Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Naim Ateek: `Does God Care for Labels?'

Many readers know that I am very commited to the work of Sabeel, the ecumenical theology institute in Jerusalem. I am always impressed with Cornerstone, the quarterly publication from Sabeel, and I think it deserves wider distribution. So here is the most recent cover commentary by the Rev. Naim Ateek, Sabeel's founder and director.

Summer 2008
A Sobering 60 Years

Does God Care for Labels?

On May 15, 2008, the Palestinians commemorated their Nakba while the Israelis celebrated their independence. The two sides are miles apart from reconciling their divergent history. It was obvious that the Israelis were proud to celebrate 60 years of the establishment of their state while the Palestinians were mourning 60 years of tragedy. This is the enigma of history in the Middle East - the presence of tragedy and triumph, commemoration and celebration, Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe) and Atzma’oot (Hebrew for independence).

Those who celebrated paid no attention to those who mourned, and those who mourned are powerless to turn their lamentation into celebration. What exacerbated the pain of the mourners was that those who celebrated totally ignored and denied their Nakba.

We have been living in this paradox for the last 60 years. Let us stop for a moment and ask ourselves a theological question: how does God see the Palestinian Nakba and Israel’s Atzma’oot?

Liberation theology emphasizes that God takes a stand on the side of the poor and oppressed and against the powerful oppressors. In this theology, the only labels that matter are those of oppressor and oppressed. The labels cross over racial and national borders. Does it, therefore, matter to God whether one is a Jew, a Muslim, or a Christian? Does it matter whether one is Israeli and another is a Palestinian? Are such human made labels important to God?

I am sure there are believers in the various religions of the world who would argue vociferously that God started these labels and sees us through them. “This one is special and chosen and that one is not.” For other people, this can pose a dilemma. On the one hand, it is difficult to be emphatic. After all, is it not presumptuous of any of us to claim that he/she can speak for God? On the other hand, is it not our duty to challenge any simplistic answers that come from fanatic religious fundamentalists? I believe it is possible without pretentiousness and egotism to address difficult theological questions. Although God is aware of the many labels we wear, I do not believe that these labels are important to God.

Let me illustrate the absurdity of labels. Here in the Middle East each religious group has its own cemetery. There is one cemetery for Jews, another for Muslims, and another for Christians. In addition, we have one cemetery for each Christian denomination. It is considered scandalous when a person is buried in a different cemetery than his/her own denomination, let alone when the religious boundaries have been crossed. How ridiculous to think that God worries about such petty things?

Does it really matter to God? I believe that God sees us all as human beings who are God’s creation. We are all God’s children. God sees us as members of one human family. God looks at Iraq and says, “I am grieved because my children are at war.” God looks at Palestine and Israel and says, “I am grieved because my children refuse to share the land and cannot live in peace with each other.”

I believe what matters to God is not the labels that we have invented be they the national, ethnic, racial, religious, social, etc. as much as the way we violate our own God-given humanity and the humanity of our fellow brothers and sisters. Labels are useful when they are meant to make a reference to simple facts such as one’s nationality or racial origin. But when they are used to denigrate, separate, and classify people’s worth and discriminate among them, they become a curse and a crime.

It is hard to believe theologically that it really matters to God whether one is Israeli or Palestinian. What matters is whether both live justly and mercifully together. It matters to God when one oppresses the other and fabricates schemes to kill and eliminate them. It matters to God when one side wants to celebrate its independence while forcing the other to live in poverty and deprivation. It matters to God when one side enjoys freedom and then denies it to the other.

What we must aspire for as humans is, therefore, to shed the residual waste of our tribal theology and culture and discover the true potential of our own humanity. When we reach that level, we realize that true celebration takes place whenever good has triumphed over evil in all of us and justice over injustice and truth over falsehood and love over hate.

When this happens our theology of God and our theology of human beings has come of age.

