One of many stand-out moments at the Kairos Palestine conference came during the second panel discussion. The first panel featured Bishops from two churches in the Holy Land. Each was a signer of the historic Kairos Palestine document, where Palestinian church leaders make a theological case against the Israeli occupation of the land, the oppression of the people. One of them (we will just say one of them) appealed to the audience to lower the ceiling of expectations for the churches. He reasoned their efforts were modest in order to avoid being counterproductive.
I nodded gently as the translation reached my ears. While I was in Jordan, I lost my temper when I learned an Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem had spoken against Boycott, Divest, and Sanction actions (BDS), condemning them as ultimately harmful to Palestinians and calling for positive investment. I firmly believe in BDS as a practice, that ‘positive investments’ is empty rhetoric, and that most Palestinians support BDS even if it means self-sacrifice. Yet, I came to learn that the Anglican Bishop’s Jerusalem permit was in question. I decided to redirect my angst at those talking heads which used his statement as an excuse to avoid the prickly divestment issue: churches invested in companies profiting from this occupation. When the bishop mentioned ‘moderate stances’, I was skeptical but receptive. During the first coffee break I saw them by the door with their coats on and wondered if they were going out to smoke.
During the second panel, a lady read a letter from a church-leader in Gaza who was, obviously, unable to attend the Kairos conference. There are only 2500 Christians in Gaza, among a population of 1.6 million. The Gazan’s message rang with a lonely timbre and, just as his words called for solidarity from West Bank Christians, the reader looked up from the paper and scanned the audience. She said, ‘I wish that Bishop [ ] and Bishop [ ] were here to hear this but, look, their chairs are empty.’
They had left. ‘For other engagements?’ I mused, though I could not imagine anything more pressing than Kairos Palestine. By then it did not matter: those two empty chairs chanted louder than the microphone. Kairos (in Greek) means ‘right timing’ or ‘God’s timing’, the wrong time to leave a chair empty.
The Bishops’ position is not easy but the ceiling of expectations belongs where it is. These men may have the right training to rise above the ceiling of expectations but not by operating on a part-time basis. They can operate below that ceiling, with Israel’s implicit approval, or they can be the difference that Christians in Gaza and the West Bank – Muslims too—need them to be.
As is often the case in the Holy Land, ‘moderate stance’ has become a cloak for compassion fatigue (temporary, we hope) or balking at opportunities for change. This kind of systematic soldiering – of lowering expectations– is the affliction of those afraid to embrace their grassroots power for fear they will lose their official powers.
It seems as if the ‘wrong’ people can find the ‘right’ thrust, regardless. People like you and me, readers.