Many Western activists are sceptical of the role of religion in Palestine solidarity. Beyond the problem of Islamophobia, which is sadly manifest across the political spectrum, activist views of religion are also negatively shaped by the legacy of Christian Europe’s darker periods, such as the Crusades and the colonial civilizing mission. After 11 September 2001, former President George W. Bush’s use of his Christian faith to justify foreign invasion and occupation, coupled with the growing power of Christian Zionism, has only further entrenched the secular position of many Western activists.
However the activism of the new spiritual leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, provides a timely reminder that it is a mistake to dismiss the role of religion in the struggle to create a more just world. Setting out an agenda to empower the poor and the oppressed, last week Pope Francis led a global day of fasting and prayer for Syria, and even took to Twitter to condemn the proposed US military strike. According to Time magazine’s blog, his tweets included, “War never again! Never again war!” and “We want in our society, torn apart by divisions and conflict, that peace break out!”
The Pope’s activism is only one expression of a larger Christian movement. Indeed over the last century, there have been many other examples of Christian activists using religion to effectively mobilize communities against oppression and exploitation, linking struggles from the Americas to South Africa. Furthermore, today many Christian activists in North America are also active in the struggle to liberate Palestine.
At the turn of the twentieth century, a movement started to emerge in the US called the Social Gospel that applied Protestant Christian ethics to issues of social justice, especially the fight against poverty in urban slums. In A Theology for the Social Gospel, written in 1917, Pastor Walter Rauschenbusch, a prominent activist for the movement, pointed out that while contemporary religion addressed the problem of individual sin, it failed to deal with institutionalized sin: “It has not evoked faith in the will and power of God to redeem the permanent institutions of human society from their inherited guilt of oppression and extortion.” However once it does, fighting social oppression becomes a religious duty.
Norman Thomas, an American Presbyterian minister and pacifist who represented the Socialist Party of America as a presidential candidate on six occasions, also preached the Social Gospel while working with the immigrant communities of Harlem, New York. But while the Social Gospel movement was a pivotal force in the labour struggle during the first half of the twentieth century, it lost considerable momentum after World War II in a society increasingly atomised by post-industrial capitalism and fearful of Communism.
In the 1950s and 60s, however, the Social Gospel was revived by the American civil rights movement, especially in the theology and activism of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. According to King, he embraced the Social Gospel because of its emphasis that the “Christian religion must not only be concerned about saving the individual soul, but also dealing with the social evils that corrupt the soul.” King’s preaching and activism helped bring about an end to discriminatory Jim Crow laws in the US.
At around the same time but further south, Christian liberation theology started to emerge in Latin America. Liberation theology is a revolutionary project that seeks to empower the oppressed through religious ideas and practices, where living one’s faith means that one has a duty to struggle for radical social change. Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Peruvian theologian and perhaps the best-known proponent of liberation theology, suggests that faith is not expressed in belief, but by a commitment to God and therefore a love for the poor. In his 1968 presentation on “Toward a Theology of Liberation,” he argues that, “if faith is commitment to God and human beings, it is not possible to live in today’s world without a commitment to the process of liberation.” In a later lecture Gutiérrez adds that, “To choose life is to be in solidarity with the poor, to fight poverty and strive for social justice, and for liberation. All this is life. Liberation is life.”
Liberation theology involves ordinary people doing theology themselves, and over the years the movement has helped empower communities across Latin America to overthrow several Western-backed dictatorships.
Also around the same time, a similar theology of liberation was emerging in South Africa. According to scholar Timothy M. Renick, under the oppressive British colonial system, Dutch Afrikaners used religion to justify their apartheid project in South Africa, saying that they were “following in the footsteps of the ancient Israelites.” However the indigenous peoples of South Africa also used Christianity to oppose apartheid, thus reclaiming their religion in the name of justice and liberation. Influenced by other revolutionary movements in post-colonial nations, scholar Peter Walshe describes how church leaders argued that any social system of apartheid, or separation, is like dismembering the Body of Christ – it is a sin and a travesty of the Gospel.
