By Brian J. Brown, independently published, 2022, paperback, 250 pp. MEB $25
Reviewed by Steve France
South African born, the Rev. Brian J. Brown helped bring down the original apartheid system—goading Christians to keep faith with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Now, Brown says, a similar “moment of truth” has arrived for followers of the Way of Jesus. “The fires of the South African apartheid struggle burn as fiercely in today’s Palestine,” he writes in Apartheid South Africa! Apartheid Israel! And that, he argues, confronts Christians with a “fresh crisis of Gospel integrity.”
Of course, few people want to believe there’s apartheid in the Holy Land. That’s why Brown’s book title is as blunt as a man crying “fire!” He builds his case for emergency action by dissecting the similarities and differences between the former apartheid state of South Africa and the ever-harsher racist system in Israel/Palestine today.
Complementing the irrefutable findings of the many reports published since 2020 by global human rights groups, Brown’s analysis draws on the long arc of his life under apartheid, and the notable success he and comrades such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Rev. Allan Boesak registered in moving reluctant Western churches to fight against South African apartheid.
A White Methodist minister, Brown experienced first-hand what he calls the “denialism” of church leaders—the nuances of hypocrisy and heresy exhibited in evading the truth on the ground, and avoiding the imperative of standing up for justice.
Brown powerfully indicts today’s Christian Zionist perversions of the faith, from the apocalyptic imaginings of fundamentalists to the blind eye that many mainstream Christians turn to Israel’s crimes against Palestinians in a misguided gesture of respect for Jews. He makes clear that Christians are not doing Palestinians a favor when they stand against Israel’s apartheid; rather, they are acting against the deadly corruption of their own faith, just as they were in the case of South Africa.
The author provides an unusual set of comparisons between the apartheid psychologies of the oppressor group in each society: racial theologies and tribal myths used to justify their positions of supremacy over Blacks or Arabs. Examples include the “Day of the Covenant”—a national holiday that commemorated the 1838 Battle of Blood River, when “God fought for the Boers,” who defeated the Black Zulu nation, which was expected to accept, if not honor, its supposedly God-ordained inferior status.
As for facts on the ground, Brown describes 37 instances of systematic “violations of human rights of Palestinians and of international law.” With meticulous detail, he distinguishes the differences between apartheid in South Africa and apartheid in Israel, although he notes it is the “dispossession of land, nationality, human rights and freedoms” that has driven the liberation struggles in both cases.
In the aftermath of victory in South Africa, Brown was moved by Tutu and Nelson Mandela to take up the Palestinian cause. He harkened to Mandela’s belief in the “indivisibility of freedom,” that no one in the world should be oppressed by another—or by the heavy sin of oppressing others. Thus, Mandela often said neither he, nor his people, would really be free as long as the Palestinians weren’t. And so, Brown applied to the Holy Land lessons he learned from the Christian liberation theology of the South African Black Consciousness Movement, preserved in the timeless, urgent language of the 1985 Kairos Document (“Kairos” being a biblical Greek word for the “Moment of Truth”).
His message will resonate strongly with many Christians, but Brown fervently believes it applies to everyone. Indeed, his whole point is that identity should never be an excuse for violence, hatred or suspicion of the other. Moreover, he hopes non-Christians will not be put off by his theological language. His book is nothing if not critical of Christians and their churches, who through history so often persecuted others, especially Jews.
Such arrogance was what Brown was taught as a child and continued to believe all the way through his studies in an evangelical seminary. The crucial event that liberated him from belief in an exclusive Christianity was his association with the legendary Beyers Naudé, who was a senior leader of the pro-apartheid (White Afrikaans) Dutch Reformed Church—until he turned against apartheid as contrary to the Gospel. After he was defrocked by the DRC, Naudé formed the radically anti-apartheid Christian Institute of Southern Africa. Brown became his chief of staff.
Brown knows that Christian action against Israel’s apartheid can’t replicate the South African precedent, as Judaism and Islam are the predominant faiths of the land. However, he says the voice of the awakened church is part of a “convergence of three forces: of human rights, international law and the churches that speak truth to power.” The truth they are speaking is “prophetic,” he says, explaining that the truthful word of God, when spoken, never returns empty. That is his faith.
Steve France is an activist and writer affiliated with Episcopal Peace Fellowship, Palestine-Israel Network.
- The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonial Conquest and Resistance, 1917-2017