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A New “Kairos” For South Africa? (Stephen W. Martin)

“Can you believe it? A President of a democratic South Africa telling the Church to stay out of politics? You would be forgiven for thinking that you had climbed into a time machine and gone back 30 years into the past, when apartheid presidents said the same thing.” – South African Archbishop Thabo Makgoba in Christmas message

“The time has come. The moment of truth has arrived. South Africa has been plunged into a crisis that is shaking the foundations and there is every indication that the crisis has only just begun and that it will deepen and become even more threatening in the months to come. It is the KAIROS or moment of truth not only for apartheid but also for the Church.” – The Kairos Document, 1985 

In 1985 South African theologians discerned a moment they termed Kairos. More than thirty years later, that language is being revived–this time with reference to the very government those theologians would struggle to put in place. What does this say about the church, the state, and the way Christians understand time?

The First Kairos

In 1985 State President P.W. Botha radically increased state repression of protest against apartheid, the system of enforced segregation in South Africa. This was a theological moment of crisis. It was a moment in which the integrity of the Gospel was at stake, a moment of decision for the churches. Would churches conform themselves to the God revealed in the suffering messiah, or the God of the apartheid state? This meant taking sides. There was no legitimate “third way”.

In this moment, the radical contrast between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of this world–and the God each incarnated–was on full display. Weakness and suffering confronted domination and power.  Moses confronted Pharaoh, Jesus stood before Pilate. The lines were drawn with apocalyptic clarity: the perverse God behind apartheid was revealed as a “God who exalts the proud and humbles the poor–the very opposite of the God of the Bible who ‘scatters the proud of heart, pulls down the mighty from their thrones and exalts the humble’ (Luke 1:51–52)… The god of the South African State is not merely an idol or false god, it is the devil disguised as Almighty God – the anti-Christ.”

The “moment of truth” stretched-out to 1986. A second edition of The Kairos Document termed it a “true Kairos”. Decisive action was finally taken by the churches in 1988. With most of the leadership of the anti-apartheid movement banned or imprisoned by the state, the South African Council of Churches (SACC) and the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference (SACBC) stepped forward and took leadership.

Churches had seized “the moment of truth”.  They were now “Standing for the Truth”. It was the South African churches’ finest hour.

Church and State in Transition

While there was no official pronouncement, talk of Kairos faded after the (mostly) peaceful transition. Churches spoke instead of “reconciliation” and “reconstruction”. And while attention was, at least formally, paid by churches to the former, it looked to the new government to effect the latter. Figures like Desmond Tutu observed that the public leadership of the churches was as extraordinary as the crisis. With the normalization of the situation, the church can go back to “being the church.”

And yet questions hung in the air. Would the churches’ declaration of solidarity with the liberation movements in the 1980s translate into “a free pass” once those movements were in power? Did a normalized situation mean “Church Theology” again? Would the churches be able to stand over against a government they struggled (and suffered) to bring into power?

For its part, the new government kept trying to co-opt the churches into its narrative, offering opportunities to formalize a partnership, with government-initiated “Religious” and “Interfaith” leaders forums, and a “Moral Regeneration” movement (headed by a man of dubious morality, the soon-to-be-President Jacob Zuma). But when churches spoke in criticism of government, the new government was quick to denounce their intervention.

The co-option (or should we say, “capture”?) of the churches would certainly be a great prize. Not only do they speak to the value-systems of the majority, they have a distribution net wider than that of the state. There are churches in squatter camps and wealthy neighborhoods, in far-flung rural areas and inner cities.  And they serve a vision that transcends any local narrative of liberation.

At least they should. There has been of late a resurgence of what the Kairos Document called “state theology”, especially in conservative churches friendly to the President. Indeed, the ruling party continues to view itself as the mechanism of liberation, and has rewritten the narrative of the struggle in so positioning itself.

And church leaders, such as Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba have recalled the “prophetic theology” of the Kairos dNocument in their condemnation of government failures to reconstruct and redistribute, to create the “better life for all” promised by Nelson Mandela twenty-five years ago. The President’s call to the churches late last year to “stay away from politics”, and Archbishop Makgoba’s retort (see the quote above this article), seem to be drawing familiar lines again. Plus ça change.

