recognise this as a prophetic warning, not a declaration of war.

Not long ago, across the Atlantic, devout Christians mounted an insurrection against Joe Biden’s presidential election victory. In their minds, of the two who contested for the Oval Office, Donald Trump was the closest representative of God’s will in the US, never mind that he thought people from poor Latin American and Africa lived in “shithole countries”, and worse. It was unthinkable that he could lose, because God was behind him. Thankfully, he lost. But then all hell broke loose for those who thought God was going to deliver a Trump win. We can only hope the lessons of history will be learnt.

As for the state of Israel, it is not too difficult to understand how a people so brutalised in the concentration camps of Germany and elsewhere could inflict the same unmitigated pain on others. Franciscan friar Richard Rohr put it well: “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.” 

But, while the very real pain of Jewish history must be taken seriously, it would be irresponsible for the rest of the world not to blow the whistle on the way in which Israel’s insecurities have made it blind to the pain it causes others. The security and survival of the state of Israel should not require the destruction of the sovereignty of others.

Our survival as a human race is tied to our being able to stand in each other’s path to stop the genocidal tendencies of regimes. It is up to the rest of us, as the people of the world, to blow the whistle on Palestinian suffering, for Israel is notorious for ignoring international whistles.

There are nonviolent means of moral persuasion that have worked elsewhere in the world, including in South Africa to end apartheid. They are called boycotts, divestments and sanctions. It is a South African testimony that but for those measures, we would still be suffering under the hideous system of apartheid. Or worse, ours would have been a much bloodier struggle. God was kind to us that way. We should wish the same kindness for the oppressed everywhere. DM/MC

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