To celebrate one’s independence on the ashes of another people becomes a blasphemy and a sacrilege against God the creator of both and a profanity against our fellow human beings. It is an insult to God and it belittles the worth of man/woman. So long as the Palestinians cannot share in the celebration, it is a shame for Israel to celebrate. We are still enslaved by a theology of a tribal warrior god and a humanity that is limited to vengeance. Such a tribal theology must be rejected and abandoned. The God who attracts our loyalty and love is the God who breaks the labels that separate God’s children from one another, meeting us in the face of the other, even the so-called enemy, and presenting us with the possibility of living in peace together and in freedom and reconciliation.

As we move into the next decade and in anticipation of possible worse scenarios for our region, there are important points to keep in mind:
In the past, some Israeli leaders said regarding the Palestinian Nakba, “the older Palestinians will die and the new generation will forget.” The Nakba memory is deeply embedded in the psyche of the Palestinians, in conscientious Jews, and in the hearts of many friends abroad. Public opinion in the world is growing against Israeli intransigence. Oppressed people will ultimately gain their freedom. Sooner or later, Israel will have to grant liberation to the Palestinians. It is wiser if the Israelis initiate it themselves rather than being compelled to concede it.

Nonviolence movements in Palestine are beginning to take hold. An increasing number of Palestinians are abandoning the armed struggle and showing a commitment to nonviolent resistance. Israel’s violence has helped create not only the violence in Palestinians but equally nonviolence. Israel has pushed the Palestinians into nonviolence. This trend is growing in spite of Israel’s harsh reprisals. What is happening in the West Bank will also happen in the Gaza Strip. It is only a matter of time. The movement towards nonviolence is inevitable. It seems that training in nonviolence which many groups throughout Palestine have had is bearing fruit and it will gain global support. This is a hopeful sign and it will contribute to the emergence of potential leaders.

Exile and return are two phenomena this part of the world is used to. No matter what Israel does, it cannot prevent the return. It can drag it out, it can slow it down, but it cannot prevent it. Israel needs to learn from its own Jewish history. If Jews waited for 2000 years and did not forget the land; who would bet that the Palestinians will forget Palestine? The day will come when a Palestinian“Herzl” would rise and the Palestinians will find a way to return. It is better if Israel works with the international community to find how to achieve a resolution of this issue rather than to plot ominous schemes to expel the Palestinians.

Justice remains the issue. For many years, Israel has created policies that would displace the Palestinians, deny them their rights, humiliate them, and force them to leave. It has invested billions of dollars to make life miserable for them so that they would emigrate. Israel has taken the shortest way to make itself insecure. The shortest way for the resolution of the conflict is the doing of justice in accordance with international law. All other schemes will not work in the long run. Justice is the only true foundation for peace.

Israel needs to listen to its modern-day prophets. They are Jews from Israel as well as from abroad. They care about Israel, its security, and its survival. But they are in agreement that Israel today is on a self-destructive course. It must change. They are asking Israel to stop its injustice against the Palestinians. They are calling for a true sharing of the land with the Palestinians. It is sad to observe that the voices of these prophets are not heard. The true prophets are those who know that true peace can only be built on the foundation of truth and justice.

Israel needs to confront the internal forces that continue the process of the Nakba. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel’s report “The State of Human Rights in Israel 2007” [] documents tragic statements and legislation by Jewish Knesset members against Arab Israelis including proposals for population transfer of the Arab citizens of Israel. Israel’s obsession with maintaining a Jewish majority and its fear of its Arab population together are breeding a culture of racism. Many fear that these incitements will lead to additional actions against citizens who already suffered in 1948. This racism and discrimination only perpetuates the sin of the Nakba of 1948.

With other courageous people, we continue to commit ourselves to speak truth to the powerful leaders. Israel must change if it wants peace. I hope we do not have to wait for another decade to see that transformation happen.

Rev. Naim Ateek is the director of Sabeel Jerusalem

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