by Rev. Kelvin Sauls, Senior Pastor, Holman United Methodist Church

Rev. Kelvin Sauls

Rev. Kelvin Sauls

As a Black South African, I’m excited to join my fellow United Methodist brothers and sisters in Portland to re-examine and explore the great commission for such a time as this. Given who we are as a global movement committed to personal and social holiness, this exploration will take place with open eyes, open hearts and open hands. Open eyes to see the pain of a hurting world. Open hearts to see the pain from a place of compassion. Open hands to respond with the strength and assurance of God’s love. A love best manifested through affirming the humanity and dignity of all people, including our brothers and sisters in Palestine. From what I’ve experienced in South Africa, and what I’ve witnessed in Palestine, the apartheid ideology and theology practiced by Israel through occupation and oppression, paternalism and racism, exploitation and incarceration, is a contradiction to the great commission!

The people of historic Israel are honored in our Bible, and we know that God revealed himself to them and led them out of slavery in Egypt.  God is a God of liberation, not oppression through occupation! Today’s Israel is quite different.  It is a modern military power that receives more money and arms per capita than any nation in the world. Funding that advances a political and philosophical ideology that’s akin to its twin – apartheid – birthed in 1948. Its government continues to aggressively colonize the Palestinian territories beyond Israel’s borders, and has put in place an upgraded version of apartheid that is even worse than I’ve endured as a black South African. While it’s even more painful to compare my pain to that of another person, my faith invites me to meet my Palestinian sisters and brothers at the intersection of oppression.
An intersection of solidarity and mutuality that provides a catalytic possibility for collective liberty.

I have witnessed that apartheid during my visit to Palestine, and my stay in the village of Wadi Fakin. There are two systems of law, two systems of roads and two systems of permits that restrict movement based on race and ethnicity. Even water is allocated according to the ethnic group people belong to. If you are Israeli, you get four times as much water as if you are Palestinian, even though most of the water lies beneath Palestinian land! As a black South African, who participated in the Kairos South Africa movement, I am in support of the United Methodist Kairos Response (UMKR), which was formed to give voice to oppressed people in the Holy Land.  Just as the world did for us in South Africa, UMKR seeks to answer an urgent plea from Palestinian Christians…members of our own faith community in the place where Christ was born.  They are suffering daily under the hardship imposed by the Israeli occupation of their land, which has lasted almost 50 years. These Christians are also Palestinians, and many of their families have lived in that region since the time of Christ.  Today, they and their Muslim neighbors endure terrible persecution under a brutal occupation by the racist government of Israel.

The land of my birth, South Africa, is free today because of a global movement of divestment in a system of dehumanization and marginalization! As in the case of South Africa, divestment is one of the few remaining non-violent means of addressing Israel’s systematic and violent oppression and repression of millions of Palestinians under occupation, and its covetous extortion of land and resources. A voracious system of thievery in violation of international law. As a United Methodist clergy, I continue to be disappointed and disturbed that our Pension Fund continues to hold stock in companies that make this apartheid system of pillage and plunder possible. Such investment in injustice is inhumane! NOT WITH MY PENSION!!! Some of these companies are located in the illegal colonies or settlements, and others help them grow by providing equipment and services. 

The General Conference has strongly stated its opposition to these settlements, and in 2012, it voted to call on all nations to ban products made in the occupied territories.  Yet since that conference, the Pension Board invested in twelve more companies that were located inside these illegal colonies or settlements! Moreover, the Board has embarked on a propaganda campaign of deceptive videos and vocabulary adjustments. My mother taught me that “if it walks like an elephant, if it sounds like an elephant, it must be an elephant!” The United Methodist Pension Board continues to feed this elephant, while it’s standing on an ant! NOT WITH MY PENSION!!

I have seen a video that the Board of Pensions made to tell people in the Central Conferences to vote against divestment.  It contains many troubling statements.

They have said they are having conversations with companies that can change their behavior.  Yet we have evidence that they are not really asking the companies to change their behavior related to Israel’s occupation.  They have said the Pension funds would lose money if they divested from these companies.  Yet most of the settlement companies they invested in have lost money for our funds, and these losses could have been prevented if we had a screen against investing in these colonies.  As a supporter of Africa University, where two of my nieces graduated from, and my congregation supports students, they have suggested that Africa University and African pension funds would suffer if they divested.  Neither of these statements is true. The Board buys and sells stocks every day, and past divestment of companies has not resulted in overall loss. Since companies can lose money when others sell stocks and boycott their products over human rights concerns, the funds we depend on can be protected by divesting before that happens.

The General Conference needs to remind the Pension Board that we should not invest in activities we oppose – theologically and ecclesiologically.  At General Conference, we will have an opportunity to decide whether our church should put money into companies that operate in these illegal settlements. I hope you’ll approve a screen against investing in these companies, just as we have screens against investing in alcohol or weapons. There are many other investments that can produce good income and outcomes, without violating human rights.

The images of racially segregated roads, housing and services in the occupied territories will continue to fuel my faith and connect my conscience in understanding the great commission. I do this because I am a black South African in recovery from post-Apartheid syndrome. The images of humiliation of Palestinian men, women, and children forced to wait hours at Israeli military checkpoints routinely when trying to engage in basic activities of life, such as trips to be with family or attend school or college, will continue to inform and instruct my implementation of the great commission. I do this because as a black South African, these experiences are painfully familiar to me due to the military occupation of the Apartheid government of our classrooms, schools and neighborhoods.

As a member of the United Methodist Kairos Response, I will never tell delegates to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church how to vote, but I will share what I know of the situation and ask my fellow Methodists if investing in apartheid and colonization and oppression are appropriate ways to use the money God has entrusted to us.  If not, I hope and pray they’ll vote to ban church investment in the illegal settlements and to divest from companies that aid in the violation of Palestinian human rights.  These measures can make a difference for peace. It made a world of difference for us in South Africa. In the words of Archbishop Bishop Desmond Tutu, “…those who wrongly accuse you of unfairness or harm done to them by this call for divestment, I suggest, with humility, that the harm suffered from being confronted with opinions that challenge one’s own pales in comparison to the harm done by living a life under occupation and daily denial of basic rights and dignity. It is not with rancor that we criticize the Israeli government, but with hope, a hope that a better future can be made for both Israelis and Palestinians, a future in which both the violence of the occupier and the resulting violent resistance of the occupied come to an end, and where one people need not rule over another, engendering suffering, humiliation, and retaliation.”

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his letter from Birmingham jail wrote, “…history will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” As United Methodists, we are not just called to be good people. We are called to be a people following Jesus and practicing a vital faith that will facilitate justice for peace, and peace with justice from Maine to Mozambique, Congo to Colorado, Finland to the Philippines, and Portland to Palestine! True peace anchored in justice and an unwavering commitment to universal rights for all humans, regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender, national origin or any other attributed identity and ability.

As a black South African clergy in the United Methodist Church, I’m eternally grateful for the many sisters and brothers around the world that made a bold and prophetical decision to be on the right side of history. Sisters and brothers at the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church, I invite you to join us and once again stand on the right side of history, and create a future of hope and healing, reconciliation and restoration for both Israelis and Palestinians. 

Learn more about the United Methodist Kairos Response online: