Cornerstone, the newletter of Sabeel, dedicated its Spring 2010 edition to the Kairos Palestine theme: "A Word of Faith, Hope and Love from the Heart of Palestinian Suffering."
Here's a link to the newsletter in pdf form: http://www.fosna.org/files/fosna/events/CornerstoneIssue56.pdf
I want to provide in its entirety the cover article by the Rev. Naim Ateek, founder of Sabeel. This post is longer that my usual bulletins in order to give you Ateek's article, since I can't link directly to his text.
The Israeli Occupation and Theological Thinking
by Naim Ateek
The political and religious background
The conflict over Palestine can be described as a Greek tragedy composed of two Acts. The first Act happened in 1948 when over three quarters of the land was lost and over 750,000 Palestinians (Muslim and Christian) were ethnically cleansed. In fact, 60% of the Christian community was displaced. They were scattered throughout the Middle East and to the different corners of the globe. The second Act took place in 1967 when the rest of Palestine was occupied by the Israeli army and several hundred thousand Palestinians were dislocated (both Muslim and Christian).
By the time the second Act was over the catastrophe of Palestine had become complete.
In this article I am focusing briefly on the effect of the Israeli occupation on the Christian community and the response of Palestinian Christians. The loss of Palestine and the dispersion of the Palestinian Christian community throughout the world created a physical and a spiritual tragedy. In fact the spiritual impact has been no less traumatic than the physical uprooting of the Palestinians. For Muslims and Christians, the loss of Palestine in 1948 was the result of the interplay of world politics among the western powers, the victorious allies of WW2. Although by then Zionism had been in existence for over 50 years and the British Government was already conditioned and influenced by the ideology of Zionism, it was the impact of the holocaust that facilitated and accelerated the creation of the “Jewish” state.
The religious background and dilemma
From the perspective of most Palestinians who were totally unaware of some western Christian thinking, the loss of Palestine seemed an immoral and unjust act that was inspired and guided by a colonial spirit and western political interests. At the same time, the perspective of some western fundamentalist Christians regarding what ensued was believed to be a divine act inspired and guided by God. For these Christians, the creation of Israel was a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. God was active through their political leaders to bring into fruition his purposes for the Jewish people in order to prepare for the Second Coming of Christ and the End of the world. Put sarcastically, such a momentous event was of greater significance to God than worrying about the rights and interests of 1.3 million Palestinians who were the indigenous people of the land.
I must emphasize that most Palestinians did not have the vaguest idea about any religious significance of the Jewish return. Some might have been rudimentarily aware of the suffering of European Jews under the Nazis, but such knowledge had no relevance to their everyday life. The simple logic for the average Palestinian stated that British colonialism was being replaced by a Jewish form of colonialism. From one angle, there was nothing new in all of this. After all, Palestine has been occupied and governed by foreign powers for thousands of years. It was not directly related to religion. It simply had to do with politics, military power, and political interest.
As for Palestinian Christians with their simple honest faith, they continued to trust God and to pray for God’s mercy and protection. They prayed for justice that would allow them to return to their homes and businesses. They simply waited on God in hope. Others, especially younger men, wanted to do something about it. They joined resistance groups that were anxious to reverse the injustice and retrieve Palestine from its captors.
For those Christians who knew their Bible well, it was the most confusing time. They were shocked at what happened. Religious and theological questions proliferated. These were the recurring old questions that have been repeated millions of times by oppressed people throughout the centuries. The new situation in Palestine, now largely Israel, raised questions and demanded answers. In fact it demanded a new theology, because the old theology for Palestinian Christians did not work anymore. In light of the establishment of the new state, the word “Israel” itself needed a new definition. Is the new Israel an extension of biblical Israel? Is the new state really the fulfillment
of biblical prophecy? Does the Bible have anything to say about what was happening in the country? Where was God in all of this? Did God condone what happened? How can one reconcile what was happening with the justice and goodness of God? Many questions were asked but the answers were few and unsatisfying.
After the 1967 occupation of the rest of Palestine, some of these logical questions were compounded. As the Israeli army clamped down with an iron fist and as the occupation became more entrenched, the confiscation of Palestinian land spread, the illegal settlements multiplied, the settlers became unruly and fierce, the oppression of the Palestinians became noticeably clear, the situation became helpless and desperate, and the international community including the United States was unable to pressure the Israeli government to respect and implement international law. Again the questions were plentiful.
How does God see the oppression of the Palestinians? Since religion has been hijacked by the extremists, what can one do? Are we witnessing not only the corruption of religious faith, but perhaps the end of religious faith as we know it? And what about Christian Zionism that seems to be totally blind to what the government of Israel and its settler population are doing? Have they too become totally absorbed by an Old Testament war-ethic that has lost the spirit, love, and peace which Jesus Christ stood for?
The voice of the church during most of this period was faint. Indeed, there were individual voices against the injustice and the oppression but the collective voice was weak. Onenotices that most of the churches ofthe land seemed to be satisfied with thecelebration of their liturgies and masseson Sundays. However, the sermons that were preached, most of the time, had no relevance to people’s daily life. The Bible studies that took place, generally, emphasized the private spiritual faith of the individual but there was seldom any discussion about issues of justice and peace. There was no word about what it meant to be a peacemaker today, or what the church could do to resist the violence of the occupation and take a stronger stand against the injustice. Indeed, the church’s rituals and ceremonies continue as usual but is the prophetic word missing? Have we neglected the “weightier matters of the law” as Jesus criticized the religious leaders of his day, “justice and mercy and faith?”
The years have been rolling by, the occupation is more entrenched, and the church is hiding behind its liturgy and remains lethargically silent. The above analysis has described the church’s situation for most of the previous years. It is, however, important to state that since the first intifada three important developments have taken place within the Christian community of the land:
The rise of Palestinian liberation theology. This phenomenon took on different shapes. Palestinian clergy from Israel and the West Bank -- Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant -- began to articulate contextual theologies that addressed the political, social, and religious situation in the country from their position of faith. These theologians emphasized the justice of God as well as God’s inclusive love for all people. They condemned the Israeli occupation and the oppression of the Palestinian people. They condemned both the violence of the occupation as well as the violence of extremist Palestinian groups. At the same time, they emphasized the importance of nonviolence in resisting the illegal occupation.
Through their books and publications, these theologians have been able to influence the thinking and theology of many people in the world regarding the predicament of the Palestinians. Moreover, through their exegeses of biblical texts from both the Old as well as the New Testament, they have been able to critique the exclusive ideology and theology of the government of Israel and its religious settler population as well as that of Christian Zionism.
These theologians continue to lift up a vision of peace and reconciliation that is based on a faith in the God who loves all people equally and who wills that all the people of the land live together in peace and harmony.
There was a voice for peace and justice that was heard intermittently in the country that came from a few bishops. It was not, however, the concerted voice of all the patriarchs and bishops. Neither the Christians in the land nor the Israeli government heard a concerted, loud, and clear voice about the oppression of the Palestinians and the need to stop it. For various reasons, rightly or wrongly, the church leaders failed to speak unanimously against the injustice and the oppression of the Palestinians. When they spoke, it was never candid or forthright.
Recently, another voice is being heard from the Christian community of the land. It is the voice of the Kairos Palestine Document. In the midst of the oppressive situation, the Christian community was able to produce a document boldly called, “A Moment of Truth.” It is a document that speaks primarily to the Christian community of the land. It also speaks to Christians and churches abroad. At the same time, it addresses people of other faiths as well as the political situation in the country and more specifically the Israeli government. The document considers the occupation a sin and calls for the use of nonviolent methods to resist it. In fact, this issue of Cornerstone is intended to introduce people to this new important document.
One of the significances of this document is its ecumenical nature since those who worked on it belonged in their church membership to the various churches of the land. So it is a Palestinian Christian voice that seeks to speak truth to power and to witness to the possibility of peace with justice.
Looking back at the last 62 years since the creation of the state of Israel one can say that the Christian community was slow to address the pertinent questions that had arisen from the aftershock of the loss of Palestine. But many of us are thankful to God that in spite of the sluggish beginning, the faith and resilience of the Christians have prompted them to raise their voice and to bear an important testimony before the whole world. Through this document they lift the banner of peace and reconciliation, and willingly accept Christ’s call to be peacemakers and commit themselves to witness to the love and justice of God.
Find the full edition of Cornerstone at this link:
Other articles include Theology and the Unfolding Tragedy of the Palestinians, by Mary Grey, and Reflections on the Palestinian Kairos Document, by Patriarch Emeritus Michel Sabbah.
Sabeel is the Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem: http://www.sabeel.org
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