Last year, I was in a meeting with the Rev. Paul Msiza, the South African pastor who is president of the Baptist World Alliance. In a Q&A session with some church leaders, he mentioned that pastors in the United States might want to consult the Kairos Document (KD), issued in 1985 by a group of mainly black South African theologians in response to the vicious and demeaning policies of apartheid.
His words started me thinking. Is it time for U.S. clergy to get acquainted with this 33-year-old South African document? Most would agree that America is in uncharted waters regarding church-state relations. We could use all the help we can get. I am not suggesting exact political and moral equivalency between South Africa and the U.S. But circumstances do not have to be identical for us to glean important, transferable principles.
Briefly stated, the KD delineated three possible church stances in response to state-sponsored racism:
- State Theology, which was a justification of the status quo and an enshrining of capitalism, racism and totalitarianism as the acceptable norm.
- Church Theology, defined as a public rejection of apartheid in principle, but without a willingness to deal with messy specifics. Its goal was seen by many as pain avoidance because it stopped short of any call for systemic change. An American version of this position was seen during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, when many of our nation’s leaders insisted that the movement toward equal rights must be incremental and without any confrontation or unpleasantness.
- The KD challenged the nation to move toward a third position, one of Prophetic Theology. This was described as a biblical, Christ-shaped commitment to confront evil, name it and lovingly risk suffering for the sake of hope and truth. The name of this manifesto, The Kairos Document, is exceedingly important. Many readers will recognize kairos as the Greek word for “special season” or “pregnant time.” In the life of any nation, certain moments call for courageous witness.
This might be such a time in our own country. Why? Because, sadly, some of our country’s evangelical leaders seem all too ready to defend xenophobic policies, speech and behavior. They turn a blind eye and in return, are invited into the halls of power. They would do well to study the KD. Or better yet, study the prophet Jeremiah. Read closely his scathing rebuke of the court preachers of his day who said whatever the king needed to hear (Jeremiah 23). According to the prophet, these chaplains of the status quo acted as imperial lap dogs, yipping when the emperor commanded then to bark and then sitting quietly, wagging their tails, until they were needed again. They were intoxicated by their proximity to power and simply lost their perspective regarding eternal matters, such as the infinite value of each person and justice for all.
We don’t need more court preachers who have sold their souls for a mess of political porridge. We need prophets who will stand above partisan wrangling in order to speak truth to power.
Until you have time to read the KD and the book of Jeremiah, here is a simple, three-part test which will help determine if you are a court preacher. 1) If you have to check with the key leaders of your partisan group before you speak out on an issue, you might be a court preacher. 2) If you only criticize members of one political party, you might be a court preacher. 3) And if you find yourself having to play the Twister game in order to biblically and theologically defend a politician’s ethical behavior or stance on an issue, you might be a court preacher.
We are all weak and susceptible to political seduction. All the more reason to remain vigilant. This is our kairos.