A New Kairos?

Does the reappearance all this point to a new Kairos in South Africa?

While some theologians kept the idea simmering, particularly with reference to “Apartheid Israel”, more recent events have seen the term kairos revived locally. These events are associated with the stunning exposure of “state capture” – the infiltration of a wealthy foreign family friendly to Zuma into the echelons of the state.

The Public Protector’s “State of Capture” report and ongoing media investigations have demonstrated how the Guptas have influenced key government appointments, harvested state contracts, shaped monetary policy, determined the conduct of parastatals, and more. Money is flowing out of South Africa at a dramatic pace as the country’s economy has the dubious honor of “junk” status.

With “a discernible pattern of a project to undermine and render the state and its institutions impotent and governance compromised and potentially derailed in the interests of alternative nefarious purposes”, Archbishop Makgoba said recently, the project of a New South Africa is in danger of collapse. The churches are doing more than speaking, however. The SACC has set up an “unburdening” panel aimed at allowing compromised citizens and officials to “tell the truth”.

While the language of The Kairos Document still makes sense of much of the present, it is important to note some important differences. For one, the either-or apocalyptic language doesn’t seem appropriate. While the situation is dire, the discourse is that it can still be redeemed. By contrast, apartheid was seen as a monster to be systematically dismantled.

Moreover, the constitutionally-mandated institutions set up in 1996 to police corruption are still functioning. And the Zuma government is morally corrupt.  The apartheid regime was structurally illegitimate. These are not insignificant.

The Freedom of the Church

But there is a more interesting theological question, a question not only of interest to those who continue to identify closely with the hopes liberated in 1994, but also of those on this side of the Atlantic trying to make sense of an American President who acts like a stereotypical African dictator. And that is whether the Kairos is one jarring moment within a series of moments making up the time of the world, or a revelation of the true character of the world in contrast with the Kingdom of God–that is, that Kairos displays what is at stake all the time.

After all, what is “the world” theologically (to invoke St. Augustine) if not a tangled web of disordered interests and negotiations of the libido dominandi?

It’s an important question, especially for those of us who found themselves caught up in “the kingdom is here (or near)” in the justly celebrated elections of Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama. Chastened by the outcome of this overrealized eschatology, theologians might say that the only election that brings the world to its end is that of Jesus Christ. And that would be correct. But it doesn’t help us in media res, during the world, to simply disengage or defer. That’s one lesson of The Kairos Document.

The members of the Church (the vast majority of whom are poor) belong not only to this time of the world, but to a future where “the mighty are toppled from their thrones, the humble exalted, and the hungry filled” (Luke 1:52–53). This double belonging is both hope and demand. It is hope because the poor know (in ways that we rich often forget) how precarious life is during the world.

The world to come is the “real” world, for them. It is also demand: for the poor have a right to be treated as subjects of that world-to-come. And the measure of every regime is whether and how the most vulnerable are treated.

Perhaps this is what is meant by the idea that the first freedom is freedom of religion. We might well say that it was the freedom of the Church that was at stake for the original Kairos Document. This is not the freedom of the Church to impose a Christian vision upon the nation, as is often assumed by fundamentalists and which calls-forth crusading secularism.

But the freedom of the Church is in its freedom to be what God has called it to be. And that is itself a kind of “capture”. The Church is in fact “captured”, not by the shadowy interests of foreign economic power, nor by a failing state seeking legitimacy, but by (in the words of Rowan Williams in his “Afterword” to Faith in Action by Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane) “a whole vision of … human society: the Church as the maker of unexpected connections, the Church as the asker of unwelcome questions, the Church as the space of a freedom that no system can contain or conquer.”

Stephen W. Martin is Associate Professor of Theology at King’s University College in Edmonton, Alberta.  He completed his Ph.D at the University of Cape Town in 1999, and has written extensively on the South African experience, including the book Faith Negotiating Loyalties: An Exploration of South African Christianity Through a Reading of the Theology of H. Richard Niebuhr (Lanham: University Press of America, 2008).

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