Exile and the prophetic: Getting past triumphalism (in our traditions and our selves)

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This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

I assume the World Social Forum Free Palestine conference in Porto Alegre is going forward.  They’ll find a way.  With the internet in full gear, the virtual afterlife of the conference is as important as the conference in real time.  Still, you need the actual conference to make the virtual real -at least, for now.

On the theological front, I wonder if a dispute about faith perspectives will be presented at the conference, or who’s presenting and why.  Maybe it’s a tempest in a teapot or even an email mistranslation.  Regardless, litmus tests exist everywhere.  Remember the Russell Tribunal on Palestine when a Palestinian speaker’s charge of sociocide was judged inferior to a British lawyer’s charge of apartheid?

If I had been asked to speak at the Russell Tribunal – well, let’s face it, I wouldn’t have been asked.  That’s part of the problem, isn’t it?  We criticize others for not allowing dissent but we organize conferences that also limit dissent.  By dissent, I mean dissenting from the party line.  For example, my view that Palestine isn’t a universal struggle but a particular struggle with universal import.

In Porto Alegre, my voice may have been seen as controversial.   A Jewish religious voice would have been welcomed by some.  It may have alienated others.  The same with certain Islamic points of view. 

Clearly, a number of Latin American Christian voices support the conference – and Palestinian rights.

Listen to Leonardo Boff, a heavyweight of liberation theology:

Liberation Theology was born listening to the cries of the oppressed, those whose rights, autonomy, vital space to live was denied. Today, for us, the oppressed who are in need of liberation are the Palestinians. And we, being coherent with Liberation Theology are on their side, listening to their cry. We are against oppression, and in favor of their independence, freedom and the right to their land which belonged to their ancestors so that they accomplish their history as a people, with their language and culture. Therefore, I join the cause of the Palestinians because they have rights and these rights cannot be denied. I support the World Social Forum for the Palestinian cause because this cause is of great dignity and for being fear and represent a duty. It is our duty to be on the side of the Palestinians. Because they are victims and it is illegitimate, unworthy keeping them in their current situation. We want to be with them so that they are free, our brothers. And from that freedom with autonomy accomplish the process of peace and reconciliation with the State of Israel.

Frei Betto, another liberation theology heavyweight, adds:

This is a Forum that will gather representatives from the three religions of the book: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. A Forum in which we will debate the situation of all those who live in Palestine and mainly the right of the Palestinian people to have their independent State and how we can from our own religious traditions contribute to peace in the world. Considering the importance of this Forum I call upon all interested to be present in Porto Alegre as participants of the World Social Forum Free Palestine.

Then there’s Nancy Cardoso, a Methodist pastor from the Ecumenical Bible Center in Rio Grande do Sul. She has been my main contact for the conference. She explains the plans for a faith-based track at the conference:

We see the WSF Free Palestine as a key space to give voice to our Palestinian brothers and sisters from the Kairos Palestine Initiative and to deepen the discussion on Palestine, our theological approach to Israeli occupation and apartheid and our responsibility as Christians – and believers in general – to stand in solidarity with the oppressed. 

You see the original Kairos document came from South Africa church folks who were drawing a line in the apartheid sand.  They boldly declared apartheid to be a heresy. 

A heresy is true belief offended against.  When true belief is trespassed upon, God is, too.

We know that orthodoxy, as defined by religious institutional structures, is often heretical when judged from another religious point of view.Usually, heresy is defined theologically.  Religious factions war over orthodoxy – ‘right’ belief. 

In the original Kairos document – and in liberation theology in general – heresy is seen from the context of the poor and marginalized.  Those who use religion to buttress unjust political systems like apartheid are judged heretics.  Instead of belief itself, action is judged.  Sometimes both are judged together.  To be unjust you have to worship an unjust God.  Can God be unjust?

The religious war that liberation theology is involved in isn’t about the definition of ‘right’ belief.  It’s about orthopraxis – ‘right’ action.

The struggle is between orthodoxy and orthopraxis.

In the best of all theological worlds, right belief brings about right action.  Right action witnesses to right belief.  In our real world, things get screwed up.  So, at least in the Jewish tradition, if you can’t have right belief and right action together and you have to choose between the two, choose right action. 

Choosing right action, you’re good with your fellow human beings.  You’re likewise good with God even if you can’t wrap your mind around God. 

In the religious sphere, can practicing justice be more important that worshiping God?

In traditional Judaism it is.  In liberation theology it is.  But that’s because traditional Judaism couldn’t rid itself completely of the prophetic and liberation theology adopts the prophetic whole hog.

The original Kairos document was impossible without the Jewish prophetic. 

In a strange twist of fate, Kairos Palestine is impossible without the Jewish prophetic.

Of course the Kairos documents appeal to their historical Christian tradition.  When they go that route they make a detour.  They insist on a perfect fit between belief and action.  Christian triumphalism creeps back in when they go Christological. 

I’m not trying to be too critical.  After all, the various Kairos factions show great courage when the political chips are down. 

For the most part, Christians can’t help themselves on the triumphalist score.  It’s their inheritance.  Christian triumphalism is hard to buck, even when you’re on the Christian Left.

But, being out of power, you can skip the Christian triumphalism of parts of the Kairos documents.  After all, Jews and Muslims need others to skip our various triumphalisms to find our better core.

Much of life, isn’t it– sifting through the triumphalism within our traditions and ourselves.

If we would only seize the Kairos moment and leave behind the rest.  Could we withstand the impact without our triumphalism?



About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of The Heartbeat of the Prophetic which can be found at Amazon and www.newdiasporabooks.com

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