By the 1970s, a growing number of white South Africans were supporting the liberation theology movement, which by now had mobilized much of the black community. In 1976 church leaders called for international sanctions against the apartheid regime, and in 1985, amidst rising state repression, they released the Kairos Document. The word kairos is from the ancient Greek and means the right or opportune moment. The document urgently called for those churches complicit in apartheid to repent and embrace liberation theology, and for the world to act now against injustice. In the following years the call was heeded, and apartheid was ultimately dismantled in 1994.
Inspired by liberation theology’s role in ending South African apartheid, in 2009 a group of Christian Palestinian leaders released the Kairos Palestine Document to request the international community, and especially the churches around the world, “to stand against injustice and apartheid [in Palestine]… and to revisit theologies that justify crimes perpetrated against our people and the dispossession of the land.” The leaders continue, “we Palestinian Christians declare that the military occupation of our land is a sin against God and humanity, and that any theology that legitimizes the occupation is far from Christian teachings because true Christian theology is a theology of love and solidarity with the oppressed, a call to justice and equality among peoples.”
The call is a “a cry of hope in the absence of all hope, a cry full of prayer and faith in a God ever vigilant, in God’s divine providence for all the inhabitants of this land,” and is “inspired by the mystery of God’s love for all, the mystery of God’s divine presence in the history of all peoples and, in a particular way, in the history of our country.”
The document also specifically calls upon the international community, and especially churches, to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. And recently, Christian activists in North America have started to listen.
In June 2011, a group of activists formed a new movement called Kairos USA. The movement aims “to unify and mobilize American Christians – lay, academic and clergy – to take a prophetic stance for a just peace in Israel and Palestine.” In partnership with Jewish activists, in 2012 they launched a petition that garnered 15,000 signatures demanding an investigation into unconditional US military support for Israel.
In May 2012, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC) decided to call for an explicit boycott of all Israeli companies operating in the occupied Palestinian territories. The BDS movement states that although on this occasion the church was unable to pass a national vote on divestment, “four annual (regional) conferences within the UMC have already adopted Israel divestment resolutions.”
The following July, the US Presbyterian Church also voted to boycott all products from Israeli colonial settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. According to BDS, the church called upon all nations to “prohibit the import of products made by enterprises in Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.”
And in May 2013, the United Church of Canada launched a campaign called “Unsettling Goods: Choose Peace in Palestine and Israel,” which focuses on targeting “the illegal Israeli settlements” and calls “for education and for economic action by United Church members to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.”
Grassroots organizations, like the US-based United Church of Christ Palestine/Israel Network, actively promote BDS as well. The group Friends of Sabeel, in support of the liberation theology movement among Palestinian Christians known as Sabeel, is also an active proponent of BDS and organizes several conferences a year across the US.
However more can be done, especially if stronger solidarity alliances are formed between different faith-based movements. Theologies of liberation exist in all religions, including Islam and Judaism. Such interfaith work helps counter the view that the Israel-Palestine conflict is a religious battle between Jews and Muslims, allowing activists to focus their outreach on the facts: that Israel is ethnically cleansing and occupying Palestine.
But it is also equally important for religious and non-religious solidarity activists to come together to realize a common theology, or framework, of liberation.
One need not be religious to accept this liberation theology framework. In his book Reason, Faith and Revolution, Marxist scholar and literary critic Terry Eagleton points out that “religious faith is not just a commitment to God, but also the promise of transformative love.” Therefore, he reasons, “all authentic theology is liberation theology.” However what actually saves us is how we realize our religion and/or our love through our relations with one another-in other words, through living our solidarity. Through a commitment to God and/or all humans, especially the poor and the oppressed, we have the potential to attain individual and social salvation, a framework that transforms both the world we live in as well as ourselves. Because the struggle for justice in the US, Latin America and South Africa is not over, and especially not so in Palestine. Indeed our collective struggle for liberation has only just begun.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.